Issue 7.1

Fall 2008                                                                         

Social Justice Initiative for Basic Writing - Susan Naomi Bernstein

NOTE: Suggestions, comments, questions, and concerns are welcomed on any aspect of the following proposed Social Justice Initiative. Please email Susan Naomi Bernstein at Please let us know if you would like your comments to be published in a future issue of BWe.

Systemic Disparities in Educational Conditions

The systemic disparities in educational conditions for our students enrolled in our basic writing courses across the United States present substantive roadblocks to full matriculation to college.1 As Mina Shaughnessy suggested in her groundbreaking work Errors and Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing:

We already begin to see that the remedial model, which isolates the student and the skill from real college contexts, imposes a “fix-it station” tempo and mentality upon both teachers and students.  And despite the fine quality of many of the programs that have evolved from this model, it now appears they have been stretched more tautly than is necessary between the need to make haste and the need to teach the ABC’s of writing in adult ways.  We cannot know how many students of talent have left our programs not for want of ability but for the sense they had of being done in by short-cuts and misperceptions of educational efficiency (293).

Although basic writing pedagogy has changed substantively since Errors and Expectations was first published in 1977, Shaughnessy’s insights regarding “misperceptions of educational efficiency” still exist in many of our institutions of higher education. Individual teachers and programs make positive and substantial contributions to the lives of students. At the same time, if basic writing professionals can work collectively to create systemic change, we are poised to make an even bigger difference.2 

This Social Justice Initiative focuses on unjust educational conditions for students, a longstanding problem that impedes successful matriculation and retention. It is recognized that many basic writing educators work under considerable challenges, including substandard wages, large course loads, and lack of sustainable employment and job security. However it may be argued that improved conditions for students will inevitably lead to more equitable circumstances for teachers.


Definition of Insufficient Access

In particular, students enrolled in basic writing courses often lack adequate and sufficient access to resources that would aid full matriculation to and retention in college, including but not limited to:

•Insufficient access to preparation for college-level courses based on systemic educational inequities in public schools

•Insufficient access to financial aid counseling

•Insufficient access to academic advising and personal counseling

•Insufficient access to disability services

•Insufficient access to academic and fine arts courses that foster and sustain students growth in areas related to progress in basic writing 

Further, it is suggested that students enrolled in honors programs and other more privileged educational venues enjoy routine access to such resources.  Equally important it may be noted that students enrolled in basic writing courses often come from underrepresented and underserved groups in higher education and may include those students who identify as people of color, poor, working class, veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, documented and undocumented immigrants, and people with disabilities.

Students enrolled in basic writing courses also endure the systemic injustices experienced by residents of disenfranchised communities. Indeed, these groups often intersect in terms of lack of access to equitable educational opportunity, as well as other sustainable resources. This lack of access is exacerbated by current economic conditions in US society and is increasingly manifested in publically funded K-12 schooling, as well as in adult education and ESL programs through decreased federal, state, and local financial support for public schooling at all levels.

In addition, the increased reliance on standardized tests to track, measure, and reward academic progress negatively impacts students in all categories of public education. Such tests create rigid categories of achievement that impede students’ educational progress, limiting access to college, and negatively affecting students enrolled in basic writing courses. 

A significant difficulty is the marginal status of basic writing and other basic courses in reading and mathematics, which are usually not offered for college credit, although students may pay full price to enroll in such courses.  The rationale for lack of credit has been that basic courses are “remedial” in nature and therefore do not contain new content. However, basic writing must not be defined as “remedial,” but as educational enrichment, access to and agency for new learning opportunities that were limited or did not exist in previous education. Students enrolled in Basic Writing courses must not be seen as marginal or expendable, but as vital, contributing members of their college communities.

Support for Students’ Commitments to Higher Education

By their decision to attend college, students have already demonstrated their commitment to higher education, even as they are in the process of learning what that commitment may entail. As longitudinal studies by Attewill, Lavin, Domina and Levey, and Sternglass have demonstrated, higher education provides sustainable long-term benefits for achieving individual economic and intellectual goals and positively impacts US society as a whole.   

As a profession3, we must actively re-commit ourselves to the stated goals of the 1974 NCTE Resolution “On Support for Motivated but Inadequately Prepared College Students”5:

Resolved, that the National Council of Teachers of English encourage college and university administrations, and legislative bodies, to allocate sufficient funds to provide individualized and supportive programs for students who are motivated but inadequately prepared for success in colleges and universities to which they are being admitted.

Although this resolution is now thirty-five years old, systemic conditions for many students enrolled in basic writing courses have changed very little—and often for the worse.  Be it therefore:


Resolved, that the Conference on Basic Writing promote reinvigorated support of the 1974 NCTE “Resolution for Motivated but Inadequately Prepared Students by:

•Persuading college and university administrators, legislative bodies, and other stakeholders to allocate sustainable funding for programs that provide access and retention services to entering students enrolled in basic writing courses and other beginning courses in reading and mathematics.

•Advocating for and providing basic writing courses that include college-level content. 

•Removing the label of “remediation” from such courses.

•Educating students about and providing students with necessary resources for obtaining an equitable education, including but not limited to financial aid and academic and personal counseling; access to academic and fine arts courses that students can take simultaneously with and would complement the basic writing course.

•Promoting this work using all available means, including but not limited to consultations with K-12 language arts students and their parents, teachers, and administrators; multimedia texts including texts for the general public as well as for the profession; face-to-face presentations to conferences and to the larger community.

•Linking our efforts for basic writing to social justice concerns for historically disenfranchised communities who stand to gain significant economic and social capital from enrolling in higher education and in basic writing courses.


1. See McAlexander and Greene for histories of selected basic writing programs across the United States.

2. I am grateful to the members of the Executive Board of the Conference on Basic Writing whose hard work and thoughtful comments helped shape revisions of this initiative.  The inspiration is theirs, while the opinions and recommendations detailed above are solely my own.  The Executive Board has not approved this initiative and looks forward to commentary and discussion by the basic writing community online and at CCCC 2009 in San Francisco before adopting any final resolutions.

3. See Adler-Kassner’s groundbreaking work on activism and writing program administration for suggestions on ways for professionals in rhetoric and composition to create social change.

4. I am grateful to Deborah Sanchez of the University of Cincinnati whose smart and careful research drew my attention to this resolution. The complete resolution may be found at

Works Cited

Adler-Kassner, Linda. The Activist WPA: Changing Stories about Writing and Writers. Logan, Utah: University of Utah Press, 2008.

Attewell, Paul A., David Lavin, Thurston Domina, and Tania Levey.  Passing the Torch:Does Higher Education for the Disadvantaged Pay Off Across the Generations? New York: The Russell Sage Foundation, 2007.

McAlexander, Patricia J. and Nicole Pepinster Greene (Eds.). Basic Writing in America: The History of Nine College Programs, Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2008.

National Council of Teachers of English. “On Support for Motivated but Inadequately Prepared College Students.”Resolution on Support for Motivated but Inadequately Prepared College Students.1974. Accessed 5 January 2009. 

Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors and Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Sternglass, Marilyn.  Time to Know Them: A Longitudinal Study of Writing and Learning at the College Level.  Mahwah, New Jersey: Laurence Erlbaum Associates, 1997.