Basic Writing e-Journal

Volume 5        Number 1        Spring 2004


                                                                                              PRELIMINARY EDITION—IN PROGRESS

Co-editors: Tom Reynolds and Bill Lalicker


Please note: because of changes in the security for Web pages at Arizona State University, the editors have not had the opportunity to “publish” this issue of Bwe: Basic Writing e-Journal as professionally as they would have liked. So, this is a “work in progress,” with just the essays and review “put up.” Please excuse any errors in formatting, etc. Thank you.


Basic Writing e-Journal

Table of contents


Patrick L. Bruch

Universality in Basic Writing: Connecting Multicultural Justice, Universal Instructional Design, and Classroom Practices


Patricia McAlexander

University of Georgia

Using Principles of Universal Design in College Composition Courses


Aaron Barlow

Leading Writers, Teaching Tests


Andrea Deacon

Review of Rhetoric and Composition as Intellectual Work , edited by Gary A. Olson

Southern Illinois University Press, 2002



Basic Writing e-Journal


Universality in Basic Writing: Connecting Multicultural Justice, Universal Instructional Design, and Classroom Practices


By Patrick L. Bruch


This article proposes an understanding of universality that links the work of Basic Writing to recent political philosophy and the pedagogical movement Universal Instructional Design. It then discusses the value of this renewed vocabulary of universality for understanding pedagogical best practices.


As Tom Fox demonstrates in Defending Access, Basic Writing owes its existence to the concept of universality, the very concept that justifies many attacks on Basic Writing programs and students in policy and practice. On one hand, the ideal of universality sustains arguments for efforts, like Basic Writing programs, that work to remedy systemic preferences. On the other hand, as Basic Writing teachers and students are painfully aware, appeals to “universal standards” of literacy all too convincingly justify treating particular differences as deficiencies. Fox concentrates on standards, and argues convincingly for a set of standards that can sustain access. I wish to parallel and extend his work to affirm sustainable standards by concentrating on developing a sustainable understanding of universality. As Basic Writing professionals, we cannot afford to give up on universality any more than we can afford not to challenge dominant understandings of what universality means for our work. In this article I bring two resources to bear on the challenge of reinvigorating universality for Basic Writing. The first is recent theories of multicultural justice and the second is the movement known as Universal Instructional Design. In order to suggest the implications that an enriched vocabulary of universality can have for Basic Writing instruction, I give classroom examples that show how well-established best practices in the field of Basic Writing can be understood, explained, and defended, as pursuing universality.

A Multicultural Theory of Universality

In her study of political philosophy, Iris Marion Young (1991) highlights transformations in ideas of justice that have resulted from the social theories and group movements that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. For Young, feminist, anti-racist, gay rights, disability rights, and other movements drew attention to the shortcomings of those definitions of justice that were understood to be universal in the sense of being timeless and independent of specific contexts. As an alternative to pursuit of “a self-standing rational theory . . . independent of actual social institutions and relations” (p. 4), the social group movements highlighted the need for understandings of justice that were able to recognize and address unintended consequences of seemingly or actually neutral policies and practices. As Young explains, rather than searching for a universality good for all people and all times, contemporary critical theories see justice as rooted in specific social and historical contexts. Here, rather than be an abstract principle that stands outside of experience, justice depends upon “hearing a cry of suffering or distress or feeling distress oneself” (p. 5). Where more traditional theories valued detachment and distance, current theories like Young’s are participatory and process oriented.

Building on Young’s arguments about the need for a more contextual and processual understanding of universal justice, Nancy Fraser (1997) has recently drawn attention to the dynamic relationship between two domains, the material and the cultural, in the current social and historical context. For Fraser, listening to the experiences and voices of marginalized social groups suggests that injustice operates in different ways on these two conceptually distinguishable, though overlapping planes. The first understanding of injustice is material. Here, attention to injustice focuses on unequal distribution of things like income, property ownership, access to paid work, education, health care, leisure time, and so on. The second understanding of injustice is cultural and symbolic. Here, injustice refers to “cultural domination . . . nonrecognition . . . and disrespect” (Fraser, p. 14). These forms of injustice often overlap. Physical disability, for instance, is often related to economic disenfranchisement. But the conceptual distinction is useful because it helps draw attention to the fact that economic enfranchisement may not, alone, remedy the unjust relations attached to disability in current institutions. Persons labeled as disabled may still be culturally marginalized, misrecognized, and disrespected.

Disentangling these overlapping planes of injustice, then, is useful for Basic Writing professionals because doing so enables us to explain how universality as an ideal can both justify our programs and protect them from appeals to “Universal standards”. Through Fraser’s multicultural conception of universal justice we are better able to recognize and better equipped to explain, the need for multiple and perhaps seemingly contradictory remedies for injustice. For, as Fraser highlights, where emphasis on the material view leads people to appreciate injustices rooted in the political-economic structure of society and encourages them to advocate for material equality—remedying injustice by redistributing goods and abolishing group difference—the cultural view recognizes the injustice of misrecognition and disrespect and thus leads its proponents to advocate remedying injustice through recognition and revaluation of group specificity. The connections to Basic Writing are probably obvious: in order to enable universal access, redistributive and recognition work must be intertwined within professions like Basic Writing. In our case what gets distributed, literacy, must be understood in ways that remedy misrecognition and cultural disrespect.

Of course, this intertwining is difficult to achieve. Summarizing the essential insight that these movements have helped to generate, Catherine Prendergast (1998) has argued that, in order to overcome injustices such as White privilege and male privilege, “it will not be simply enough to add women and people of color and stir. Without significant changes to the profession and pedagogy, women and people of color will continue to wind up on the bottom” (p. 50). What is needed are redefinitions of what it means to participate in social practices like literacy so that part of the purpose of participating in such practices is to change the practice itself. Within such a view, the universality and thus justness of our practices becomes participatory—they are always in the process of being redefined as we continuously learn more about how our practices relate to material and cultural injustice. Instead of creating a system that applies to any situation, multicultural universality as an ideal encourages working within concrete contexts to enable more people to participate more fully in defining inequities and better alternatives.

Operationalizing Multicultural Universality: Universal Instructional Design

Growing out of architecture, a field of knowledge in which the connections between material and cultural issues is uniquely visible, Universal Design (UD), in its affirmation of critical revisionary feedback, potentially responds well to our need for new models of participating in knowledge ( Universal Design as a professional movement grew out of emerging awareness within architecture of unintended consequences of design features that were thought to be impartial. Specifically, persons with disabilities made building designers aware that their designs were unjust both in terms of the material access they made available and in terms of the cultural and symbolic messages they sent to persons with disabilities and to those temporarily able bodied. Buildings with stairs at each entrance, with doorknobs or other mechanisms that require particular kinds of dexterity not possessed by all, or other features that make the buildings very difficult for some persons to use, materially obstruct equal access. Additionally, such structures send cultural messages about who is expected to participate in public life and who is capable of citizenship, messages that unjustly misrecognize and disrespect certain persons.

Universal Design holds great promise when translated to Basic Writing if we remain aware of the central critical capacity that, in practice, UD has placed at the center of the design process—listening to the experiences of those who use the structure, observing the degree to which the structure facilitates equal participation, and continuously revising. In this sense, I see Universal Design as operationalizing an understanding of the term “universal” consistent with the political philosophies I described previously. Universal names an ideal and a process rather than a realized outcome or a fixed state of affairs. Seeing universality as a process values participation and discourages those privileged by current structures from ignoring the obligation to listen, learn, and revise. Such an understanding equips us to present the teaching of writing to Basic Writing students and to administrators and the public as more than just the ability to produce “correct” prose. It is the ability to use communication to build relationships.

In my view, Universal Design offers Basic Writing teachers a productive way of implementing Paulo Freire’s understanding of teachers as co-learners. It encourages us to position ourselves as listeners rather than all knowing experts. As Young (1997) has argued, listening plays an important role in identifying and transforming injustice:


with careful listening able-bodied people can learn to understand important aspects of the lives and perspective of people with disabilities. This is a very different matter from imaginatively occupying their standpoint, however, and may require explicit acknowledgment of the impossibility of such a reversal. (p. 42)


The lesson here for me is that at its best, the design of structures aspires to universal access through listening and learning about how different people understand their experiences in them. With respect to this important process, it seems that teachers may have an advantage over architects because the structures we design, our pedagogies, are much more flexible and easily revisable. Thus, there is no reason that pedagogy needs to replicate the situation where buildings meet the letter of laws mandating access but fail to fulfill the spirit of equity.

Connecting UID to the Basic Writing Classroom: Redefining Writing as Literacy Work

So far, I have offered an understanding of UID as a way of applying the insights of contemporary theories of justice to education. This connection provides a way to practically extend resources developed over the past 30 years within Basic Writing. At the heart of the emerging attention to disability is a recognition on the part of Basic Writing scholars that assumptions about the physical, emotional, and cognitive norm have negatively impacted the structures we design—our curricula, our profession, and pedagogies.

But Basic Writing teachers have tended to separate issues of distribution from issues of recognition. Scholars have recently concentrated attention on the overall failure of redistributive pedagogies that narrowly conceived universality as universal access to a valued set of conventions. Prendergast’s (1998) characterization of such efforts as potentially “detrimental to enfranchisement” (p. 50) and Tom Fox’s (1993) recent argument that “access through language pedagogy . . . . is an unqualifiable failure” (p. 42) both draw attention to the professional tendency to theorize about recognition while emphasizing assimilation in the classroom. The injustice of redistributive pedagogies is less about the limitations of a valued dialect to provide the economic access it promises, though there is that. Additionally, the emphasis on assimilating valued conventions creates an educational context of disrespect in which those who are the beneficiaries of conventions are able to go on without questioning the ways that the structures they are operating within unjustly privilege them. Transforming our vocabulary of universality holds promise for better serving students with disabilities as well as all others, since all are, ultimately, underserved by curricula that concentrate solely on either issues of distribution or issues of recognition.

Applying UID to the teaching of writing is a way of equipping ourselves to explain the project of Basic Writing—the project of enabling participation in transforming cultural and material obstacles to educational equity. Materially, I am speaking of how the class itself operates—the physical layout of activities, the material design of handouts, texts, the environment of the classroom, how much time is spent in different ways, and so on. Culturally, I am referring to questions about the identities students are assumed to have or expected to inhabit by the class. As a conceptual framework, UID draws attention to the interrelation of these cultural and material issues. They both become the focus of critical reflection, participatory feedback, and potential revision in pursuit of the goal of multicultural universality.

The practice of UID has resulted in changes in the way that I understand what I want my Basic Writing students to learn, in the assignments that I give, and in the classroom activities through which we work on assignments. UID provides a framework for shifting our attention from literacy as a stable skill that we want to impart to a more participatory formulation of writing as a matter of simultaneously doing and shaping in pursuit of equality and difference. A term that, for me, names this understanding of what students learn in Basic Writing classes is literacy work. In Basic Writing classes students learn to participate in and reflect on the various kinds of work that literacy does. They learn to appreciate that language use is a practice of relating to others and to reflectively navigate those relationships.

Applying the insights of UID to Basic Writing classes, the idea of literacy work defines writing as a reflective and revisionary practice. That is, when one writes one accomplishes the immediate concrete goal of communicating in a particular context and at the same time, one expresses ideas about communication in that context. As one student, Asante, phrased this insight in a paper for a recent Basic Writing class, “by me writing this paper in this way, I am communicating my thoughts about communication to you, but yet a lot of people may not see it this way at first.” In other words, writing includes both participation according to current conventions and reflection on those conventions and the relations of equality and difference they are part of. This isn’t an earth shattering insight, but I’ve never heard it come up in any discussion with any administrator or lay person.

UID offers to Basic Writing teachers a way to break this silence and explicitly value critical participation and revision. The material and cultural issues faced when serving any group are so multifaceted and complex, and the ways that students receive and interpret teachers’ messages are so unpredictable, that no design for a class can address all issues and concerns beforehand. Instead, UID emphasizes multiple formats supplemented by participatory feedback and redefinition. No single pedagogy can achieve universality and serve all students equally, so, as good Basic Writing teachers know, classes must be built to serve the students that are actually there. UID explains this work as implementing the universal ideal rather than as a (necessary or unnecessary) departure from it.

The role of student feedback is essential here. In one recent class, for example, I learned an important lesson about my practices for introducing new assignments. My method was to extensively describe the new essay assignment on paper, including a discussion of the rhetorical practices I wanted students to recognize and work on, why, and how. My introduction to the summary assignment read like this:

Academic writing is a set of practices for participating in conversation with others. One of the most important of these practices is summarizing. This first project is focused on reading carefully and writing good, strong, summaries. Strong summaries tell your readers what others in the “conversation” you are joining have been saying. Strong summaries convince readers that your view of the conversation has some merit. A strong summary convinces readers that you should be listened to and creates a context for you to add your piece to the conversation.

In an effort to appeal to a broad audience, I contextualized the assignment by linking something I thought students would identify with, conversation, to academic writing. I also offered an in-class overview and provided students with examples to use as models of successful responses that could inspire them in thinking about how they might respond to the assignment. When I asked students for questions, there were none.

When I requested feedback from students on their progress after about a week, one student reported that she had been stuck because she wasn’t sure if she understood the assignment “correctly.” Although concerns with “giving the teacher what (s)he wants” influence all students, the fact that this student had a learning disability that required a very direct and linear understanding of tasks like writing had made the situation paralyzing for her. In our discussion, I asked her what she thought about the assignment and she said that she thought she could take each author one at a time and tell readers what they say. We discussed what she thought each of the authors was trying to say and made notes about why she understood them as she did. When I assured her that her understanding was fine she was relieved and said that she was thrown off by my introductory discussion.

I responded to this problem by redesigning the way I introduce new assignments to be much more focused on how the students understand the assignment rather than how I understand it. I now include much more student generated discussion of how they understand what they are being asked to do and how they anticipate getting to work. One activity that has been very helpful in this regard is simply taking five minutes to let students write the assignment in their own words and then share them. Because I want students to think about the cultural work involved in writing as well as the practical work, I have broken down this process so that students begin by sharing their versions of the assignment in a small group with two or three others. I ask them to share their versions and to talk not so much about who’s right or wrong, but about the different kinds of cultural work done by the different kinds of writing that each in the group imagine doing. My role as teacher while these conversations are happening evolves over the course of the term. Early on in the semester I circulate in the groups helping students develop a vocabulary for talking about the work writing does, the consequences of writing in different ways. As students develop confidence in addressing this issue, my role shifts towards helping groups maintain focus and work out difficulties that arise. As a classroom practice, the exercise teaches that rather than being right or wrong, different kinds of writing do different kinds of work. Some of these kinds of work, such as stating and defending an opinion, are more highly valued in some contexts than others.

In addition to operating as material transformations that provide broader and fuller access, such curricular redesigns that evolve from student participation in the design of the class, raise and contend with cultural obstacles to equitable access as well. On one level, an activity like the one described above creates a context of greater recognition for students like the one who inspired the change, but also for many others. It creates an opportunity for each student to make an understanding of the assignment that recognizes their needs. Further, it creates a context for beginning to grapple with the cultural work that writing does. For example, in one of the groups I sat in on as students were discussing their understandings of the “strong summary” assignment, two students began to disagree when one African American student compared her understanding of the assignment to another, White, student’s understanding by saying that she wanted to make her opinion “plain rather than hidden.” The other student responded that a summary shouldn’t have an opinion at all. To which the first responded that, for her, a summary is “my view of how I see them.” At this point, I intervened to remind the students that the object of sharing was not to decide who in the group was right or wrong, but to try and clarify different understandings and the different kinds of work they do. This encouraged the two students to share their views of the work that their own and each others’ interpretations do. Martha explained that she believed her way of understanding a summary would let readers decide how to understand the texts she discussed, using her opinion or not. Mary explained that she believed her way would let readers decide by leaving herself out and just saying what the authors said. Another student here joined in to add that Mary’s would, then, be what Mary believed the authors said, which both Mary and Martha agreed to. The value that I hope comes of such exchanges is increasing students’ awareness of how different ways of understanding writing might relate to common goals for writing. It clarified that one kind of work writing strives to do is to help readers make informed decisions for themselves and that there are different opinions of how best to facilitate this. It provided a basis for each of the students to read and write in a more informed way.

An unexpected outcome of this new activity was that allowing students to take a significant hand in interpreting the assignment required that I clarify for myself the learning objectives and acceptable parameters of responses. In other words, the activity made me more fully reflect on multiple ways of demonstrating learning. In a writing class, flexibility is restricted by the fact that students must write. But the form of that writing is a point of negotiation with profound material and cultural implications. Sarah was most comfortable using writing to communicate stable meanings. Other students I have encountered find that trying to limit themselves to one way of understanding what are invariably complex texts or issues is constraining and demands they limit their writing to acceptable partial versions. In negotiating with students about the range of fully credible responses to the summary assignment, I have had to think about what abilities I want students to work on and demonstrate. For me, what matters is that students learn to read carefully and to help readers see both how they interpret texts and why they think their interpretations are credible in an academic setting. This means linking their summaries directly to what authors say. I think that if students do that, their writing will serve them well in many academic and public situations. As I have learned from student suggestions of how they understand and approach the assignment, this does not demand a thesis based, paragraph oriented, linear, traditional school essay.

An option that one student suggested for herself has become a formal alternative on my assignment sheet. This student was uncomfortable with the idea that she was being asked to be an expert on the various positions making up a conversation that she was previously unfamiliar with. She decided to write out a conversation between the authors that would show readers how she understood their positions. For her, the imaginary context would tell her readers that she was offering one, tentative interpretation of how the authors’ opinions related to each other. My assignment sheet now suggests two broad options for completing the assignment as follows:

Option 1: find a common thread that emerges across the conversation we’ve been reading and write an essay in which you present and discuss this common thread by summarizing how at least 3 of the sources relate to it. Feel free to bring in your own experiences or your own senses of the issues, but be sure to concentrate on offering a substantial review of the perspectives offered by each of the authors you discuss, explaining how they each relate to the common thread.

Option 2: Write a dialogue between four of the authors we’ve read in which they continue the conversation that their essays are a part of. Incorporate into what each author says your understanding of their view of the issues. Have each speaker use some direct quotes from their pieces to explain what they mean. In the dialogue, each person should talk at least three times, each time speaking at least 85 words. Try to capture some of the voice and style of each of the speakers in what you have them say.

Overall, these curricular transformations shift the emphasis from simple assimilation of conventions to a participatory recognition of the contingency of those conventions and their effects. I say “participatory” in order to call attention to the essential insight of Universal Design that those who inhabit structures have important roles to play in remaking those structures. In terms of a writing class that implements this concept in its instructional design, students are expected to learn that part of the purpose of writing is to call attention to aspects of the structure of writing that “many people may not see,” as Asante, my previously quoted student, phrased it. They are learning as well that as writers part of their job is to participate in creating alternative designs for texts. Students in such a class are learning about literacy work by doing the work of literacy. They are interanimating redistributive and recognition-oriented remedies to educational injustice.



Fox, T. (1993). Standards and access. Journal of Basic Writing, 12 (1), 37-45.

Fox, T. (1999). Defending Access: A Critique of Standards. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook-Heinemann.

Fraser, N. (1997). Justice interruptus: Critical reflections on the “postsocialist” condition. New York: Routledge.

Prendergast, C. (1998). “Race: The absent presence in composition studies.” College Composition and Communication, 50 (3), 36-53.

Young, I. M. (1991). Justice and the politics of difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Young, I. M. (1997). Intersecting voices: Dilemmas of gender, political philosophy, and policy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.







Patricia J. McAlexander




While debates rage over the best way to teach college composition, Universal Instructional Design principles suggest that there is in fact no single best way: students’ individual learning strengths and motivation require individual approaches, whether or not students have learning or physical disabilities. This article suggests some ways that a composition teacher can adapt his/her teaching to individual learners while following a mandated curriculum and engaging students in common classroom activities.



As a college composition teacher, I know that first-year students often dread freshman composition and, even more, the “developmental” composition courses that are often also required for “underprepared” writers. Both types of composition course have fairly standard content: a typical description, this one, of a developmental composition course, reads, “Covers elements of effective style, careful proofreading, logical organization, and convincing development of expository and persuasive essays” (The University of Georgia Undergraduate Bulletin 2001-2002, p. 425). Nevertheless, debates have raged in composition journals about the best ways to teach this material. Should assigned writing topics be personal or political? Should the reading on which the student essays are based be creative/literary or analytical? Should the organization of student essays be tightly structured or at least sometimes creatively “loose”? Should the class include formal grammar lessons, or should grammar instruction be mainly through commentary on student essays? Most articles dealing with such questions suggest that there is only one “right” answer—the author’s, of course.

Yet the right answer is “all of the above.” As more students attend college, diversity—not only of races and ethnic groups, but also of learning styles and motivation—is now more than ever the norm. And as composition instructors become increasingly used to modifying their teaching methods for students with disabilities, they realize the general truth that a single method of teaching will not suit all students. It is not surprising, then, that we find a growing advocacy of individual approaches to students as embodied in the concept of Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

For several years now, researchers have investigated individual learning strengths and motivation. One influential study, for example, identified seven specific perceptual modalities, preferred senses that an individual uses in the process of learning. Common modalities described were “print” (learning through reading and writing), “visual” (learning through observation with emphasis upon pictures or visual patterns), “interactive” (learning through participation in groups), and “auditory” (learning through listening, for example, to lectures or tapes) (Michael Galbraith & Waynne James, 1985). We also find studies of motivation. Part of motivation is based on a student’s sense of what he/she can achieve. As K. Patricia Cross has often pointed out, “Students must believe that, with appropriate effort, they can succeed” (2001, p. 7). Another aspect of motivation is based on a student’s goals or values—what he or she thinks is the point of the learning process. John Biggs (1988) reviewed three different learning approaches based on this element in motivation—surface (found in students who emphasize the pragmatic—i.e., getting the degree), deep (found in students who have an intrinsic interest in the task), and achieving (which may be found in conjunction with either of the other two approaches in students who want to make the highest possible grade) (pp. 186-87).

Students have often been advised to be aware of both their individual learning strengths and the nature of their motivation. For example, in the textbook Lifeskills for the University (2000), Earl J. Ginter and Ann S. Glauser provide an inventory to help students analyze their learning styles (p. 67) and recommend that they “take advantage of [their strong] modalities and strengthen the weaker ones” (p. 59). As for motivation, Biggs argues that students should be aware not only of their specific “cognitive resources” but also of their “intentions” (p. 187). A bulletin board outside one university Learning Center gives students representative advice relating to both aspects of motivation—“Think positively”; “Consider the benefits of completing the task”; “Set specific goals”—while Ginter and Glauser’s textbook emphasizes that “students . . . are responsible for maintaining [their] motivation” (p. 31).

But if college students are often advised to take responsibility for their own learning, legislation on disabilities has been a major force that stresses the responsibility of teachers and institutions as well. In 1975 the federal government passed the first version of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Since then, public schools have been required to serve disabled students. Teachers and institutions are legally bound to modify instructional procedures to compensate for various student disabilities. At the college level, for instance, institutions are to provide specified students with educational aids normally not available or permitted, such as tape recorders to record lectures, taped textbooks, and (for essay tests) word processors. The students might also be provided with tutors, notetakers, proofreaders, private rooms for tests, and special counselors. Teachers of these students are often required to modify testing techniques for these students. Depending upon their disability, the students are allowed extra time on tests or given alternate types of tests (for example, oral instead of written). Specific teaching strategies are often suggested as well. For example, a letter from a learning disabilities specialist to a composition teacher concerning one of the teacher’s “LD” students states, “Whenever possible, verbal information should be supplemented visually, e.g. with graphs, diagrams, and/or illustrations” (personal communication, December 10, 1999). Thus, under the influence of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the educational process has become more and more tailored to the individual learning abilities and needs of a particular population of students.

However, such modifications, when given to students with the “invisible” problem of learning disabilities, are not always considered fair. Indeed, many critics of the American educational system charge that it is mainly the children of middle class parents who are diagnosed as learning disabled; their parents have the money and incentive to have them tested. One such critic is Gerald Coles (1987), who argues that LD legislation serves the interests of the status quo—the government, schools, middle class parents—any agency with an interest in preserving the social (that is, class) order.

The debate over the fairness of modifications for students with learning disabilities has been particularly heated in the field of postsecondary developmental composition, where questions have arisen about the relationship between LD writers and non-LD but “underprepared” writers. The characteristics of the two groups are often similar. Both types of students may have spelling and grammar errors, confusing organization, sparse development, and lack of audience awareness, along with problems of motivation and attention. Yet, no matter how similar the problems of these students, the legislation on learning disabilities creates an either-or situation: either a student has learning disabilities and is legally entitled to certain modifications, or he/she does not—and is not.

How can a student be identified as having learning disabilities in a subject area rather than a theoretically more easily improved “weakness”? In Errors and Expectations (1977), Mina Shaughnessy’s groundbreaking study of students she called “basic writers,” Shaughnessy suggests that the writing problems of the students in her writing program at CCNY could be explained simply by their background:


Certainly were such errors to appear in the papers of academically advantaged students, . . . there would be good reason to explore the possibility of an underlying disorder. But where students have had limited experience in reading and writing, they cannot be expected to make visual discriminations of the sort most people learn to make only after years of practice and instruction (p. 174).


In the years following, however, writing teachers have become less certain of that position. Today, Jeff Elliott, Assistant Director of Stephen F. Austin State University’s Academic Assistance and Resource Center, expresses the thoughts of many in a posting on a Conference on Basic Writing Listserv: he questions how one can distinguish “between students who have never had an opportunity to develop critical thinking and writing skills . . . and those students who have some disability which makes the development of those skills difficult” (April 5, 2001).

I believe that it is right to give modifications to students who have been tested and diagnosed with disabilities (McAlexander, 1997). However, I also recognize that doing so for them and not for others may discriminate against those others. Thus it seems not only just but also logical that the concept of Universal Instructional Design has arisen, encouraging teachers to adjust their teaching strategies, where possible, to the learning styles, interests, and abilities not just of disabled students but of every student.

With specific content usually mandated for a composition course and common activities needed to engage the class as a whole, how can a composition teacher adapt his/her teaching to each individual learner? As the UDL website points out, teachers can provide material that is personally relevant to individual students, offer a flexible curriculum that appropriately challenges each student, and give students individualized feedback (CAST Universal Design for Learning, 1999-2000). Here are some ways that college composition teachers may employ this advice.


Providing Personally Relevant Material

1) As much as possible, assign readings that engage student interests. I think we all agree that the best kind of motivation springs from intrinsic interest in the subject (see Biggs, p. 218)—and that students will be more motivated to write if they are responsive to the readings on which composition topics are based. Appealing to student interests does not mean that a teacher must assign a hodgepodge of individual reading assignments; students in most classes turn out to have interests in common. As educator-psychologist Hamachek states, “It doesn’t take long for a classroom to develop its own unique personality,” depending in part “on the students and how . . . their particular mix of backgrounds and experiences blend together” (1995, p. 545).

Thus, instead of rigidly planning all reading assignments for a class before even meeting it, teachers might wait to see what interests their students have in common and how the class personality develops. Then they can select readings from a textbook accordingly—or order a special book. When I had a class that included many athletes, I assigned the brief novel A Short Season, the story of football player Brian Piccolo (the movie Brian’s Song is based on this book). Since the novel was not read until mid-term, I was able to order it once the class had begun. The students really enjoyed this book.

2) Give a variety of topics on the readings. Through conferences, student discussions, and questionnaires, determine the direction of individual student interests within the group. Then, for each writing assignment based on a reading unit, offer a variety of topics that appeal to these interests. For example, A Short Season deals not only with sports, but also with racial relationships, illness, and family conflicts; topics can focus on these different themes. All the students in the class assigned this novel selected one of the suggested topics to write on. However, if a student does not find a topic that works for him/her, the teacher and student can discuss the problem and together develop a new topic.

3) Use the Internet for material. Traditional hard texts are not the only sources for material on which writing can be based. Now the Internet provides an infinite source of information, allowing a teacher to broaden the range of sources a student might draw from and to do so more spontaneously. A popular comparison-contrast topic I have given asks students to describe travel plans to two places they want to go and then select the preferable plan, using the Internet for information. Students who wrote on this topic found detailed information on modes of travel, places to stay, and available activities in the two possible locations, as well as on the cost for the two trips. Their interest in the topic and their enjoyment of Internet research led them to find solid, detailed information.

4) Use popular television shows and articles in current newspapers and magazines as material. Often such sources (as well as the Internet) can be used for the most timely and controversial topics. Topics on television shows that young people watch (Dawson’s Creek, The Real World, Road Rules), on new technologies (the advantages and disadvantages of cell phones), or local/state issues that affect students (raising the driving age or scheduling their university’s fall break), often arouse strong student feeling and interest.

Offering an Appropriate Level of Challenge

1) Give students a choice of writing topics with varying levels of difficulty. As K. Patricia Cross points out, students must feel that they can succeed, at least to some degree. Thus it is important for composition teachers to offer topics that relate not only to a variety of interests, but also to a variety of abilities. For students who prefer the usually “easier” personal topics to topics involving reading analysis, offer topics that combine both approaches (for example, “Compare your grandmother to the grandmother in Mary Hood’s ‘How Far She Went’”). For students who have problems with essay structure, provide some topics that set up an organization plan (give specific points on which to compare the two grandmothers); for more creative or advanced students, offer more analytical topics and leave the structure open. Teachers may need to guide students in their selection of an appropriately challenging (as well as interesting) topic.

2) When possible, offer alternative essay formats. This is particularly appropriate if the composition course is oriented to business or technical writing. In such courses, students might use graphs, charts, and other illustrations as a supplement to the written text. Those who prefer the visual mode do very well with such figures, indeed sometimes creating more and better illustrations than print-oriented students. (However, in one such class, I had to remind a girl who felt insecure with grammar and mechanics that she needed more “sentences” along with her excellent charts and graphs!) Also, the use of headings and bulleted lists gives students with organizational weaknesses more options for making their writing plan clear to the reader.

3) Use teaching strategies that appeal to various learning styles. For example, while traditional lectures appeal to the auditory modality, charts, diagrams, and outlines on overheads appeal to the visual modality, handouts to the “print” modality, and group discussions or peer review to the interactive modality.

4) Accept varying writing styles as long as the communication is appropriate and effective. To show that writing styles can vary, teachers might give samples of different types of writing—and discuss how different styles can be effective in varying situations. There are stories of teachers who recognize and reward just one style of writing, often to the detriment of their students. A colleague of mine was criticized in her freshman composition class for her direct, to-the-point writing style. A high achiever, she never got over this experience. She went on to earn a doctorate in educational psychology, but always felt inadequate as a writer.

5) If a student needs extra time to complete an in-class essay, let him/her finish the essay outside of class. Only students diagnosed as learning disabled are eligible to take tests and write in-class essays in our university’s LD Center, where they can have extended time. I let other students who need more time come to my office to finish that last body paragraph and conclusion.

6) If a student finds writing in the classroom distracting, try to find another place where he/she can write. One of my students would sit staring at her almost blank sheet of paper all period, writing only one or two sentences. A deep thinker, she told me that she just could not concentrate on her ideas in the classroom, yet she did not qualify for modifications that would allow her to use a private room in our university’s LD Center. I found an office down the hall from the classroom where she could write her essays; there, in fact, proved herself one of my best writers. (Luckily the office was available—and luckily not many of my students have had this problem!)

7) Allow all students to use word processors, even for in-class essays. Whatever the level of the student’s writing development, word processors help greatly with writing; they are particularly useful to students with poor handwriting and spelling. Yet when writing in-class essays in non-computer composition courses, students who have not been diagnosed as learning disabled generally must write by hand. When possible, I send non-LD students who wish to compose on the computer to nearby university computer labs to write their in-class essays. But when this is not possible, I have students write by hand in class; then after I check the often messy, crossed out, arrowed-about handwritten versions, students type the essay at home. They turn the handwritten essay in with the typed version so that I can see that the typed essay is basically the same essay as the one written in class, and I ask them not to change grammar and mechanics except for spelling, so that I can see areas in which they need instruction. This way, I have the required “in-class” essay, and all students use a word processor. Not only are the essays more legible, but also the word processor file version can be used if the students revise the essay.

It is interesting to note that when I apply these methods to in-class essays, many students eligible to write on the computers in the university’s LD center choose to write their essays in the classroom with the other students.

Giving Individualized Feedback

1) Be available to consult with students as they write. Some students prefer to write without asking the teacher any questions. Others, however, need the teacher’s encouragement and advice, whether with individual sentences or with organization or content. It is helpful for such students, when writing in class, to be able to consult as they write, while those doing out-of-class essays may want to drop in to the instructor’s office to ask questions. Such in-progress consultation provides an excellent, if often brief, individualized teaching opportunity. The Socratic method—asking students questions about their content—can evoke better specific details as well as a clearer organization plan. Student questions on the grammar and mechanics of individual sentences give the teacher an opportunity to present a quick individual grammar lesson to supplement the more formal lessons often given in composition classes. And working on problems with organization with the teacher provides models of the thought processes involved in setting up essay structure.

2) After grading an essay, schedule one-on-one conferences to discuss each student’s essay and specific strategies for revision. Such “conferencing,” which generally involves a longer encounter, further individualizes instruction while giving the teacher an opportunity to learn a student’s interests, abilities, and background. There are many good books and articles on the art of conferencing, but basically I find it a conversation in which a student collaborates with a teacher on an essay revision and thereby learns more about writing techniques. Part of this collaboration involves the teacher playing the role of reader in order to increase the student’s audience awareness; part of it involves the teacher offering specific advice. The focus of this advice will vary greatly from student to student: for a more advanced writer, the conference may focus on style; for a weaker writer, it may focus on such basic elements of writing as setting up a thesis. A teacher might also employ specialized teaching techniques in a conference. In one case, I had a student whose written sentences were incoherent. I asked her to read her paper out loud, recorded her so that she herself could literally hear the incoherence, and then had her record, in more informal language, what she meant. I gave her the tape, and she revised the sentences more as she had actually spoken them into the recorder.

At the college level, teachers might cancel one or two class meetings to give time for such personal conferences.

3) Encourage individual tutoring sessions and, if a Learning/Writing Center is available, advise students to go there also for tutoring. These tutoring sessions will be much like the conferences described above, but may not deal with the revision of an essay. Rather, they may simply give individual lessons on such specific writing problems as dangling modifiers, comma splices, or wordiness.

4) In some situations, offer peer review sessions as part of the class. If the class has an appropriate level of writing ability, self-concept, motivation, and social interaction, peer review sessions can be an excellent source of individualized response to essays (McAlexander, 2000). Having fellow students respond to one’s writing, along with responding to the writing of fellow students, develops greater awareness of the reader as well as of one’s own writing weaknesses and strengths. Peer review will be particularly effective for students with interactive learning styles.

While some of these teaching techniques may involve changes in the overall structure of the composition curriculum, most of them, I think, work well within the framework of standard composition courses. Some teachers may fear that such individualization in teaching will undermine student responsibility for learning or lower standards. These fears are ungrounded. After all, students still need to do their part; further, many of the described individualizing techniques have been used for years, and even when they are not used, students still achieve at different rates and levels. In my mind there is no doubt that the application of UDL principles to the teaching of composition will result in more students—gifted, average, weak, “disabled”—improving their writing while enjoying the process.



Biggs, J. (1988). Approaches to learning and to essay writing. In R.R. Schmeck (Ed.), Learning strategies and learning styles (pp. 185-228). New York: Plenum.

CAST (Center for Applied Special Technology) Website (1999-2000). (2001, May 30).

Coles, G. (1987). The learning mystique: A critical look at learning disabilities. New York: Pantheon.

Cross, K.P. (2001). Motivation: Er . . . will that be on the test? [The Cross Papers Number 5]. Mission Viejo, CA: League for Innovation in the Community College and the Educational Testing Service.

Galbraith, J., & James, W. (1985). Perceptual learning styles: Implications and techniques for the practitioner. Lifelong Learning, 8, 2-23.

Ginter, E.J. & Glauser A.S. (2000). Life-skills for the university and beyond. (2nd ed.). Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt.

Hamachek, D. (1995). Psychology in teaching, learning, and growth (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

McAlexander, P.J. (1997). Learning disabilities and faculty skepticism. Research and Teaching in Developmental Education, 13 (2), 123-129.

McAlexander, P.J. (2000) Developmental classroom personality and response

to peer review. Research and Teaching in Developmental Education, 17 (1),


Shaughnessy, M.P. (1977). Errors and expectations: A guide for the teacher of basic writing. New York: Oxford University Press.

The University of Georgia undergraduate bulletin 2001-2001 (2001). Athens, GA: The University of Georgia.


Leading Writers, Teaching Tests


By Aaron Barlow



Student voices must be encouraged if students are to succeed as writers. We know this. When students come to recognize their own works as parts of dialogues, writing improves remarkably. We know how to facilitate this. Yet factors within many academic settings can push us to abandon our effective methodologies in favor of ones that don’t develop communicators.

These factors can run from institutional inertia and outside political realties down to the degree of departmental support and the placement procedures that attempt to narrow the range of student preparation and experience within the particular classroom. For example, at New York City College of Technology (NYCCT)—the CUNY campus where I teach as an Adjunct Lecturer—incoming students are placed in writing courses on a restrictive basis: Either they have scored at least 480 on their Verbal SAT exams, have reached a 75 on the New York State English Regents, have attained a 7 on the CUNY/ACT writing competency test, or they must take developmental writing classes and then take or retake (and pass) the CUNY/ACT exam. All students who do attain any one of the required scores are assumed to be competent to start Composition I. No other factor—such as evaluation of classroom writing performance—moves a student in or out of remediation, for the CUNY/ACT exam serves as both entrance and exit exam for basic writing courses.

The requirements of the exam, no matter how little I may like them, influence the structure of my developmental writing course. Success on it rests on four factors: the taking of a position, organization, elaboration, and mechanics. The hour-long test asks students to write on one of two either/or propositions. Each exam is graded by two Readers who evaluate the paper on a scale of one to six. According to CUNY’s Information for Students and Faculty: Spring 2002-Fall 2002, “exceptional” (earning a six) papers “take a position on the issue defined in the prompt and support that position with extensive elaboration. Organization is unified and coherent. While there may be a few errors in mechanics, usage, or sentence structure, command of the language is apparent” (10). A “superior” (five) paper shows only moderate elaboration and command of the language need not be “outstanding.” “Competent” (four) papers contain only “some” elaboration and organization need only be “clear” while language usage shows “competency.” An “adequate” (three) paper shows only “a little” elaboration, organization can be followed “without difficulty,” and there is “apparent” control of the language. When the scores of the two Readers are added together; an exam must reach a combined seven to pass. If I don’t address the specifics of the exam over the semester, my students will fail, no matter how much they have improved as writers. Yet, as a Certified Reader of the CUNY/ACT exam, I know that passing CUNY/ACT essays are not often examples of the effective communication I want my students to aspire to.

Still, the specter of this test looms dreadfully over the students in my basic writing classes. All have failed it at least once. Understandably, they look at passing the test as their primary (in fact, only) goal for the semester and constantly scramble to find a formula that will insure their success. This exacerbates the problems I face as their teacher. Most of my students need to do more than prepare for a test: they need to learn to be students, to negotiate between informal and formal language, and to tailor their arguments to academic demands. They make it abundantly clear, though, that they are not willing to work towards these ends unless it is apparent to them that they are also progressing toward success on the CUNY/ACT exam.

Though it may be unintentional, the test has become a barrier that students must find a way over, not a means of forwarding student learning. In effect, as Ira Shor (in another context) points out, this test, like most “writing instruction has in fact been working from the top down to protect and reproduce inequality but not from the bottom up to develop democracy and to level disparities” (34). My purpose as a teacher, on the other hand, is to help people find a way in.

The CUNY/ACT can be an extremely frustrating hurdle for students, particularly for those who ended up failing the test for reasons that have nothing to do with their writing, failing simply because they were not aware of the demands of the test. In each of two remedial courses I taught in 2002, one student stood out from the others. Both were good writers, but neither had known what was expected from them on the exam, for they were older students, long removed from the classroom. Each had opted for brevity while writing the exam (which is required to be in the form of a letter), thereby failing and being consigned to a remedial course. Each suffered through the course, took the exam again (now knowing what was expected) and passed with a high mark (ten on the scale of twelve). Each could have done just as well the first time—if someone had taken fifteen minutes to explain what was required. The cookie-cutter nature of the test and its grading failed them, cost them money, and delayed the start of their regular college work. It also can lead to a tense classroom, where students who feel (sometimes with justification) that they failed unreasonably take their anger out on their classmates and their teacher.

In such a situation, it would be way too easy to let my frustration reign, to slip into a regressive approach to teaching, to fall back into the “dominant writing pedagogy for the last 100 years—refined usage […], basic skills, grammar drills, abstract forms like the five-paragraph essay… and impromptu writing exams—[which] is a curriculum to produce mass failure among students who are then declared ‘cultural deficits’ needing more remediation and more testing” (Shor 34). To protect myself, I could claim I am “forced” by the combined conservatism of students who want to be told what to do and by a restrictive exam to teach through an outmoded methodology. My failure, then, could be blamed on the system.

To stay away from that failure, to “teach to the test” and still help students improve as writers, requires a difficult negotiation. If, as I would prefer, I only worked on assisting my students toward becoming effective writers, many would fail the test. There simply isn’t time in a semester to lead classes of 20-plus students to competency in the formulaic writing the test demands and to separately see them on the way towards developing their own voices and the writing skills they will need later in their education. So, I must find a way to combine test preparation with at least some development of writing skills, to do both when I have hardly the time for either.

Some of my colleagues, accepting the ‘truisms’ of the past, avoid the issue, arguing that mastering the techniques required to address CUNY/ACT questions gives students a foundation for becoming strong writers. A student who understands how to avoid the pitfalls of the comma splice and who can manipulate the formula of the five-paragraph theme, developing a position and a two- or three-part support, they say, can go on to successful written expression. Some of these teachers develop formulae for the students to memorize, formulae allowing the students to drop in the particulars of an answer to any CUNY/ACT-type question, in this manner producing an essay that might earn a passing grade. Sometimes this even works, though I doubt its value in future educational venues.

In one CUNY/ACT reading session I attended in 2002, an example of these formulae appeared that was disturbing enough for two Readers to query the Chief Reader. They had come across a number of papers, four or five, that followed an almost identical pattern of argument. Among other things, each one used the word “visual” as an aspect of the first supporting argument and talked about “communication” in the second. The readers were concerned that what they were viewing was not really writing, but was the putting together of the pieces of a puzzle. And they were right. But the Chief Reader was right, too, when she told them that they had to ignore such things: Writing based on a formula cannot be held against the student. The papers were in no way “good” writing and failed completely as examples of communication. But they were “passing” writing. Given the parameters of taking and grading the CUNY/ACT, nothing else could matter.

Even if I am to assume that there is some truth in what my colleagues say, that there are formulae that can be learned and that can help students pass the test and also help them learn to be better writers, I’m still faced with a simple pedagogical question: What’s the next level? In terms of the students’ future education (and, after all, I am supposed to be preparing them for that), what do the five-paragraph theme and the other formulae lead to, and how? In other words, is the ability to elaborate on a topic sentence a step to another sort of writing, perhaps a more effective and academic form of communication?

If I cannot find and describe that next level, I have to assume that the skills required for the test are sufficient in and of themselves, at least in the academic arena, that even the writing that those two Readers objected to is good enough writing for attacking college projects. Yet I cannot see it being so. I do not see where the five-paragraph theme points and I do not see it as academically enabling by itself. As far as I can tell, it’s no roadmap to better writing: it provides none of the basic skills—nothing analogous to command of the use of perspective by a student artist—that are either useful on their own or that eventually lead to prose essays acceptable for college work, for communicating research and personal consideration.

Effective writing contains a dynamic no formula can emulate and starts from within the writer. To function well, therefore, a course in writing, as David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky say in the Introduction to their Facts, Artifacts and Counterfacts, “whose goal is to empower students must begin with silence, a silence students must fill. It cannot begin by telling students what to say. And it must provide a method to enable students to see what they have said—to see and characterize the acts of reading and writing represented by their discourse” (7). Anecdotes, if they are used by a writer, serve the point and arise from it. They are not placed simply because an essay “should” contain one. If a student learns to develop an organizational model through personal interaction with the topic and the audience, that student will likely be learning to produce interesting college essays. Effective writing, after all, says something to somebody. Memorizing a formula, where topic and stand are “dumped” in, will rarely lead to the same. Instead, reading the result will be nothing more than a tedious exercise for some poor teacher.

I need to find a way to do two things, to teach to the test and yet encourage effective writing, doing so with an eye to the students’ academic futures. The trouble is that I have found no extant methodology for effectively bridging the gap between my two goals. The books and articles I have sought for help merely tell me how to approach the teaching of writing in situations where I am in command of course goals. Among other things, they assume a greater control of the academic environment external to the particular classroom than I, as a part-time teacher, can possibly maintain. They also ignore tests like the CUNY/ACT, or brush them off by arguing that students who do learn to write well will always pass such tests if provided with the parameters of evaluation. This may be true, but time constraints make the point irrelevant. The students in my basic writing classes do not have the leisure to delay the test, and their academic careers, until they really are competent writers.

So, I am forced to ignore too much that is right in the pedagogy of rhetoric and composition (to concentrate on the student voice and let it guide the development of the class; to use classroom “publication” to encourage students towards understanding of their own voices, etc.) and to concentrate on what my experience tells me might be minimally effective, given the limits of my immediate situation, both in time and in student background. I must develop a new strategy, one that makes the best of a bad deal without completely ignoring proven methodology. One that works for my students, in terms of the test, their own desires and expectations, and their futures as writers.

As I am figuring out what to do in these classes, I have to keep in mind that my aim is to find out what my students and I can do in this particular situation, not to complain or concentrate on what we can’t. I am not so foolish as to think that each of my students will succeed, but I cannot write off any portion of them at the start of the term. My planning needs to include possibilities for every one of them and, while taking their current skills and expectations into consideration, I must present high (but reachable) goals to them. Like Bartholomae, “I would never teach a course where I would meet a group of students, know that some would fail, watch those students work to the best of their ability and my preparation and then fail them” (“The Tidy House” 173). Many of my students will fail the CUNY/ACT again, but I cannot start the semester making my decisions based on that knowledge.

One of the greatest problems faced in any of my developmental classes is that the students are perilously close to giving up. Many of them have been refused and rejected any number of times, and not just in school. They don’t need to be coddled—most are adults, after all, who have weathered many a storm—but, in a class, they do need to feel that they are not alone, that someone inside the academic community believes that they do have what it takes to make it in college. If I am to expect them to succeed in my class, I have to back them up with my own confidence in their possibilities.

It would be much easier were there other means of support for the students whose needs are greatest, but the courses I teach are among the lowest levels of remediation at CUNY. The university, responding to outside political pressure, no longer feels it can be a provider of basic literacy. So I have to find a way of providing avenues of success for each student in my classroom, no matter their actual skill levels, at the same time as I am trying to convince them that they can actually walk those streets.

Because of the constraints of time and class size, I need to conflate my goals, determining elements common to both passing the CUNY/ACT standards and writing well enough to enter a Composition I. Six of these follow:


1.      The ability to follow directions.

2.      The ability to write extemporaneously for an hour (completing two pages or so).

3.      The ability to keep a focus on one clear point.

4.      The ability to organize thoughts into discrete paragraphs.

5.      The ability to elaborate.

6.      The ability to proofread one’s own paper.


Even without a clear focus on the formula of the five-paragraph theme, students who have mastered these six skills will likely pass the CUNY/ACT test—as long as they know what is expected of them on the test. They will also be able to dive into their Composition I classes… and swim.

One proven method for improving student writing centers on development of a portfolio of work written, selected and presented by the student. Where my students are faced with an exam allowing for no revision, no careful contemplation, a portfolio also permits them to show that they can present considered work. It gives them something tangible to build while preparing for the CUNY/ACT exam. At the end of the term, it also provides me with a means of evaluation quite apart from success on the test. So, early in the term I tell students to review and save their writings, keeping the best aside for later revision.

Of course, a writing teacher needs to know where students stand at the beginning of a term, so a diagnostic test of some sort has to be given during the first class. I use the particulars of such a writing to tailor each semester’s class, rather than composing an iron-clad syllabus before I meet the students. I can see the CUNY/ACT tests the students failed, and examining them is useful, but I need to find out more than that test alone can tell me. Also, I don’t want to give a “practice” CUNY/ACT test early in the term, for the students have just failed the actual test and are not going to feel positive about taking another. So, I try to find a diagnostic writing that can tell me more than the “real” test can. The diagnostic test I choose, however, can be evaluated in light of the demands of the CUNY/ACT test, allowing me to decided to spend more time on organization, say.

One of my colleagues uses a “problem/solution” writing that provides the information I seek. Though there are other sorts of assignments that can work as well, this one provides a particularly good look into the students’ abilities. Students are asked to write a two-page paper on a problem that they faced in the past, one that they successfully solved. They are asked to write one page on the problem itself and the second on the solution. They are given no other instructions on organization or topic.

Given the results of the diagnostic writing, a semester syllabus can be structured that focuses on the needs of the specific class—and I, as instructor, can be alerted to anomalous situations.

By using a diagnostic test, I am veering from the path I would like to follow in guiding a writing class. Normally, I would first work to enable the students to express something—anything at all (but likely related to the topic of an assigned reading)—then use that as the basis for moving to more polished writing and more organized essays.

My experience, and that of many of the Adjuncts at CUNY with whom I have spoken, is that our basic-writing students have a great deal of trouble following directions, so I spent a few classes immediately after the diagnostic test with exercises designed to improve their direction-following ability.

Perhaps, in their high schools, any effort was considered better than nothing; whatever students handed in may have been accepted as sufficient. I don’t really know. However, many of my students have a hard time understanding even simple instructions like “write a letter to… ,” let alone slightly more complex ones such as “support one position or the other.” The writings that soon will be asked from the students do not arise from within them, as do the writings I would like to use in helping them become good writers, so instruction in direction-following here becomes an important initial part of the process.

Few of the students in my CUNY developmental writing classes enter with the ability to write a coherent full page, let alone the 400 or so words needed for the CUNY/ACT test. Here, again, the best method would be to work slowly with the students, gently following their lead in developing topics and voices on their own as they develop fluency. With limited time and a lot to accomplish, however, another method needs to be used, one that quickly gives students the confidence that they will have enough to say on the exam.

A series of directed exercises, instead of the more individualized writings that I would otherwise encourage, could accomplish this. These exercises, tailored to the particular abilities of each class, would start with a focus on developing the ability to elaborate. One of the problems students have when taking the CUNY/ACT exam is that they don’t know how to go about expanding on topics. These exercises should change that. Because the CUNY/ACT format encourages three reasons for whatever stand is taken, along with elaboration on each reason, my model for teaching development follows a three-part form. All questions posed can be answered from an individual viewpoint, then from the perspective of a specific community, and finally from a wider view of the society as a whole. Students first answer the questions through a personal story, or one about someone they know. Then they answer the same question as it would relate to their neighborhoods. Lastly, they provide generalized answers pertinent to all. The questions also have both short-term and long-term consequences, and the students are encouraged to think about both as preparation for their answers.

Behind all of the questions I am teaching my students to ask and answer is memory of the questions and suggestions from a writing facilitator that Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff imagine at the beginning of A Community of Writers:


·        Are you really sure that what you are saying is interesting?

·        Are you sure that what you are saying is right?

·        Are you really sure you understand what you are saying? [...]

·        Make sure what you say is well organized.

·        Think carefully about who is listening. Are you speaking in a way that suits these listeners?

·        Watch your language. Don’t make any mistakes in grammar. Don’t sound dumb. (1-2)


Further underlying the design of all of the questions, writings and discussions I use to lead to the ability to elaborate on a topic are “what [Hans-Georg] Gadamer names as the three fundamental phases of the hermeneutic process: (1) to understand first of all, (2) to interpret that understanding, and finally (3) to apply the knowledge gained in the act of reflexivity (i.e., the ways in which one thinks and the reasons for thinking that way) to the subject matter under investigation and to life experiences” (Salvatori 139). Even though the primary intent of the assignments is to prepare students to take the CUNY/ACT exam, the underlying purpose is concentrated on the goal of creating learners.

Assignments of the sort I use, though generalized at their inception, can allow room for eventual shaping into cohesive paragraphs of argument, focus, and dynamic. In time, they can also give the students confidence that they can, in fact, write the necessary two pages, for they will have developed a pattern of personal argument that they can use again. When one knows where one has gone before, the blank page is less daunting.

In all of my design of writing projects for the course, I have kept in mind the type of prompt used for the CUNY/ACT writing test. There will always be a choice between a “community issue” question and a “school issue” question. Always, the issues are non-controversial, even banal. Each prompt demands a decision between two exclusive possibilities. Usually, the student is asked to write a letter supporting the use of money for one of these possibilities. To pass, at least two (preferably three) distinct arguments in support of the position taken much be presented and elaborated on.

Though I don’t want to start with the “either/or” of the test prompts, I do want to move the students to a position where they can handle such an artificial writing “problem.” Therefore, each of the prompts I use in the class can be refined (or simplified, or “dumbed down”) into a question of spending money on one thing or on another (but not on both) as students discuss, read, and rewrite.

In general, I try to move the topics I assign into the “school issues” and “community issues” arenas that are the focus of the CUNY/ACT prompts. It has been my experience that few of my students are conversant in the terminology or issues of either area, so I want to spend time giving them a little bit of a background through discussion of both.

One way of doing this is to create a glossary of terms that have specific meanings within either “school issues” or “community issues” discussions. There is no reason to assume that students, especially those from impoverished communities where even graduating from high school is considered an accomplishment of note, will know what a “dean” is, or will have even heard of a “retention rate.” Yet many of the ‘letters’ in “school issues” prompts are to be addressed to a dean, and the school’s student retention rate can be important to the expected discussion. By the same token, a “city council” is often the addressee of the “community issues” questions and is a type of body few of my students could explain. When a prompt asks my students to discuss possible uses of a “grant,” many assume that a grant is a type of loan, for few have had experience with the giving and receiving of directed-use money.

Once students have written initially on a topic, a class discussion is used for comparing answers. Students read others’ papers and comment on them. I then use “tell me more” questions to lead to further writing and refining. Other topics are related to assigned readings, for reading, certainly, is as important an element of a writer’s development as is the actual writing itself.

Only when my students can write comfortably for a period of time do I begin to point out the mechanical problems in their compositions. My reason for this is two-fold: first, as Marilyn B. DeMario points out, “[s]ince the mechanical writing errors that adults make tend to be idiosyncratic, it is not always useful to spend many classroom hours in a general discussion of mechanical errors” (98) and, second, it is necessary to produce before one can refine. Though mechanics are supposed to be the least important of the four elements of a successful CUNY/ACT essay, it is my experience that Readers tend to emphasize them, if for no other reason than that mechanical problems are the most easily identified and agreed upon. So they do have to be considered as extremely important.

Towards the middle of the semester, I ask students to start keeping a copyreading journal that consists of two-column pages, one headed “My Way” and the other “Standard Way” (a device developed by Lou Kelly at the University of Iowa Writing Lab). The journal is begun as an in-class exercise with students reading through their own papers for mechanical problems then exchanging papers with other students for the same purpose. The journal can serve the idiosyncratic needs of each student while the proofreading of other papers can show them problems of their own that they may have missed.

From the beginning of the semester, I give students reading assignments. At first, I hand out copies of op-ed pieces, read through them with the students, and then ask for short written responses to be followed by class discussion. Through this, I assess the students’ reading skills, choosing other short articles or fiction pieces that the students can react to and use in developing their own writing skills.

Only late in the semester do I begin giving the students practice CUNY/ACT tests and outlining for them the specific tasks they will have to accomplish if they are to pass. By that time, they should have acquired the skills necessary for completing the tests effectively, not merely mechanically.

The syllabus below, one designed for the 3-hour Saturday morning class I taught in 2002, is merely a guide. The needs of particular students and the particulars of any semester would force changes in any plan. Once I have identified areas of particular need through the diagnostic writing, or through observation of the course itself, I might steer discussions or writings into other directions. In a class such as this, I do not give out a syllabus to the students, but would give them assignments from week to week, increasing my flexibility and allowing me to face unusual situations creatively and without undue confusion.

Students are be asked to keep all of their writings together, bringing them all to class each week so that they can build upon what they have written before as they face each new writing task. At the end of the semester, students select out essays and present clean copies as their final portfolio.

Aside from the unnamed op/ed pieces, the essays chosen are all from The Riverside Reader. This will likely be the main text in the Composition I class they will take if they pass the CUNY/ACT and the book can be easily found used. Though even the early assignments are subject to change, assignments in the second half of the term are deliberately fewer and less specific for two reasons. First, by that time in the semester, new assignments need to be created to reflect the movement in the class thus far, in response to both progress and recognized weaknesses. Second, focus moves to the test more explicitly than before, for the students start worrying about it more as it nears. After midterm, assignments not directly related to test preparation begin to be resisted.

What follows is a sample syllabus and a starting point for English 092, Developmental Writing II (the second, or more advanced, of the two developmental writing courses offered) at NYCCT:


Week 1

·                    Diagnostic Writing: “Think of a problem you have solved in the past three years. On one page, describe the problem. On the next, describe the solution.”

·                    Discussion: Student expectations, both of the institution and of the students. “What are you wanting from college, and why?” “What does the college expect of you?”

·                    Assignment: “Find a book you can use to write in. For five or ten minutes, some time each day, write in the book. Describe something you did, something you saw, or something you thought about during the last 24 hours. Bring this book to class each week: you will be able to use it, for at least the first part of the term, to help you with the in-class writings. Get used to writing in it!”

·                    Reading: An op/ed piece relating to schooling.

Week 2

·                    Writing: “Where do you live? Tell me how to get there. By subway, by car. How do you get to school from there? Give me directions. Tell me each turn.”

·                    In-Class Exercise in Direction-Following: A non-competitive “treasure hunt” in the building that relies on following written directions exactly.

·                    Assignment: “In your journal, tell something about the different people you are now coming into contact with at college. Describe a different one each day. Tell what they do, what they wear, and anything else you notice about them.”

·                    Reading: A sample CUNY/ACT question, which will then be taken apart into its direction-giving elements.

Week 3

·                    Writing: “With whom have you come into contact at college? Can you divide these people into three groups? Name the groups and write a description of a member of each of them.”

·                    Discussion and Comparison of Groups and Individuals: “Talk about stereotypes and expectations. Talk about different classes of people and expectations of them. Talk about the differences and similarities between students and teachers, and differing and similar expectations of each group.”

·                    Assignment: “In your journal, tell something about a different person in your neighborhood each day. Try to make each a different type from the others, and tell how they are different.”

·                    Reading: An op/ed piece concerning ethnic or class differences.

Week 4

·                    Writing: “How do you think others see you? Describe yourself as someone different from you might see you as you walk toward them on the street.”

·                    Discussion: “Would you say you fall into a stereotype in other peoples’ eyes? Do you stereotype people? What does it mean to do so?”

·                    Assignment: “Each day, think of something your neighborhood needs, but doesn’t have. Tell what it is in your journal.”

·                    Reading: Nikki Giovanni, “Campus Racism 101”

Week 5

·                    Writing: “Tell who you are and why you have become that. Tell who you want to be.”

·                    Discussion: “Goals and possibilities and planning: how do you see them?”

·                    Assignment: “Describe a different store or institution in your neighborhood each day. Start with the ones you patronize most. What’s wrong with them? What’s good about them?”

·                    Reading: Maya Angelou, “My Name Is Margaret.”

Week 6

·                    Writing: “Imagine that a fire has destroyed the main shopping area of your neighborhood. You are asked how to rebuild. Describe the types of stores and facilities you would like to see. Explain why these are important.”

·                    Discussion: “How did you view your neighborhood when you first moved there? Or, if you always lived there, how did you view it when you were small? What is different about how you see it now?”

·                    Assignment: “What about college is important to you? Each day, write out one thing about college that you want or need. Then tell why.”

·                    Reading: Mark Twain, “Two Views of the River.”

Week 7

·                    Writing: “You could change anything you want about this college, but only one thing. What would that be, and why?”

·                    Discussion: “Is what you want also what is best for most other people? Do you take others into account when deciding what you want to do? Why or why not? What does it mean to explain something?”

·                    Assignment: “On alternating days, describe greedy people and giving people, providing a different individual each day.”

·                    Reading: David Brooks, “Bobos: The New Upper Class.”

Week 8

·                    Introduction to Copyreading:” Take a sheet of paper, draw a line down the middle, and write ‘My Way’ at the top of one column and ‘Standard Way’ at the top of the other.”

·                    The class will be spent with students going over their own in-class writings, and the in-class writings of other students, developing the copyreading journals. At times, there will be discussion on how best to use them. Discussion of copyreading will also touch on the portfolios that students will have to present at the end of the term.

·                    Assignment: “Go through your journal with your copyreading journal next to you. Add to your journal when you notice any problems you have overlooked. Write out corrected versions of the paragraphs in your journal where your copyreading journal points out things that should be changed. Think about which of these you might want to use in your portfolio.”

Week 9

·                    Discussion: “What does your essay for the CUNY/ACT exam need to consist of?” Presentation of a broad formula the students can use as a guide. Discussion of paragraphing, introductions and conclusions. Discussion of taking a stand.

·                    Writing: A sample CUNY/ACT exam.

·                    Assignment: “Start selecting pieces you have worked on so far this semester, deciding which ones you like best or want to add to. Write more where it is needed.”

Week 10

·                    Writing: A sample CUNY/ACT exam.

·                    Discussion: “How is this writing different from the writing you have done so far in this course?”

·                    Assignment: “Begin typing your selected portfolio pieces into a computer. Print them out, revising and copy-editing the results once more.”

Week 11

·                    Writing: A sample CUNY/ACT exam.

·                    Discussion: “Tell about how you organized your essay, and why.”

·                    Assignment: “Are there pieces you need to add, or delete from your portfolio? Decide if you need to write more, and what, rounding out the whole that you will present.

Week 12

·                    Writing: A sample CUNY/ACT exam.

·                    Discussion: “What does it mean to elaborate?”

·                    Assignment: “Organize your portfolio, deciding the order of presentation.”

Week 13

·                    Writing: A sample CUNY/ACT exam.

·                    Discussion: “What are the most common ‘errors’ you have found in your writing through your copyreading? Have you gotten to the point where you can safely assume you will not make those errors again? Are your errors similar to those you’ve seen when you’ve read other students’ papers?”

·                    Assignment: “Write a cover letter for your portfolio, presenting the material within, explaining why you chose the pieces and pointing out any threads that run through them.”

Week 14

·                    Review of strategies for taking the CUNY/ACT test.

Week 15

·                       Debriefing: “What will you take from this course into your Composition I course?”

·                       Turn in portfolio.


Not all students will pass the exam if a hybrid strategy of this sort is used (and, no, I do not like that), but those who do pass will be also in a position to succeed in their Composition I courses. Students who have merely learned a formula to use on the test may find those courses mountains they cannot climb. And that is a failure as serious as failure on the CUNY/ACT test.

Though I may not like it, the purpose of a CUNY developmental writing course is not to produce good writers, or to lead writers to that “breakthrough” that can be so satisfying for both student and teacher, when a student suddenly realizes that they have something to say and the ability to say it. Instead, it is to prepare them to pass the CUNY/ACT exam. Mere success on the test, however, is not enough. We need to get them to the point where they are inside the university’s gates with the skills they need for college work.

Then we can really start worrying about helping them become good writers.


Works Cited

Bartholomae, David. “The Tidy House: Basic Writing in the American Curriculum.” Journal of Basic Writing 12.1 (1993): 4-21. Rpt. In Landmark Essays on Basic Writing. Ed. Kay Halasek and Nels P. Highberg. Mahwah, NJ: Hermagoras Press/Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001. 171-184.

Bartholomae, David and Anthony Petrosky. “Introduction.” Facts, Artifacts and Counterfacts: Theory and Method for a Reading and Writing Course. Ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. Portsmouth, NH: Heineman-Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1986. 3-43.

DeMario, Marilyn B. “Teaching the Course.” Facts, Artifacts and Counterfacts: Theory and Method for a Reading and Writing Course. Ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. Portsmouth, NH: Heineman-Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1986. 87-102.

Elbow, Peter and Pat Belanoff. A Community of Writers: A Workshop Course in Writing. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1989.

Information for Students and Faculty: Spring 2002-Fall 2002. The CUNY Skills Assessment Program. New York: The City University of New York, 2002.

Salvatori, Mariolina. “The Dialogical Nature of Basic Reading and Writing.” Facts, Artifacts and Counterfacts: Theory and Method for a Reading and Writing Course. Ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. Portsmouth, NH: Heineman-Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1986. 137-166.

Shor, Ira. “Errors and Economics: Inequality Breeds Remediation.” Mainstreaming Basic Writers. Ed. Gerri McNenny. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001. 29-54.

Trimmer, Joseph and Maxine Hairston, eds. The Riverside Reader. 7th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002.


Review of Rhetoric and Composition as Intellectual Work

edited by Gary A. Olson

Southern Illinois University Press, 2002


Reviewed by: Andrea Deacon

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee


Lynn Worsham, in her contribution to this collection, “Coming to Terms: Theory, Writing, Politics,” makes a clear distinction between what she sees as “academic” versus “intellectual” work in the field. “Academic work” is “inherently conservative,” seeking to “fulfill the relatively narrow and policed goals and interests of a given discipline…and the increasingly corporatized mission of higher education” (101). On the other hand, “intellectual work,” as Worsham defines it, is “relentlessly critical, self-critical, and potentially revolutionary, for it aims to critique, change, and even destroy institutions, disciplines, and professions that rationalize exploitation, inequality, and injustice” (101). What Worsham and Gary Olson, the editor of the collection, see getting in the way of accomplishing more intellectual work in composition studies is, to quote Worsham, “the ongoing battle over the nature of ‘our’ work…often abbreviated as the theory-practice split” (102). Worsham labels this “ongoing battle” as “academic” since “the technical and professional authority of composition has already been established and…is not now in jeopardy” (103).

I begin my review by citing Worsham because her intellectual versus academic distinction seems to govern the exigency in putting together this collection. As such, there may be disappointment among those who approach this volume hoping to find rigorous debate or contesting investigations within the different essays and among authors regarding the value or place of intellectual work in the field. In some ways, the collection as a whole is meant to prove and showcase this value. In the Preface to the book, Olson offers this collection as proof that any definition of “rhetoric and composition as a discipline whose raison d’être is the teaching of writing is dangerously narrow and even, in some people’s eyes, anti-intellectual” (xii). Olson is, however, careful to note that teaching writing and research on writing processes can also be “intellectual,” but should not be the only intellectual concerns we have as a discipline” (xii). Clearly, this collection seeks to expand the definition of the field and what it means to do scholarship and “work” in rhetoric and composition. It seeks to showcase that, as Olson argues, “rhetoric and composition is already an intellectual discipline” (xii); the essays here are meant to “present a picture of a vibrant field of substantive scholarship about a formidable array of academic subjects relevant to the workings of written discourse” (xii).

Olson categorizes the 19 essays in this collection into five sections, each representing different theoretical and methodological possibilities for intellectual work in composition studies: Disciplinary Concerns, Historical Inquiry, Ideological Inquiry, Philosophical Inquiry, and New Directions (emerging areas of inquiry for the field). I found some of these categories more satisfying than others and as a whole, I felt that the short page-length of most essays (averaging about 10 pages each) sometimes did not do justice to the theoretical complexity of certain pieces insomuch as authors were not able to unpack their arguments or define key terms or theoretical concepts they were utilizing. This collection, indeed, assumes an audience well-versed in classical rhetoric and a wide array of modern and postmodern rhetorical and critical theories. Yet, this collection does live up to its billing as a showcase for intellectual work in the discipline; it fulfills Olson’s goal of showing that rhetoric and composition has emerged as “a respectable contributor to the intellectual work of the academy” (xvi).

Personally, I found Parts One (Disciplinary Concerns), Three (Ideological Inquiry), and Five (New Directions) to be the most compelling as well as accessible sections of the collection. The essays in Section One largely examine ways in which composition studies is refiguring itself as an intellectual discipline. C. Jan Swearingen, in a piece revisiting composition’s historical quest for legitimation, notes the irony that the appropriation of postmodern theory, which helped rhetoric and composition “defend itself against a repudiation of literature” has now become an instrument in “rhetoric’s repudiation of composition” (16). As a result, Swearingen fears the growing incoherence of the discipline will lead (and in some cases has already led to) the establishment of writing programs cordoned off from English departments and the rhetorical theorists within those departments. Such programs, she argues, are largely “nontenure track ghettos” and unfortunate homes for newly minted Ph.D.’s in rhetoric and composition.

One alternative to splitting up the theoretical and institutional arenas of rhetoric and composition is posed by two authors in this collection: Charles Bazerman (Part One) and Susan Miller (Part Two). Both authors advocate redefining and renaming the field “writing studies”; such a definition, Miller argues, would “create the greatest success and shared integrity for our field” in both “content and name” (41). Miller explains that “writing studies” is an appropriate definition for our rapidly growing field since it “gathers many varieties of intellectual work around the discreet questions about relations of writers and texts that first formed composition studies as a field” (42). Bazerman sees “writing studies” as advantageous because it adopts a “lifespan perspective” by investigating one’s relationship with writing not only in school and during one’s years as a student, but “within the complex of our unfolding lives, in schools and outside of academia” (35). Further, as Miller notes, writing studies focuses on the “production of texts rather than their interpretation” (41) and therefore takes a much needed look at the material and social context and barriers surrounding this production, in a variety of settings.

While the essays in this collection represent an impressive and daunting range of scholarship, all the authors seem to value disciplinary change and growth. In Section Two, for example, Susan Wells and Susan C. Jarratt both offer ways historical inquiry can push the boundaries of the disciplinary identity and scholarship. Wells believes that archival work of our disciplinary past offers us important “gifts”: a resistance against easy resolution to questions and a “possibility of reconfiguring our discipline” by “reconfiguring our relation to history” (58). Jarratt’s essay demonstrates how classical rhetorical terms can be renewed and reinterpretated to “confront social differences” (65); she extends the term “disposition” (arrangement) beyond individual rhetorical situations to the space around the situation, including the material conditions and types of access which support and influence the situation. A focus on disposition and its emphasis on contextual space, Jarratt argues, forces us to “call attention to the uses of rhetoric in public spaces, foregrouding questions of power, participation, and representation” (75).

Like Jarratt, several authors in this collection (Miller, Olson, Fox, Worsham, Trimbur, Selfe and Selfe, and Crowley) are especially concerned with the material and social conditions surrounding the composition, distribution, and consumption of written texts and other cultural discourses. In Part Three: Ideological Inquiry, both Olson and Worsham argue the need for scholars and students in composition studies to engage in ideological critique in an effort to alter their material existence and to “effect real change in their lives” (Olson 82). Worsham makes a compelling argument that to alter hegemonic practices and institutions, we need to understand the often unacknowledged emotional dimensions of ideology. She argues that the “primary work of ideology is to organize an emotional world, to inculcate patterns of feeling that support the legitimacy of dominant interests, patterns that are deemed especially appropriate in reigning gender, race, and class relations” (106).

Also in Part Three, Tom Fox, in his piece “Working Against the State: Composition’s Intellectual Work for Change,” makes the important point that while ideological and institutional critique is already quite abundant and has “made us more aware of the ways we – professors and students – are defined by our institutions” (92), such critiques rarely lead to actual institutional change. Fox, drawing upon his own difficulties and hard-fought successes at his own university, theorizes ways we can effect institutional change by “working against the state and state-defined policies” (94) that are conservative and non-inclusive.

Other authors in the collection are concerned with the ways material/social conditions of textual production are suppressed in our institutions and classrooms by adherence to the process paradigm of writing scholarship and instruction. In making this point, two authors, Thomas Kent (Part Four) and John Trimbur (Part Five) note the material and social underpinnings of the “post-process” movement. Kent outlines the tenets of “paralogic rhetoric,” which denies the existence of a writing process and attributes success in writing to the accuracy of the “hermeneutic guesses” we make “about the strategies others will employ to understand our utterances” (145). As Trimbur notes, a post-process orientation to writing instruction and scholarship de-emphasizes the “composer as maker of meaning” and focuses, instead, of the labor processes of constructing and negotiating meaning with others and with one’s environment. In one of the best written pieces of the collection, Trimbur advocates studying and teaching typography because unlike “process images” such as voice, cognition, and conversation, typography emphasizes the “materiality and visuality of writing” (191). Trimbur goes on to show that revitalizing an interest in typography can, among other things, revive the “lost” rhetorical canon of delivery and can “rematerialize” the acquisition of literacy” (192).

Trimbur’s call to revive intellectual and scholarly interest in typography among compositionists is one of four “new directions” offered in Part Five for intellectual work in the field. Sharon Crowley urges compositionists to become more invested in the field of “body studies,” particularly the ways in “which teachers’ and students’ bodies and rhetoric about them circulate in classrooms and in the university” (186). Cynthia Selfe and Richard Selfe outline three exigencies for intellectual work in the field of computers and composition. First, they argue that given that technology and literacy have become “inextricably intertwined,” instructors must draw upon the soundest theory and practice in teaching electronic literacy to diverse populations (205). Second, they highlight the need to investigate social/cultural issues surrounding technology such as access and intellectual property disputes. Finally, they urge further investigations into notions of representation, identity and technology, including graphic and text-based representations of gender, class, and race, as well as the “gendered landscape” of computer-mediated communication. In the final essay of the collection, William Covino uses the ballot counting fiasco of the 2000 Presidential election to resurrect interest in the rhetoric of magic and how it is often used to silence any “challenges” to established positions – just as the Bush camp labeled statistical projections of a Gore victory, based on Florida recounts, as “statistical voodoo” (227).

While I obviously cannot do justice, in the space I have here, to the complexity of each essay in the collection, I want to conclude my review with a few remarks about the collection as a whole. Particularly, I want to extend the discussion I began in the introduction about the intended audience for this volume. If Worsham’s definition of intellectual work is correct, if it’s meant to “critique, change, and even destroy institutions, disciplines, and professions that rationalize exploitation, inequality, and injustice” (100), then it seems curious to me that a collection devoted to intellectual work in our discipline is represented almost exclusively by tenured professors and established “insiders” in the field. To clarify, and important thread left unexplored in this volume is how to include, in such intellectual work, more voices and perspectives of those “exploited” in our own field. Too often, as Bruce Horner rightfully notes in his Terms of Work for Composition: A Materialist Critique, intellectual work denies its own materiality and the barriers facing outsiders who want to partake in such work. This insight is clearly illustrated by Olson in his first of two contributions to this volume. Defending himself against attacks of careerism and self-interest, Olson argues: “Far from being selfish, most ‘scholars’ make enormous sacrifices to produce their work, gladly devoting huge spans of time to their projects – not simply to further their careers but because they love the subject and are devoted to the discipline itself” (28). Olson implies here that the prerequisites for doing “scholarly” or intellectual work are simply “love” and “glad devotion.” In the context of this collection, this implication is particularly troubling and does little to remedy the “academic” theory-practice split in the field. It especially does little to reach those who would like to investigate intellectual concerns beyond the classroom, but lack the non-discursive means (e.g. time, money, professional incentive, or institutional support) to do so. While this collection proves that meaningful and exciting intellectual work is happening in the field, it begs another collection which examines how the material conditions surrounding intellectual work may be investigated and altered to ensure more representative participation among the institutionally, racially, materially, and gender-stratified groups of individuals who seek to identify with this discipline.


Works Cited


Horner, Bruce. Terms of Work for Composition: A Materialist Critique. New York:

SUNY Press, 2000.


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