When people find out that I teach college writing, they tend to respond in one of two ways:

1) They become self-conscious about their language use and (jokingly, assumedly) ask me not to correct their poor grammar (I don’t) or

2) They commence a litany of complaints of how “these kids today” can’t write, assuming that I’m eager to jump in and share examples of students’ poor writing. (I’m not.)

Equating writing with grammar and lamenting a rising generation’s use of writing are two recurring practices that scholars of Rhetoric and Composition find themselves working to correct. I don’t negate or ignore the existence of poor grammar and literacy crises.

I do, though, appreciate opportunities to extend the conversation into the nuances of rhetorical grammar and into the long history of perceived literacy crises.

Grammar rhetorically


There are grammar rules in the English language that establish some objective right-or-wrong writing situations. Grammar, usage, and sentence structure conventions help make our writing understandable. Often, though, we continue to abide by specific mandates scrawled across our memory in red pen. For example, I often hear students recounting a rule against passive voice: it’s not allowed.

It’s often true that writing something in active voice creates a more vivid picture in the imagination. “The chairs were set up quickly” does not offer a mental image as much as “The tuxedoed groomsmen quickly set up the chairs.”

However, approaching grammar rhetorically means making choices about what you want to say and how you want to say it to your audience. What do you want to emphasize? If it’s all about the chairs and no one cares who set them up, the passive construction above works best.

There are many contexts in which passive voice is better than active, and many more examples of grammar and usage edicts that don’t always hold up. We should consider usage rules as factors that play into but do not mandate how we write.

Literacy crises historically

Observing the poor writing ability of youth has been an American tradition at least since the 1890s, when a committee at Harvard published several reports on the atrociousness of Harvard students’ written themes. The postcard fad of the early 20th century also set off literacy alarms — people were using abbreviations and shorthand, to the detriment of long-form letter writing.


In the 1970s, a widely circulated Newsweek article titled “Why Johnny Can’t Write” reported on the crises of literacy education in the U.S.

Today, I listen to complaints about students use texting abbreviations, not knowing how to diagram a sentence, and more. I find many what-is-this-world-coming-to conversations about writing borrow from the language and sentiment of older conversations. Many young people do not have adequate resources for achieving literacy standards that could help them succeed, and I am an advocate for literacy education.

I think it’s important, though, to acknowledge that these problems aren’t new. College students today communicate in contexts and media that may make their writing look different from past writing, but that’s not within itself new (or a crisis). Rather, reading student texts is an opportunity to look at how textual literacy is deeply entwined with visual literacy and digital literacy; it’s an opportunity to foster awareness of what changes across contexts; and it’s an opportunity to appreciate student creativity.

It’s why I love my job.

An English professor at the University of Maine at Augusta since 2014, Elizabeth Powers teaches introductory and advanced writing courses, and coordinates a writing lab which allows her to work individually with students on their writing skills. Powers’ scholarly focus is on Rhetoric and Composition, especially rhetorical theory, visual rhetoric, and writing center studies.

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