Christmas Stocking: A Candy Cane at UNM-Taos.

By: Bill Whaley
18 December, 2019

I’ve just completed the fall semester, while teaching three classes (Eng. 1110, Eng. 1120, and Eng. 2210). About 50 out of 70 students finished the courses. I first taught at UNM for a single year in 1999, then resumed teaching at the Harwood campus of the extended university upper division in 2010. When that program ended in 2016, I started teaching lower division students at the Klauer UNM campus.

The biggest change at UNM I’ve noticed concerns how today’s staff of counselors, administrators, and faculty offer special assistance and help to every single student. At CASA, center for academic success and achievement, tutors assist any student who asks. Many of my students have benefited from assistance at the writing center.

Furthermore, the counselors consult with students to make sure they are taking courses that will lead to a useful certificate, degree or credits that will transfer to four-year colleges.

In my “Technical and Professional Communication” course, some students with four-year degrees have enrolled in order to pursue a new career. The art department includes students, professional artists sometimes, who have grown gray taking advantage of the studio’s facilities.

This spring on Tuesday evenings at 6 pm, I’ll be teaching a course called “advanced composition” in the catalog but, one-room-schoolhouse style, will focus on creative writing, fiction, nonfiction, the essay, or the stories you’re trying to finish. Come to Klauer and meet the next generation.

UNM-Taos Philosophy

The UNM Taos Branch is an active participant in the Alliance of Hispanic Serving Institution Educators (AHSIE). Last spring, I attended a conference in Riverside, California for AHSIE, where the UNM-Taos CEO Patrick Valdez, made a number of presentations, while standing next to other college presidents, who represented community colleges with 50 or 60 thousand students. The AHSIE philosophy states in so many words that “We meet our students where they are.”

In my classes this last semester, students reflected various backgrounds from Taos, New Mexico, the greater nation and world. Students in my introductory writing courses previously attended Public Schools, Charter Schools, Taos Pueblo Schools, Private schools, GED programs, Home Schools, dual enrollment (high school and college) programs, and “the school of hard knocks.”

Traditional college age students (18 to 22) in my classes were joined by non-traditional students in their 40s and 50s, all seeking an education, whether an associates’ degree or plan to continue on up the ladder in quest of Bachelors, Masters, and PhDs degrees. In effect, no matter the number of students present, whether twelve or twenty-five, I find myself teaching and editing, according to “where they are.” Hence I’ve begun teaching grammar, apparently an esoteric and little-known discipline.

About 99% of my students say they don’t know much about nouns and verbs and can’t remember being exposed to grammar, if at all, except in grade school (or in response to the nun with ruler or the occasional parent or exceptional teacher). A retired UNM math teacher said he began math courses for years by teaching the multiplication tables. Just as an auto mechanic need know his wrenches, sockets, pistons, valves, and battery connections, so neophyte writers need to know their nouns and verbs and parts of speech.

Mostly, I emphasize “clarity” in prose for the purpose of “expository writing” in academia, based the book, Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams.

Williams emphasizes the way readers read and focuses on a number of principles like concision (delete meaningless words), sentences beginning with old and ending with new information for the sake of familiarity and transitions.

The Williams style requires a knowledge of grammar so you can find your subject nouns, active verbs, prepositional phrases et al, while omitting gerunds that lead to ambiguity and nominalizations (verbs turned into nouns) that lead to obscurity.

Though the English language is ridiculously complex, idiosyncratic, and irregular, a few rules of syntax do apply. Mostly grammar is driven by usage, so some ideas you learned no longer apply, like ending a sentence with the preposition to or the appropriate “which” or “that.”

Like the mechanic, who listens to the engine, students read aloud and listen to their prose. The ear is the best critic.

Initial submissions often begin awkwardly but gain clarity through multiple rewrites and revisions. The final results vary but can express graduate school equivalency or the elegant clarity of the born writer. As Williams says, if you follow a few basic principles, you can learn to write clearly.

Postscript

The content, especially in the personal as opposed to academic essays, testify to the human condition in general and the changing mores of Taos specifically. I often read the work of students in the community whose relatives and neighbors I know. Most students work, so I learn much about la Familia, local business, the culture of the villages and neighborhoods, student interests, the environment, entertainment (bands I never heard of), hopes and dreams, as well as the tragedy and comedy of community. The classroom keeps me in touch.

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