Dawn Boeck - Response for 11.8.11

In Chapter 5, “Looking Outward: Basic Writing and Basic Writers in the Mainstream Media,” Adler-Kassner & Harrington analyze the portrayal of basic writing courses and basic writing students in The New York Times and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The startling differences between these two portrayals can be understood by analyzing the rhetorical strategies used in each. This chapter emphasizes the inseparable connection between education and the public that is both facilitated and hindered by the media and political systems.

In Chapter 6, “Continuing the Conversation: Basic Writing Now and Beyond,” Adler-Kassner & Harrington offer a more critical approach to teaching basic writing, what they call “making basic writing a political act” (99). They explain, “The bedrock principle of this approach is to defy the institutional impulse toward perpetuating an autonomous model of literacy” (99). They argue that teachers should promote a more situated or subjective view of literacy, one that emphasizes the rhetorical and always shifting situation of each communicative act.

I enjoyed the tour de syllabi offered by Adler-Kassner & Harrington because it emphasizes the individual nature of each writing class, whether it is basic writing, composition, or an advanced writing course. The syllabus offers a student-perspective on the course – what is expected, what is taught, what the goals of the class are, and how they will be accomplished.

Adler-Kassner & Harrington found that many of these syllabi revealed mixed approaches to writing with unclear ways for students to view writing. I believe that the “competing tensions” represented in the syllabi and daily lesson plans of the sample universities are representative of the field of basic writing and composition studies in general (p. 91). With so many ideas, overlapping theories, and various or potential outcomes, it is a difficult and complex task to design a course with goals, daily plans, assignments, and assessments that work to achieve a single and clear way of looking at writing. While you want to value your students personal journal writing, you are required to value their major writing projects more – which, usually come in the form of traditional modes, even if they incorporate the personal. While you want to value process over product, you are required to value their product more – because product is what is expected by professors in other courses and what is, ultimately, valued in our own courses (since we grade the final product, deducting points for formatting, mechanical errors, citing, etc.). Institutional influences continue to exert their power over curricular development, regardless of pedagogical progress. So, as teachers, we must decide what change and influence we can create within the walls of our own classrooms.

“By their nature, basic writing courses are introductions to college literacy” (97). The more I read and learn about basic writing as a field and as a course, the more I see its inseparable connection to first year composition. I would argue that by their nature, first year composition courses are also introductions to college literacy. In the triad/tetrad system here at TAMUCC, Composition and Seminar are the small classes that welcome these students to the university, introducing them to the (sometimes harsh) realities of college. Adler-Kassner & Harrington (2002) argue that BW instructors (and FY composition instructors, by my extension) need to deliver instruction that “enables students to understand how definitions of literacy are shaped by communities, how literacy, power, and language are linked, and how their myriad experiences with language (in and out of school) are connected to writing” (98). The goal of critical literacy instruction in basic writing, and FY composition, is to “make basic writing [and composition instruction] political, local, and active” (98). These critical tools are necessary for all students.

Adler-Kassner & Harrington (2002) address this connection between BW and FY composition in the final paragraphs of their book, arguing that these issues and approaches “are especially relevant for basic writing students, who have been placed in courses because of particular notions of good (and bad) literacy” (102). Students who are labeled “at-risk” or as outsiders to the academic community need to gain an awareness and critical understanding of the systems that determine assessment, placement, and curriculum design. I agree with this point; however, I maintain that teachers of all writing courses should emphasize the importance of critical literacy.

O&M (2010) discuss the current state of the field of BW, from 1990-2010, offering the most current discussion of the field. The organization of this chapter emphasizes that BW faces criticism, from both inside and outside forces, making its revision and implementation in the 21st century a complex feat.

I found it interesting (as well as disturbing) that O&M make the connection between the trend of closing remediation programs and reducing/eliminating remedial and BW courses with university interests in public image. O&M explain that in an effort to increase retention rates, student performance, and additional funding (i.e. research universities), many universities are tightening admissions standards and reducing opportunities for remediation – regardless of a growing need for these services. In essence, this is gatekeeping in disguise. By increasing standards and reducing opportunities for “second chances,” universities are essentially keeping certain populations of students OUT of academia, and therefore, unable to earn college degrees and break “the cycle of disadvantage” (185).

O&M make the connection between our current financial crisis and the state of the 1970s, at the birth of BW. In a similar environment, we are seeing cuts to remedial education as the emphasis in higher education slides toward retention (productive #s), expansion (continual #s), and research ($$$). There is a definite disconnect between the goals of the institution – or institutions, academia – and educators.