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Brian Miller

Spelling Bees and Grammar Gorillas

by Brian Miller

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From the Editor: Brian Miller is the Secretary/Treasurer of the Old Capitol Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa. This article first appeared in the Spring, 1999, issue of the Student Slate, the publication of the National Association of Blind Students. When I first read this piece, the truth of it struck me between the eyes. How well I recall the caustic comment written on one of my college religion papers to the effect that a religious rite was not spelled "right," but since I couldn't be expected to have known that fact, the professor would not count off for what he would have considered an egregious error if committed by any other student. I can at least say that I have never since misspelled that particular word.

Learning to spell moderately well when one read neither print nor Braille as a child is a long, laborious job--but a perfectly doable one. Brian argues the case for making the effort, and he outlines how to begin. It isn't only students who should read and meditate on the truth of this article. Here is what Brian has to say:

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It's the end of the school term, and your computer printer is churning out the final pages of a research paper due in twenty minutes. Perhaps you're feeling pleased because a semester's worth of diligent research and rigorous academic inquiry has enabled you to produce a paper that is fit for the MLA Hall of Fame.

Or maybe you're sweating bullets because you waited until three days before the due date to begin your paper and you're coming down from forty-eight hours of coffee-fueled, feverish scribbling. Either way, you're pretty sure your professor of transmigrational Zen historiography will be pleased with your work. You grab the final pages from the printer tray and lurch out the door and over to campus to your prof's office, where you slide the paper under her door and slink away unnoticed.

A few days later you're hanging around the department office annoying the secretaries and chatting with fellow students about grades and beer when the Zen historian pokes her head out from her office and waves you in. Reluctantly you follow her gesture, enter the office, and take a seat.

"Well," she begins, "I wanted to talk with you about your paper." You nod blearily. "It's quite good, and I should tell you that I gave you an A-." You nod again, a little miffed about the minus, but warming to the positive tone of her voice. "Your title, "The Sound of One Culture Clapping," is very clever, and your research is thorough. Your conclusion is lucid, and the academic elegance is impressive." You're smiling now. "But there are some problems." The smile vanishes. "I wasn't sure if I should bring this up," she says hesitantly. "I mean, I know this can't be as easy for you with your, well, visual impairment, but there are quite a few mechanical problems in this paper and a lot of spelling errors."

"Damn," you think, "this old song again."

"Well," she continues, "for example, you put `apostrophe `s' for the its possessive when there shouldn't be one, and you spelled Zen with two n's." Her voice becomes a dull drone in your brain like amplifier pink noise. "...And here you spell Canada with a K, and, well, I wasn't sure if I should mention this, but I think you misspelled your own name."

Is the above a cautionary tale against the insidiousness of procrastination? A tract put out by the Proofreaders and Editors of America Promotion Council? No, rather I think it is a nightmare scenario that many blind students will wake up to at some point in their academic careers. My point is not that the blind are so incompetent that we cannot spell our own names or that we lack some chromosome responsible for grammatical accuracy. I do hope, however, to draw on my own experience as a student to make some broader comments on the issues of literacy and self-esteem.

While I did not suffer through a scenario exactly like that described above, I have, both as an undergraduate and even as a graduate student, had to come to terms with the fact that I was seriously under-performing as a writer. The reasons for this shortcoming were related directly to my blindness or, more specifically, my attitudes and those of my professors about my blindness.

A writer since elementary school, I have always used style, the clever turn of phrase, to steam-roll over any criticism of my organization or mechanics. Writing was a tour de force, a manic assault on the cerebral cortex, with no time for revising and certainly no time for (gasp!) proofreading. When I started to consider graduate school and a career in academia seriously, I had to take some time to reflect on my habits. I remember being handed back a paper I had written on the "Shining Path" guerrillas of Peru on which my professor, someone for whom I had enormous respect and considered a mentor, had written, "This is your best paper yet, Brian," but went on to say later, "For future reference, shining path in Spanish is `sendero luminoso,' not `sandero luminoso.'"

Latin American politics was my gig, and I was a fluent Spanish speaker. How could I have flubbed something so simple? The answers, I believe, are not specific to me but may be all too prevalent a reality for the blind student.

The first of these is the impact of auditory learning on our knowledge of the form and shape of the words we use every day. By this I simply mean our preference for cassette books and our difficulty reproducing in writing what we hear on tape. The second component of this equation is the tendency for our teachers and professors not to hold us equally accountable when we make mistakes.

As many of us already know, the use of Braille as the principal medium of communication for the blind has declined radically in the past fifty years. This has had a tremendous impact on the level of true literacy within our community. This is because, when we see words with our eyes or feel them with our fingers, we imprint on our brains both the word as a whole and its constituent parts (i.e., the letters that make up the word). Conversely, when we hear a spoken word, either live or on cassette, we imprint only the sound component or the word as a whole unit. So when it comes time to reproduce this word later, say in a research paper, we must struggle to translate the sound into the written form. This is a tricky business, especially with the ever-quixotic English language.

If we are not careful, we can become prone to making errors of spelling in our writing that a literate sighted person would be less likely to make. For example, say you are doing a paper on the great Antarctic poet, Empress Penguinus Bumperschew. A sighted person reading her ponderous work would know the poet's name was spelled B-u-m-p-e-r-s-c-h-e-w. If you're listening to one of her epic poems on tape, however, and the reader failed to spell her name, you would be at a loss, and you would do a terrible disservice to Ms. Bumperschew.

We cannot blithely fall back on high-tech solutions, saying, "My spell-checker will save me." You'll quickly find the more specialized and advanced your studies become, the less reliable are even the best spell-checkers. As a radical young graduate student in political science, I became quite adroit at discussing weighty concepts like hegemonic transference and consocionationalism, but beads of sweat would form on my brow at the prospect of spelling such things in a paper. Even before we arrive as far as graduate school, we should know such basics as when to use "their" t-h-e-i-r, versus "they're" t-h-e-y-'-r-e since no spell-check program will show us when to use which form.

Professors aggravate the situation by cutting us slack because they imagine we are incapable of monitoring our own work for mechanical errancy. They will say, "I know this is harder for you." And they are right; it is harder, or at least it can be more work. Even worse is when no one wants to tell us when we've made a mistake because it will embarrass us or them. The professor might think it is unfair to hold us to the same standard as other students. They might think it is like saying to a person in a wheelchair, "I know you can't run as fast as the rest of us, so I won't even ask you to try."

I hope that my remarks here do not elicit facile retorts such as, "Yes, yes. OK, try not to misspell stuff. Sure. Thanks for the great advice." After all, you might well be a National Spelling Bee champion and haven't misspelled the thorniest of words since second grade. However, I know that my Achilles heel has always been mechanical errors in writing and my resistance to doing anything about it until well into my academic career. This shortcoming has derived from a potent combination of two factors. First have been my own fatalistic attitudes: "Why bother proofreading?" "My computer probably won't catch the mistake," and "I don't have a reader handy." Second has been the willingness of my academic mentors to forgive, forget, or ignore the issue altogether.

Plenty of people have always been around to assure me that I am articulate, witty, or glib. This may be ego-bolstering, but is not especially edifying. We cannot expect to grow on a Twinkie-like diet of compliments. We must be willing to take and make honest assessments of our strengths and weaknesses and never say, "Hey, this is pretty good for a blind guy."

We know that with enough grease on the axles that guy in the wheelchair might well roll right by the rest of us bipedal types, and with the right skills we blind people can and will meet the challenges of academia.

We should not be seduced into producing substandard work when we know we can do better. When we can't get Braille, we must insist our readers spell all those strange names and places and even hire a proofreader if we need to. We must budget time to check our work and hold ourselves to a high standard. If we fail to do this, if we settle for verbal glibness and charm as substitutes for real writing ability, we cannot honestly call ourselves literate.

As students we will inevitably make mistakes, embarrassing ones, mistakes that will make us want to move to Argentina. But with some effort these can become the exceptions--rare causes for mirth--rather than the standard by which we are measured. Being a competent blind student has little to do with buzzing about like a spelling bee or lumbering around like a grammar gorilla, but rather living up to the full measure of our abilities and never settling for second best.

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