With the end of March rapidly approaching, I couldn’t let the month expire without commenting on middle school teacher Heather Shotke’s “GramMarch Challenge,” a quest to halt students’ use of social media shorthand in their academic work and written texts. While the “English teacher” in me cheers on the GramMarch Challenge and lauds Ms. Shotke for her gumption, the “poet” in me questions the need to tamper with the relentless march of living language.
Witness, for example, what the Twitterverse is capable of in the hands of such formidable poets as Elizabeth Alexander, Robert Pinsky, and Claudia Rankine, whose Twitter poems have been featured in the New York Times. In fact, Twitter, with its classic “soul of wit,” has given rise to a whole new genre of abbreviated literature, dubbed “Twitterature“. However, it does not elude the keen readers’ notice that while these poems (and by extension, the very concept of “Twitterature” itself) gleefully embrace and celebrate the possibilities for utilizing a pared language to concede a truncated literary form, the poets themselves are incapable of escaping the impulse for likewise employing a highly developed, even stalwart vocabulary. For example, in “Teeny tiny poem,” Elizabeth Alexander meets the 140-character constraint, but manages nonetheless to work the word Impluvium into the space. Likewise, Claudia Rankine’s Twitter poem, “earth donates,” includes the line: “fallout active plume cloud spills/” — in which the word plume gives away the poet’s highly developed vocabulary.
Of course, it also cannot elude keen readers’ notice that these poets’ consummate use of the language did not occur without prolonged development of their skills. This brings us back around to the question of the GramMarch Challenge: should we make an effort to halt students’ use of social media shorthand in their academic work and written texts? On this question, I must side with no less than the venerable professor William Strunk, Jr., co-author of The Elements of Style, whose entire body of work asserts that “one must first know the rules to break them.” This is, after all, the purpose of formal education: teaching students the rules and conventions of Standard Edited English, so that once they’ve mastered them, they’re freed to break them. And for that, I’d have to say, “Kudos” to Heather Shotke on issuing the GramMarch Challenge.