Basic Writing, Community Engagement, and Interdisciplinarity

Thomas Peele

The six essays collected in the special issue of BWe on service-learning and interdisciplinarity cover the map both geographically and pedagogically. Both two-year and four-year colleges are represented in this collection, as well as urban, suburban, and rural institutions. The community-based writing ranges from interviews with farmers to interviews with Holocaust survivors; students’ work ranges from digital video projects for classroom presentations to artwork created for display in museums. The authors of these essays all share a passion for working with basic writing students and English language learners and creating for these students and agency partners writing assignments that are meaningful in their geographic, academic, and cultural locations. The essays here represent work from a vibrant array of scholars working in diverse contexts. They demonstrate that, despite the challenges faced by universities, basic writing programs, and English language learners, faculty continue to provide creative and innovative approaches to community-based writing.

In her essay about making community-engaged writing opportunities available to early college placement students at Eastern Oregon University, Cori Brewster explores the challenges of making complex and challenging writing contexts available to rural high school students. These high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors earn college credit for three-week intensive courses for which they are not always prepared. In spite of some obvious drawbacks, students, faculty, and administrators are increasingly pressured to support programs that encourage enrollment and reduce costs. Cori describes the writing assignments that she developed in order, in part, to engage the students, and she evaluates the students’ writing both on its own terms and in the light of what would be expected from students completing a full semester of composition.

Jeremy Branstad, a professor of English at North Shore Community College in Lynn, Massachusetts, joins other scholars whose aim is to expand the range of pedagogical choices that are available in the basic writing classroom. In his essay, Jeremy describes a service-learning project in which reading and writing students create multimodal compositions on the subject of civil rights for the Lynn Museum. Following Elizabeth Wardle, Jeremy seeks to help students build “problem-exploring” dispositions as they complete the work for this and other courses. Then, using the “knowledge-domain” framework provided by Anne Beaufort (knowledge of discourse communities, subject matter, genre, rhetoric, and process), Jeremy demonstrates that by working in a service-learning context students are able to gain valuable experience working within these knowledge domains and that this experience will serve them well as they follow a college curriculum that will ask them to negotiate countless rhetorical situations. Ultimately, Jeremy hopes to move the field away from current-traditional pedagogy in basic writing classrooms.

In their essay that describes a multi-year collaboration between the Writing Program and the Writing Center at the University of Southern Mississippi, Ann Shivers-McNair and Joyce Olewski Inman remind us of the potential conflicts that can arise even in contexts when all of the stakeholders--administrators, faculty, and staff--are equally committed to helping marginalized students successfully complete their academic coursework. Modeled on Arizona State’s Stretch Program, this collaboration was very successful in its pilot phase in that it retained students at a higher rate than conventional classes and, as a result, it earned the attention, respect, and financial support of the administration. Ultimately, however, the project unravelled as a result, in part, of the contingent nature of the faculty most directly involved in the program: the Writing Center director, the Writing Program administrators, and the students they intended to serve. Because of this contingency, the authors were unable to successfully achieve what Linda Adler-Kassner has called story-changing work. While their collaboration produced many successes, it also serves as a cautionary tale about the potential all of us have to reproduce the very power dynamics that we seek to undermine.

At Queensborough Community College, professors Jennifer Maloy and Julia Carroll worked with Kupferberg Holocaust Resource Center and Archives Director Marisa Berman to develop a collaborative service-learning project that paired basic writing students and English language learners with Holocaust survivors. Among other accomplishments, this project increased the number of service-learning collaborations between basic writing students, English language learners, and the highly regarded Kupferberg Center. In this text, the authors emphasize that not only is this body of students more actively involved in the campus community than they had been, but that the partnership is reciprocal in that these students were able to make meaningful contributions to the Holocaust survivors and to the Kupferberg Center. In a less rigorous service-learning design, the survivors could run the risk of providing educational experiences without being offered many benefits from their student partners. Following Tania Mitchell’s critical service-learning scholarship, the authors developed a critical service-learning project that emphasizes reciprocity between students and agency partners. The authors contend that this approach is especially important for this cohort of community college students, who often feel significantly marginalized from the academic community. In their second essay, the authors describe the careful planning and extensive meeting required to ensure this reciprocal relationship.

In their essay, University of Mississippi writing instructors Karen Fatula Forgette, Andrew Davis, and Chip Dunkin describe a case in which their students became too focussed on one audience while neglecting another. Tasked with writing a proposal to the Associated Student Body governance board for $100 grants to the community organization of their choice, students wrote proposals that were highly effective for the ASB audience but that overlooked their academic audience. In order to address this, in the next year of the study the authors introduced an element of remix. Students were asked to write essays directed at an academic audience and then to transform these essays into short videos that were aimed at a specific audience. The authors conclude that this remix had a significant impact on students’ audience awareness and their abilities to reach their audiences.


The production of this issue required the help of a small army of supporters. Two anonymous reviewers reviewed each submission. Each accepted essay was copy edited by two graduate students in the graduate program in Language and Literacy at The City College of New York and graduates of the graduate program in Rhetoric and Composition at Boise State University. These unpaid but much appreciated graduate students are Sofia Binioris, Chanan Bertkovits, Stephanie Jean, Kim Pixler, and Tessa Smith.

Without Lynn Reid, BWe’s production editor, who manages to do this work in addition to full-time teaching and graduate work, the journal would not be possible at all.

I also want to thank Kara Brascia, Director of Service-Learning at Boise State University, whose encouragement and support over many years provided me with a much better understanding of service-learning and the importance of scholarship in the field.

Finally, I am very grateful to Barbara Gleason, Editor of BWe, Professor, and Director of the MA in Language and Literacy at The City College of New York, for giving me this opportunity, and to the authors of the essays, who continually impressed me with their dedication to teaching and scholarship.  

Works Cited

Adler-Kassner, Linda. The Activist WPA: Changing Stories About Writing and Writers. Logan, Utah: Utah State UP, 2008. Print.

Beaufort, Anne. College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instruction. Logan: Utah State UP, 2007. Print.

---. “College Writing and Beyond: Five Years Later.” Composition Forum 26 (2012): n. pag. Web. 2 Feb. 2013.

Mitchell, Tania D. "Critical Service-Learning as Social Justice Education: A Case Study of the Citizen Scholars Program." Equity and Excellence in Education 40.2 (2007): 101-12. ERIC. Web. 20 Dec. 2013.

------. "Traditional vs. Critical Service-Learning: Engaging the Literature to Differentiate Two Models." Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 14.2 (2008): 50-65. ERIC. Web. 20 Dec. 2013.

------, David M. Donahue, and Courtney Young-Law. “Service Learning as a Pedagogy of Whiteness.” Equity and Excellence in Education 45.4 (2012): 612-29. ERIC. Web. 20 Dec. 2013.

Wardle, Elizabeth. “Creative Repurposing for Expansive Learning: Considering ‘Problem-Exploring’ and ‘Answer-Getting’ Dispositions in Individuals and Fields. Composition Forum 26 (2012): n. pag. Web. 2 Feb. 2013.