Basic Writing e-Journal

Volume 4        Number 1        Spring 2002
                                                                                                                   (Published February 25, 2002)

Co-editors: Linda Adler-Kassner and Gregory R. Glau

Basic Writing e-Journal

Table of contents

Editors' Page

Stephen Newton
William Paterson University
Teaching, Listening, and the Sound of Guns

Gerri McNenny
California State University, Fullerton
Collaborations between Basic Writing Professionals and High School Instructors:
The Shape of Things to Come


 Book Review Section 

Review of Mainstreaming Basic Writers
by Gerri McNenny (Ed.)
Reviewed by Kathleen Dixon

Review of Rhetoric for a Multicultural America
by Robert Cullen
Reviewed by Diane Penrod

Review of Border Talk: Writing and Knowing in the Two-Year College
by Howard B. Tinberg
Reviewed by Cathy Freeze

Review of Landmark Essays on Basic Writing
By Kay Halasek and Nels P. Highberg (Ed.)
Reviewed by Clyde Moneyhun

Basic Writing e-Journal

Editors' Page

        As this will be our last issue as editors of BWe: Basic Writing e-Journal, we want to look back and reflect a little on our past few years as Co-Chairs of the Conference on Basic Writing.

        First, we want to thank all of you who contributed to the journal--members of the Editorial Board reviewed and made suggestions on submitted essays; the authors who constructed those essays for us; and those of you who reviewed texts for the journal.  Many of you served in several "capacities," and we owe you our special thanks.

· Anne Aronson
· Kathleen Baca
· H. Eric Branscomb
· Patrick Bruch 
· Terence Collins
· Mary Kay Crouch
· Sharon Crowley
· Mary P. Deming
· Kathleen Dixon
· Marcia Dickson 
· Chitralekha Duttagupta
· Sallyanne Fitzgerald
· Roger Gillis
· Kohl M. Glau
· Peter Goggin 
· Laura Gray-Rosendale
· Susanmarie Harrington
· Billie J. Jones 
· William B. Lalicker
· Raymona Leonard
· Patricia Licklider 
· Susan Loudermilk 
· Gerri McNenny
· Alan Meyers
· Camille Newton
· Kimme Nuckles 
· George Otte 
· John Ramage
· Thomas Reynolds
· Marcia Ribble
· Dan J. Royer
· Mary Segall 
· Peter G. Shea 
· Geoffrey Sirc
· Rachelle M. Smith 
· Mary Soliday
· Marilyn S. Sternglass 
· Gail Stygall
· Sharon Thomas
· Alice L. Trupe 
· Stephanie Vanderslice 
· Cynthia Walker
· Mark Wiley
· Kathleen Blake Yancey 

        Linda and Greg thank each one of you-the journal wouldn't exist without your hard work.

        Second, we're also pleased to announce that Bedford/St. Martin's has just published The Bedford Bibliography for Teachers of Basic Writing.  Many of those listed above helped with this project, and we hope the profession finds this book useful.  We owe a great debt of thanks to Nancy Perry, Gregory Johnson, and all the folks at Bedford/St. Martin's Press for supporting this project.  Contributors will be receiving their free copy in the next few weeks (copies also will be available at CCCC, and from your local Bedford/St. Martin's sales representative).

        You can view the book's Website at
        Third, thanks to Bedford/St. Martin's funding of the Bedford Bibliography for Teachers of Basic Writing, we have been able to "finance" a fellowship, to help a scholar attend the all-day basic writing workshop at CCCC, and to attend the conference itself.  This $500 fellowship was highly competitive, and we want to congratulate Shannon Carter, of Texas A&M at Commerce, for winning the CBW 2002 Fellowship.

        Fourth, we want to thank all of those who have presented at the all-day basic writing workshops for the past several years.  Those who've attended these workshops continue to tell us how useful they are, and we're especially grateful to those of you who've made them so valuable by presenting your ideas:

· Linda Adler-Kassner
· Bonne August
· Bruce Ballenger
· Terence Collins
· Mary Deming 
· Todd DeStigter
· Marcia Dickson
· Steve Fishman
· Cathy Fleischer 
· Roger Gilles
· Sugie Goen
· Eli Goldblatt
· Michael Kuhne
· Jane Leach-Rudawski
· Lucille McCarthy
· George Otte
· Patricia Porter
· Duane Roen
· Dan Royer
· Marilyn Sternglass
· Deborah Swanson
· Andrea Swenson
· Linda Tetzlaff
· Deborah van Dommelen
· Mike Williamson
· Kathleen Blake Yancey

       Fifth, as many of you know, we now have the archives of the newsletters of the Conference on Basic Writing on the Web.  You can access them at
        This important resource will be of use to anyone interested in the history and development of basic writing, and we owe a great debt of thanks to Karen Uehling for compiling all of this information, and for making it available for us to publish.

        Finally, taking over for Linda and Greg will be Tom Reynolds and Bill Lalicker-many thanks to Tom and Bill for accepting the role of CBW Co-Chairs! 

       - Linda Adler-Kassner
       - Greg Glau

Basic Writing e-Journal

Stephen Newton
William Paterson University

Teaching, Listening, and the Sound of Guns

"That is why the sadness passes: the new presence inside us, the presence that has been added, has entered our heart, has gone into its innermost chamber and is no longer even there-is already in our bloodstream. And we don't know what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing happened, and yet we have changed, as a house that a guest has entered changes. We can't say who has come, perhaps we will never know, but many signs indicate that the future enters us in this way in order to be transformed in us, long before it happens. "
         Rainer Maria Rilke 
         Letters to a Young Poet
        Translated by Stephen Mitchell 

        In 1992 I moved from upstate New York to Manhattan to take a job teaching English at an urban university.  The school where I taught was located just across the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan, one of several colleges located in close proximity to each other in an area called Downtown Brooklyn.  About half of the matriculating students placed into the school's intense two-semester developmental reading and writing program.  It was a six-credit course, with four additional hours set aside for writing workshop in the first term and two workshop hours in the second.  The developmental students were in class, then, for a total of ten hours a week the first semester and eight hours a week in the second term.  They spent a great deal of time with each other and with the teacher, more sustained contact with the same group of people than they had in any of their other academic contexts.  This time spent together was a factor that tended to magnify, and thus hopefully clarify, some controversial classroom issues that I think are centrally important in our understanding of contemporary higher education.

        In my first semester teaching in the developmental program we read Alice Walker's The Color Purple,  Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club,  Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, and selections of essays from Emerging Voices, a multicultural reader.  With the exception of John, a working class Italian kid from Brooklyn who was, as he put it, often mistaken for Puerto Rican or Dominican because of his hip-hop clothing and hairstyle, I was the only white person in the room.  I mention this only because to pretend that it didn't matter, and to then assume a pose of disinterested color-blindness, would dishonor the complexities and very real tensions in the class dynamics, relationships which I believe need to be closely examined in order to even approach any kind of balanced understanding of the semester.

        At one point in the term there was an odd convergence of events that, in retrospect, seem to have been especially portentous.  There is, of course, a danger in according undue significance to similarities in otherwise unrelated phenomena, and I certainly don't want to sound like a crank, but a few random things happened over the course of a couple of weeks which seemed oddly related.  It probably happens a lot in New York City, and maybe one can find connections every day if one looks hard enough, but there was an almost eerie serendipitous cast to these events, a sense, however farfetched, that a morality play was being enacted here, and furthermore that it was happening for a reason.

        A few weeks into the term, a man shot a couple of muggers who were trying to rob him on the 6 Train, the subway line that I rode to school every day.  The daily papers played up the similarities to the Bernard Goetz case, the famous subway vigilante from the Eighties, but there were important differences.  The more recent victim who fired his gun defending himself, for example, was black, and Goetz was white. The recent assailants-it turns out that in both cases the criminals were African American-were not wounded as seriously as in the earlier case.  The story lacked some of the sensationalist appeal to racially bifurcated politics that the Goetz drama had, but it did still strike a vengeful, retributive chord with the straphangers in the city, people who necessarily are forever on the lookout for marauding thugs.  Since I rode the very train where the shootings took place twice a day, I could have easily been on that car.  Someone else was.

        That same week a Brooklyn elementary school principal walked over to some housing projects not far from where I was teaching.  He was apparently looking for a student who had left school after some sort of crisis.  By all accounts this man was an exemplary teacher and administrator, the kind of compassionate professional who brought out the best in the students at his school.  A student with a problem had gone home upset.  The big-hearted principal walked over to the projects to talk to the child and perhaps with a parent.  He was caught in a drug dealer crossfire and shot dead as he walked through the courtyards of the high-rise project.

        I had only been living in New York for a few months at this point.  When I took the job in Brooklyn a wag I knew quipped that the only good thing I ever said about New York City was that it was 160 miles away from Albany, my home at the time.  It suddenly seemed that the city was a much more violent place than even I had estimated it was, that I had somehow severely misread how pervasive the threat of violence was.  I didn't consider myself especially naive, but suddenly I felt a lot less worldly, more innocent, than I had in years.

        This same week an apparently psychotic vagrant on the subway in Brooklyn also threatened me, in a very clear and frightening way.  After a tense ride through the tunnel under the East River this lunatic got off the train, pausing to scream in my face, inches away, with profane imprecations and vicious threats.  This was the same station where, the next day, I read in the paper that a transit policeman had killed a homeless man.  The dead man had attacked an officer, swinging a board with a spike in it.  The policeman shot in self-defense. I couldn't prove that it was the same guy who had threatened me without going to the morgue, and I'm not sure that it really matters, but it could easily have been.  I believe that it was. 

        All of these events-the subway shooting, the principal's murder, the death of the psychotic homeless man-happened within a week of each other, and as I was at this point reasonably new to the city I still found them upsetting.  I probably still would today-that is the hope, certainly-but I must admit I have grown some hard bark on me since then.  It happens almost inevitably, I think, when one lives in an urban environment like this.  It's hard to say whether, in fact, this is by definition a bad thing.  I adjusted to some tough situations the best way that I could.

        I brought these issues up in the developmental English class one day.  I told the students that the city was getting to me, and asked them what they thought.  Was I reacting like some stump-jumper who has just fallen off the turnip truck, some callow naif from the provinces who is shocked, just shocked, to find out that there is gambling and drugs and prostitution and violence in New York City?  It quickly became clear that, at least in the eyes of my students, I was.

        In the course of the discussion a couple of the students said that they heard gunfire on their street almost every night.  The events that I was describing were not shocking  to these big-city people in the least.  Finally I asked the class "How many of you hear gun shots in your neighborhood on a regular basis?"  The entire group raised their hands. They said that sometimes it's gangsters shooting at each other on the street, and other times it's the drug dealers shooting off their nine millimeters when the sun goes down, just to let everyone know that they have taken the block.  Sometimes it's just kids blowing off steam by firing a few rounds into the air.  Whatever the reason, in the neighborhoods where these students lived, in East New York, Bedford Stuyvesant, Brownsville, Bushwick, Flatbush, Williamsburg, Crown Heights, or Red Hook, from one side of the Borough of Churches to the other, the reality was that they all heard the reports of gunshots nearly every night. 

        This was just unbelievable.  I was of course stunned, dismayed, upset, and confused, but I must say that I was also more than a little perplexed as to how best handle this classroom situation.  Basically we talked about the details-what the different guns sounded like, how the drug dealers acted, how some students thought it was safer to hang with the gangsters and others thought it was better to stay away, how one acts at a Saturday night party in Brooklyn where it is clear that there are many people in the house packing substantial armaments.  Do you keep track of available exits?  Align yourself with the most dangerous people for protection, or stay the hell away from them because they are likely to cause trouble?  Keep your antennae up, so you will be sensitized to signs of impending danger?  All of the students, even the ones I thought were rather mild mannered, had developed some compensatory strategies for dealing with firearms and the ever-present threat of violence.  This was not something we had talked about in graduate school.

        Later one of my students would write in her journal "When we told Professor Newton that we heard gunfire every day he looked at us like we were aliens from another planet.  I wonder what he'd think of the .357 in my purse."  This student knew, of course, that I would be reading the journal.  I didn't respond to that entry. I didn't want to know, for sure, that these students were packing heavy metal in class.  We had security guards at school but no metal detectors, and I still went to work every day hoping against hope that we didn't need them. 

        Later that same semester I asked the students to write a paper about a turning point in their lives.  We had been reading novels which had important, emotional, life-changing events happen to various characters.  My attitude at the time was that this was a rather nondescript yet worthwhile paper, accessible yet generative, and in fact I had routinely assigned this very topic at another school where I had previously taught.  The students at the other school, however, were predominately white, middle-class students from Long Island, the scions of comparative wealth and privilege, spawned from towns where lawns go on forever and summer house-share arrangements on Fire Island or in the Hamptons are matters of brow-furrowing, serious concern, worthy of endless interviews and discussions.  These kids didn't hear guns on their streets, and the turning points in their lives were very different than the ones that the students in my developmental class wrote about.

        Maybe I should have known better than to give this assignment the way that I did to this class, but I didn't do it cavalierly.  I told my developmental students that I did not want them to write about any subject which they would be uncomfortable having me, or the class, read.  This was not an attempt by me to draw out confessional writing, one of those classes where the teacher asks the students to write about the most embarrassing thing they have ever done which they have never told anybody about.  That actually was the first assignment in a creative writing class at a community college I attended, and upon receiving it I dropped the class immediately. 

        There can be some good, perhaps, in eliciting such writing in classes which fulfill English major requirements for upper-level electives, or in graduate courses, but in a compulsory developmental class, at what is essentially an open enrollment urban university, there are serious ethical concerns with this kind of request.  The developmental students don't have a choice as to whether or not they can take the class. As a result required writing assignments can easily become a kind of coercion which exists primarily to confirm the ideological preoccupations of the teacher.  These students are frequently carrying around a world of hurt, barely holding things together, juggling child care and abusive men and crime-ridden streets and work and studying and homemaking, sleep-deprived and stressed, getting through one day at a time.  The last thing they need is to serve as cannon-fodder in academic social engineering experiments.
It stands to reason that teachers on this level need to be very careful, then, about pushing or prompting people to reveal an authentic self hiding behind the mask they present to the world, to really dig down deep into their most private repressions and anxieties.  People build up defenses for good reasons, especially when their daily lives are so hard, so full of risk and pain and despair.  The classroom practices of many teachers would seem to indicate that they either have not thought this through or they have thought about it and they still think that they know what is best for students-prodding them into revealing hidden trauma.  Surely we can't just strip away people's deeply held views, regardless of pedagogical imperatives-usually the rhetoric of teaching as social action-thinking students will survive.  They might not.

        Writing in school does not have to be about pain.  If we really want to make the case that it does, then I believe we also have to acknowledge that writing teachers should have advanced degrees in psychotherapy and counseling to deal with the trauma that they uncover.  Anything else is reckless.  Students are frequently far more unhappy than we want to give them credit for, and we need to be very careful not to hurt them.  I believe that educators need to respect, rather than tear down, students' hard-won defenses.  This teaching is also site-specific, of course-different student populations would have very different needs.  My response might very well be to push harder to get the suburban students at my former school to think about issues they had not seriously considered, lives they had not encountered, and to challenge what is frequently an infuriatingly complacent sense of entitlement. 

         It can also be extraordinarily difficult to know what is really going on with the students in our classes.  We meet 18-22 students in September and spend 3-6 hours a week with them and yet many times we presume to know them, or somehow we claim that we do to the students, who know better than anybody that we do not know them, of course.  Oddly both parties in the charade are acutely aware of this fact, yet for many teachers a kind of imperial exercise of teacherly power allows them to somehow con themselves into believing that they actually know who their students are, rather than knowing a persona that the student has created in order to be successful in school.  Students play along largely because they have to.  A grade depends upon it.  There are times, however, when through personal writing or class discussion it seems pretty clear that students are expressing some kind of raw emotional truth.  Without a polygraph it is impossible to know to what degree the students were performing for the teacher's benefit, but unfortunately tears can be a good indication, although obviously not an infallible one, and certainly not a desirable outcome.

        In retrospect it seems hopelessly naïve to think that this would not have been the reaction given the assignment, but I didn't think that asking the class to write about a turning point was going to be an invasive kind of exercise.  I really didn't see how it was going to be even close, largely because the students at the other school had written fairly, though not universally, innocuous papers in response to this assignment.  They usually described a book they had read, a first date, going away to camp, maybe a death in the family.

        The students in this developmental class, however, wrote very different kinds of papers.  These were not accounts of the first time Dad handed over the keys to the family station wagon.  Too often, I fear, we look at multi-cultural classrooms and romanticize what we perceive as exotic students, without recognizing the dark situations that brought many of them to America.  These students wrote accounts of sexual abuse, crushing poverty, years of neglect, institutionalized violence, and long grim stories of war, piracy, displaced person camps and pervasive hunger. Be careful what you ask people to write about.  They might tell the truth.

        One student described her life before she came to the U.S. She had been conscripted into the Army in her home country in South America and became part of the death squads serving the ruling oligarchy, until she deserted, escaping through the jungle and making her way to America with the help of an international network of freedom supporting people.  She was a mother of several grown children, and was raising the children of her sister, who had recently died of AIDS.  Her husband was too ill to work, so she worked nights at a local hospital and went to school during the day, pursuing her nursing degree. 

        Even though I had expressly stated that I didn't want students writing about things that were too painful to share, this student insisted on doing so, and in addition, after she had written against the grain, resisting the clearly stated, explicit instructions, she vented her anger at me, in class, for making her relive these painful experiences.  She tearfully excoriated me for forcing her to bring up her traumatic past, and nothing I said, even pointing out the caveats I had given the class in writing, did any good.

        It turned out that the students were reading between my lines, and they didn't believe the literal truth of my words. I don't think they even remotely considered the possibility.  They thought that even though I was telling them not to write about events too personal to share, what I meant was the opposite, and I really wanted them to write about these kinds of things.  They thought that I was just saying that I didn't want them to do so as a way of keeping up appearances.  For these students, school was a constant process of interpreting mysterious codes, deciphering runes, searching for a Rosetta stone that would let them unlock the secrets of the academy.  They assumed as a matter of course that my intention was something other than what I was saying.  How could it be otherwise? 

        We talked in class about what was going on here, and tried to figure out how the lines of communication had gotten so snarled.  I had no idea we were tied up in such complex knots of signification, a hall of mirrors of indirection and guesswork.  They told me that they had learned that the police were corrupt drug dealers, a centurion class of brutal, racist criminals that ran wild in the city.  Recent revelations of widespread police corruption had not quite confirmed this radical an indictment, although they came close, but they had made it clear how students could come to believe that the world is constructed as a rigged game.  Everywhere the students turned, it seemed, there was more confirmation. The church is full of pederast priests; just watch the news.  As for the government, forget about it.  They are the ones who invented AIDS in a CIA lab and sent it to the inner cities along with the drugs that they import.  How could the drugs and disease be here if the government didn't want them here?

        The litany of organized malevolence behind the illusion of innocence went on and on.  I found myself caught unawares, not realizing that as a result of deep habituation into this kind of thinking my students were constantly reading me, and doing so through the same hermeneutic of suspicion they used to read the rest of the world.  I had underestimated the amount of trauma they had in their lives in the same way that I had underestimated the amount of gunfire that they heard on a regular basis.  The every day conditions of these students lives were tough, but their histories were even harsher, if that was possible.

        I had also devalued the degree to which these students had not yet learned the acceptable boundaries of the self within the world of the classroom.  They didn't know they could say, "This area of my life is private and you can't come in here.  You are not welcome here, Professor."  The weight of institutional authority had superseded the reservations they had about revealing the intimate details of their lives in essays assigned for their English class.  They were new to college, and they were somewhat intimidated, so they did what they thought they were being told to do, in spite of their reservations.  I didn't realize this at the time.

        Too often students assumed that because I wasn't telling them the truth-they thought that people in power never did, and I was, after all, a white man, by definition suspect-that the truth was available only by inference, by piecing together clues, and would not be forthcoming as a result of a good faith encounter where well-intentioned people sat down and talked things over.  These students then gave away too much information as a way to compensate for the fact that they were unsure of what was being asked of them-even though I thought I was being extraordinarily clear about the assignment.  It turns out that I was wrong.  I was not giving instructions to the class which were anywhere near as clear as I thought they were, and, as a result, the students allowed their own pain to push through, in spite of their own reservations.

        It was a deeply troubling thing for me to be a part of, to realize the degree to which a complicated series of social situations and recent, and not so recent, history-race riots, drugs, crime, HIV, the constant specter of racism-had conspired to twist my interactions with students, or students with me, to the point where I said one thing, and they absolutely heard another.  The writing they did on this particular assignment, it must be said, was the best they did that semester, primarily, I believe, because of the degree to which they were invested in the subject matter.  It was passionate, vivid, and alive, but there was just too much pain for all of us to deal with. 

        There were other students who shut down and really didn't engage this assignment in any serious way at all.  Rather than giving themselves over to what they thought the teacher wanted, they resisted in another way and put up a bored, disinterested facade.  Their assessment of my designs was, I believe, every bit as skewed as their classmates, but these students chose to compensate by pulling back.  They certainly had, I would argue, every right not to bare their souls.  The problem was that they really didn't produce much of anything at all the semester, and they were so sullen that it was difficult to know just why they were as cut off as they were.  It could have been for any number of reasons.  There were a couple of students who were much more in the moderate range, more like those from the other school, but by far the majority of the students in the class were writing against the instructions, telling powerful stories in spite of themselves.

        At the very least they were heard, and there is something to be said for that alone, I suppose.  I know that many teachers use this as the rationale that legitimizes or excuses requiring students to write confessional pieces.  I wonder, however, about the cost.  How in the world am I to ever really know just what that death squad story took out of this student?  I think she must have, on some level, needed to write it down, and I want to think that it did her some good, but who knows? It certainly was an occasion to talk about her writing, but even there it was a discussion refracted by tears. 

        I have seen too many other examples of teachers consciously eliciting painful writing from students who live on the margins, from people who lead difficult, dangerous, painful lives. I once saw a young Haitian man break down in front of an auditorium full of New York City college English teachers as he was reading a prize-winning essay.  His teacher had to come out from the wings onto the stage and read the remainder of the piece.  The part the young man couldn't read, the section where he started sobbing, described, very powerfully, how his little sister's belly had been distended after his family first moved to New York City because they couldn't afford enough to eat.  It was strong writing, but there was something unsavory, tawdry, voyeuristic-even parasitic-about the academics in the audience watching this tearful display, as if the tears were a measure of the writing's success. 

        I loathe the distance we put between ourselves and our crying students, but I fear the counterfeit, pandering embrace even more. Until we really get to know our students, and get to know them not as the proletariat, as workers suffering from false consciousness, but as discreet people, as complicated individuals with complex histories deserving of respectful attention, we run the very real danger, indeed likelihood, of objectifying them, and by so doing dehumanizing the very people we are claiming to serve.  Many critical or radical teachers, for example, go into the classroom with the idea that they are going to work to raise the consciousness of naive students, people who they believe have had provincial working class backgrounds, or sheltered, one-dimensional elitist upbringings and who, as a result of the challenges posed by the critical educator, will learn to read and write with a newly acute critical consciousness, an awareness that historicizes, problematizes, and synthesizes in an ongoing dialectical, dynamic relationship with the word and the world . Yadda yadda yadda.

        I have found that much of the time the real risk-the actual danger-is naive teachers underestimating the degree to which students are already engaged in interrogating received notions of power relationships and hidden agendas, and who, in fact, are already living in a world where everything is called into question.  Clearly this varies from campus to campus, but that only magnifies the fact that teachers-critical, radical, liberal, centrist, libertarian or, God forbid, even conservative-need to find out precisely who are they working with, who their students really are. This is, of course, a difficult task, especially given the limited time constraints of a semester and teaching assignments which place most of us under unrealistic workloads.  But we need to be, at the very least, extraordinarily careful about assuming that we know best, especially when it comes to asking people to write personal narratives and to then question, indeed dismantle, the closely held epistemological and ontological assumptions that hold their worldview together.  If we are going to unravel these threads in the fabric of our students' lives, while we go home to the peaceful security of brownstone or subdivision or high-rise, we need to be very conscious of the ethical risks we are taking.  When we ask students to pull down the walls they have carefully constructed to protect themselves we'd better be damn sure we know what to do with the raw emotional power that is elicited when the walls come tumbling down.  It shouldn't need to be said that our students are all complicated individuals, not just role-players fulfilling the imperatives of the cycles of historical materialism, benighted proles victimized by the machinations of a debased consumer culture which coopts their participation in perpetuating cycles of oppression.  No, it shouldn't need to be said, but it does need to be, and it needs to be repeated, over and over, like a mantra. 

Basic Writing e-Journal

Gerri McNenny
California State University, Fullerton

Collaborations between Basic Writing Professionals and High School Instructors:The Shape of Things to Come

      Aligning instruction at the high school level with entry-level college writing has captured the attention of state legislatures and university administrators in many states. As state legislatures and public universities move to bridge the gap between the statewide standards and the reality of students' preparation for college level writing, more collaborations between high schools and public universities will emerge. Evidence of a growing network of collaborations between universities and high schools has been plentiful of late. In New York City, legislators there earmarked funds for university/high school collaborations in the summer of 1998. From that a flourishing collaboration between CUNY and area high schools generated a highly successful program for the professional development of high school instructors led by high school mentor teachers in collaboration with CUNY faculty (Otte). In Virginia, a FIPSE-funded effort "to align writing instruction from high school to college to improve the entry level writing skills of high school graduates enrolling in college composition coursework" (Jennings 2001) has been underway since 1998. In collaboration with Salem High School and the City of Virginia Beach Public Schools, Tidewater Community College, under the leadership of Chris Jennings, has worked to develop and disseminate effective professional development for high school teachers in collaboration with writing specialists from post-secondary institutions (Jennings 2001). In fact, with the proliferation of state standards mandated under Goals 2000 (U.S. Dept. of Education), numerous state legislatures have allocated funding to address the alignment of students' writing competence at the high school exit-level to match college entry-level requirements, all in an effort to pre-empt the need for remediation at the college level. 

       Increased collaborations between universities and high schools were also apparent at the annual Conference on College Composition and Communication for 2001, with papers on that topic presented by composition specialists from Texas (Brown; Weaver; Gillis-Barnhill; Smith), New York (Gallagher; Gray; Rubenstein, Westacott), North Carolina (Brannon), Pennsylvania (Seitz; Lund), Maryland (Joseph; Kramer; Cummings), Iowa (Fischer; Brimeyer; Koch), Massachusetts (Doyle; Angell; Tabakow; Crawford), New Jersey (Stull), South Carolina (Burdette), California (Crouch; McNenny; Warriner; Rovasi; ), Illinois (Lamonica), Kansas (Binns; Smith, Rachelle; Richardson; Miller), and Arizona (Jones). With the emphasis on assessment so keenly focused at the high school level, the shift to an alignment of exit criteria for high school writing competence with college-level writing expectations clearly plays into the cost-cutting advantages that reduced remediation would mean for public universities, an issue that has been on the agenda of numerous legislatures for some years now (McNenny; Crouch and McNenny). 

       Within these emerging relationships, many see Rhetoric and Composition specialists, and Basic Writing professionals in particular, as the appropriate experts to come to for advice and instruction on how to address the need, both in high school teachers' professional development in writing instruction and in initiating a dialogue that builds understanding on how to bridge the gap between high school writing competence and college-level expectations.  At the same time, those of us who teach in and administer Basic Writing programs have much to gain from a better understanding of our high school colleagues' work. High school teachers spend far more time with our future students, sometimes teaching them at different levels in their high school years, and we can learn a great deal from them in sharing our observations and insights into these students as learners. What I present here is one model of working with high school colleagues that acknowledges the many ways in which we can learn from and share with one another in creating productive collaborations that eventually lead to a greater understanding of the possibilities and demands of each context for the teaching of writing. 

High School/University Collaborations within the CSU

       Equally anxious to address the disparity in writing competence between high school exit criteria and college-level expectations, the California State University (CSU) system, with funding from the California legislature, initiated a three-year program to build collaborative partnerships between high school instructors and university writing faculty funded by a yearly $9 million grant to be renewed as needed. In the call for proposals, the CSU Chancellor's Office invited each of the 23 CSU campuses to submit plans for conducting collaborations with regional high schools to improve students' writing and math proficiency and thereby reduce the need for remediation for the CSU system (Spence). In the instructions given to applicants of the grant proposal, the assessment of the success of the CSU/High School Collaborative Initiative in "preparing students for college" is directly tied to students' success on the English Placement Test (EPT), a 90-minute exam equally divided into a timed essay component and a reading comprehension and composing skills multiple-choice section. Moreover, in the evaluation component of the grant, CSU administration officials state, "Growth in writing skills will be measured using services of the CSU/Diagnostic Writing Service," an online counterpart of the English Placement Test that duplicates the conditions of the timed writing portion of the EPT, giving students 45 minutes to write a complete essay on a previously unknown topic. 

       Even more indicative of the pedagogical philosophy driving the funding of high school/university collaborations within the CSU is the assessment component of the grant.  The conditions of the CSU/High School Collaborative Grant state that the evaluation of growth in improving writing competence for teachers will be as follows: 

Assessed by a combination of questionnaire and interview, all teachers who attend the "College Preparatory Institute" colloquium will complete a questionnaire focused on teachers' familiarity with the CSU/Diagnostic Writing Service. One or two teachers from each school will be randomly selected for follow-up, in-depth interviews about the teachers' curricular decision-making. At the end of the school year, the participating teachers will complete a second questionnaire focused on the extent to which they will use the CSU/DWS in the future and what they learned from the EPT workshop. (Grant Proposal 5)
What is most striking in the layout of the grant, in the instructions that each CSU campus was given, is the underlying belief that enriching the high school language arts environment and supporting teachers in the teaching of writing translates into the assessment provided by the use of a single timed impromptu writing sample and the instructors' understanding of the demands of that instrument of assessment. 

       The controversy behind timed writing exams as accurate measures of writing competence has been brewing for quite some time. As far back as 1977, when holistic evaluation of timed writing was being lauded as a hopeful alternative to multiple-choice grammar recognition tests as a means of measuring writing competence, Mina Shaughnessy criticized timed writing exams as inadequate to the task of demonstrating students' writing fluency, primarily because of the undue stress placed on writers in a timed writing situation (82). Barbara Gleason in her critique of the Writing Assessment Test (WAT) later revisited timed writing at the same institution, CUNY. In her case studies of second-language learners and their repeated attempts to pass the WAT, Gleason documents the ways in which highly literate professionals with advanced degrees from other countries were prevented from participating in CUNY's undergraduate programs because of their inability to pass the timed writing test, based largely on surface errors in their writing. Gleason and others, notably Marilyn Sternglass in her longitudinal study of basic writers in her book Time to Know Them, point to the many factors that influence timed writing,  including order of acquisition errors, such as the incorrect use of idiomatic expressions and collocatives, two-word verb forms, that often take non-native speakers several years to acquire. Perhaps the most persuasive argument comes from the Conference on College Composition and Communication's Committee on Assessment. In their position statement on assessment, the committee notes that only through an examination of several writing samples written for different rhetorical purposes and to different audiences by multiple readers can a reliable assessment of writing competence be conducted ("Writing Assessment"). 

       Still, due to economic and time constraints, timed writing remains one of the key measures of writing competence for college-level placement, despite the scholarship that clearly shows the inequity of an assessment system that places specific groups at a clear disadvantage. Research studies conducted by Eleanor Agnew and Margaret McLaughlin on the impact of high stakes timed writing assessment on speakers of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), for instance, show a high incidence of failure for this group. Their study of students failing the timed writing exit exam for entry into first-year English showed a host of factors contributing to flawed assessment, including poorly trained evaluators, bias against AAVE, and a grading rubric whose grammatical correctness measures were unevenly applied to AAVE papers, all of which resulted in an extremely low rate of inter-rater reliability. Taken all together, there is a growing body of research that contests the validity of timed writing as a valid measure of writing competence, especially for high stakes purposes such as college placement. 

Choosing a Model for Collaboration

       Given the parameters of a grant in which every measure of success is tied to the results of a problematic placement instrument, in a situation in which a top-down relationship has traditionally existed between universities and high schools, those of us involved in the grant at our university decided to do our best to work around these conditions. As university faculty members, we were charged with designing a model for collaboration with local high schools to help align high school students' writing competence with college-level expectations. As composition and rhetoric professionals, we knew that drills in timed writing and workshops on time management would have a limited impact on students' writing. We also knew that some of the most dramatic results in helping second language students do well in timed writing came from programs like the "book flood" program at CUNY (Elley and Mangubhai; Elley), in which students read and responded to large numbers of high-interest literature. The results of this intensive reading and writing program, combined with Sustained Silent Reading and the Shared Book Experience (Holdaway), in which students engage not only in reading but in discussions and related activities, demonstrated the effectiveness of a literacy immersion program for second-language speakers. In addition to gains in oral and written language and vocabulary, students in the book flood programs exceeded their peers on almost all standardized measures of reading. In a similar program, "Fluency First: Reversing the Traditional ESL Sequence" and "Fluency Before Correctness: A Whole Language Experiment in College ESL," Adele MacGowan-Gilhooly studied the impact of having students read 1,000 pages of popular fiction, autobiographical, and biographical works. Students then recorded their impressions in double-entry journals, in which they copied passages on one side and recorded their responses on the other. As a result of this literacy immersion approach, MacGowan-Gilhooly reports, students' passing rates on the timed writing test increased from 35 to 56 percent (83). Moreover, students' written and spoken fluency increased, with gains in reading comprehension almost doubled on the reading assessment test (45). 

       With these studies in mind, the university team met with our high school partners to prioritize those issues that we felt were most conducive to overall gains in writing competence and literacy. Implicit here is our belief that any successful collaboration between universities and high schools must involve all parties in the planning from the beginning, recognizing the professional status and expertise of our high school colleagues while at the same time making available to them our own expertise in Composition and Rhetoric. We chose a Freirean model as the basis for our joint efforts that emphasized the high school community's role in problem identification, problem solving, and collective action (Freire). As Denis Goulet points out in his introduction to Paulo Freire's Education for Critical Consciousness, "Paulo Freire's central message is that one can know only to the extent that one 'problematizes' the . . . reality in which s/he is immersed" (ix).  By asking our high school colleagues to identify and propose solutions to the issues surrounding literacy instruction in their schools, we hoped they would, in effect, "become transforming agents" of their own contexts (Goulet ix). We felt strongly that the only way to collaborate with teachers was to ask them to articulate what they knew best:  their students' needs and how to address them. 

       To that end, we collaborated with high school participants in designing a needs assessment questionnaire to identify site-specific issues and solutions to improving and encouraging students' reading and writing. We invited high school teachers who wished to participate in the collaborative project to come to a gathering of all the participating high school instructors to talk about their perceptions of impediments to improving students' writing and literacy and to identify strategies for addressing their needs. We asked high school professionals to identify what they believed would be appropriate roles for university collaborators to play in working with high school instructors. Finally, we built into our program a teacher-researcher component that asked teachers to select and reflect on an innovative practice for teaching writing in their classes for their own research. 

       The first area we set out to address was our own education concerning the professional demands placed on our high school colleagues. For many of us in Basic Writing, the gap between high school writing competence and college-level expectations remains a mystery. High school writing teachers deal with a context that is in many ways unimaginable to us. Among the hurdles they face in their efforts, high school teachers noted class size as the foremost, with 38-40 students per class, with five sections per day, totaling contacts with up to 200 students each day. As a result, teachers have little time to talk individually with students about their writing. Moreover, if a teacher assigns one essay assignment to her classes, that two- to three-page assignment, assuming that each essay can be read and commented on in a fifteen- to twenty-minute period, will take each teacher from fifty to sixty-six hours to grade. This is, of course, in addition to a full week of planning classes and teaching literature, speech, reading, and writing five sections per day. Thus, high school English teachers have significant demands placed on them for work hours outside the classroom. In effect, high school English instructors labor under incredible conditions to inspire students and instruct them in the many faceted Language Arts program that they are charged with under the California Board of Education's Content Standards for the Language Arts. 

       Our high school colleagues are highly trained professionals. All have teaching credentials, and most have had several years experience teaching. They possess an intimate understanding of the curricular demands of Language Arts and the relatively recent content standards that shape the measured outcomes of their work. Statewide mandated standards have a real impact on English teachers, and their work has been significantly complicated by accountability for many forms of literacy instruction. Eleventh and twelfth grade instructors, for instance, are responsible for teaching reading comprehension for informational materials, literary response and analysis, autobiography, biography, narrative accounts, historical investigation reports, resumes, job applications, reflective compositions, public speaking, and the use of technology to produce and deliver multimedia presentations on many of the above. Combining all of these into a coherent curriculum delivered to 40 fifteen-year olds in 50-minute increments requires an intellectual expertise and art that we can only admire. 

The Role of Basic Writing Professionals

       What role then do we as basic writing professionals have to play in working with high school instructors to improve students' writing? First of all, our work has thus far confirmed the wisdom of a Freirean approach to collaboration. A Freirean approach recognizes the autonomy of the teachers in implementing and experimenting with curriculum. Our counterparts in the high schools are dedicated individuals whose perspectives on identifying the needs of their students are informed by years of commitment. As such, we regularly benefit from those sessions in which they share their work, the problems they see posed for them, and the solutions they see as viable. We often come away learning more from our colleagues than we have shared. 

       At the same time, as writing professionals, we are able to take on several roles in our collaborations. As facilitators, we are able to ask questions and act as an audience of peers who listen thoughtfully, share insights when appropriate, and facilitate the codification of the teachers' experiences in the classroom. We can also bridge the gap between experience and scholarship through the use of questions, sample assignments, assessment strategies, alternative grading criteria, and other approaches to teaching writing. As scholars of rhetoric and composition, we can suggest strategies and new approaches, drawing on scholarship and research that our high school colleagues may not be aware of. As college writing instructors, we share with them and their students insights into university writing expectations, validating the instruction teachers give their students and adding to that with workshops and exercises that ask students to think beyond the short-term goals they may be connected to at the present.  Our liaisons, university writing instructors themselves, have actively enlisted their students in sharing their newfound knowledge of college writing expectations with their high school peers and in corresponding with them, sharing responses to writing assignments. 

       Occasions often arise, however, when a familiarity with the scholarship and research surrounding writing instruction can be of assistance. Some high school instructors have limited preparation in writing instruction. Some may take a single course in writing theory and practice, while others may by-pass professional development in this area, unable to accommodate training due to the already overwhelming demands on their college schedules. And, in fact, that has been our experience. Some, often a very few, have so very little training in writing instruction theory and pedagogy that they find themselves subscribing to some rather truncated models of writing instruction, in which students write essays according to a rigidly defined checklist of sentence types. Applied to all writing situations in the Language Arts curriculum, as some advocate, this method promises to cramp even the most creative student's impulse to write. 

       In response to this situation, we chose to focus on teacher-researcher projects in facilitating professional development among our high school colleagues. Reflection in writing, now so much a part of our pedagogy for individual and programmatic purposes in the use of portfolios (Yancey; Yancey and Weiser), was long ago lauded in earlier breakthroughs, in teacher-researcher projects (Ray; Goswami and Stillman; Myers; Bisplingoff and Allen). Long touted as a means of encouraging dialogue, of enabling reflective, critical practice that in turn empowers teachers to theorize from a position of authority based upon their own classroom research, teacher-researcher projects have reemerged as an important tool for professional development in our collaborations with the high schools. Through the use of teacher-researcher projects, we as writing specialists have been able to acknowledge the expertise of the high school English instructor in defining the context and the needs of each site's students while at the same time offering feedback on effective practices by asking questions and facilitating a dialogue among high school professionals about effective writing instruction practices. 

       In introducing CAPI Project participants to teacher-research, we drew on the work of Glenda Bissex and Richard Bullock, who demystify the process of conducting classroom research. Among other things, they point out,

A teacher-researcher doesn't have to study hundreds of students, establish control groups, and perform complex statistical analyses. A teacher-researcher may not start out with a hypothesis to test, but a "wondering" to pursue. For example, "I wonder how much my students think about their writing outside of class. Vicky mentioned today that she mentally revises compositions on the bus coming to school. What about the others who are not writing on their own topics?" (5)
They also dispel erroneous notions of detachment and distance, noting that the classroom is not the place for the antiseptic study of learning. As they put it, the teacher-researcher "knows that knowledge comes through closeness as well as through distance, through intuition as well as through logic" (6). In our introduction to the teacher-researcher component of the collaboration, we emphasize the in-process aspects of teacher-research, and we encourage the use of journals for quick notes, handing out a specially selected journal to each teacher at the beginning of the semester. We also rely heavily on the transformative influence that teachers sharing their research bring to the project. Every other month we get together with each high school to talk about the research they're conducting. This in turn sets up a dynamic for collaboration among peers, giving each teacher the opportunity to hear what others are doing and to comment on it and give advice. This has been especially helpful with our first-year teachers who receive the benefit of their colleagues' advice without feeling condescended to. This is important too in clarifying the sense of audience for the teacher-research. As Bissex and Bullock point out, "A teacher-researcher writes about what she's discovered; she need not make herself sound like a psychology textbook. Her audience is herself, other teachers, her students, their parents, her principal, maybe even the school board--none of whom is likely to be upset by plain English and a personal style"(7). Fortunately, our enthusiasm for their work is echoed in NCTE journals like Voices from the Middle and English Journal, which actively encourage submissions from teacher-researchers. 

       To give a better sense of the potential uses of teacher research, we provide examples of possible areas of inquiry, and we ask teachers at our symposia to talk about their perceptions of their students' literacy and writing competence. Here are just a few sample lines of inquiry that we suggest:

  • What are some effective strategies for collaboration in writing in a high school setting? What impact, for example, would writing groups have on the quality of student writing over the semester or academic year? What impact does this have on students' attitudes toward writing and on the writing itself? 
  • What are the most effective strategies for handling the paper load in an English class while at the same time improving the quality of student writing and giving students ample opportunities to write? 
  • What impact will the introduction of examples of literary criticism have on students' responses to literature? Will they find it easier to write more expository criticism when they see how others have done so? Or will they be intimidated by the opinions of experts and merely mimic them? 

One teacher actually chose to study the first research project listed above-the impact of writing groups on students' attitudes toward writing and on the quality of writing produced. Her report at the end of the year was impressive and well received by other teachers. She found that students valued the social quality of sharing their writing and as a result became more conscientious about the work they submitted. They came to view writing groups as a way of genuinely sharing what was going on in their lives, and they regretted those times when they weren't able to participate in writing groups because of late work. Their writing improved dramatically, as measured in the portfolios she collected at the end of each semester. The paper load decreased as well, giving her more time to plan effective classes and give better feedback on student writing. 

       Over the semesters, teachers have studied an interesting range of pedagogical issues in their classes. One teacher studied the impact of authentic assessment on student writing. She asked her students to compose a newspaper based on the events that take place in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird. In this project, students used a desktop publishing program to produce a newspaper, with each small group producing their own paper. Columns varied from reports on the trial to feature stories on individuals in the novel. Her reports of students' efforts to revise and edit for publication were glowing. Students were able to exercise their creativity and demonstrate reading comprehension while mastering a multi-media presentation format. 

       Writing projects, of course, do not necessarily entail such dramatic projects. One teacher instead chose to focus on the role of reflection in helping students get a better grasp of those areas where they needed to improve their writing. He systematically incorporated freewriting exercises into the conclusion of each major project, asking students to write about what they had succeeded in doing, what they felt needed more work, and what they learned from the project. His results showed us that students actually enjoyed taking stock of what they had done, and they shared with each other the successes of each project. Student writing, as a result, improved. 

       What was exemplary here was the way in which the expertise of the teachers was celebrated in a forum that spotlighted their roles as experts and encouraged them to expand upon and share that knowledge in an ongoing collaboration with their peers and their university colleagues. This in turn set up a dialogue at each school about ways to effectively address students' reading and writing development from year to year. Throughout the semester, we encouraged teachers to submit proposals to present their work at regional and national conferences. 

       As Basic Writing professionals, we contribute to the conversation by noting areas others have concentrated on in their research that complement what they have done. We present models for the classroom research process, and we share results from the other participating schools when it is otherwise impossible for the teachers themselves to come. Our work with teachers through the teacher-researcher projects has taught us a lot about the reality of writing instruction at the high school. We have noticed, for instance, that pedagogical approaches seed themselves and spread through the sharing done at site meetings and symposia, improved upon through teachers' discussions and applications. At one school one teacher's experimentation with small writing groups led four others, within a semester, to begin testing out for themselves the effectiveness of writing groups in the high school classroom. 

       We notice, too, that teachers tend to shift from lower order concerns, such as punctuation and editing skills, to higher order concerns, including a greater focus on invention and composing strategies and more experimental assignment design that makes use of authentic assessment, say for student-authored newspapers or letters to the editor.  During our first semester of writing projects, seven out of twenty-one teachers focused on grammar and editing skills. One semester later, most of these people had shifted to more globally defined teacher-researcher projects, involving among other things the use of portfolios in increasing student writing and reducing the paper load while still encouraging students' best efforts at writing. 

       The results of teachers' choices for writing instruction research have also revealed those places where questions or alternative solutions to responding to students' needs might come into play. When we see teachers subscribing to instructional practices that rely on teaching a rigidly ordered sequence of sentence types as a means of responding to an assignment (statement, example, elaboration, clarification, statement, example, elaboration, etc.), we can begin to talk about different models for assessment, looking at ways to develop rubrics that measure learning outcomes for particular assignments more holistically, looking at content as well as form. 

       We've learned too, that institutional cultures have their own roles to play and that larger measures may have to be taken to change policy and practice. One school, for instance, had pledged itself to a highly formulaic approach to essay writing in which rigidly ordered sentence types follow each other in absolute order. Many of the teachers found exactly what they needed in this approach. Only an extensive program, such as participation in a regional Writing Project, may work to convince them that such an approach stymies students' interest in writing at the same time that it truncates the writing process. In the final analysis, institutional cultures may determine more effectively what goes on in the classroom than any collaborative influence will. If the Chair of the English Department at one school determines that one approach will be the Bible for that school, then power relations within that school will dictate what takes place, and no amount of collaboration will change that. 

       If the writing projects that high school teachers engage in as part of our collaborations truly stand as invitations for critical inquiry and conversation with university colleagues, then we need to exercise some reciprocity in the sharing that goes on. Whether it be an open invitation to observe our writing classes or our own writing projects disclosed to our high school colleagues in open discussion, we need to make concerted efforts to ensure that the power hierarchies are not unconsciously inscribed in our practices through the Panopticon of one-way disclosure and evaluation (Foucault; Newton and Schendel). Some of the practices that we've instituted to ensure an equitable sense of sharing involve collaborations in presenting our work at conferences, tracking our own teacher research and comparing it to similar projects at the high school level, noting the ways in which the one project, such as the study of writing groups, carries over to the university level with a different set of problems and different dynamics. 

       As we enter into the fifth semester of our collaborations, we are encouraged by the positive gains that teacher-researcher projects and a facilitative approach to collaboration have yielded. Higher numbers of high school students have expressed an interest in attending college as a result of the interactions between the university and the high schools. These same students approach writing more prepared to succeed in various contexts, and they have benefited from collaborations with their first-year peers at the university, exchanging e-mails and inquiries to share their new experiences with high school counterparts. High school instructors have a greater understanding of the timed writing process, having participated in norming and grading sessions of high school students' timed writing. Most importantly, the teacher-researcher projects continue to serve as the basis for sharing effective teaching strategies with colleagues in open-ended sessions in which teachers share the results of their work. 

       As basic writing professionals we can offer high school instructors our insights into engaging writing assignments, helping them to create real world rhetorical situations that engage students in considerations of audience and purpose through the assignment design. We can apply our knowledge of theory and research into grammar instruction and sentence level issues to the considerable challenges high school instructors face with the highly heterogeneous student populations they confront. What we need to be aware of, however, are the power relations that unwittingly define our relationships with our high school colleagues. To break through those barriers to dialogue, we need to rethink the vastly different contexts that exist in high schools and universities, with an understanding of the distinct agendas at each level. Collaborations with high school colleagues can succeed only if we come to them acknowledging the expertise and commitment of our colleagues and offering, when asked for, alternatives and insights into helping high school instructors achieve the ends they themselves define. 

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       Communication Annual Convention, Minneapolis, MN. April 13, 2000. 
Ray, Ruth. The Practice of Theory. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1995. 
Richardson, David Scott. "When the Word is Not Enough: Helping Students Adapt to Academic Discourse." Paper 
       given at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, Denver, Colorado, 17 March 2001. 
Rovasi, Mike. "From Disparity to Parity: Articulation between High Schools and Universities." Paper given at the 
       Conference on College Composition and Communication, Denver, Colorado, 17 March 2001. 
Rubenstein, Leslie. "Forming Productive Alliances." Paper given at the Conference on College Composition and 
       Communication, Denver, Colorado, 15 March 2001. 
Sacks, Peter. Standardized Minds: The High Price of America's Testing Culture and What We Can Do to 
       Change It. Cambridge, Massachusetts; Perseus, 1999.
Seitz, James. "Rethinking the Project: Toward a New Dialogue between Universities and Schools." Paper given 
       at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, Denver, Colorado, 15 March 2001. 
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Shor, Ira. "Our Apartheid: Writing Instruction and Inequality." Journal of Basic Writing 16.1 (1997): 91-104.
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       College Composition and Communication, Denver, Colorado, 14 March 2001. 
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       Perspective." Paper given at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, Denver, Colorado, 
       17 March 2001. 
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       Academic Preparation Initiatives. 3 Sept. 1999.
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       March 2001. 
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 The Third Symposium on Second Language Writing will be held on October 11-12, 2002 at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, USA. This year's Symposium, entitled "Constructing Knowledge: Approaches to Inquiry
 in Second Language Writing," will feature sixteen scholars who will explore various ways in which knowledge is constructed, transformed, disseminated and negotiated in the field of second language writing.

Presenters will include: Dwight Atkinson, Linda Lonon Blanton, Colleen Brice, Christine Pearson Casanave, Dana Ferris, John Flowerdew, Richard Haswell, Sarah Hudelson, Ken Hyland, Xiaoming Li, Rosa Manchon, Paul Kei Matsuda, Susan Parks, Miyuki Sasaki, Tony Silva and Bob Weissberg. 

For more information, please visit:

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Review of Mainstreaming Basic Writers
by Gerri McNenny (Ed.)
Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 2001

Reviewed by Kathleen Dixon

        Mainstreaming Basic Writers: Politics and Pedagogies of Access is both a testament to what has been accomplished in 30 years of teaching and research into college-level "basic," a.k.a., remedial, writing, and a tool for considering what must be done to insure that the knowledge thus earned can continue to be employed in the service of the students who need it.  Reading the book reminds one of the history of basic writing, always a contentious one, and now moving into a time of sharp changes in basic writing programs.  And, for some, attenuation.  Although the loss or reassignment of basic writing programs is due largely to political forces assuming hegemony after the Reagan Revolution, this book captures the profound and even sometimes shrilly-voiced disagreements that have attended basic writing since its coinage by Mina Shaughnessy a generation ago.

        It will be no surprise that the overheated rhetoric issues from Ira Shor, for whom there exists no oppressed group that cannot serve his analogical purposes.  This time, it is American Indians.  Basic writers are "quarantined in a no-credit curricular reservation."  He certainly has a point, taken up also by many other contributors to this volume.  Initial placement and exit exams can capture students in pre-college courses and prevent them from advancing as they ought.  A poignant example of a student caught on a bureaucratic-basic writing treadmill is offered in Eleanor Agnew and Margaret McLaughlin's essay, "Those Crazy Gates and How They Swing:  Tracking the System That Tracks African-American Students."  As is typical of most pieces in this volume, this one takes great care to place its argument within the practices of a particular institution, richly described.  Indeed, "site specificity" (to borrow from another title in the collection) seems almost prescribed in Mainstreaming Basic Writers.  For that reason, it is in fact good to hear from someone taking Shor's position, reminding us of the large historical processes that do impinge greatly upon our own local efforts.  But one finds oneself admiring the many authors of this book whose heroic deeds as teachers and administrators in trying times go unsung.  I would recommend Marti Singer's "Moving the Margins," which records the author's experience of adapting to almost continual  changes in basic writing programs offered at just one institution over a relatively brief span of time.  The majority of essays in this volume support the contention of Terence G. Collins and Kim Lynch that the epithet "basic writing" ought not to be an "imagined singular entity," as it is in Shor's essay and in David Bartholomae's influential "Tidy House" essay (published in the Journal of Basic Writing).  And, one might assume, some versions of BW have served students better than others.

        This book is divided into two parts, the first, roughly, theoretical, the second, practical.  I thought both sections were strong.  In the first, I was particularly struck by Mary Soliday's "Ideologies of Access and the Politics of Agency."  She argues against equating the existence of basic writing programs with the less tangible notion of access to academe, pointing out that the student's material resources as well as institutional factors often have more to do with whether her college career can continue than anything a BW program can do.  From her essay one gets a powerful sense of the New York debate and the betrayal of disadvantaged students by "neoliberals" like James Traub.  Radically different perspectives are offered up in Part I of Mainstreaming, from Ed White's defense of BW and placement exams (in an essay reprinted from JBW) to Shor's condemnation of both, but there is a reigning ideology, one that expresses skepticism towards placement, and therefore, stands in favor of mainstreaming.  The most strongly held and shared belief of Part I is that all writing programs should be formed with sensitivity to local conditions.

        In Part II there is a rather startling application of the latter principle.  In a summative essay, Sallyanne H. Fitzgerald avers that while she herself is "violently opposed" to basic skills laboratories which put "students at a computer with an online textbook to do grammar exercises," nonetheless such a practice may befit a community college setting other than her own, as long as "the mission" is to offer "basic skills."  Fitzgerald is well aware that money and bad policy decisions have created this situation, and that therefore, one must do what one must do, but would it not be better simply to acknowledge that sometimes what is fitting is just plain wrong?  Not every venue invites our voices on these matters, yet scholarly publications like the book under review, do.  And Fitzgerald's voice is vitally needed (and wisely included in this volume).  She brings the best knowledge gathered by a generation of scholars to a site where BW is expanding.  What we may understand from her offering is that while BW is in the process of being redefined, the agents determining the changes may well be those without Fitzgerald's expertise.  Such a situation argues for more of us to take leadership positions ourselves, to negotiate the minting of these policies.  This, I expect, will do us more good than to criticize our colleagues' work in BW as an engagement in "apartheid" (Shor again).

        Mainly, Part II features accounts of mainstreamed classrooms.  Each essay shows a thoughtful teacher at work, applying the considerable knowledge built by compositionists over decades.  Barbara Gleason, who very sensibly opposes "remediation.for adults," teaches a course in amateur ethnography; as many would agree, this is a sound plan.  Rosemary Winslow and Monica Mische teach a cross-discipinary studio course on the topic of hero quests, believing, as they do, that their students' apathy or inertia might be addressed thus.  Mark Wiley writes about BW courses mainstreamed into various types of learning communities, including writing courses linked to so-called content courses.  Trudy Smoke reports on her accumulated knowledge about teaching combined ESL/non-ESL courses.  Each of these is well worth reading.

        I recommend the book to colleagues in composition and BW and all other interested parties (one would hope, administrators and policymakers).  In places the volume could have used more editing for liveliness.  It's not always easy to represent course syllabi, student papers, etc. in dramatic fashion, but especially if we want to reach the larger audience that should be interested, we cannot suppose that pictures of our children will be of universal delight.  But that's the only caveat. 

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Review of Rhetoric for a Multicultural America
by Robert Cullen
New York: Longman, 2000

Reviewed by Diane Penrod

        My skepticism runs deep whenever a new textbook on cultural rhetoric comes across my desk. When the book in question not only addresses cultural rhetoric but also basic writing, my doubt increases toward the content between the front and back covers.  Frequently, authors who write culturally-referenced books designed for emergent college writers reduce the material to such a simplistic state that the end result is usually little more than published sets of discrete skill-building activities combined with short, trite reading passages.  The message sent to students using these books is that they are not "smart" enough yet to grasp the rigors of academic reading and writing needed to truly comprehend the messages sent by cultural rhetoric. Thankfully, such is not the case with Rhetoric for a Multicultural America. Robert Cullen's work is perhaps one of the smartest textbooks available for the developmental writing course. In this textbook, Cullen clearly presents students with the practical consciousness of writing -  writing about the issues our students live with on a daily basis - and how to express and define this consciousness in the classroom.

        At first, what is most striking about Cullen's textbook is his range of  voices not usually heard in composition texts: Patricia Williams, Mike Davis, Nicole Brossard, Cherríe Moraga, Eldredge Cleaver, and Naomi Littlebear are only a few of the writers whose ideas become visible to students.  Cullen then layers these references with aphorisms from Homer, Augustine, Montaigne, Ortega y Gasset, and Wittgenstein, among others. Finally, a teacherly voice enters the discussions through maxims drawn from compositionists like John Schilb, Gesa Kirsch, Cheryl Glenn, and Cheryl Geisler.  The blending of these differing voices reinforces Cullen's early point that multicultural means "to embrace many kinds of diversity in American society" (xii).  In this sense, Cullen's multiculturalism extends beyond the triad of race/gender/sexuality to include various political and intellectual positions.

        Cullen also puts forward a number of theoretical concepts rarely found in developmental writing textbooks. As an invention strategy, he introduces students to Kenneth Burke's pentad (67-79) as a method for multicultural thinking.  Cullen includes a sample from Canadian essayist David Guterson along with an analysis of Guterson's essay to show student writers how Burkean methodologies can be used to construct richer texts.  Likewise, Cullen offers students a brief history of rhetoric in various cultural contexts to illustrate the evolution of rhetoric from the classical period to the present.  When discussing aids to revision, Cullen introduces the idea of schemes and tropes to students using both classical rhetorical terms like isocolon, antithesis, anaphora, asyndeton and polysyndeton, and vernacular forms like signifyin' to offer students ways of adding vitality to their written language (131-141).  The fifth chapter, Authority and Gender in Student Writing, is a timely and needed discussion on language issues related to gender.  Cullen focuses students' attention upon the affect gender has on authoritative writing by drawing upon principles of discourse analysis and écriture féminine.  Cullen's willingness to challenge basic writing students with these ideas not only respects the spectrum of student experiences that exist; it also works to dispel the myth that students in developmental classes are somehow cognitively or educationally deficient.  Moreover, Cullen's grounding of these theories in diverse settings exemplifies for students that writing and rhetoric connect to real social relations rooted in varying circumstances. 

        As much as Cullen's theoretical approaches appeal to contemporary sensibilities, his discussion questions and assignment sections reflect years of classroom experience.  Chapters One through Three, Cullen's "bedrock strategies" sections, have their basis in praxis.  In these early chapters, students are asked to consider wider connotative effects of language and elements of invention through a mix of writing activities.  Throughout the book are various exercises termed "Writing Breaks." "Featured Paper Topic," or "Writing Assignments."  The former being short thinking-writing exercises, the latter two more critical or analytical tasks.  For instance, a Writing Break presses students to consider Burke's pentad in developing a paper in the chapter's Featured Writing Topic or for another course paper (79).  For one Featured Paper Topic in Chapter Five, Cullen asks students to write a personal essay about a person, event, or situation that taught them about gender roles in American society (211).  These exercises complicate the reading by asking the students to connect the material to writing about their lives.  In the second half of Cullen's book, more discussion questions connected to the included readings occur frequently, and the writing assignments lean toward analytical essays that examine rhetorical style and usage.  This is a good way to encourage basic writing students on their way to the types of thinking and writing tasks they will most likely encounter in first-year writing classes.

        Cullen's aim for Rhetoric for a Multicultural America is "to teach effective writing strategies in a decidedly multicultural context, the only sensible and realistic context for an America entering the twenty-first century"(xiii).  However, it may be that Robert Cullen has done more than what he aimed; this is clearly one of the first culturally-based composition textbooks that treats the student as more than an empty vessel.  In addition, in his book, Cullen captures "politics" and "rhetoric" in an enriched sense of the word - social matters, private vs. public use of language, and the notion of interests and agendas as reflected in language.  Instructors who value these concerns will find Rhetoric for a Multicultural America to be a fine choice for their classroom. 

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Review of Border Talk: Writing and Knowing in the Two-Year College
by Howard B. Tinberg
Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1997

Reviewed by Cathy Freeze

        For my first two years of post-secondary education, I attended a community college, and I have hopes of teaching at one when I complete my graduate degree, so Howard Tinberg's account of eight concerned teacher/researchers was of special interest to me.  Border Talk: Writing and Knowing in the Two-Year College is a forum for eight community college teachers to speak out about their work, their ideas, and their concerns about their students and their profession.  In these discussions, they hoped to find "a language that has currency across the divides between disciplines and institutions, between the local and the global, the practical and the theoretical, the private and the public, the two-year college and the research university" (ix).  They wished to see, and help their students see, over social walls, borders that divide and isolate.

        In a series of summarized and judiciously quoted dialogues between these teachers, Tinberg introduces us to the participants of a summer 3-week teacher's workshop at Bristol Community College.  From Pat, a dental hygienist, to Marlene, the history professor, these teachers, who also work with him as writing tutors, attempt to define good writing across the disciplines. 

        Their college wants them to refine cross-curricular writing guidelines, and they hope to do so without simplifying writing criteria into non-relevance, for these teachers feel that relevance-to their student's lives and future livelihoods-is the most important criteria for all they teach. 

        But in their discussions, they do much more than define terms.  They show the unique problems of teachers at a community college.  They discuss how to teach writing based on the students' needs, cultures, where they're going, and where they come from.  They explore ways, in class and in the workshop, to protect student ownership of voice and facilitate students' abilities to grasp stories other than their own. These are laudible goals that should be the goals of any class, of any teacher. 

        In classrooms as divergent as statistics and ESL, these teachers struggle to find ways of guiding student revision without usurping student vision.  They speak of assumptions that teachers bring to student's work:  assumptions about the right way to do an assignment and assumptions about their own and students' authority as readers.  They wrestle with the idea of how writing center tutors must facilitate, and wonder if there is a  difference between tutoring writing and teaching writing in the classroom. 

        The book chronicles, in each discussion, the problem and possible solutions from several teachers' points of view, and then it lets the students speak, so that the reader sees things from both sides and can enter the dialogue informed. 

        The questions posed by these teachers are never definitively answered.  But as Tinburg chronicles these dialogues, he accomplishes an equally important task.  By writing the book, he provides evidence that community college faculty are involved in the debate, involved in research.  He shows that community college professors are members of the ongoing scholarship from which, he says, his community is sometimes excluded by themselves because they don't publish, by their administrations because of pressure to look on themselves as generalists and teachers instead of specialists and researchers, and by university staff.  "This book represents an effort to represent community college faculty as deeply reflective and impassioned practitioners" (71). 

        For this reason, university professors should read Tinberg's book.  Other scholar/teachers need to be aware of the community college voice, their unique concerns and the ways they address students' needs.  And University professors should be aware of the struggles of their transferring students, their history in and out of the classroom, and of the teaching, learning, and facilitating strategies that worked to aid these students in the community college.

        As scholar/researchers in the borderlands between student's home lives and classrooms, between high school or work and the four-year academy, trying to empower writer-students in any endeavor they choose to accomplish, these teachers' voices are worth hearing.  Tinberg knows that community college teachers are participants in important, ongoing scholarly dialogs. They want to be included within the academic fold. 

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Review of Landmark Essays on Basic Writing.
By Kay Halasek and Nels P. Highberg (Ed.)
Hermagoras/Lawrence Erlbaum, 2001

Reviewed by Clyde Moneyhun

         This latest installment in the Landmark Essays series, like the others before it, brings together a selection of the pieces about its topic cited most often on bibliographies in journals like College English, College Composition and Communication, and the Journal of Basic Writing (the journals where 12 of the 14 essays in this collection first appeared).  Here are Bartholomae and Bizzell, Rose and Lu (twice), Royster and Delpit.  Also, as with the other Landmark anthologies, we might fault this one for what's missing.  Where are Mina Shaughnessy, Lynn Troyka, Ira Shor, Paulo Freire, Keith Gilyard?  Editors Halasek and Highberg partly explain such omissions by stating that they didn't want to cover territory already mapped by Theresa Enos' 1987 Sourcebook for Basic Writing Teachers, a landmark in itself:  "Enos' text encouraged us to limit ourselves either to seminal essays written before 1987 but not included in the Sourcebook or essays written after its publication" (xv).  Within the limits the editors set for themselves, and given the missing favorites that other readers may also wish to be included, the editors have produced not only a companion piece that updates Enos' collection (there's even a bibliography of pieces on basic writing since 1987 to complement the one in the Sourcebook), but also a surprisingly complete portrait of trends in the field of basic writing during the crucial decade of the 1990s.

        One of the trends the book traces is an insistence on defining basic writers by their past experience (especially past literacy experience) and not by either inborn or culturally conditioned aptitude.  Even basic writers themselves often buy into the lie about their permanent, irreversible lack of ability (the "I've-never-been-a-good-writer" syndrome).  In the book's first selection, a classic essay on teaching in Mina Shaughnessy's Basic Writing Program at CCNY, Adrienne Rich speaks of her transformation as a teacher and as a person in tones that echo Shaughnessy's own essay "Diving In."  After attending Harvard and Radcliffe, and after teaching at Swarthmore and Columbia, Rich takes the CCNY job in 1968 out of a sense of "white liberal guilt."  Her mostly minority, mostly poor, mostly poorly educated students turn out to be powerful critical thinkers capable of profound engagement with reading and writing.  "What has held me" at CCNY, she says, "are the hidden veins of possibility running through students who don't know (and strongly doubt) that this is what they were born for, but who may find it out to their own amazement, students who, grim with self-deprecation and prophecies of their own failure or tight with a fear they cannot express, can be lured into sticking it out to some moment of breakthrough, when they discover that they have ideas that are valuable, even original, and can express those ideas on paper" (11-12).  Patricia Bizzell and Mike Rose, in their entries in the book, continue to criticize the view of basic writers as fundamentally inadequate.  Bizzell puts the difficulty basic writers have in college writing classes in the context of a gap between home and college cultures.  The situation is best understood not as linguistic inability, but rather as unfamiliarity with the intellectual conventions of the language community called academia.  Rose examines the claims of some cognitive psychologists that "poor writers can't form abstractions; they are incapable of analysis; they perceive the world as an undifferentiated whole; the speech patterns they've acquired in their communities seriously limit their critical capacity" (24).  Such claims tend to locate students on a single continuum of cognitive development (such as Piaget's) rather than helping us understand students' writing behavior within "the immediate social and linguistic conventions in which the student composes:  the rich interplay of purpose, genre, register, textual convention, and institutional expectation" (48).

        Another trend apparent in the book is the explicit identification of the political aspects of basic writing, from its institutional identity to its daily classroom pedagogies.  While this is a thread running through many of the selections (Rich, Lu, Delpit, Lazere), it is nowhere more apparent than in Kyle Fiore and Nan Elsasser's 1982 "'Strangers No More':  A Liberatory Literacy Curriculum."  As they say of their minority students in New Mexico and the Bahamas, in words that still ring true for many teachers of basic writers:

Confronted by a course that negated their culture, many failed to master the skills they sought.  Others succeeded by developing a second skin.  Leaving their own customs, habits, and skills behind, they participated in school and in the world by adapting themselves to fit the existing order.  Their acquisition of literacy left them not in control of their social context, but controlled by it.  (70)
        Consulting the theories of Vygotsky and especially Freire, Fiore and Elsasser (and their fellow teachers) develop a curriculum that does not alienate students from their own lives, but instead immerses them in questions (what Freire would call "problems" that he "posed") that cause them to problematize conditions in their lives that they had previously accepted as the unchangeable status quo.  The politically engaged writing their students produce in the course "demonstrates how . . . students can . . . recognize links between their own lives and the larger society, and develop ways of using their newfound writing skills to intervene in their own environment" (82).  In addition, all the students in the class discussed passed a standard college-wide English exam, showing that a liberatory pedagogy can also be a more effective pedagogy for skills acquisition.

        A final trend, perhaps the strongest in the book, is the deconstruction of earlier views, stands, and truisms in the literature on basic writing.  Such a strain in the thinking of basic writing theorists marks a certain maturing of the field, as previously accepted ideas, no matter how sacred, are examined for their validity and their effect on our teaching of basic writing.  Min-zhan Lu takes on Mina Shaughnessy, whose Errors and Expectations has achieved almost biblically authoritative status, asserting that Shaughnessy has "adopted an essentialist assumption" about language use:  "that linguistic codes can be taught in isolation from the production of meaning and form the dynamic power struggle within and among diverse discourses" (59).  Lisa Delpit questions the white, liberal cultural style underlying the process pedagogy that prevails in most basic writing classrooms, finding that African American students may be poorly served by it.  Donald Lazere doubts the opinions of many of his colleagues on the political left that there is no literacy crisis and that the "back to basics" movement merely serves "conservative hegemonic interests against aspirations to equality by minorities, women, and the working class" (121).  "In defensive reaction against conservative preemption of the literacy crisis," Lazare says, "leftists bend over so far backward that they sometimes eem to be endorsing illiteracy as politically aggressive; at the very least, they facilely imply that conventional academic culture and language serve wholly reactionary ends" (121-23).  Joseph Harris finds Mary Louise Pratt's metaphor of the contact zone, so popular in discussions of basic writing classrooms, a reductionist approach to student identity and cross-cultural communication.  All these contrarian voices have stirred the pot of basic writing in productive ways.

        No anthology on a topic as broad and as dynamic as basic writing can be complete.  I could imagine teaching a graduate seminar on basic writing with the Enos collection and the Landmark book as course texts, but I'd have to supplement them with the late-breaking news from the pages of CE, CCC, and JBW.  (Much has happened since the last essay in the Landmark collection was published in 1997.)  We'd need to talk about the new economic exigencies driving the basic writing curriculum, especially the end of open admissions at many institutions and the so-called mainstreaming of basic writers.  We'd look at the recent debate in the pages of JBW between Ira Shor and Karen Greenberg over the status of basic writing as "our apartheid."  We'd explore the ways in which basic writing teachers and program administrators have piloted new programs to serve the basic writing population (see especially Gerri McNenny's new collection Mainstreaming Basic Writers: Politics and Pedagogies of Access, also from Lawrence Erlbaum).  But as we read these more recent entries in the conversation, we'd hear the echoes of other voices from Landmark Essays in Basic Writing, and we'd be glad we read them first.

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