People Don’t Talk With Punctuation

My teaching career spans only twenty-years. I have not “heard it all” nor have I “seen it all.” Judging by writing samples which continue to cross my desk I will never achieve either. Interestingly enough, my mentors, with perhaps a decade or so more teaching experience than I, have also not exhausted anecdotes on the limits of student behaviors. People continue to surprise.

A recent email exchange between myself and a student highlights yet another example of the failure of our Secondary Education System. The student emailed a concern about a grading error on a Blackboard quiz. The error was valid, and technically not mine. My online course uses publisher materials, comprised of human-authored material, and as such is susceptible to human error. As an added anecdote, I supplement publisher course materials with a variety of assignments of my own making, with notes and videos of my own making (using TechSmith’s Camtasia).

The student’s email lacked punctuation, contained spelling errors, and amounted to two run-on sentences. Two semesters ago, I implemented an email rule stating all emails to me should adhere to all grammar, punctuation, and spelling rules if the student expected me to act on the contents of the email, or merely wanted a reply to the email.

I instituted the rule for a few reasons. Forcing students to apply etiquette in emails prepares them for life beyond academia. One day, my students will have jobs and their email etiquette will reflect upon the employee and the employer. I personally would not want  poor email etiquette of an employee to reflect upon a business I operate. Their etiquette reflects on me.

I lecture all of my students, in all of my classes, on putting their best effort forward. “Your effort,” I say, “reflects upon who you are, your family, the values you were raised with. Your effort reflects on me and on all other instructors you have ever had. Your effort reflects upon your school. Your effort will reflect upon your employer. At some point, someone else’s effort may reflect upon you. One day, you may be the one who determines if a person’s effort best represents you or your company. Few things are only about us.”

Students need to be aware communication protocols differ between those we share between family and friends, and those emails which are directed to faculty, staff, or other professionals and organizations. Young people do not seem to be cognizant emails, or communication, in general, needs to be adapted to purpose, subject matter, or recipient.

Numerous emails from students also lacked relevant details and lacked coherency. Not only would I not know which class a student was a member of, but the emails were so poorly worded an email exchanged would ensue to gather enough information to figure out whether or not a question was asked.

Based on increasingly poor quality of emails I instituted a rule which essentially says,

All emails must adhere to proper English grammar rules, spelling, and punctuation if the student wants a reply. I am not obligated to reply to or act upon emails which do not adhere to English grammar rules.

I often return to old essays. My writing is not without fault. I work at being a better writer by writing more and by constantly editing my own words. I had awesome examples in my childhood. My grandmother wrote for her local paper. My English teachers in high school were hard, yet fair, and encouraged me to write more. I was able to attend community college for free by writing well. My community college English professors were interesting, hard, and fair.

My favorite English teacher in college was a black woman at the community college I attended. I’m sorry I don’t remember her name. She was hard, fair, and encouraging. From her class I took away a valuable lesson: always challenge your perspective when you write. She didn’t mean to vary the perspective by choosing from multiple characters. She meant for me to think about what I write, and to think about how I think about what I write. People often suffer from Confirmation Bias; I know what my message is therefore all others will be able to interpret my message with 100% fidelity.

I remember leaving her classroom after each meeting thinking, huh; how to write both creatively and maintain my message and not begin every sentence with “this” “that” “these” “those” and “it?” Talk about stretching my brain. When forced to write without using demonstrative pronouns, I think I could actually feel brain cells grow. Perhaps these brain cells were busy being lazy and eating chips and were simply now forced from and doldrums enlisted into use.

My emailing student received a short reply. “The grade has been fixed. I pretty much ignore emails which lack proper grammar, spelling and punctuation. Next time you email, pay more attention to details … if you want me to check answers..”

The reply was simple. “Next time you make a test, pay more attention to details.”

The student replied with another email.

“I like most people type the way I talk.  I do not put commas every other word, because no one talks that way.  You are the only professor I have that types like this and ignores peoples emails when they do.  My other professors from [redacted] and [redacted] all typed in lay-mans terms.”

Later emails seem to exhibit improved grammar, indicating the student is capable of writing better and is simply choosing not to use the education being paid for. Why do students continue to spend thousands of dollars and continually argue against the use of the knowledge with which they are being endowed with? I don’t understand. In what other economic sector are people given something of considerable value yet vociferously argue against putting that something to use? Please email me and let me know, as I have no idea.

My reply brought the email exchange to an end.

“Not holding people to a writing standard encourages people to become complacent, encourages us to not use our education (which we have been working on for more than a decade), and can also create an atmosphere which lacks professionalism. The written word is one of the most powerful forms of communication available, and to encourage students today not to practice good behaviors is antithetical to education. I have worked with numerous international students who struggle to master writing and grammar in order to achieve success in a global economy, and U.S. educators consider such efforts a joke. I do not. Furthermore, not using punctuation increases the likelihood of misunderstanding. Consider the bestselling book, “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves” which documents how poor communication frustrates communication between people. Not using punctuation, or misusing punctuation, can create all sorts of difficult and embarrassing situations.

Actually, people do talk “that way.” When you speak, you pause. The pause, when translated to written communication, becomes a comma. I would ask, how many people do you know who speak without pause, without taking a breath, whose words all run together?” Outside of someone running from a zombie, that scenario is unlikely. In fact, the entire discipline of literature is based upon taking the spoken word and translating the spoken word into understandable communication.

Regardless of any of that, my syllabus states my expectations, not the expectations of any individual faculty person at [redacted] or [redacted] or [redacted]. If you would like to ignore my expectations, I have no sway over your choice. However, I merely encourage you to pay attention to each instructor’s expectations, attempt to meet those expectations, and protect the investment you are making in your education.

The exchange between myself and the student is one I find myself increasingly engaged. Students fresh from high school are not being trade in communication etiquette or protocols. As far as I am aware, society has no “Etiquette and Protocol droids” to release us from this responsibility. College and university faculty are finding themselves using valuable course time to train students on how to write.

When I say “write” I mean literally how to author a sentence, subject-verb agreement, tense agreement, and the elements of a paragraph. We spend copious amounts of time examining grammar and punctuation. Then, we return to the same assignment to assess quality of content and context. For assignments in the humanities and social sciences, the amount of time evaluating homework is tremendous due to the nature of assignments being writing-based, literature reviews, book reviews, response papers, essays, and research papers.

As I’ve written before, I am a firm believer writing encourages critical thinking, develops critical thinking skills, helps our critical thinking skills mature. Writing helps us organize our thoughts, and as our thoughts are based upon information, writing helps us organize our information and prepares us for the translation our information into meaningful content.

Our modern culture seems to be devolving in the sense more and more people are paying more attention to demagogues, are increasingly falling victim to demagoguery. Media and political personalities, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman, Rick Santorum, Ted Nugent, Sean Hannity, the list is quite long (and not inclusive), all qualify as demagogues, to me, at least. Each person listed uses emotion arguments and takes advantage of the ignorance of certain populations to promote even more disinformation in the face of facts to the contrary.

Even more recently, YouTube videos and web sites have surfaced which claim the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax. The events at Sandy Hook, as conspiracy theorists purport, were fabricated by the Obama Administration in order to push through more gun control legislation, to effectively take guns away from everyone. I will not re-post links to such garbage here.

The attention paid to conspiracy theories illustrates the gullibility of portions of our population. In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE) essay by Brooke Hildebrand Clubbs, she relates how she has initiated rules in her public speaking courses. Clubbs, like many others, is discovering each new class seems to believe “facts” are merely the opinions of people who happen to be slightly more educated. In other words, recent high school graduates cannot discriminate between “fact” and “opinion.”

Clubbs relates a classroom episode where a student offered an example of why President Obama was a demagogue.

[President Obama] wants to “take all of our guns away because of Sandy Hook – which may or may not be a hoax – and he had little kids sit on his lap, and that was just like what Hitler did to get people’s support.”
And this statement was made by a university junior.

Clubbs later laments, “my students had somehow got the idea that facts were subjective and supporting material unnecessary. They seem to be following “opinion leaders” who model how to respond when they are challenged: Vilify and name-call.”

Reading Clubbs CHE essay came on the heels of my own adventure of trying to hammer home the idea of using the knowledge tools Secondary and post-Secondary education are supposed to be providing students on one of my own students, who seemed more interested in protecting his own continued ignorance.

Education in the United States is in dire straits. Conservation Republicans at all levels argue against education spending. Conservative school districts argue for teaching Creationism and Intelligent Design as “theory” and evolution as just another theory competing for attention.

Secondary education policy makers advocate for minimizing assessment of writing skills which, in my opinion, damage critical thinking skill development. I liken this to telling an architect to design a building but “I don’t care what you make it out of. Make it out of Twinkies and Toothpicks, for all I care. I’m not going to occupy it, anyway.”

Grammar, punctuation, spelling represent the building materials required for translating thought to communication accessible to all people. Dismissing the importance of grammar and all of the elements of writing damages communication in all forms. Just as we have building codes to ensure safe building construction, we have writing rules for ensuring people can communicate effectively.

Part of effective communication, though, must be the confrontation and dismantling of what David Deutsch calls “false memes,” cultural ideas, like racism, and facts as subjective opinions, in order to prevent our society from being undermined by demagogues.

Source: “No, You Can’t Say Whatever You Want” by Brooke Hildebrand Clubbs; The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, February 22nd, 2013.

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