Summa cum Gaudium et Tristitia

English department graduates

As is our Department custom, we gathered on Friday afternoon before the Honors Convocation for a quick picture on the steps of Alumni Hall. Steady rain and the rush to get things done kept many away, but a few of our 2014 graduating seniors gathered with many of the faculty one last time for a celebratory snapshot. After a night of rain the sun broke through on Saturday for a beautiful commencement ceremony. Amidst disheveled rows of seats, scattered programs and stray balloons graduates posed for family pictures and then scattered from the front lawn of Alumni Hall. We miss them already and await word of the many great things to come.

Measuring the Possibilities of a New Semester, One Sonnet at a Time

This semester began with a fortuitous alignment of numbers. At the encouragement of a colleague, I decided to offer a course this semester in The Sonnet. It has been several years since I have taught an entire course focusing on the thousands of poetic creations in this enduring 14 line form.

As I was making final preparations for the class a few weeks ago, I noticed on the class roster that 14 students were enrolled. Coincidence? Okay, if you say so, but this was 2014 and our first class meeting was on January 14th. I didn’t check to see if there were 14 inches of snow outside. Enough numbers were aligned to step forward into the 14th century and measure our way one quatrain at a time all the way to the 21st.

Now the numbers vary. This week a fifteenth student enrolled in the class. Some snow has melted, some more has accumulated. Some days demand boots and some others, at about 14 degrees, require extra layers. The daily planner forecasts our busy days, appointments and commitments while outside the winter days lengthen by one bright moment each day. But who’s counting?

Got Grammar? Meg Does

Some days our work is really more grammar than glamour, and Dr. Meoghan Cronin understands as well as anyone it all matters. As her colleague and friend for two decades, I have watched Meg’s students come to share her passion for Victorian Literature, and become better writers under her care. This year she was appointed Director of College Writing here at Saint Anselm. I don’t envy her task, but am glad that she is at the helm.

Professor Meoghan Cronin
Anyone who knows me knows how much I love parties. I’ll take any chance for food, fun, and a new frock. But I dread one moment in every party — when someone asks me, “What do you do?”  I cough, “ah. . . English teacher,” hoping it sounds like “National Geographic photographer.” One person nods kindly, while another mentions a favorite novel (always Pride and Prejudice), and then it happens: somebody says, “I guess I better watch my grammar around you.”

To be an English professor is to be perceived as the Grammar Gestapo, the Punctuation Police. No matter if I’m teaching my students about narrative contradictions in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone or helping them hear the sounds of a line from Thomas Hardy, I am imagined to be presiding at a podium of correctness, striking down with my red pen all who dare approach me, and crying out, “NO! Not present perfect; it’s present progressive!”

So it’s tempting to insist that English is the study of great literature—an essential way of knowing, in Matthew Arnold’s  lofty words, “the best which has been thought and said in the world.” Surely grammar isn’t as important as big ideas, powerful prose, and beautiful images, right?

Well, the fact is English is not just a discipline. It’s a language. And language use – including the best which has been thought and said — comes with rules. Rules of English grammar are structures that manage the relationships among ideas and allow writers to communicate with an audience through a shared understanding of those structures. Adhering to these rules shows that you’ve got your act together and you can communicate effectively.

Most people don’t like grammar rules. They resent being forced to obey formal prescriptions they see as complicated little details that don’t really matter. Yet nobody minds the fact that sports have rules. We relish instant replay. We insist that referees get the call right. When I show a student how his misuse of punctuation has clouded the meaning of his sentence, he might say, “Oh, you knew what I MEANT.” But no batter ever says after hitting a foul ball, “Does that really matter? I meant to hit it fair.” Yes, your ideas are good, but writing — like sports — is all about execution.

Of course, we can make distinctions among types of errors; not all are the equivalent of kicking the football through the other team’s goalposts. To use a different analogy, let’s say that some errors are like leaving a stray piece of lettuce on your tooth — just a slip, an oversight — while committing other errors makes you look sloppy and clueless, like you’re walking around with your zipper down. Nobody I know would insist that zipping one’s pants is a meaningless detail.

With good grammar, we can express thoughts that are clear instead of muddled. If we use pronouns badly, we write sentences like, “He told him that he couldn’t cut his grass because he broke his lawnmower.” Who can’t cut the grass? Who broke the lawnmower? Who cares?

You see, grammar does not constrain us; it liberates us! Good grammar opens up possibilities and reveals nuances because it helps us create relationships among ideas. Grammatical structures allow us to argue positions, animate thoughts, and ignite passions because they govern the way we arrange and connect our points. We can convey fear, urgency, and a shred of hope, like this: “The situation is perilous, but if we are prepared to act promptly, there is still one chance of escape.”

Let’s talk about this more at a party. And, yes, I’m an English teacher. Check your zipper.