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Languages → ← Realities: Some Thoughts on the Writing Courses Indian Universities Need

By Anuj Gupta

As I think about what writing in academia means to me, I am reminded of a passage that Dheeraj Mor, a student of mine, had written in the final paper that he submitted for “Critical Writing” – a composition course that is part of a one-year, post-graduate, interdisciplinary diploma programme at a liberal arts university in North India. This is a passage that has haunted and animated me for quite some time now:

Coming from the background where English is not prevalent, I always face problem in putting my thoughts across. My writings has traditionally being judged in school and college based on Macaulyian ideas of education. It is not that I have not tried to learn English but still I always feel that I can express my thoughts more precisely if I am not being forced upon grammar. […] From nursery onwards, I am being forced to learn in English. I confess that I never liked to learn it but with the fear to loose marks, I just mugged up things and always felt relief once paper for English was over. I don’t understand why there is over-emphasis on grammar, when atleast I am able to convey my message properly? Why people or companies judge me on my spoken English rather than the unique combinations of skills I bring on table? Is it necessary that if I don’t know proper English, my thinking power will be lost, my expressing ability will be lost, my skills will be lost? Why first criterion for most companies is spoken English, rather than the skills of the individual?

If you were a teacher of a composition course in India that seeks to build students’ reading, writing, and thinking skills in English, how would you respond to this piece of writing? What and how would you teach this student? How would you describe his reading, writing, and thinking abilities to him? What grade would you give to this paper that seems to challenge some of the fundamental ways in which English essays are conventionally graded? Would you encourage him to feel more confident about his vernacular ways of using English, or would you rather try to teach him standard English? These are some of the questions that I have been thinking about; questions that have led to these thoughts on the kinds of writing courses Indian universities need.

Dheeraj and I both started this writing course without any idea of the journey that we were going to embark on. While as student and teacher, we were definitely on different sides of the classroom table, in some ways, we were also in the same boat as novices in a writing course who had little idea of what such courses entail. As classes began, I started to notice what I thought at the time to be problems in his oral as well as written participation in the classroom. While in classroom discussions he often refrained from speaking, in his writing, he made a lot of what for the lack of a better description, are called grammatical mistakes. In order to help him deal with these problems, I took recourse to the only pedagogic technique that I had experience of, which was to start pointing out mistakes in his writing with the assumption that doing so will help him improve both his writing as well as his speaking in class. For example, while responding to sentences in his assignments like “On earth, language is consider as medium of communication”, I would scribble comments in the margins like “Check grammar here, specifically subject-verb agreement. Instead of ‘language is consider’, the correct phrase here should be ‘language is considered’”. During one-on-one tutorial sessions then, I would share grammar books with him and try to explain what things like subject-verb agreement meant. I noticed however that this was having very little impact over time as Dheeraj continued to make the same mistakes over and over again. This made me realize that there was definitely a problem in how both of us were approaching this issue, but neither of us had any idea of any alternatives. What should students and teachers in such situations do?

This is when I started to actively look for literature that might help me. To my surprise, I found out that predicaments faced by students and teachers like Dheeraj and me were not unique in India. They were in fact the norm. Scholars like Susie Tharu, Alok Rai, and Aniket Jawaare have actively documented many such problems within English classrooms in books like Rethinking English (1991) and Subject to Change (1998). On thinking along with these authors, I gradually started to understand how such problems are often not really a student’s fault but rather a result of socio-economic and regional hierarchies; the “Coming from the background where English is not prevalent, I always face problem in putting my thoughts across” that Dheeraj writes about in his assignment.

While schools usually teach us that there is only one correct way of using English, if we look around us, we will see that in real life, there is really no one single standard way in which people use English in India. Printed books and newspapers as well as people from privileged backgrounds with access to elite English-medium education do, of course, use a certain degree of standardized English, but if we look beyond them, there is actually an immense diversity in how people speak, read, and write in English. In spite of the fact that people who use non-standardized Englishes largely do manage to communicate their ideas to others around them, their Englishes are stigmatized and mocked as being incorrect. Think of poems like Nizzim Ezekiel’s “Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa T.S.” which generates humor by satirizing an Indian bureaucrat’s style of speaking in English.

As I dug deeper into literature on the politics of the English language, I started to realize that at the heart of these experiences of linguistic segregation lies a conflict between what Suresh Canagarajah, an important scholar who has done extensive research on these matters in the Sri Lankan context, calls “centre” and “periphery” Englishes. In his book, Resisting Linguistic Imperialism in English Teaching (1999), he writes that “center” refers to the “traditionally ‘native English’ communities of North America, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand” and their versions of standardized Englishes which are used for official forms of communication across the world, can be called “center Englishes”. Periphery, on the other hand, refers to the “former colonies of Britain”, and their versions of non-standardized Englishes can be called “periphery Englishes”. These two varieties of English often rub against each other and produce friction.

As I read Dheeraj’s writings along with those of Canagarajah, I started to realize that what he was experiencing was essentially a conflict between the power of a certain center English prevalent in Indian education, and the relatively disempowered status of his peripheral ways of using English. This conflict has a very long history that is complexly interwoven with the history of British colonialism in India. The English language, or rather a certain variety of it which is called the Queen’s English, first came to India as a part of the project of colonization. In 1835, Lord Macaulay, a colonial administrator who Dheeraj mentions in his assignment, drafted a colonial education policy usually referred to as Macaulay’s Minute. This policy formalized the colonial desire to forcefully teach English to Indians in order to create “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect” that would help in running the colonial bureaucracy. This English went on to establish the official norm of center English in India, while its mixing with pre-existing Indian languages and linguistic behaviours also led to the sprouting of countless peripheral Englishes which created a lush and dense linguistic forest of Indian Englishes. While in everyday life, this forest continues to throb and teem with life, in elite academic, professional, and public spaces, it is trimmed down to size and transformed into the policed and manicured gardens of center English – something that Dheeraj explains quite succinctly when he says that “My writings has traditionally being judged in school and college based on Macaulyian ideas of education.”

When Dheeraj writes that “I don’t understand why there is over-emphasis on grammar, when atleast I am able to convey my message properly?”, one can feel the immense frustration and alienation that comes from navigating these complex socio-linguistic realities in India where peripheral Englishes are constantly tormented by the sway of center English’s power. Think about the last time you read something that was grammatically ‘incorrect’. Most people who are proficient in center English automatically tend to adopt an attitude of scorn towards peripheral users of English. Even if a grammatical variation, like in most of Dheeraj’s writing, does not prevent a reader’s ability to adequately understand what a writer is trying to say, one still tends to interpret any kind of grammatical variation as grammatical incorrectness and consequently assumes it to be a marker of the author’s intellectual inferiority. As Dheeraj puts it in his own words, “Is it necessary that if I don’t know proper English, my thinking power will be lost, my expressing ability will be lost, my skills will be lost?”

The habits and practices of grammatical snobbery deeply damage the confidence of students like Dheeraj and prevent them from speaking out in classrooms, or from expressing themselves freely in their writing – “I always feel that I can express my thoughts more precisely if I am not being forced upon grammar.” How do we understand such students who are both frustrated by the lack of acceptance that their Englishes face in classrooms, and also aspire towards the ability to fluently use center English? How and what do we teach them in a writing class? Should we teach them to change their grammar in order to fit into the grammar of center English that will, hopefully, enable economic empowerment for them? Or should we teach them to challenge and interrogate the politics of language in a manner that hopefully makes center English itself flexible enough to accommodate their ways of speaking, writing, and thinking? Is it possible to do both?

While I don’t have any clear answers to these questions yet, I do have some ideas that seem to have worked with Dheeraj and his class which consisted of a diverse mix of postgraduate students from across disciplines and cities in India between the ages of 21 and 28. After taking some time to understand my students’ socio-linguistic contexts better, I eventually designed a theme-based expository writing course called “Languages ←→ Realities”. In this course, we engaged with readings that helped us understand how various kinds of literacies that we gain throughout our lives in different languages, dialects, registers, skills, and cultural discourses shape our everyday life. The purpose of this was to help students feel more confident about the literacies that they already had, and to also appreciate the fact that their expertize or lack of knowledge of academic discourses, or their ability or inability to adequately use center English, was not a natural or innate characteristic, but was rather a result of their unique locations within discursive networks of power that have fluctuated and evolved over time.

While a majority of the students in this class were already proficient in center English, some of them were not. Instead of brushing these variations under the carpet, which is what usually happens in most classrooms, I consciously encouraged students to speak, read, and write about them. While doing so, I tried my best to create a comfortable learning atmosphere where they could feel confident to experiment with their emergent ideas and learn to write about them in a well-reasoned and structured manner, instead of being bogged down by the hesitation that they were not good enough. I shifted the focus from correct or incorrect grammar that everyone is used to being chided for from school or even college, to a focus on communication of ideas where grammar is not the primary goal but is seen as servicing the larger goal of clearer communication. If the grammar in one’s sentences leads to a distortion of meaning, then of course one should work towards clarifying sentences to prevent that, but as long as grammatical variations do not inhibit the transference of meaning, one need not really be bogged down by them.

The final assignment written by Dheeraj – “Education: Formal or Informal?” – which I have been quoting from throughout in this paper, is a remarkable demonstration of the potential of such writing courses, because it shows how someone who started this course having spent his entire student life feeling scared of center English and by rote-learning textbook answers for English essays, was actually able to exert his critical agency, his voice in an academic English paper written by the end of the course!

Writing confidently in a mix of center and peripheral Englishes and by using both anecdotes as well as published sources in this assignment, Dheeraj first critiqued prevalent understandings of literacy: “According to Census, any person above age seven, who is able to read and write simultaneously in any one language is termed as literate. There is major flaw in this definition. This definition does not include the learning of an individual from one’s surrounding, his/her ability to produce solutions for the given situation, etc. […] In this parameters, the importance to informal education is very less when compared with the formal education system.” He then goes on to argue that the powerful influence of formal English education in Indian schools prevents a lot of unique literacies from being developed: “According to UNESCO report, children across the world find it much easier to learn and develop skills and thinking ability in their regional language or mother tongue. The native language also enables children learn more things than that in any other language. This can also be seen the developing economies like Japan. Japan don’t have English as official language. Rather they promoted Japanese, their native language, over English as a language of study. It does not mean that Japan don’t have English language in their curriculum. They do have English as a subject but all other subjects like mathematics, science, social science, etc. are being taught in Japanese language rather than in English.”

Using these ideas, he argues that the Indian education system needs to reform some of its basic assumptions that equate the various literacies of an individual with his/her English language skills: “Why first criterion for most companies is spoken English, rather than the skills of the individual? […] It is time that we impart education of Maths, science, social science, etc., in native languages and keep English as a subject, rather than making it compulsory for all the subjects. Another solution can be like decentralizing the curriculum design and more involvement of the local people, schools and state is being made, so that a required set of knowledge can be imparted. Also there is a requirement to setup a system where the knowledge gain by an individual through his/her surrounding and experiments are also given importance and thus making way for skill-base people to come in mainstream.”

Working on Dheeraj’s paper with him and witnessing his growth curve over the year shook some of his as well as my own assumptions and biases about the English language and about what you are supposed to teach and learn in a writing classroom. If I had continued to impose the filter of correct or incorrect grammar on his writing, then I doubt that he would’ve felt confident enough to produce the innovative and insightful paper that he finally wrote. Such course designs that approach the teaching of writing using content from sociolinguistics, grammar politics, and literacy studies have the potential to enable students to feel more confident about using their peripheral varieties of Indian English while also improving their center English proficiency in small but significant ways. The two goals are not contradictory, but can symbiotically help each other. Realizing that their own peripheral Englishes can and do have the ability to be accepted within formal educational spaces usually dominated by center English can be a liberating, consciousness-raising experience for both students and teachers. From the beginning of the semester to his last piece of submission, Dheeraj actually learnt to think and write confidently in English as he coherently berated the need for it. His writing actually demonstrates the point he makes – if grammar variations do not impede meaning, and in his case they mostly do not, why should we care so much about grammar?

My experiences with Dheeraj have convinced me of the immense possibilities that lie in such writing courses that teach students how to think, read, and write critically by using readings on sociolinguistics, grammar politics, and literacies as their content. There is, however, a lot more work that needs to be put in, in order to improve this current design and to also make it more accessible to a wider population of students. To do this, we need to start doing two things.

First, we need to start paying a lot more attention to how students like Dheeraj are shaping writing pedagogy in India. I am immensely grateful to him, who apart from giving me the permission to use his writing and his name for this paper, has also taught me a lot of what I know about writing pedagogy. As I realized while writing this paper, it is primarily by closely reading his words, as well as those of my other students, that I am beginning to find the critical vocabulary to think about writing and its teaching in a whole new way. Secondly, we also need to think out loud with other teachers and exchange notes on what we are all doing within our classrooms in order to learn collaboratively. I am extremely grateful to Anannya Dasgupta, Aniha Brar, Suha Gangopadhyay, Durba Chattaraj, Jonathan Gil Harris, Genesea Carter, C.S.R Shankar, and Sayan Chaudhuri for offering their invaluable comments on the various ideas present in this paper. Thinking out loud with them as well as with many other colleagues and friends on a wide range of issues related to writing has been very helpful in shaping my thoughts.

Such readings of student writing and such conversations on teaching are going to be instrumental in helping us navigate the long and winding roads that lie ahead of us as we try to build writing courses that are sensitive to the needs of our socio-linguistic realities. I am really happy that this edition of Cafe Dissensus has enabled us to streamline this process and I invite you to participate in these conversations that will hopefully go on to shape the emerging discipline of writing pedagogy in India.

“Close Reading His Words” Image Credit: Anannya Dasgupta

Anuj Gupta is a student and a teacher of writing, and an aspiring gardener of sentences.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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