To say you’re wrong

This morning, I made a mistake in my grammar class. I told students the correct word in a sample sentence was who, not whom. That’s what the back of the book said, and while I myself chose whom when going through the exercise, in class I second guessed myself and gave the students the answer from the back of the book, along with an explanation that I thought justified the change in pronoun case. But then I began to second guess my second guess (is that a third guess?), and after talking it over with a few people, I decided the book was wrong. Just a few minutes ago, I sent an email to my students explaining why the book (and, hence, my in-class explanation) was incorrect.

One of the most difficult things for me about becoming a teacher has been learning how to admit my mistakes. Before starting at Michigan State, mistakes were (mostly) easily fixable. They were low-stakes. If I spelled a word wrong in a piece of fiction I brought to workshop, people pointed it out to me but assumed it was a typo. When I accidentally deleted a student record while working for an online learning office, we were able to recreate it without the student ever learning that she had disappeared from our database for part of an afternoon, and no one I worked with questioned my competency. My mistakes, ultimately, didn’t matter.

But now, when I misspell a word or, through a misunderstanding, give the wrong information in class, I’m called to account. After all, the students are paying for my expertise, and any mistake I make risks being multiplied through however many students are sitting in my classroom at that particular time. When I tell my students, incorrectly, that a sentence represents the subjective complement, they believe me and dutifully cross out the correct answer on their worksheet and replace it with the incorrect one. In the back of their minds, they make notes about how they were wrong when they were really right.

Owning up to my mistake might fix this—at least they’ll have heard the answer, even if the correct information now has to fight for priority with the incorrect one—but at the cost of losing a little piece of my expertise and authority. Their trust in me diminishes. Sometimes I try to calculate how many mistakes I can afford before it disappears entirely, as if trust is something that can be measured, as if it can never be regained. But things matter now, and I hate the feeling that I’ve let someone down.

As humans, we make mistakes. This is news to no one, but sometimes I feel as if I should be an exception—not because I deserve perfection, but because others might deserve it from me. I understand the power a teacher can have, and I know how it feels when your teacher lets you down. I told my students on the first day of class that grammar is something we can only practice—that we can never perfect it. Now I just need to keep reminding myself that I meant it, and that it applies to me as well.

10 Comments

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    Kathryn, I don’t think student trust in you diminishes if you own up to making a mistake — I think it increases. Especially regarding something as difficult as grammar. Obviously, if you don’t know what you’re talking about and are incorrect all the time, that’s a problem. But I know that’s not the case with you. Not being able to admit a mistake is a much bigger problem. Showing students that you don’t know everything, that you’re involved in intellectual inquiry and struggle alongside them, is empowering for them and for you.

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      Yes. Exactly.

    • Kathryn Houghton Kathryn says:

      Thanks. That’s something I think I know but have a hard time believing at times. Sometimes I feel as if I sort of fell into teaching and as if I’m constantly struggling to catch up—like a part of me still thinks like a student when I’m in the classroom. I guess I just need to stop thinking about the relationship between student and professor as a type of competition. My favorite professors were always the ones who made me feel as if I were capable of bringing real knowledge to the table rather than making me feel as if I were just some cavernous mental space that needed to be filled, and that’s the type of professor I want to be.

  • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

    Maybe it’s because I teach at a community college, but I feel that the larger part of my responsibility to my students is to provide them access to the material–to literature, to cogent expression of their own ideas through writing, even to grammar. And for many of my students, my perceived expertise is a kind of barrier to that access. They think, “Well, of course he can tell an appositive from an adverbial dependent clause, that’s his job. He’s an expert, but I’m just a poor boy from a poor family.” (They actually sing that last part).

    So, in a weird way, it serves them better to realize that I can (and do) get it wrong often enough, and that they can achieve the larger goals of critical thought and effective communication even without the more elusive and less important goal of grammatical perfection. (Which, as you rightly say, isn’t even really possible).

    Also, I’d argue that there’s no such thing as grammatical perfection, since that’s a moving target, growing and changing with the constant changes to the language.

    Lastly: Is it weird that I read this whole post wanting to know the who/whom sentence in question?

    • Kathryn Houghton Kathryn says:

      “Mr. Lorenzo, who/whom most students admire, will retire at the end of the year.”

      Part of the problem is that we say “who” in a lot of instances when it should be “whom,” and, because lots of people struggle with “whom,” it’s been sort of marked as the educated thing to say, so now the reverse is happening in language and students toss in “whom” where it doesn’t belong.

      • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

        Yeah. I see that impulse to substitute whom just to sound smart.

        • Kathryn Houghton Kathryn says:

          It actually is “whom,” but when I saw the book said “who,” I second guessed myself. This does make me feel better, though, to see how not-easy it all is. “Who” sounds better to me.

          • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

            Ha! Got it. :)

            I shudder to think of the students whom I taught in my first terms as a TA, when grammar was just a big, muddy mess in my brain.

  • Shira Richman says:

    In the German grammar books I use with my students, it is written:

    Language Tip

    Das englische Fragewort “who” wird heutzutage nicht nur für “wer” auch für für “wem” und “wen” verwendet. Die Form “whom” is älter und klingt für viele Muttersprachler altmodisch.

    Which means:
    These days, the English question word “who” is also used for “whom.” The word “whom” is old and sounds old-fashioned for many native speakers of English.

    So you see, rule-loving Germans are being taught to dispense with “whom” altogether.

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