I don’t believe in regimented grammar. Rather grammar rules are rhetorical tools. We can use the rules to most effectively convey a meaning or message. For example, the rule of a period makes the reader do a hard stop. But what if you want a reader to do a hard stop in the middle of a thought because you think such a move will make them linger on a particular point. We can experiment with grammar rather than be controlled by it.
I like to introduce this concept early on in the course so that students can have the ease to explore their creative voice. I start this lesson with a quote from Austin Channing’s Brown’s I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness (2018), where she indicates that grammar “only exists to make the sentences sound the way I would want them read aloud.” I ask students to reflect on Channing’s words while urging them to critically consider “grammar rules” that were instilled in them in their previous writing classrooms.
For homework, I ask them to read Brittney Cooper’s “Capital B and Capital F” from her monograph, Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower (2018). When they read, I ask them to point out the moments where Cooper defies traditional grammar rules. Then I ask them, how does that defiance support her argument and makes her work read how she wants it to be read?
In class, I pull up a paragraph and bring up four key grammar tools–– syntax (order of words), mechanics (punctuations and such), citation (noting where we get ideas), dictions (word choices). I highlight areas where Cooper uses the tool nontraditionally, but it effects the way her sentences is read and actually enhances her message. Each highlighted area, I ask students how she defies the rules and how it enhances the argument. Then in groups, I ask them to have a discussion about the full chapter.
In this activity, I like for students to learn from Cooper’s work by historicizing and validating the use of anger in written texts, a skill that is often shunned when used by Black women. I let students know that expressing anger is often necessary. I ask students to consider the language and tone that she uses and the other rhetorical strategies to make her point. And I also want them to see how this speaks to her overall style (personality) as a writer. This discussion gets them thinking about nontraditional writing techniques and how it can be effective. By having them pick out specific moments in texts, they develop their skills of close reading, too.