Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Hope is the thing with feathers

Yesterday I had an OL student ask me (in so many words): When is it okay to break the rules? He'd done some reading and found a quote from Gore Vidal who advises writers to learn the rules so you can break them. Is he right?

I said yes and no. Yes, if you are one of my favorite poets: Emily Dickinson. Yes, if you are Cormac McCarthy breaking the rules of punctuation.

If you are a college student, then no, you must not break the rules. Your teachers expect clarity. I'm supposed to be teaching you the rules.

He made me think. I had expected to open my email, answer a few discussion board posts, and move on with my day. But he made me pause. Just like Dickinson does in her dashes. Just like McCarthy does with his character dialogues. Just like this blog. In that moment of pausing, I tend to learn.

But yesterday, there was no pause in sight. So my etmooc time got derailed by my work. No big deal! That's the spirit of MOOC learning, you get what you can, when you can.

This morning I've devoted one hour to reading and thinking before I spend my day reading and thinking (lucky me).
I read the first etmooc tweet. There was a link to Stephen Dowes "The Role of the Educator"
so I read the article. That's all I have time for today. This is my pause.

My main take away is this: what a great list for the many roles of a teacher. My favorite?

"The Agitator -- this is the person who creates the itch a person's education will eventually scratch. The role of the agitator is to create the seed of doubt, the sense of wonder, the feeling of urgency, the cry of outrage. The agitator is sometimes the devil's advocate, sometimes the revolutionary, sometimes the disruptive agent, and sometimes just somebody who is thinking outside the box. We can all be agitators, but scientists, skeptics, journalists and activists have elevated it into a discipline of its own."

Throw in a couple of dashes, set it up like a poem, and I'd swear it was Dickinson.


  1. Hi Alyson, thanks for this question, when may I break the rules?
    I am not a anglo saxon teacher, so my view on rules for language composition are not English Style. (writing is not so much a subject in classes here as in UK US and elsewhere in anglosaxia)
    But I am an author and my answer would have been, rules are meant to make your listeners and readers understand your mesage. If rules do not do that you can break the rules.
    Happy etmooc-ing Jaap

  2. I really like your answer, and I agree! I just hesitate when there grades involved for first-year college students. Grade point average can make or break a college application, so even if a sentence fragment helps you reach your audience, you could "lose points" on your essay. American education is heavily invested in GPAs, test scores, and grades. It's my least favorite part of teaching.

    In my heart of hearts, I'm with you. I even broke "the rules" in my post.

    Happy etmoocing to you!