A Grammarian’s Love/Hate Relationship to Microsoft Word

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OK, I am by no means “perfect” at grammar and style (who is?), but having tutored for a long time, taught English to speakers of other languages, and endured the misfortune of having a penchant for foreign women whose secondary and tertiary languages are English, which, admittedly, somehow results in a grammar lesson at least once a week, I think I know a bit about grammar.

Even when I write paragraph-long sentences.

And fragments.

Because I know the rules, such as not beginning sentences with “because,” that Word somehow doesn’t flag for some reason unbeknownst to me, yet watch it squiggly-underline any nonrestrictive relative clause using “which” that is lacking commas or recommend the deletion of a comma before “that,” for “that” should be used for restrictive clauses.

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Yet, as McGee and Ericsson point out, modern style guides are actually far less binary and restrictive (wonk wonk) and it is not uncommon to find professionally published articles whose authors maintain a more flexible view on grammar. In fact, our beloved MSGC (Microsoft Grammar Check) is a bit mysterious in the way it determines the “correctness” of a sentence. Are we talking about Shrunk & White, the “classic”? There is something ironic about every construction of passive voice being flagged by MSGC, even if the passive form isn’t necessarily bad at all. <== Might I note that MSGC failed to notice the passive voice I just used. Perhaps because the sentence was too complex for the program.

However, it DID highlight “…actually far less binary and restrictive” as a “colloquialism.”

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Of course, for those whom “Standard Academic English” is second nature, it is easy to ignore MSGC. If I accidentally overlooked something I wouldn’t otherwise do, or if I hadn’t intended on splitting an infinitive or ending a sentence with a preposition, MSGC can point it out and I may consider it. And however you look at it, MSGC can be very helpful because you know what, you might have written something that would make anyone in his or her right mind say:

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Microsoft Word drives me crazy sometimes because it keeps highlighting non-mistakes and what is otherwise perfectly good English.

However, one of the more “serious” issues about MSGC, as McGee and Ericsson mention, is that because it is the dominant word processor on the market, its grammar checker is regulating language and policing the way we write. It is an extension of the “elite.”

For me, honestly, I think its arbitrary, stuffy rules are more troubling than the hegemonic linguistic structures it supports. Modern iterations of Word allow you to determine how formal you want your spell/grammar checker to be, so some of these complaints will eventually be phased out with future releases. I also wonder how dominant Microsoft Word will remain, particularly with Web 2.0 and many of our online activities, not to mention composing processes, moving to “the cloud.”

I wonder if we might have a “transparent” process of spell/grammar checking based on results indexed from the Internet? It sounds like it would be tough, but I think we have the technology to do it. Or perhaps you can download “style guides” into your browser-based word processor and select one based on the genre/audience of the text you’re composing. Or maybe, like Wikipedia, where everyone is free to contribute to articles (creating a democratic, shared body of knowledge – at least in theory), we can have a “worldwide English style guide” that anyone and everyone can add to, reaching a consensus and finding a balance across all Anglophone cultures.

As for why I don’t think MSGC’s enforcement of SAE is that big of a deal, it’s because I think that MSGC is a contributor to the problem, not the source of it. MSGC is simply coding that attempts to “flag” what some old school style guide out there said was “correct” grammar and style. If those style guides were more liberal with which to begin (ha, ha), then MSGC wouldn’t be as much of a pain in the ass as it is. And in some ways, isn’t it helpful? Sure, we ought to be critical of it, but it isn’t perfect, and I’m glad it isn’t, or you and I wouldn’t have tenable jobs!

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Microsoft Word’s grammar check function is annoying, but I could care less.

(Didn’t catch that one, MSGC!)

WoW and other authentic places for learning

Who says playing an MMORPG in the classroom is a bad thing?  Not the authors of “A Pedagogy of Play: Integrating Computer Games into the Writing Classroom“, that’s for sure.

Colby and Colby’s article discusses how composition teachers might design a class centered around playing (and most crucially writing about) World of Warcraft.  They offer a discussion of how and why students and educators have usually resisted crossover between class and videogames, including the traditional barrier dividing “work” from “play”, various stigmas associated with videogames in general, but also discuss the potential payoffs of bringing something like videogames into writing classrooms.   They say “ideally, writing teachers encourage students to become immersed in their writing and research”, and videogames provide an intensely immersive experience for gamers.  They also say that videogames offer opportunities for “emergent learning” in an authentic and accessible discourse, giving students the feeling that “they have expertise to move beyond what others have written because they are writing for those who are invested in reading the material they produce.”

This, I think is at the heart of what’s different about Colby and Colby’s approach compared to others who see videogames as another kind of “text” students can engage with.  Instead of asking students to think of the game like a novel in a literature class (turning the game into the subject of their analytical essays), they ask students to participate in the very real and established written discourse communities that already exist surrounding the game.   Their writing assignments ask them to create real documents, guides, or other writings for real audiences, and publish them in the appropriate places online.  Whether those documents are in-depth guides to completing a section of the content, or proposals to the game’s developers regarding a missing feature for the game, students know that their writing means something to a wide audience beyond the class.

So, in a nutshell, the classroom becomes a kind of support and staging area for students who then go out and contribute to the conversations happening all around them, as well as a place for them to reflect on their activities and develop meta-knowledge of  their learning and experiences. Pretty cool. 🙂

But WoW isn’t the only way I think teachers could transform their classrooms into authentic learning communities, or give students opportunities to engage in real discourse. Some would argue that this is exactly what most academic classrooms have been trying to get students to do all along: engage in discourse (albeit academic discourse), and contribute to existing real conversations and communities through their writing.   However, the barrier to true entry into academic discourse may seem much too high for students to feel like their contributions matter.  Using something that has a lower barrier to entry (such as video game communities) allows students to practice essentially the same skills scholars use but in a more accessible context.

Classrooms could be designed around a variety of different real and authentic discourses that are student-accessible besides World of Warcraft gamers.  A class could be designed around a specific hobby with a rich online community, or an area of interest or a profession.  Popular culture and media drive the creation of hundreds of active and vibrant discourse communities across the internet (e.g. Breaking Bad fan sites and discussion forums during the airing of the show), any of which could be just as rich in terms of the kinds of conversations and writing practices students could engage in for a class.  A class could even be designed to allow students to select the discourse they plan to participate in during a class and share their assignments with the rest of the class as a way to introduce each other to what they’re focusing on and learn from each other.

In the end, I see Colby and Colby’s article as an example of a classroom whose goal isn’t simply to find a cool way to bring videogames into a classroom. It’s a way to make the classroom real and authentic, and blur the traditional boundaries between “work” and “play”,  “classroom” and “real life”,  and give students a safe place to experiment with writing that actually matters.

Integrated Reading and Writing Using New Media

I’m wondering how I could scaffold an IRW type assignment with new media.
What are the reader expectations for new media? I’ve been told in several classes that online posts should either be short and zippy dialogue (with text, comments, and counter-comments) or long and synthetic monologue (with an optional string of comments following the post).
As a reader I find myself forming meaning as I read the posts and then renegotiating this meaning as a string of subsequent posts and counter posts trickle in. Eventually certain tropes of meaning emerge, like tag clouds; I feel myself either gravitating towards original ideas or provocative terms.
In terms of scaffolding, blogging seems like a great way to teach the recursive nature of reading and writing.
I have two questions: 1) What is the function of this collaborative discourse? 2) How will discussion via blogs be integrated in a meaningful way into an integrated reading and writing classroom?
Some tentative answers: The function of the online blog is to discuss ideas (schema development), to discern important and irrelevant information (topic selection), to listen and to respond to others’ ideas (reader response), and to learn to make meaning in a tentative space where meaning is being constantly renegotiated (participatory composition?).
I think there must be ways to carry the blogs into reading assignments and then integrate these readings into writing assignments including essays or multimedia essays–Does anyone have any ideas?