Thursday, May 7, 2009

Tragical Grammatical: A Musical in Three Acts

So this has been gnawing at me all afternoon.

Yesterday, a pair of students came to me with a question about one of their English exam answers. As you know, if you pay attention here at least, I have nothing to do with grading, testing or assessment. But they were asking me a usage question.

To summarize, the item was as follows, more or less:
'Blah blah blah Even though I've only been on the honor roll twice before, I'm going to try my best to make it this term.'
Q: The phrase make it in this sentence means:
a) be successful at my job
b) succeed in reaching a certain place
c) blah blah blah
d) blah blah blah

Long story less long: according to the teacher, A was correct and B was wrong. He asked me about it at lunch today, since the students had obviously gone back to him, so I explained my thinking. The dictionary will say that "make it" in this sense is "be successful." So functionally, both A and B are correct. In fact, you could even argue that B is more correct than A, since the honor roll is a place, in the sense of position in a list or a series.

He said that "it" refers to being successful in school. "No," I said, "'it' specifically means 'honor roll'. Replace 'it' with 'honor roll' in the sentence, then replace 'it' with 'success in school' and you'll see what I mean."

He thought hard about it, but decided that just because I'm a native speaker didn't mean I was right. He showed me some Korean site with an English dictionary on it (from which his choices A, B, C, and D had come verbatim). We went to where I showed him the def. of 'make it' as 'be successful':
1 a: to be successful [trying to make it in the big time as a fashion photographer — Joe Kane]
--right there, hell, it says in the big time, a position or place, not just a job! Then there was 'place':
5: relative position in a scale or series: as a: position in a social scale [kept them in their place] b: a step in a sequence [in the first place, it's none of your business] c: a position at the conclusion of a competition [finished in last place]
--I'm pretty certain that honor roll fits in there. I told him that if choice B had been about reaching a certain 'location' instead of 'place' it would be different.

He was still "not convinced." He was going to think about it and make his own decision.

I said, "Well, I don't know what you want, but I've proven it pretty conclusively for myself. I'm even more convinced that B is marginally better an answer than A. It's colloquial usage, which is not cut-and-dried, or exhaustively listed as examples." I even showed him some current usage of 'made the honor roll'. I wanted to say, "Maybe you shouldn't ask questions that you don't the answer to," since around exam time I am bombarded with similar usage questions by the English faculty.

Apparently, he wants a source that has his exact question with answer B highlighted as the correct answer. Again he stressed that just because I was a native speaker didn't mean anything.

So, this has been gnawing at me all afternoon. And actually, not even mainly that he doesn't consider me a worthy source of English grammatical knowledge, even though I've forgotten more grammar than he'll ever know.

It's mainly that he's going to mark that kid wrong, simply because the kid knew something the teacher didn't. So, he's going to undermine the kid's confidence in English, or undermine the rightful authority of the teaching profession, or both, because the student felt that the honor roll was more of a position than a job.

Dear Readers, please feel free to chime in here and tell me I'm wrong. I'll read your comments if you do, but I probably won't publish them ...

But the bigger issue is this: when the students approached me, they hemmed and hawed, and finally came out with, "Cam-berr Teacha, question exam you?" or some such gibberish. These guys, the English faculty, I mean, are splitting hairs on the fine points of grammar--which even they don't properly understand--instead of providing the fundamentals of practice and reinforcement that the students need to speak the language. It would be comical if it weren't so tragic.

Or is that 'tragical'? Hell, don't ask me, what do I know!


Adam said...

Upon first reading the question, I chose B as the correct answer. Honor roll is indeed a "place." While one can also "make it," as in be successful, here it makes more sense to assume that it's the honor roll, if just for the fact that the "it" in "make it" is a stand-in for "honor roll." It would be a logic leap to assume it was for something like "success" since that word never appeared in the sentence in the first place.

Rod said...

B is clearly the better answer. That's what I would have chosen on an exam.

SuperDrew said...

You are definitely correct, but the situation has nothing to do with that. It is that by telling the students the correct answer, you are undermining the other teacher's authority. People don't like that, yo.

Anyway, last term a teacher came to me and asked me to proofread one question on the final exam. It made absolutely no sense. I don't remember it now, but it was along the lines of:

If two birds were refrigerating calmly sunset, which elephant shot?
b)monkey wrench
c)particle physics

So anyway, I explained that he couldn't use that question at all, and gave him another question from the book that was worthwhile.

BUT! While doing this, I noticed that every other question on the test was written in the same nonsensical fashion. Unfortunately for the school and my students, I didn't bother fixing the whole test. Sadly, that gets filed under the category of 'not my problem.'

Tuttle said...

Thanks for the backup, yo. But Andy, his authority was undermined by his ignorance and his refusal to change it, not by me.

Rod said...

Yeah. Arrogance undermines any authority.

Anonymous said...

very tragical indeed. :(

and yes, why are they writing questions to which they don't even know the answers to? if he's so concerned with "saving face" and not looking stupid to his students and fellow NATIVE ENGLISH SPEAKER teacher then he should have gone with questions he could answer with confidence. psh, that's what i would have done just to make sure i don't end up looking stupid :P

Mr. B said...

I decided this year that all I am teaching are SUPER BASIC FUNDAMENTALS. This week is conjugating "to be" in either first person singular or first person plural.

Less than 50% of students can do it.

Good fundamentals are important to forming language. Most Korean systems are building a house of language on a foundation of flan.

Kelsey said...

"Most Korean systems are building a house of language on a foundation of flan."

What an apt description.