Why is a Posthumanist Approach to Grammar Necessary?

One of the things I have always loved about teaching is that it not only gives me the ability to learn new ideas but it also gives me the ability to experience old ideas as if I were hearing them for the first time. When selecting material for classes, I look for a few texts that I know well, others that are entirely new to me, and still others that feel a little beyond my grasp. When introducing these texts to my classes, I tend to take a step back from the texts with which I am familiar, withholding my responses or thoughts until I am able to get a greater sense of my students’ perspectives. With texts with which I’m less familiar, I tend to be more willing to throw speculative comments out there sooner. And with texts I find challenging, I throw my questions into the ring with the rest of the class, and we work on answering all our questions together. With this approach, I sometimes fear that I work myself out of the equation altogether, but in any case the approach keeps me productively off-center, i.e. it keeps me writing and thinking, and my main hope is that it does so for my students as well.

So it was a great moment for me in one of my classes when one of the more familiar texts in the field–the pair of essays that people generally refer to as the Elbow/Bartholomae debate–crashed up against a chapter out of Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman. I don’t have the exact time, place, or words, but I do know that it was Joshua Cross who observed at some point in one of my classes that the whole “writing with/writing without teachers” debate is a perfect example of the postmodern obsession with presence/absence. What happens then, if we follow Hayles’ posthumanist example and think more about the binary pattern/randomness in our teaching?

A friend of mine–I still consider him a friend, even though I haven’t contacted him in years–is both a father and a linguist. At the time, I had no children, but knowing that fatherhood was nearing my own horizon I asked him if he ever corrected his daughter’s grammar. Sensing that I wasn’t really asking an academic question (at least not entirely), he answered me simply. “There’s a lot of research on the subject, on what’s the right thing for parents to do. Some parents worry that you can correct your children too early. Some worry that you can’t correct your children early enough. But there is one possibility that seldom occurs to parents because for us it is almost unthinkable. Correcting our children’s grammar has absolutely no positive or negative effects on their language development. Correction is just a tiny bit of noise in the overall machine.”

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