Editor’s note: Les Perelman has a new article in the March/April edition of the WLN Journal, called “Grammar Checkers Do Not Work.” He also graciously agreed to talk a bit more about his career, writing centers–and that dratted 5-paragraph essay.
Can you tell us more about your career, from your perspective?
I did my graduate work in medieval literature. I was fortunate that while I was in graduate school, Mary Louise Pratt came as an Assistant Professor for one year before she went back to Stanford. Mary got me interested in sociolinguistics, which led both to an interest in classical and medieval rhetoric and connecting her work on Speech Act Theory to teaching writing. Oral speech is innate. We do not learn it; we acquire it as young children because we are hard wired for it. Writing, on the other hand, is a relatively recent technology that is only about 5,000 years old. Thus oral conversation is the default language situation, and one of Mary’s great insights is that writing is a conversation in which one of the other participants is absent and writer has to “fill in” the questions, arguments, and objections, that the absent reader may make.
After graduate school, I was a post-doctoral fellow at USC for three years working with Ross Winterowd before going to Tulane University to serve as Director of First-year Writing and a faculty member in Writing, Rhetoric, and Linguistics. I then moved to MIT, where I became an Associate Dean and Director of Writing Across the Curriculum.
Working with faculty from across the Institute in this later role, was probably the most formative experience in my career. First, MIT culture has a very low tolerance for bullshit. You can assert anything as long as you have data to back it up. An assertion without corroborating data is considered bullshit. In addition, working with computer science classes has given me a keen understanding of both how powerful computers are and how limited they are in some contexts, such as natural language processing. Finally, being at MIT has given me the opportunity to bounce ideas off of some of the world’s great linguists.
Obviously, you are widely recognized for addressing the issues with the SAT. I’m curious how that, and this fresh article for WLN, shape what you think of writing centers. You’ve fought the machines—what would you tell the tutors battling in the proverbial trenches?
To follow up on my last answer, the graders of the old SAT essay were not readers in the conversational sense I described above. They were reading 20-30 essays an hour. They were simply too overwhelmed and too tired to have to kind of the reactions a normal reader would have to a text. Machines, of course, are much worse. All they do is count. What students need is to internalize the hidden conversations that are always present in any piece of writing. Writing tutors, by asking questions, making objections, requesting clarifications–that is, being a reader that is present–help student define and then internalize the reader who is almost always absent. That is the writing tutor’s most important and extremely vital role.