Teaching, Writing, Changes
Disciplines, Genres, and the Errors of Professional Belief
Here the teacher, confronted by what at first appears to be a hopeless tangle of errors and inadequacies, must learn to see below the surface of failure the intelligence and linguistic aptitudes of his students. And in doing so, he will see himself become a critic of his profession….
—Mina P. Shaughnessy
The epigram above is taken from Mina Shaughnessy's 1977 book Errors and Expectations. Her proposal, well-known in Composition circles, is that the means to better writing “often lie hidden in the very features of writing that English teachers have been trained to brush aside.” 1 Errors contain a “logic of mistake, ” Shaughnessy suggests. While the choices students make are not always appropriate for each “writing situation, ” those choices are in themselves not bereft of meaning. Errors, in fact, are something more and something more important than just correctness gone awry. Errors signal the breach of an occulted contractual arrangement between a teacher's expectations and what writers really do. In that last sentence, the words “occulted” and “what writers really do” mark a conflict, then, of readerly expectations and writerly desires that have a complicated way of reciprocating such that people learn from their mistakes.
So rather than automatically undo error with exercises in prescriptive grammar, or strike error out with the well-intended subterfuge of