L.01: Rethinking Basic Writing: New Ideas and Perspectives
Reviewed by Matthew C. Zajic, University of California, Davis, CA (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Chair: LauraAnne Carroll-Adler, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA
Speakers: Jeremy Branstad, North Shore Community College, Danvers, MA, "Theory, Context, Practice: On Developing and Implementing a Rhetorically Oriented Basic Writing Program at a Public, Open-Access, Community College"
Margaret Hamper, University of Wisconsin–Madison, WI, "From 'Hostile Mental Children' to 'Strangers in a Strange World': Basic Writers in the Looking Glass from 1969 to 2013"
Joyce Inman, University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, MI, "Queering the Thirdspace of Composition"
What comes to mind when you imagine students in a basic writing classroom? Hold onto that thought as you read on, as this panel may challenge your preconceived notions about what students in basic writing can accomplish and what instructors can do to foster growth in basic writing classrooms.
This panel began with Jeremy Branstad’s discussion of refocusing the basic writing classroom into a rhetorically oriented writing space. Coming from a public, open-access community college, Branstad described a highly diverse student population that typically goes through two different levels of remediation: level one, which entails three units of reading, three units of writing, and three units of college success; and level two, which entails three credits of reading and three credits of writing. These levels typically revolve around mandated textbooks, standardized five-paragraph final essay exams, and instructions focused on paragraph development. However, Branstad explained a shift from this historical structure into one where there are no mandated textbooks or exams. These programs include accelerated learning programs for level-two students, integrated reading and writing classes for students that better emphasize the intersections between reading and writing, and pathways for faculty to share innovative assignments.
This programmatic shift has been deeply tied to primary course objectives to rethink what basic writers are capable of accomplishing. First, Branstad argued for greater emphasis on problem-exploring over answer-getting dispositions regarding classroom instruction and student engagement. This shift is designed to help students confront ambiguity and uncertainty and better prepare them for critical thinking throughout college. Second, this shift emphasized a shift to resituate language into richer, more productive venues by better integrating reading–writing objectives. Though reading and writing remained split in their objectives (due to institutional limitations), Branstad argued that the new reading objectives could only be accomplished through writing and vice versa. Better combining these objectives allowed for collapsing various remediation levels, thus consolidating the program into a more streamlined list of objectives for all students rather than spreading objectives thin among various programs. Third, these new objectives are heavily anchored in the Writing Program Administrator’s (WPA) Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition (FYC) ( http://wpacouncil.org/positions/outcomes.html ) and the National Council of Teachers of English/ International Reading Association (NCTE/IRA) Standards for the English Language Arts (see http://www.ncte.org/standards/ncte-ira ); by combining the two, the revised program places an emphasis on what should follow students’ high school curricula as well as what students should be prepared to do following their FYC course.
Branstad finished his presentation with preliminary data to hint at what's to come. Praising high retention rates prior to programmatic overhaul, he commented that the programmatic shift has not led to increased student dropout rates. He then shared a few snippets from students who mentioned increased agency and decreased anxiety, increased understanding of the purpose of revision, and increased ability to manage their own writing tasks. Though he was unable to share more extensive data, these preliminary findings are hopeful concerning how students are navigating and interacting with the redesign for the better. However, while Branstad laid out a strong rationale for how the program was constructed with K–12 and FYC best practices in mind, I wonder how transfer will be measured or tracked to better understand short and long-term issues and benefits to the program redesign?
Following Branstad’s forward-thinking program, Margaret Hamper asked us to consider how developmental writing's roots have shaped the way writing instructors view students in basic writing classes. She started with a personal anecdote from a free write, which caused her to question her entire notion of the basic writers she had been prepared for versus the basic writers she actually taught. "They’ve worked harder than any other students I've ever taught!" Hamper shared, as she questioned why she had been told these writers lack the effective skills needed to excel in postsecondary education. She framed her discussion around the findings of a literature review she conducted on basic writing identity research over the last four decades; she initially pulled from 700 articles but narrowed this selection down to 500 that focused on how the basic writer has been framed over the years.
She started back in the 1970s where the term basic writers first entered the academic writing vocabulary, though the argument could be made that basic writers have been around since the 1920s. This was the period of adjustment for the term, and these students were labeled as dunces, misfits, hostile mental children, and the most sluggish of animals. These students were thought to lack self-discipline and vocabulary and were often looked down upon as being inferior and not suited for college work. In the mid-1970s, Shaughnessy argued these students were intelligent enough for college work, but were still trying to tame their understanding within the college setting.
Diving into the 1980s, she explained the cognitive shift that framed basic writers, which borrowed from developmental psychology. The field started to question these students’ intelligence, and Andrea Lunsford and others began to question cognitive deficiencies that limited basic writing students’ abilities. Basic writers failed to get away from egocentrism, and instructors often were looked at as diagnosticians. Into the late 1980s, Mike Rose and others argued against these cognitive deficits, instead asserting that our writing courses were limiting our students from growing and developing, while setting up arguments between medical versus social models of basic writing.
In the 1990s, we jumped into the socially informed approach to literacy studies and looked beyond the cognitive model. Rather than cognitive deficiencies, basic writers were looked at in terms of their home dialogue and abilities in Standard English. They were still looked at as unskilled, and basic writing was refocused around social justice. Instructors viewed basic writers as strangers in a strange world, isolated from understanding the norms of the college context. There was a push to dismantle developmental education and instead focus on tightening admission requirements to keep remediation at the secondary level.
Then we jump into the 2000s, where the field shifted to focus on college readiness and how basic writing fits into that. Though Hamper had not completed the literature review to this point, she offered some insights into thinking about how cultural differences may be setting up barriers to college readiness.
Hamper argued that basic writing serves as a powerful heuristic to observe how the conceptualization of our students has shifted over the years. Today's view on basic writing places an emphasis on cultural and environmental factors. She argued that scholars need to think about the variety of factors at play for students entering the basic writing classroom. Similarly, she stated that we need to understand how we as instructors engage with basic writers—not with false presuppositions, but by listening to the students and promoting an engaging environment. The reconceptualization over just a few short decades shows a growing understanding of how writing instructors work with basic writers (though one could argue this includes all writers) that continually changes as the field learns more about the numerous factors affecting all postsecondary students.
With the history lesson completed, Joyce Inman took on a different approach by incorporating queer theory to disrupt the current labeling of basic writers and what they are and are not capable of accomplishing. By integrating a stretch course with a studio model, she framed her discussion around how writers perceive themselves in this writing space. Her application of queer theory helps blur the institutional lines and helps us understand why students deviate from perceived straight institutional lines.
Modern culture is surrounded by binaries that are steeped into cultural norms; these norms can survive without question or disruption of the set binaries. Inman linked these to other binaries that exist within our own field, such as basic versus normal courses or skilled versus unskilled writers. Basic writing acts as an enterprise to promote college education for local students who may not otherwise qualify for higher education without sufficient remediation; students are marked and are expected to recognize this inferior identity in order to improve their identity or blend in with their colleagues who do not share a similar academic identity. Basic writers can be marked by a variety of different scores (some academic, some not) that force students to try to pass as traditional students.
The basic writing classroom is a space for students who fall outside of the traditional institutional norm, which provides students with a space to become enculturated "to ensure their success." By queering the basic writing space, Inman argued for students to contemplate the potential for their own bodies and minds to understand the space they occupy within the course and within the institution. Her institution's studio course design allowed for students to have the freedom to deviate from the norms of other composition courses and allowed students to understand the politics of the norming taking place. By using modular, skill-based instruction, the studio model showcased the messiness of the writing process and allowed for growth and identity as a way for students to acknowledge their own placement within the institution. This model worked with the students' own identity as the focal point and helped students encounter and navigate the norms placed upon them.
All three speakers shared a common goal that was clearly laid out in the panel title: the need to rethink basic writing. By making judgments without experiencing or questioning the roles basic writers have been placed into, teachers fail to acknowledge students who may perform and learn well. As a researcher interested in writing instruction for students with disabilities at the K–12 level, I would argue that there are numerous similarities between the two contexts that come from assuming too much without listening enough.