Thoughts on Underwood, etymology, Comp and Adrienne Rich

This week’s reading (of Underwood) and discussion (of Graff and Comp) has sent me back to one of our own CUNY Lost and Found Initiative chapbooks, Adrienne Rich’s ” ‘What We Are Part Of’: Teaching at CUNY 1968-1974 (Parts I and II).” These little books trace Rich’s correspondence and notes around her pedagogy in teaching in CUNY’s SEEK program, described in the book’s introduction as “a result of the efforts of social activists and progressive politicians whose vision was to provide access to CUNY for poor students, then largely African-American and Puerto Rican, who graduated from high schools that had not prepared them for the rigors of college.” In a 1968 letter about her teaching to CCNY Pre-Bac Program director Mina Shaughnessy, Rich asks,

I meant to ask also about direct vocabulary work. Have people been telling students to look up words they don’t understand, and raise questions about them in class if the dictionary definition doesn’t satisfy? (As it won’t, in poems, of course.) How much stress on this is necessary? I’ve always been lazy about using the dictionary myself, words exist for me extremely contextually. But it seems to me that an active energetic vocabulary is important–more so–than the grammar. Has anyone tried doing a little with etymology?

It was Underwood’s section “Better Writing Through Etymology” that put me in mind of this question of Rich’s; the emphasis on etymology as a means of improving students’ skill as writers in pre-1840s literature pedagogy that he writes about surprised me, and I found myself curious if or how that emphasis still resonates in more recent times. I am used to thinking of etymology as a specialized, borderline-philosophical concern, the purview of linguists and poets. Its place in a Comp classroom (which Rich inquires about) seems hard to imagine, to me. But reading this part of the history of English literature pedagogy, I get a sense of the sheer diversity of relationships, over the centuries, between the teaching of etymology and radical, anti-oppressive teaching practices. I found myself reading really attentively for overlaps between the ideas of, say, teacher-activist John Horne Tooke and teacher-activist Rich, in entirely different centuries and contexts.

Shaugnessy wrote back to Rich,

Everyone agrees that vocabulary is terribly important. Students seem to ignore the things that they cannot deal with in words. The problem is how to get genuine vocabulary growth–that is, growth of awareness itself. This involves some kind of change that is difficult to bring about by any of the vocabulary-building methods I have encountered. We had a series of language lectures last semester that covered the history of English, usage, levels, prefixes-suffixes, metaphor, dialect etc. I don’t know what it accomplished–perhaps a sense that words can be the objects of study….slow as it is, I tend to trust the method that keeps the word in its setting, that gives it the special meaning that it gathers from its context (this by discussion, dictionary etc.) and trust that the students, following the same impulse for analogy that has produced his present vocabulary, will know where to take it from there.

What interests me is the huge difference between a teacher making use of “the impulse for analogy that has produced [a student’s] present vocabulary” and a teacher using vocabulary and the etymologies of words as ways of shaping a not only a student’s vocabulary, but her speech, writing and thought. I found Underwood’s description of Tooke’s investigation into the etymologies of “law” and “right” on page 89 fascinating, and something that Rich might have done in some form in her own classroom. I also zeroed in on this section of the Rich chapbook because I have almost never seen discussions of how to study individual words and etymologies meaningfully in a writing classroom (Comp or otherwise). I’d love to talk about this, as well as Underwood’s amazing articulation of periodization as an invention for the benefit of England’s middle classes, in class tomorrow!

Lastly and quickly, I am grateful for the illuminating words from Lindsay and Kate around teaching Comp versus teaching literature, and who has historically benefitted from, and been left out by, the teaching of each. Kate’s caution about insulting comp instructors by thinking of Comp as remedial is interesting to me; I have long been curious about the assumption that because of its perhaps-remedial nature, teaching Comp is somehow “easier” or less cool than teaching literature–or Creative Writing, for that matter. If I were to meet a writing professor, say, on an airplane, would I be more impressed if they told me that they taught Comp, or Medieval English Literature? My first instinct is that the latter is more impressive, but in light of what Lindsay wrote in her comments about the dazzling complexity of Comp (as well as what numerous and diverse thinkers have articulated for decades) I believe that addressing the historical, social, racial, and economic rifts in education systems in the alive space of a Comp classroom–while also teaching and engaging students– is very impressive indeed.

One thought on “Thoughts on Underwood, etymology, Comp and Adrienne Rich

  1. Elissa Myers

    I also found his discussions of etymology fascinating–particularly the bit about the books of synonymy, which helped one write with subtler variations of meaning. One thing I especially appreciated about Underwood’s discussion was that it felt less presentist than Graff’s book. Rather than lumping all philologists together and assuming their way of teaching to be dry and primitive, Underwood makes an attempt to ask how a certain group of “philologists” understood their own pedagogical endeavor, which opens the door for us to more genuinely engage with the ideas underlying that endeavor.

    As for the practical application of Underwood’s discussion, it seems like it might be hard to integrate into comp. classrooms today in the way the professors of the past taught it. Though I definitely think it is empowering for students to learn new words, it strikes me that the professors Underwood is discussing were likely working with a much more homogeneous group of students in terms of economic background (and undoubtedly in terms of race and gender as well). They were instructing students who were already in positions of power how to make more subtle vocabularies that had already probably been well-developed at fancy prep schools. There is also the fact that the students being taught in this passage had power already and thus, were already listened to (by the common people to whom they are making speeches in mostly Anglo-Saxon words).

    Again, this is certainly not to say that I think students shouldn’t learn new words and grow to understand the subtleties of language. In fact, in my time as a writing center tutor, I remember helping students with subtleties of language a lot–asking them to explain their ideas when the language they used wasn’t clear to me, and working with them to make sure what they wrote actually reflected and communicated the ideas they were trying to get across. So, in the sense that we are teaching students how to make their ideas clear to other people through language (and to some extent, to use the discourse of the university, so that they can be understood in that context), I think a pedagogy that helps students expand their vocabulary and knowledge of usage would be very useful.

    But I also think it is necessary to draw attention to the disparities in power between the students Underwood’s early 19th century professors taught and those we are teaching now–a disparity that means many students need not to consolidate power through language but to claim academic/argumentative discourse, and thus, the power to be heard in the first place, for themselves. Lindsey and others have already shed a lot of light on the difficulties that comp. teachers can feel when trying to alleviate such disparities.

    So, I would be really interested, like Iris, to talk about how this etymology-concerned pedagogy might look today in a comp. classroom. My hunch is that because many students in comp. classrooms may have gone to underfunded high schools, teachers often feel forced to teach the basics of sentence structure and argumentation before going into linguistic subtleties. I am also pretty sure that such a word-centered pedagogy would have less to do with etymology than Underwood’s did, as that might well put many freshmen to sleep. I have also never taught comp., though, so most of my knowledge is based on how writing centers help comp. students with their papers. So, perhaps some of you who have can expand on this idea of a pedagogy that is language rather than argument-centered. Thanks, Iris and Lindsey for the comments that got me (and I’m sure, all of us) thinking!

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