Lissa Paul is a professor at Brock University.
Doug Ford has decisively obliterated references to gender fluidity and transitioning from the Ontario sex-ed curriculum, but seems to have given a pass to “transition” words in the English curriculum. As far as I can tell, only the latter poses any kind of threat to young minds, although given this week’s attention to “notwithstanding” – an adverb introducing a clause with the potential to limit the Charter of Rights and Freedoms – there may well be good reason to fear the rule of word over sense.
At first, I thought it was just coincidence that the same stylistic tic kept appearing in essays by my graduate and undergraduate students: “additionally” or “in addition” randomly signalling connections that were not there. I swatted away the offending words and issued a warning about feigning the existence of non-existent connections. The stylistic tics blotting my students’ papers increased into a full-fledged infestation. “Furthermore,” “moreover” and “nevertheless” began appearing – in addition to “in addition” – with reckless abandon.
The clue to the source of the “in addition” infestation came in mid-June. My niece had asked me to edit an essay she had written for her Grade 11 English class. I’d edited her work before and had been impressed by her ability to find the heart of an issue and to argue honestly and coherently. That’s why I was surprised to see her paper riddled with the same tics used by my students: “moreover,” “furthermore” and “in addition” were liberally sprinkled throughout. I deleted the offending words and called her. “What are those useless adverbs doing in your paper?” I asked. “Transition words,” she explained. “We have to include eight in every essay.” I laughed. She was serious.
I asked my niece if she would mind if I raised my concerns about the “transition word” requirement with her principal. She responded with “the Look.” I knew that look. My own sons used it when I occasionally floated the idea of speaking with the principal about what they were being taught. The look meant: Do Not Call. The teacher likes her, my niece explained, and she has a 98-per-cent average. If the teacher wants eight transition words, she gets eight transition words.
Although I understood my niece’s position, I struggled with the ethical dilemma of ignoring writing instruction that was antithetical to university preparation. And stupid. Counting words only makes marking easy: include the words, get the grade. Ontario, as it turns out, isn’t the only province where adverbs threaten to rule.
For teachers across the country, transition words are the quick fix to skills-based curriculum requirements. In Alberta, transition words, listed among the “organizational components of texts,” are supposed to strengthen “effectiveness as units of thought or experience.” In Ontario, teachers ostensibly encouraging “craft and fluency” ask students to “make a list of transitional words, and keep it handy for future reference.” And in Nova Scotia, fill-in-the-blanks skills tests ask students to choose the “correct” transition word for the supplied example.
In the end, so as not to embarrass my niece, I resolved my ethical dilemma by addressing the transition word epidemic at the opening session of a conference run by the University of Cardiff in Wales (safely distant from her school). The conference marked the 50th anniversary of Poetry in the Making by Ted Hughes, a little book based on a series of BBC “Listening and Writing” radio talks he made for schools decades before he became poet laureate in 1984. The English professors in the audience laughed at the excerpts from the curriculum guidelines, sighed and rolled their eyes in disbelief. To underscore the contrast with curriculum guidelines on transition words, I read the warning Hughes gave to teachers about the “falsities in writing and the consequent dry-rot” that arise out of misguided instruction. Teachers of English, he suggested, should ask only “how to try to say what you really mean,” because that is “part of the search for self-knowledge and perhaps, in one form or another, grace.”
His sound advice applies across the curriculum as it is based on the assumption that students are invested in finding their way to the “out-of-school” world. Given the opportunity, they will work through transitions – in discussions of prose or politics – and move toward self-knowledge and perhaps grace. It may be that politicians and pundits should heed the same instruction. I’m considering sending a copy of Poetry in the Making, anonymously, to my niece’s teacher. And maybe a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Doug Ford and Caroline Mulroney could probably use copies, too.