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  • The Divine Error
  • Andrea Olinger (bio)
Dead Letters: Error in Composition, 1873-2004. By Tracy Santa. Creskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2008.

Studies of error, whether in student or professional writing or in teachers' responses to student writing, tend to startle, delivering error from its associations with fussy teachers, yawning or shell-shocked students, and rivers of red ink. In "The Phenomenology of Error," for example, Joseph Williams (1981) reveals at the end that he has inserted around 100 errors, proving that we read the writing of our colleagues differently than we do student writing and that error is not a fixed feature of a text but something constructed by the reader. A decade later, Gary Sloan, in "Frequency of Errors in Essays by College Freshmen and by Professional Writers" (1990), identified the same number of errors in writing by college students as in essays by professional writers, with the exception of spelling errors. And Susan Wall and Glynda Hull, in "The Semantics of Error: What Do Teachers Know?" (1989), found that teachers marked and labeled errors in the same essay quite differently. Research on the errors writers make—and on how readers respond to them—begets these kinds of discoveries. These studies make us question our own standards for evaluating student writing and our own definitions of error, revealing just how slippery the concept is. [End Page 417]

As Tracy Santa quips, composition instruction in American colleges arguably began "in error" in the 1870s. Historians of the discipline James Berlin (1984, 1987) and Robert Connors (1997) have shown us how concern over the mechanical errors in the writing that post-Civil War college students were suddenly asked to produce spurred the institution of writing exams and first-year writing classes. Error in student writing has continued to trouble U.S. composition research, teaching, and program administration ever since, including in the 1970s, when Mina Shaughnessy directed a program for open admissions students at City College of New York and published the groundbreaking Errors and Expectations (1977), and during the 1980s, when error was a hot topic in composition research and "basic writing" began to come into its own. Yet until now, no one has chronicled the history of error in composition research and teaching. Santa's Dead Letters: Error in Composition, 1873-2004, part of the Hampton Press series Research and Teaching in Rhetoric and Composition, fills this gap, eloquently tracing the treatment of error from the field's origins in the nineteenth century to the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Santa argues that "with an understanding of how we have theorized error, we can better understand how we have constructed student writing and student writers" (vii). Dead Letters thus seeks to develop in the reader a "historical consciousness" of the role of error throughout two centuries of composition research and teaching (xi). Given the impact of correctness on students' standardized test scores and writing placement decisions, the contested role of basic writing programs in higher education, and the perception among the general public—including employers and many university teachers—that there is a literacy crisis, Santa's "historical consciousness" is timely and important.

Each chapter narrates the treatment and role of error in a different era: 1873-1963, when the student writer was seen as the source of error (chapter 2); 1963-78, when Errors and Expectations revealed the logic behind students' errors but still treated the writer as the source of error (chapter 3); 1978-89, when the reader was seen as the creator of error (chapter 4); 1989-99, when researchers focused on the social and institutional contexts that produce error (chapter 5); and 2000-2004, which has seen renewed interest in a reader's response to error (chapter 6).

Chapter 1, "Revising Error," presents an overview of the shifting roles of error across historical periods. Santa also begins to sketch the "reader-response" theory of error. He provides a passage from Esquire whose words are misspelled but that is still decodable, beginning, "Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch [End Page 418] at an Elingsh uinervtisy. it deosn't mttaer in waht order the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6255
Print ISSN
1531-4200
Pages
pp. 417-424
Launched on MUSE
2011-05-06
Open Access
No
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