Anyone who has seen my Facebook page, Twitter feed, or blog knows that I teach college English and writing. Fewer know that the posts about my failures and triumphs would have looked like drunken freshman scribbling if not for cyberediting.
Since the semester began, I have been checking and double checking the spelling and syntax in every handout or email I write to the students. Then I sleep on them and in the morning, I check them some more.
I live and die by the wiggly red line.
In the midst of this semester, I showed up to take my ASL Proficiency Interview. Walking into the reception room, my goal was to learn where I stand in my second language. Little did I know that 20 minutes, five conversation topics, and one frumpy pink shirt later, I would be redeemed in my first.
The first thing that I discovered was that on top of my spelling ineptitude, I cannot comprehend basic written instructions. My evaluator, a woman a shade younger than my mother, took one look at my hooded sweatshirt, busy with a large G and the words “Gallaudet University,” and realized I had missed the memo. She suggested I use one of the center’s shirts. She handed me a Pepto Bismol-colored number with elbow-length sleeves and shoulders big enough for a linebacker. I buttoned it on and sat down across from her.
The interviewer quickly found out what I do, and proceeded to ask me about it. “How has the Internet and social media changed college writing?” was the gist of one question.
Summoning my most articulate nature and my best ASL, I found myself sounding almost wise. “In the past, students learned to trust the teacher at the front of the room and repeat after her. Now they trust Wikipedia. It’s the same problem, but luckily we are more critical about it now. We want students to be engaged, and we teach them to analyze their sources.”
The ASL: So-so. The concept: A pretty decent revelation.
On to the next question. “People used to have to correct their own writing,” I remember her saying. “Now they have Spell Check, Grammar Check, and the Internet. How has that changed things?”
“People used to spend a lot of time memorizing spelling and grammar rules,” I said. “Now that we have that taken care of… well, we can focus on other things, like writing more lyrically.”
A bit pat, a bit naive. Yet in that roomy polyester blend, I had found something authentic.
Personally, I realized, I would rather live in these times than in the past. I would rather my students question my lesson than accept it—or forget it—quietly. I would like them to move through the world with question marks on their fingertips.
I may rely on that red line to alert me to mistakes, but I can write well when I put my mind to it. I can adjust messages for the varied audiences of friends, Twitter followers, and faculty members. Though my evaluation will not show the top level of ASL proficiency, I can communicate with my students. We use the tools we have to navigate toward the world we want.
[Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published in www.rheakennedy.com on October 14th, 2011.]