When I left last week’s readings, I had more questions than answers. I appreciated the definitions the authors quote from Greenberg, Bizzell, and Connors: “…people who simply have not had enough experience writing in a variety of roles and registers for a variety of concerned readers” …”[people who] need academic cultural literacy in order to achieve full participation in the academic community, then a way must be found to give students access to this knowledge while at the same time encouraging some critical distance on it,” …and “that kind of student writing which disturbs, threatens, or causes despair in traditional English faculty members” (55) respectively.
After the list, I chuckled when I read Otte and Mylnarcyk’s question: “Is the real point to help BW students or to make sure they will not offend the faculty who read and evaluate their work” (55)? The authors then say that they think this question is unfair; I absolutely do not think this question is unfair. I read an article several year’s back in EJ; the year is foggy, but the content isn’t. The author called teaching students now so they impress the teachers they have in the future “the dream deferred.” We don’t teach them knowledge they need right now in their lives; we teach them because, “Next year, you will need to know this.” Sadly, I am guilty of this as well.
The way I read this section, Bartholomae initially believed that “…basic writers must know what we know, talk like we talk…and must learn to speak our language” (56). Forcing / assimilating students into this academic community of practice essentially means teaching the BW the conventions of Standard English and academic discourse isolated from their individual ‘selves.’ Using Mary Louise Pratt’s idea of contact zones fits this situation perfectly. We are trying to mainstream the students into another zone. We are aiming for assimilation.
The word “mainstream” has become a pejorative to me. Mainstreaming has changed No Child Left Behind to No Child Gets Ahead. In a class of 30 students, you will find, on average, two overachievers, three unidentified gifted and talented, five who aren’t sure what a complete sentence looks like, and twenty students who barely exist in limbo sometimes engaged, but most times not. They sit in a crowded room trying to survive the year in a subject that they truly are uninterested in. The BW in a class of 30 will never be given the individual identification and attention he / she needs. Mainstreaming does not work.
Although I hear, almost daily, that the decisions admin makes is “for the best of the students.” I have to tell you, some of the decisions are clearly not for the best of the students. Mainstreaming is one of the decisions that are great in theory yet horrible in practice. Instead of recognizing the mistake and going back to the drawing board, we persevere and push forward with the idea that it isn’t working because the teachers and students aren’t used to it. Give them more time. I guess a few decades of low scores and low expectations aren’t enough to recognize the need for change.
Definitions in general are tricky. Sometimes we define things by identifying what it is and sometimes by what it isn’t. When I say this is a cat, I am in the same breath saying the infinite things it is not. Reversing the process, maybe we should list who a BW is not and what a BW cannot do, instead of trying to put constraints on who he / she is and what he/she can do. Moving these students across the border may be easier when we know how to help them, individually. I have a hard time grasping / accepting a definition of the universal basic writer. Like Haswell writes, “…there is no genuine insight free or innocent of interpretation” (7).
Knowledge and ability is indeed a spiral more than a linear chart. However, to add to Haswell’s spiral, I would say it is more like a flowered Spirograph—each line and curve of knowledge affecting all other lines in our umwelts. If we focus on one section of the spirograph, it gets darker and darker. The other’s lighten in comparison but never go away. I don’t think students see that knowledge in one course enhances, affects, strengthens knowledge in all the other courses. I agree with Haswell that “All students enter all courses in medias res, all are on alien ground” (17). This is one of those quotes that explains so much and sheds light on much more. This seems relevant to identifying BW’s. Maybe there is no such thing as a BW unless we are discussing the actual performance of ‘making letters on paper’ in elementary school. If everyone is in medias res, then the students have already walked through the beginning. They have skills; we just have to encourage growth. Maybe, the section on their spirographs hasn’t received enough attention. It is light, but it’s there.
(I appreciate analogies. In truth, I love reading them and writing them. However, I didn’t understand the “fire and water treatment of academic prose” analogy Haswell uses in the conversation about freshmen and sophomore and junior students writing the same essay? He wrote, “Their language sense has been hardened in the long fire-and-water treatment of academic prose”(21). I am sure it is a simple explanation; if anyone knows, will you share?)