I still remember her, or think I do: the 20-year-old aspiring writer making her way (probably late) to a hot classroom on the second floor of Converse. It is spring 1998, and the pathways are icy. She has slid down the slick hill and rushed up the stairs and stomped off her boots and is sitting to get out her handouts and reader for a class called “The Grammar of English,” which is taught by not one but two professors: Howell “Chick” Chickering and Michele Barale, both of whom are medievalists. The I looking back now at the girl she was then can’t wholly remember why she’s chosen the course—whether she thinks grammar is fun or if it just fits into her schedule. I’m not even sure the young woman in my memory is conscious of enjoying the class—enjoy is a high bar, and it is, after all, a class on grammar, which can be slow going, especially on a winter morning. I have no way to tell the young woman I remember being that she’ll be thinking about the course a quarter of a century later.
In some ways, it seemed preordained to be dry: Grammar. Grammar, pride of school marms; the sort of thing that shows up on the teacher’s examinations in Little House on the Prairie when Laura Ingalls, 15, proves herself fit to teach her fellow pioneer children in a cold, poorly constructed one-room schoolhouse in part because she can successfully diagram complex sentences. Grammar, perhaps the ponderous substructure of language; perhaps its steel beams or synaptic wiring. Grammar as commonly held standard of correctness. Grammar as a site for a ruling culture’s exercise of power. Grammar as a tool of politics. Grammar having an etymology in the French grammaire, which means at once “learning” and also, roughly, “magic” and “nonsense.” It’s worth pausing to consider your metaphor. What is grammar, and how does it work? Why is it useful to know? Whose nonsense? Whose magic? What power does it wield?
That’s the me who thinks about these questions now, reflecting back.
The young woman entering the classroom in 1998 hasn’t yet articulated those questions as such. She, or rather I, did know something about grammar-as- diagramming. I’d learned it in a crumbling public junior high school in 1990s California: The seventh-grade me had learned some grammar fundaments out of sad, battered textbooks with red and blue parallel diagrams that showed how you could map some basic parts of a sentence (subject, verb, predicate) and then craft a declining chart off of which other extraneous stuff (prepositional phrases, adjectives, various sorts of modifiers) hung in diagonal arms below. Simple sentences ran in straight lines (subject, verb, object). Slightly more complex sentences resembled chicken tracks, while the most complex sentences fell like descending vines or ferns, or like half a butterfly wing, pinned under glass.
Back in the early weeks of 1998, Professor Chickering and Professor Barale’s grammar class seemed at first like an amped-up collegiate reprise of seventh grade. It was almost laughably old-school, as we crammed parts of speech and produced complex diagrams. We read from a Houghton Mifflin textbook, Writing With a Purpose, by James M. McCrimmon, first published in 1963. The copy I bought to consult while writing this article had been retired in 1980 from the library of St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind. It reminds us that all writers need to make two basic commitments: “1. what they want to do” and “2. how they want to do it.” Indeed.
Right then, the class felt sleepy. I mean that literally. We were so collectively inert one February morning that Professor Barale went over to the Converse windows (there were maybe six in the classroom) and threw them all open to the winter air, exhorting us to get up and play Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes. Having now taught many students, many of whom have been sleepy, I have never once had the guts to demand that they hop up and do calisthenics, but I admire Professor Barale’s insistence that we did. I’ve looked back many times in wonder at that moment. It seems like a magisterial intervention.
Nevertheless, as the semester went on, we were waking up. Even though, in some sense, grammar might be what Professor Chickering later called “the underbelly of freshman English,” the class had something more richly medieval in its deep training in forms and modes. It felt at once arcane and rigorous, as if we were being let into a secret guild. It also sometimes felt (to use the rhetoric of hyperbole) a bit like attending a charm-making workshop in a high turret of a Harry Potter novel.
Beginning to learn rhetoric did feel magical. After weeks of diagramming, we were memorizing terms and forms, identifying everything from anaphora (uses of repetition) to zeugma (pairing something physical with something intangible—e.g., “She went off in a carriage and a huff”). We learned analepsis (a fancy word for “flashback”) and prolepsis (think of this as “prophecy”). We learned chiasmus ( when the grammatical units of a sentence crisscross, as in, “Never let a fool kiss you or a kiss fool you”). If diagramming sometimes felt ponderous, rhetoric was far from dusty. Rhetoric felt like fascinating spells by which the force in language could be summoned. And we could name the forms that summoned it. We were being given diagnostic power over texts: We could name the tools they used to stir us. We could stir language in return.
Amid all this learning, we actually read very little literature, as such. Instead, we turned our newfound lenses on one or two amazing sentences at a time. Recently I asked Barale how she and Chickering chose what texts we should read, and she said she liked looking for “loose, baggy, monster sentences.” Those baggy monsters happened to be written by exceptional practitioners of style: James Baldwin, Gertrude Stein, William Faulkner, Henry James. We wrote 500-word papers that unpacked not just what these authors said but how, structurally, the sentences arrived at meaning. We were reading for patterns without reading whole books, yet, learning to read this way, I felt I understood the aim of the writing more fully than I had by plowing through many pages of plot. Describing the how turned out to be fascinating: Nobody had ever made me look so closely at a sentence before. I had not had the tools to undertake such looking.
For what it’s worth: It’s just plain old fun to look at fine sentences under a microscope. Take, for instance, the tangle of opening sentences from James’ Portrait of a Lady:
Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. There are circumstances in which, whether you partake of the tea or not—some people of course never do—the situation is in itself delightful. Those that I have in mind in beginning to unfold this simple history offered an admirable setting to an innocent pastime. The implements of the little feast had been disposed upon the lawn of an old English country-house, in what I should call the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon.
Without having yet read James in full, I could see that this is a grammar rich with prepositional fussiness: “Under certain circumstances … to the ceremony … of the little feast… upon the lawn … of [the] house … in what … of a splendid summer afternoon.” You might argue that all these phrases of spatial relation forecast a novel about place, emplacement and social caste. You might also notice that their grammar forestalls and qualifies the introduction of the things, and certainly the people, who will soon become this book’s true subjects. However complex the grammar around them, the subjects of the clauses above (“hours,” “circumstances,” “the implements”) are all fairly vague: Instead, modifying phrases refract the action in sidelong ways. It takes a long time to discover what is happening on the afternoon lawn: Three men are drinking tea. James’s grammar makes us consider the shadows before we can see the people.
That’s what I argued in my paper anyway. Even writing this now, many years later, I’m afraid it won’t be precise enough for Chickering and Barale, who each graded the pieces separately and who wanted us to be utterly specific about how each syntax achieved its effect. As we continued, each close reading of each long, baggy sentence felt oddly intimate, as if we were down in the grooves of each writer’s fingerprints. With each investigation, exploring how a form danced with its content, I felt as if the lamp of language burned brighter.
Now came a surprise: The class had a third act. We’d met a fascinating character, English grammar. We’d learned some ways it could contort. But in the last month of class, our professors set us another task. They asked us to question grammar entirely—or rather to examine and critique the social function it plays. They wanted us to challenge the idea of “grammar as correctness.” They wanted us to see the way the doctrines of grammar had been tied up with cultural violence. We were asked to notice how the difference between a “dialect” and a “language” has everything to do with historic violence. We studied the grammars of languages that are sometimes perceived as dialects—the grammar of Black English, for instance, Cockney English and Barbadian English—and we talked about the idea that each of these so-called dialects has fully fledged rules and logics. The rush toward any standard by which one English is preferred over another has a history, and that history is tied up in power.
This critique added new urgency to the class and changed its endgame. We’d built a vocabulary by which we could unpack the ways sentences gained meaning. We’d gained a new sense of how to wield our own power as writers. Here was a counterfactual: Our newfound power was not meant for the exclusion of the many voices in which English emerges. It wasn’t about standardization. While learning to recognize structures by which language gains force, and to write in ways that might serve us, we were also learning to critique the idea of any one grammatical authority. Ultimately the class embraced the wide stream of our many Englishes and offered up the tools to notice pattern, chart music and capture our own delight.
Twenty years later, teaching creative writing, supervising poetry theses in an M.F.A. program, I think often of “The Grammar of English.” Grammar isn’t taught much anymore, sometimes because it’s perceived as difficult, and also sometimes because it is tied up with the discomfort and cultural baggage of adjudicating who or what is correct. Grammar is often associated with shame. Grammar is often wielded as a tool of violence—both in daily microaggressions and in large-scale cultural oppression—and so, in some quarters, we avoid talking about or teaching it, as if that will somehow make the violence go away.
There are some side effects of this: Without the fundamental vocabulary to talk about how sentences are made, students of writing can’t always name the forms that delight and pleasure them. Conversely, they can’t name how the structures with which they want to argue have been constructed. Not having terms for syntactical inventions limits the range of sentences students may try to invent or write. Students lose sight of the ways that language, as a form of play or artifice, could empower them. All this makes me long for the classroom in Converse. I sometimes find myself wanting to take the course again, or to teach it.
Don’t we all have an Amherst course that makes us feel this way? Assuming the answer is yes, I’d like to report a few things: Finding a way, decades later, to get a syllabus from your favorite class (even if you didn’t know at the time that it was your favorite) is highly satisfying. It turns out that Julie Howland, the academic department coordinator in the Amherst English department, had this syllabus and many others on file. Perhaps other departments do as well. If you have the occasion to spend time reflecting with professors you deeply admired (even if you didn’t yet know, when you were 20, how much you admired them), that can be extraordinarily satisfying as well. Professor Chickering, 83, is lively on the phone when I call to reminisce about the class; he is at home with three cats, as well as his grandkids and other relatives. Professor Barale is “indulging her love for art history,” she tells us on the phone, and as the three of us speak, it seems as if no time has passed. I sense that each has a sharp twinkle in their eye as we talk. And in fact, it turns out, “The Grammar of English,” which they taught six times, was their favorite class too.
We talk about the connection between grammar and shame. Chickering remembers his severe English teacher Mrs. Dunbar, and Barale recalls that she was so anxious while diagramming sentences in front of the strict nuns at Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago that she threw up on the floor. “They didn’t ask me to diagram much after that,” she says ruefully. But both also remember the emergent confidence they felt learning grammar and rhetoric, and the feeling of pride and pleasure as well. And as they watched their own college students years later, they saw, again and again, the moment when diagramming went from “the department of useless knowledge,” as Chickering puts it, to, in Barale’s words, “a satisfying skill that gives you a certain power over the sentence.” My instinct that we’d been deep inside some medieval schola was partly correct: Barale had conceived the class as a variation on a medieval Trivium—an ancient education in grammar, rhetoric and logic.
Yet, ultimately, the course staged important arguments, “quarrels with the self,” as the poet Yeats might have it. It was also a chance to learn to think about what it means to adopt the language of a particular kind of educated person, and when, at times, this can be ambivalent.
And Chickering reminded us that our quest was to see more deeply the ways that sentences are made, so that we could understand their power or pleasure. “If it had just been about learning a bunch of fancy words, that would have been tedious,” says Chickering. “Fine, so you can say a sentence is chiastic. But if that’s all you care to say, you do sort of sound like a jerk. You’re on the precipice of sounding really phony.” Barale notes the way the course would change if she and Chickering offered it now: “We’d talk about the syntax in emoticons,” she muses. “And gender pronouns, and the ways people are naming gender now.” She pauses. “It was never about somebody like Edwin Newman”—a thinker we studied in the class—“who says, There’s only one kind of English and you’d better speak it or you’re an ignorant jerk. The whole point of the class was that that language is a social instrument. And it made each of you struggle to figure out your relationships to your language and the way you used it. That was the pleasure in it.”
My favorite part of the phone call is listening to the banter of my professors, which I remember from our days in Converse together. “We had no interest in protecting any standard,” Chickering says, jumping in. “We wanted you to be suspicious of authority. At the same time, we wanted to give you a lot of freedom. We wanted you to be self-aware and self-doubting.”
Thinking of both freedom and struggle, I reread one of Barale and Chickering’s assignments: the opening sentences of The Bear, by William Faulkner, a passage that explores (as Faulkner often does) the way past and present entwine. Here it is:
He was ten. But it had already begun, long before that day when at last he wrote his age in two figures and he saw for the first time the camp where his father and Major de Spain and old General Compson and the others spent two weeks each November and two weeks again each June.
Those two sentences are remarkable, part analeptic flashback, part attempt to write the present moment. Yet what is the present and how are we sure when we have arrived in it? The subject of the second sentence—“it”—is flanked on all sides by long phrases that demarcate time. We enter a story that is already ongoing. The “it” (whatever it is) that has begun is so small, the swirling past that surrounds it so enormous. Grammatically, the past hinges on the present “it,” but the long, branching clauses which represent the past hardly seem subordinate. This language enacts a mythic ongoingness—a system in motion before the present can find its action. Faulkner elsewhere famously said that the past isn’t dead—it isn’t even past. Here Faulkner argues this condition, not in words, but in syntax.
Here is the thing: This sentence could be about language, too. In entering any language, we also always enter an existing past, one that flows into and now through us without our quite knowing where it comes from, where its dark wellsprings lie. Some of it is the language of conquerors, and some of it is the language of the conquered, and some of it is the language of Shakespeare, and some of it is the folk songs and lullabies of the anonymous. Much of it is our parents and the cadence and rhythm we hear through the wall of the womb well before we ever speak. Eventually, we enter a language and travel its streams. What this class did was to offer me a sense of how to craft—in the old German sense of “to steer”—my own vessels forward on those waters, and perhaps to find new pathways on them, too.
Spring came, as the frozen landscape around Converse melted. Everything turned green, and I went on, out into summer and then the world. When I became a writer, I didn’t ever think, My God, now I really need a great zeugma, but I did often notice other people’s very interesting uses of them. I also felt, examining the way a draft would lift off, sometimes more aware of where its music might lie. I’d keep an eye out for the moments when a form and its content seemed to be playing in interesting concert. And I find myself passing on these terms, as much as I can, to my students.
I don’t remember if, when I left the class, I knew yet that I had loved it. It is the great mystery of an education that we don’t always know what will be valuable to us, or on what timescale. We can’t know now what will matter to us later. I see again the woman rushing into Converse. Nearly 25 years on, on her behalf, I am still grateful.
Tess Taylor ’99 is the author of four books of poems, including Rift Zone, named one of 50 best books of 2020 by The Boston Globe. She has taught at UC Berkeley, Queen’s University Belfast and elsewhere. She is now on the faculty of Ashland University’s low-residency M.F.A. program