Caleb’s Reading Response: 9/20/2011

Although both readings are different regarding approach and writing style, both authors assert an overeager need for English and basic writing faculty to support writing rules that dictate how to define good writing versus bad writing. It is unfair to blame the need to define ‘good’ scholastic writing on any particular period or scholar; however, this stagnate, elitist view of what constitutes good writing often subverts English and basic writing faculty into a practice that goes against many of the pedagogical models that support multiculturalism and process based instruction. In fact, it seems that the whole “literacy crisis” in America is built on this false connotation of good writing versus bad writing, or more directly, good thinking versus bad thinking.

Otte and Mlynarczyk speak about the multiple attempts and stages of defining basic writing students and basic writing pedagogy in their second chapter. What stood out the most was a quote from Bartholomae, who stated: basic writing students “must know what we know, talk like we talk” (“Writing Assignments” 300) and “must learn to speak our language” (“Inventing” 135) (O & M). Essentially, basic writing students are outsiders on multiple levels. Though nothing has every been set in stone, often basic writers are defined as the ‘underprepared’, ‘remedial’, ‘minority’, ‘low income’, etc. They are the students whose writing “disturbs, threatens, or causes despair in traditional English faculty members” (O & M); essentially, they are square blocks trying to fit into a circular hole, or whatever other ways scholars choose to say it. In the end it comes down to the fact that BW students do not have the ability to write at the university level, if at all.

In regards to BW students, obviously there is much flexibility on who they are and what they need; however the one constant in this equation is who they are not. BW students are not good writers, which often gets confused with not being very good thinkers. Crowley notes that she “doubts whether we serve new students well by using mass examinations to segregate them into classrooms that can be readily identified as remedial or special” (O & M). The fact that we designate their inabilities seems to cripple many BW students from the get go, despite the desired intentions to help improve student writing. Although many scholars blame either the scholar or secondary education (which, depending on the situation, might actually be logical), it seems that English studies has always held an ungrounded traditionalist vision and an objectible need for holistic assessment, which has added fuel to the aforementioned “literacy crisis”.

In section one of the Haswell text, this notion of the English ungrounded vision is explained through experimentation. Essentially Haswell asked a group of English teachers to assess student writing from the freshman, sophomore, and junior levels to measure what growth has developed in students as they mature through their undergrad years. The results were startling, as the teachers were asked to grade using a holistic method that measures growth, only to assert that there was primarily no growth between freshman through junior year. Haswell asserts that this is by far not the case, as his measures indicate growth in writing complexity, logic, structure, organization, and vocabulary, while the teachers surveyed only indicated that vocabulary had improved. Essentially, it seems that despite using holistic grading, these teachers still reached into their formalist/traditionalist tool kits, as their grades reflected more on the grammar, page length, and structure elements of student papers, while ignoring elements that indicate solid cognitive development. Despite these teachers best intentions, they had a drop off from pedagogy to practice, where they preached one thing while simultaneously enforcing another. If this is common place, then how many students are really at risk, and is there really even a “literacy crisis” to begin with?

Again, I feel like I could talk for days on each reading, but I’ll do everyone a favor and start wrapping it up. It seems that basic writing offers no definitive meaning, pedagogy, or target audience, as all these measures change depending on the scholar or school of thought. Essentially, BW students are simply those that are not one of us yet, as they still struggle to develop college acceptable writing. Though both books pose this question, Haswell makes it the cornerstone of part one of his text, asking simply whether we are measuring students correctly, giving credit to the knowledge they do have, and measuring them for developmental/cognitive growth instead of skin deep surface elements. I think I’ll end as O & M do with a simple question: If we don’t have definitions for BW, BW students, or BW pedagogy, “what exactly is it that BW does”?