You Can't Write a Memo in C++

"You Can't Write a Memo in C++."
Arizona English Bulletin 36 (Winter 1994): 7-8.
D.R. Ransdell

A few years ago I had a neighbor from Sri Lanka.  Antonio spoke English well, but writing was difficult for him.  When he found out that I was a university composition instructor, he asked for help on his assignments for English 108, a college course for non-native speakers.  When we looked at his writing I tried to explain what was wrong with phrases like "she fells good" and "he speaks very soft," but Antonio didn't want to hear my explanations.  He merely wanted better grades on his essays.  When I mentioned that writing skills would come in handy later, Antonio explained that for computer engineering, what he needed to know was C+, not past perfect.

I had heard this same story from my own composition students.  The question of teaching language had always troubled me.  As a composition instructor, I wanted to concentrate on writing skills--how to help students analyze their topics and persuade their audiences--yet in good conscience, I couldn't ignore mechanics.  I didn't want to spend class time explaining "affect" versus "effect" or how to punctuate nonrestrictive clauses, but I wanted my students to know the difference, and it perplexed me that they didn't seem to care.  Perhaps they pretended the rules were unimportant because they couldn't remember them, but it discouraged me that while I felt standard English was important, I couldn't explain it rationally.  That's what happened with my neighbor.  When Antonio started talking about computer engineering, I didn't have a concrete counter-argument.  In class my recourse was to use grading as a weapon.  When students made mistakes in their essays I pointed them out, and if their essays were riddled with mistakes, their grades reflected my concerns.  The system was far from satisfactory, but Ds scared a number of students into editing more carefully, or at least into the habit of using a spellcheck.

Antonio passed his English class and a new semester started.  Once again I tried to make the point that good grammar and spelling were part of my expectations for college writing and again I met with resistance.  Half-way through the semester, I asked my students to write a short note explaining how the class was going: whether they thought the peer reviews were worthwhile, whether they liked the reading selections, etc.  Mitch didn't comment about the class.  Instead he complained about the Ds he had gotten on his essays, since grammar and spelling were "stupid details."  So what if he had two sentences together people knew what he meant.  And he could have used a spellcheck, only he was in a hurrie.

Mitch angered me into reflection.  I started thinking about his overall class performance.  My general opinion was that he was bright but lazy.  I couldn't understand any reason for a sentence such as "Theresa immeadiately jumped into the American way of life by an independant person," and I couldn't see awarding a passing grade to an essay that was laden with such mistakes.

Another part of me tried to argue that maybe Mitch was right.  Standard English couldn't ensure good communication anyway, so why make such a fuss?  But language use does affect how people react to you: it sure affected how I reacted to Mitch.  Mitch didn't care, though, because he wasn't in school to learn English.  He was only there to get through and get a job.  That's why he was studying business: he was interested in making money.  Lots of it.

"You might not care about English," I wrote back to Mitch,  "but after you graduate, you will be applying for jobs.  If you and the other applicants have the exact same degree and qualifications but your application has five mistakes in it, you won't get the job.  The boss will either assume that you're not very smart or that you're careless.  Unfair or not, that's how it's going to happen."

Strangely enough, Mitch's next essay had no errors.  I complimented Mitch on his efforts, and since I was able to grade his essay strictly on the quality of his ideas and how he developed them, the essay received a high grade.  The same was true of his next essay: good ideas, spotless grammar.  Finally I had a convert.

Still, I wasn't all that pleased.  It didn't seem like "making concrete connections to the job market" fit the description of what a composition teacher should be.  Something inside me still shouted that students should want to know because they want to learn, not because they envision dollar signs.  I wanted to teach writing, not impress upon them, for the tenth or so year in a row, that they would be negatively rewarded for writing "its hard to believe the husband was insensitive to his wives needs."

The bottom line is that I want to be practical, too.  I want to have the satisfaction of knowing that I make an honest effort to persuade my students that grammar and spelling count, even if some refuse to listen.  At least I know that when Mitch's resume finally lands on an employer's desk, Mitch won't be rejected because of "details" he ignored in composition class.

Last summer my Sri Lankan neighbor graduated and got a job at Microsoft.  From time to time he called to tell me about his programming adventures with C++.  Antonio's boss was so impressed that he was soon promoted.  Then, suddenly, he was expected to send out memos.  Panic struck.  Since the material would be read by a department of sixty peers and twenty supervisors, Antonio didn't want mistakes in his prose.  Worse yet, it took him an hour to write a memo because he had to stop and have someone proofread for him, whereas memo-writing was a task that his boss expected him to allow five or ten minutes for.  With twenty-twenty hindsight, Antonio admitted that, indeed, even engineers need writing skills.

Now that we're into a new semester, I have a new group of students who maintain that my grades are unfair because "details" shouldn't count.  Even though I've told them about Antonio, so far they are unconvinced--perhaps they think I made the story up.  But I didn't.  And I'm even more stubborn than they are.  I will continue grading their essays in terms of mechanics as well as meaning and I will continue looking for ways to make connections between English and the workplace.  The sooner I can help students see ties between the two, the harder they will work to improve.