Success is Spelled Like

“You will be deemed incompetent in your field if you continue to write the way you write.”

“I always thought from your emails that you were dyslexic – I just didn’t want to say anything.”

“You’re an A-grade student on your content and an E or F on spelling and grammar.”

…..

When I was little my mother made me do writing practice constantly. She kept a spelling journal, and every time I spelt a word wrong I would have to sit back down again and write it out three times, five times, ten. I wrote lines, Bart Simpson-style, as a punishment for bad behaviour – 20, 50 100. I remember that once I changed the text of the line because I couldn’t spell one of the words she’d asked for, and she made me write the whole hundred out again (the word was cacophony, and I was 8 – high pressure household)!

It didn’t work anyway – I have never been able to spell.

So why not?

A few years ago the New York Times published an article about aphantasia, or blindness in the mind’s eye. It was me! I make no mental images, I see only the world in front of me, and until my teens I had never really understood that anyone else had a different experience. I wrote – badly – to the nice scientists doing the experiments and they sent me their tests, which very firmly confirmed that this is the way my mind works. I’ve also been recently delighted to learn that my very dear Aunt experiences it too, so maybe there’s a genetic element to it? Seeing nothing internally makes me incredibly good at remembering conversations, skim reading, spotting patterns, and organizational thinking. It gives me tremendous difficulty with geography, remembering faces and, apparently, spelling.

One of the tests they ask you to do to see whether you have aphantasia is they ask you to picture a house in which you have spent a long period of time, and count the windows. Most people will picture the house and walk around it internally or externally, counting as they go. I had to do it narratively: “ok, so I get home and I go through the back door and there’s a toilet by the back door is there a window in the toilet I think so because I’ve watered plants there, and then I go into the kitchen and I know I can look out the window as I pour the kettle and do the dishes so that makes two more and…” and despite my best efforts I forgot the existence of two whole rooms in a house where I lived for ten years.

It’s pretty much the same way with words. I can’t see them. I read extensively and furiously for work and pleasure, but I can’t call up a picture of a word in my head. I usually write in a kind of flow state, knowing that if I challenge myself on a particular word and its (it’s?) spelling I will be unable to determine whether it is right or wrong without spell check and Google. As an instructor I dread the moment when I have to turn around and write complicated words on the blackboard because I have absolutely no idea whether or not I’m getting it right or not, and I dread the day that I freeze in front of my class because someone has asked me to spell “pressure” (a word I almost always bail on) and I crack under the… strain.

Why am I writing about this? Because I remember one of the first arguments I had with a co-teacher was whether I should grade my students on the spelling and grammar of their writing or on their comprehensible fluency. I teach a huge number of students who speak English as an additional language, or who write a form of English that is not the standardized norm, and I know that the decision about how to grade student writing has huge impact on the power we give to race, class, and educational privilege in our classrooms, and since I have a pronounced RP English accent it can surprise people how fervently I argue that if I can understand it, I’ll grade it just fine.

In an educational system that simply does not teach students how to write academically unless they come from extremely advantageous circumstances, teachers in higher education have to have strategies for dealing with multiple forms of English and students who don’t know how to write. I know how to write. I may be a first-generation student, but I went to an intensely good grammar school and I took essay subjects at A-level, which means I have all the tools at my disposal for crafting academic arguments. My brain just won’t let me spell. It means, however, that I can empathise with the students who haven’t got the tools that I’ve got, which to me means aiming for “can I understand you” rather than “are you writing perfect, standardized English.” I’m also lucky to be in a field in which experimental writing is supported, and can thus recognize the beauty in a grammar, syntax and flow that is not my own.

It also means that I can be a model for students who think that their writing capacity defines their potential in higher education, or as a scholar. I am a PhD student, I have lectured internationally at university level, my writing has been published in field journals (they give you editors when you publish in journals, it is AMAZING), and I keep this blog, which is read all over the world. Students, I can’t give you much advice for getting over issues with writing, because I haven’t got over mine, I’ve just got better at faking it (except that my spell check now corrects into both American AND English spelling seemingly at random and it is a PAIN). But I can tell you that your voice is valuable, and what you have to say is worth saying. Don’t let anyone tell you that your dialect or your spelling or your grammar has to match a certain standard for what you write to be worth reading, or that it can stop you from doing what you want to do.

Teachers, I understand that especially before university level there’s a world of standardised testing that gets in the way of adopting a comprehensibility-model of grading. I urge you to offer your students opportunities to gain credit for their own speech, as well as teaching them the standard. Ask whether your students have the tools to write a certain way, and if they don’t, is it worth blaming them for the failures of an educational system we know is chronically underfunded and a curriculum with gaping flaws? Ask how we can raise up the voices of students who take their grade as a measure of their worth, and how we can reward conviction, clarity, poetry and power, as well as spelling and formal rhetoric. From someone who can’t write, to all of you who can: keep trying, you can do it, I can’t picture it, but I believe in you.

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