Basic Writing as a Political Act -- pages 61-103
There are two distinct parts to this final half of this book: media and syllabi.
I am pretty impressed at the level of media bias in the stories of CUNY and Minnesota General College. It just shows how much power the media has in swaying people to one side or another. The CUNY series of articles is so completely bias toward the city government, it is disturbing. I would like some clarification though on a few of the “stories” Adler-Kassner and Harrington list here. The rhetoric used in the story examples on pages 66-69 are emphatic of either feature or op-ed, but are reportedly news stories, the majority written by one man, Arenson. The unprofessional bias of Harcollis’s piece (67) is unnerving, which makes me question what kind of article it actually is. If it is an editorial instead of a news story, I would have to question the motives of the authors of this book as misleading their audience to get a point across.
Regardless, I get it. The rhetoric used in the media is completely different from these two schools, one of which capitalized on failure, the other of which utilized a number of resources, such as interviewing students, which the CUNY article did not do. It does not touch on, nor does the Mayor’s Task Force question, that CUNY students have followed a different educational pedagogy and are ESL for most of their lives (71). I’d really like to know the educational backgrounds of the people on the Mayor’s Advisor Task Force, and if any of them have any kind of experience designing and implementing an “objective” standardized testing system. It reminds me of a presentation Dr. Jaime Mejia gave at NCTE last year on the state of the education system in Texas, most particularly with TAKS and what’s next in standardized testing. Even with the encouraging replacement of these tests in the near future, a shadow of doubt looms over what will occur as a replacement, most particularly the mystery of who will actually be making these changes and if they are actually qualified educationally and experientially to make objective and meaningful decisions.
One can also argue the audience for both of these article series was very different. CUNY was more for the conservative, upper class arena that are historically relentless at criticizing progressive education as the GS was aimed at the demographic the college actually served. We are not given information on how CUNY administration packaged their press releases, but in regards to GC, we are indulged in the fact that their media info was, “packaged in ways that acknowledged the broad audience who might take an intereste in the situation – ‘we tailored our fact sheets and press releases so that they were easily consumable by and on-point for busy members of the press – and they were used’” (79).
I am happy to report that Apple Community College and I have a common literacy pedagogy: “For the first half of the course students ‘work on writing assignments without putting much stress on grammar, spelling and punctuation.’ Additionally the syllabus suggests that much of the materials for students’ writing is to come from their own experiences, rather than from outside sources” (89) This is commonly known as the discourse community paper, which occupies the first portfolio in 1301. Adler-Kasner and Harrington question Apple CC because the syllabi apparently sends a mixed message of social constructivist methods of writing essays (clearly defined modes) and expressivist (situated literacy) methods of invention. To this I ask, “So what?” What is wrong with two ways of looking at writing? I do it in my classroom, and students are not bothered by it. They like the free-writing and the like the creative way of implementing evidence into practice in their writing, whatever genre they choose. I think leaving it up to one way of writing can be damaging, actually jading the student from his/her topic, and boring the teacher to tears in the meantime.
I know my 1301 class is not completely basic writing. Since we subscribe to more of a mainstream approach, I know I have some basic writers in my class. I know the conventions are different between the categories, and that basic writing is supposed to be more of a workshop of learning to basics, but why suck creativity out of it? Like we read about the first day with the NCTE descriptions, there is a way to teach grammar and writing without teaching grammar and writing. But before we can teach them about periods and commas, they have to have a sentence to punctuate, right? We have to be constructive about where we start before we judge where we have ended up.
Chapter 5 and 6 in Writing as a political act.
I know it is probably tacky to start each of these with my personal opinion, but it kinda gets me going. I enjoyed the conclusion of this book, not simply because it was over, but because, unlike other books we have looked at, this one concluded with actual answers to questions posed.
Chapter five was a bit frustrating, but I saw where it was going. When literacy and writing come under attack, someone or something has to be to blame. If the people involved in advancing this field and working with “iconic” students or basic writers, don’t have a voice, then how are they supposed to voice their frustrations. One of the keys was the different ways that the situations given were voiced and portrayed. Another was the overall reaction and the institutional reaction. I think the points about the institutional involvement are probably the most valid and poignant. Universities have people who have a voice for the university. It is not simply a matter of if the instructors want to get involved, but if they even could if they wanted to. I agree with the statements on the need to become more organized, a more united front, as it were, but it is seldom up to members of the teaching faculty. If the university puts guidelines into place, and the faculty voices dissatisfaction with the way that they work and the university chooses to ignore that, resulting in poor retention and the overall success of the program, the last thing they want is a bunch of loose lips and openly opinionated people. I think to be more open about basic writing, or even literacy and its goals, one would have to have the university on board too, and make sure the university voice speaks the same language as the departments, or the individual instructor. Another portion of this chapter that is interesting is the idea of the iconic student and how that was played on in the media and throughout. I thought it was interesting how they continued to draw back to it as a narrative and how one university was successful in perpetuating it, and the other was trying to get back to that iconic student narrative and the idea of a successful one.
I loved this chapter, the conclusion anyway. It answered so many things, and the authors definition of basic writing and political writing were fantastic. I don’t think they are complete, but even the author noted that. This idea that basic writing is a course that is set to meet the needs of students who show more academic “neediness”, is interesting. They are correct, it is always a course. I like the idea of bringing in Rose or another author to have them look at why literacy is important, and what levels or types there may be, how they fit in, and what that could or should mean for their lives. I loved that they do not advocate bringing in a specific political or social ideology, but getting the students to think critically and look at literacy and writing in ways they hadn’t looked at before. I tend to lean towards this idea of student empowerment, student responsibility, as well as understanding and clarity of purpose, but not political in the sense of forcing one ideology on the individual. I find that we guard “secrets” like why literacy is important or how it can benefit the students. I have not figured this out, but my experience has been that “basic” skills are accompanied with, “you will understand this better, or how this effects you late on.” Isn’t that a rather backwards approach? I think that is why this portion struck me so. I like the idea of letting them in on this. Literacy is important and effects them in many ways, maybe if they see how and why it won’t be such a struggle to get through some of the more tedious times.
I am still processing some of this and the only thing I can think of that bothered me about the text, I already wrote about above, and that is that I don’t think the instructors could speak for their discipline if they wanted to, not publicly, without authorization and review. I could be wrong, but that is my thoughts to date. I did note however that if the department/university is on board that changes things significantly.
The discussion of the media and the effect that it can have on the perception of basic writing centers was very interesting. To know that the written word can have such an effect on how a program is either praised or maligned was very interesting. The notion of the iconic students and teachers was also an interesting facet of this chapter. The way I am understanding this concept is that the iconic students are those students that are normally classified as “at-risk”. In the scheme of the basic writing class, they are those students who, for whatever reason, are the most discouraged and most distressed to be in the basic writing class. The iconic student is the student that may have taken a class multiple times and that definitely wants to have the entry into middle class that the college education gives them.
The commentary on the education system was also something that I found interesting. As a teacher of high school, I had the misconception that some of the things that went on in the halls of high school and school district administration were relegated to those areas of the education system. I was very surprised to learn that, in college, it was often customary to blame the problems on an individual in lieu of blaming it on the system. The discussion of the replacement of New York Chancellor Crew with Levy was a very extreme story of what can happen when they replace one person in an attempt to improve the whole system. I can only imagine how the individuals invited to lectures on cosmology and violin lessons went over. These administrators were probably already busy trying to fix the broken system. What the hell was Levy’s violin lesson going to accomplish for them. I suppose the thing I took from this was simply that there are a lot of good ideas about how to fix it, but really no way to ever adequately fix it. And, ironically, fixing it seems to create nothing more than new messes.
Richard Miller’s quotation in chapter six of the book pretty much sums up what I just said in the paragraph above. When he says, that the education system “will always reveal itself not to be fixed once and for all by some pronouncement from on high or by some set of well-thought out reforms that have been implemented, but rather to be perpetually in need of fixing” (83), I wholeheartedly agree. The pendulum of the education system is always swinging back and forth, depending on what “experts” say needs to be done to improve the quality of education.
I enjoyed the fact that Kasner and Harrington say that “basic writing seems to resist definition, other than [being] “a course for people who need more help””(84). Without attempting to be politically correct or to be delicate so as to not hurt someone else’s feelings, that statement does seem to be the best definition of a basic writer that I have come across thus far. I also liked how these authors said that the syllabus and not the textbook make a writing course. The first thing that a student ever comes into contact within a classroom is the syllabus. That tells them what they are going to do, how they are going to be graded, and also gives them a sampling of how they can expect to be treated by their instructor. According to Harry Wong, these are the things that are most important to a student entering a classroom on any level. ____________________________________________________________________________
My impressions of the remaining chapters in this book are that they should have been Chapters 1 and 2. I much preferred the reading this time around. I agree with most of what the authors describe in their story telling. I particularly liked the discussion of the media’s role to describe the success or lack thereof regarding higher education’s attempts to define remediation.
The authors assert that while we still don’t have a clear definition of basic writing, syllabi sharing across America has helped to give instructors some confirmation of how each other goes about the teaching of the subject. Yes, this does help to get ideas from others. To see how others approach teaching the controversial subject of developmental writing is assistive because we need to know what works for someone else – it’s not cheating, it’s maximizing resources.
I disagree with the author’s statements that remedial classes are “portrayed as starting at the bottom…” (63). Why? I read their reasoning and I still disagree. I understand they were saying that this is the inference media makes but I do not believe that media is there to sugarcoat information. They have an ethical responsibility to report facts – especially newspapers (which are the sources cited).
Kassner and Harrington state in their book that there is be a perception that remedial students are “undereducated outsiders” (63) or powerless, as described in a subheading in Chapter 5. I understand where they are coming from on this assertion but I definitely do not agree entirely with that statement. Additionally, I believe that there is a “fundamental connection between the school-success narrative and iconic student figure…” (72). However, I do not think that blame-shifting to institutions, media, or students is any way to justify the argument. You cannot point fingers in this situation. There are a variety of reasons why students need remedial instruction – most of which lead to the fact that the student cannot pass a college enforced standard score on a college placement exam. The reasons why this happens is what I see the authors making the case for. I cannot quite grasp if they agree with the stereotype they describe though – “economically disadvantaged, often minorities…” (79).
I do see, regardless, that they advocate Rose’s statement in our first book that “we must organize to enter the conversation…” (82). Yes we can enter the conversation and we should. Not talking about it does not make it go away – it makes the problems worse. There is no doubt that there is a debate about the need for remediation in English. The authors mention that to my understanding, Harvard University has a remedial class (84). Come on! If Harvard has it, then Corpus Christi can offer it.
The authors go on to say that “basic writing seems to resist definition…” (84). Let it (the definition) be whatever the teacher needs to teach, befitting somehow all the descriptions the authors laboriously list on pages 87 – 91. There are many skills needed for a teacher to be able to incorporate the objectives of the developmental class. They (teachers and objectives) all seem to focus on about the same skills. What’s the controversy about then? OK, that question is somewhat rhetorical. I get it that process heuristics is all the buzz. Ultimately, I have to conur with the authors that “students enrolling in basic writing are often considered at risk by their universities" (97). For this reason, we have no choice but to join the debates on the teaching of it. “We have a responsibility to shape approaches to basic writing…” (98) say Kassner and Harrington. There is no better hope for developmental students than a chance for someone to assist them in skill building. ____________________________________________________________________________
One of the big points of the last half of the book seems to be how indefinable basic writing really is. So many factors go into what makes up basic writing ideology and as a practiced course—“The variations between individual instructors, the gap between the classroom and the syllabus, the complexities of personal interactions in class and in writing all make it difficult to generalize about basic writing as it is practical across institutions” (96-97). I think that in many cases, it’s probably not possible to generalize basic writing even within the confines of one institution. Just as in their example from “Maple State University,” they explain how “bureaucracy within an institution both constrains and enables curriculum reform by teachers, allowing nonautonomous models of literacy to evolve in sometimes unlikely contexts” (92). I suspect that this variety in basic writing pedagogy makes it very difficult to research “best practices” and to come to any sort of conclusion about where basic writing should be moving in the future. This probably perpetuates the problem of institutions giving up on their basic writing programs or constantly subjecting them to a state of reform—not that reform is necessarily a bad thing, but how can we know what needs to be reformed when we’re not starting from a cohesive definition of who basic writers are and what the end goal of basic writing classes is to begin with?
In advocating for making the goal of basic writing to teach literacy contextually (making BW a “political act”), I felt that the authors were suggesting an ambitious approach. I was asking myself the very question of whether or not a basic writing student can be expected to consider the reflexive approach of what constitutes “good” writing in multiple situations, but the authors assure us that they have implemented these same curricular strategies successfully with very positive results. I wish they had provided more specific examples about how to execute this strategy, but perhaps it’s more ideological and less practical than I’m trying to make it. There were some specific examples, but they were sort of scattered throughout and not given much context.
I did find it interesting when they talked about the tensions created by the syllabi they viewed: “…syllabi often represent competing (sometimes contradictory) impulses…tensions between the course overview and goals and the activities and assignments” (88-89). This jumped out at me, too, in my BW class observation. I think a lot of BW teachers fancy themselves purely critical pedagogues (or expressivists, or some variation) but find a hard time implementing that ideology into a curriculum, whether or not that’s constrained by departmental standardization or some conflict the teacher finds in taking an approach that completely resists current-traditional methodology. Either way, I think this circles back to the original issue of not being able to define BW as anything other than “‘a course for people who need more help’” (84). That definition actually raises more questions than it answers—why do they need more help…who says they need more help…how can we help them…how can they help themselves…what kind of curriculum best helps them…and what exactly are we trying to help them do? The authors of this book are saying we want to help them have their cake and eat it, too...to be able to successfully execute academic writing while understanding that it’s only a mask (or a tool, to use their metaphor) of which one puts on for the right situation and takes off and tucks in a drawer so as not to compromise his or her individuality and freedom of expression in all other situations. I think that’s certainly ideal, but I still say it’s ambitious.
“Basic Writing in Mainstream Media” is actually a new forum for me, I was aware of the effect it can have in students; I just had not connected it in the perspective that the authors use it. I guess I thought this since often I hear of many students claiming they don’t care for the news or reading newspapers and the only thing they watch are reality shows on cable networks. Another surprising and interesting piece of information is the fact that a college wants to do away with basic writing programs, such as City University New York (CUNY) and the University of Minnesota. I can’t help but think about the many discussions we have in class and the reading material that informs us about many of the issues in today’s education system. If teachers (some) are not doing their job and students want to actually learn, then by the time they go to college, the responsibility will fall on the English composition instructor. To be fair, often teachers don’t have the time to actually teach college prep work and instead focus on a standardized test. Moving on, a quote her reminded me of Mike Rose’s book, in regards to remedial classes “are portrayed as starting at the bottom-from poor or working class origins, and usually as ethnic or racial minorities” (63). We talked about how others may perceive students who are taking remedial courses are often looked upon as “unprepared or unsuccessful”. Back to CUNY, and the way the school’s failure was portrayed in the “The New York Times,” (NYT) it suggests it had “poor leadership” (65). Earlier, I mentioned that much of the blame is often put on the teacher, when in fact it is those who are running the entire system, yet the blame is put on the smaller people who usually don’t have a say. Rudy Crew is also blamed for the failure, but it’s only obvious that he is not the one in the classroom teaching every single student. He may have authority, but I just don’t like when one person is blamed because often there is more than one person to look at when problems arise, often. In essence, this is where NYT comes in, and I think I’ve done this myself, newspapers can use such condescending terms that make readers believe what they read. For instance, NYT wrote the article about this particular college “leading with the verb “conceding” suggesting that Crew was skeptical about certain objective managers who authored a report (66). Throughout the article and follow up stories on this issue, NYT often wrote negative words and used graphics implying the many failures one person made among other things that led to the massive problem the college eventually faced. I think that when the media write a story too negatively they send the wrong message and causes readers to get upset because they only show one side, basically, to them, as oppose to illustrating the entire picture, so they can make up their own decisions. After I finished reading the “General College: The Triumph of the School-Success Narrative,” I was able to notice the tremendously comparison between NYT and the Minneapolis “Star Tribune.” Basically, the difference between the stories is the word usage in a college that is failing to one that is successful, but each story produced the story in a perspective that seemed to suit their own bias. Ultimately, “Star Tribune” use the “iconic student figure [to] transform from powerless victim to empowered actor” (74). The way this newspaper does their layout with graphics, headlines, word usage, plus incorporating student interviews shows, still, another perspective to the issue. In the end, a newspaper story can go either way, positive or negative, depending on the writer and what they decide will be “news worthy.”
Basically, in the last chapter, the authors try to wrap up the ultimate reason for writing this book and that is trying to answer the question, “What is it [basic writer]?” (83). The authors demonstrate that they have done their research on finding an answer to the question and it shows because several pages include a number of sources in which one can use to understand the concept of theory of basic writing. I like how they used conferences to their advantage and came up with the notion of collecting syllabi from different colleges and professors. Their definition seems just right, in the middle, where they are not too off from the theory nor are they perfect in defining it, “basic writing itself is portrayed as everything from a place to learn better spelling to a place to learn life skills” (87). I do agree that “basic writing can have a powerful social influence on students as well” (98). I have seen this from some students and really do believe that they need some motivation to improve on their writing skills, so that it will serve them good when the times comes to serve or impacting the community.
Chapter 5 really showed in quite a bit of detail the two narratives that are generally used in the media (papers, TV news, etc.) to portray basic writing programs at colleges. I found the quote on p. 78 from Carey to be most appropriate in describing this phenomenon - "'[N]ews is not information but drama . . . it invites our participation on the basis of our assuming, often vicariously, social roles within it.'" Looking at that quote, it also lends weight to an argument regarding which of these narratives are used in the news in a particular region. Government surely has some impact, but I would think that readership also has a significant role (perhaps as victims of the assumption that they are reading all of the facts when they read a paper) in the perpetuation of these predictable narratives since the job of a newspaper is to sell newspapers, and the job of a reporter is to sell stories to the newspaper that will sell the newspaper to its readers. If the readers never question what they are reading, if it is true or if there is an agenda behind it, then they will fall for the archetypal students and narratives in the news stories every time. The readership of a paper or the viewer of TV news gets duped by the system and its comfortable confirmation of their own expectations of it just like the viewer of a soap opera is suckered by the predictability and comfortable knowing of the daytime drama format and that it will reaffirm their expectations of it every time they sit down to watch it. In this line of thought, we also see a lot of the reason why many people read their news from only one source. It does nothing but confirm what they already thought and were made to think by it in the first place.
I personally grow more and more disenchanted with the news in this region every day because of this. For example, last night, I watched the president's address to Congress, and, this morning, I checked the Caller-Times site for the news on it; you'd think that the only thing he talked about was pulling the troops out of Iraq because that's all the article discussed. I mean, really, how biased can you get? Of course, I read news from a lot of different sources because our newspaper seems to report very selectively, but it's just gotten plain annoying how insubstantial and skewed the articles are in the name of selling papers to the largely conservative market of the region.
Back to the book - the other thing that bugged me in Ch. 5 was that the articles never included commentary from the actual teachers of basic writing because they are not the "big fish" of the colleges. They are, however, the ones who teach the very subject that the narrative "news stories" of the papers condemn or praise. I wonder if the papers would be afraid of discovering the facts about the programs and letting their readers know that not every situation falls into the neat little archetypes of the iconic student, school-failing-students, or school-success stories that they perpetuate in order to sell more papers. Of course they would not do that because their readers might start reading things more critically or cancel their subscriptions because the paper did not report what the passive readership wanted to hear.
In the last chapter, the thing that strikes me most is that the field of basic writing can't really be given one definition because each teacher has his/her own definition of it that is based on what their own ideology/pedagogy emphasizes or downplays. It is, as the epigraph for the chapter suggests "perpetually in need of fixing." This is something I think I identified indirectly in another response - curious how things are never in line between public education and college as far as requirements of students. All it would take would be some vertical alignment between public schools and colleges, but what if public school teachers taught what colleges said students needed to know about basic writing, literature, or anything in the liberal arts for that matter? Wouldn't a lot of liberal arts instructors and professors be out of their teaching jobs? Nobody in the field with rent or mortgage to pay and a lifestyle to maintain wants that to happen, so it doesn't.
Well, that's one way of looking at it. I suppose the tenured professors could stay on as specialists, but what about everyone else?
Okay, enough with the hypothetical scenario of what things might be like if everybody got together and did things in the most efficient way.What might a solution be to how to teach basic writing?
"[R]eaders and writers need flexible heuristics to be able to adapt their ways of reading and writing to the demands of different readers and purposes, courses and fields, communities and cultures" (91).
This line really speaks to my own ideas. It seems that everyone sees, even if they do not agree, that, coming out of a basic writing program, students ought to be able to both think and write critically in standard English and express their own views in their own language, so I wonder why a balance of the two is not more talked about in our readings. I know that this will be an immense give and take for extreme classicists and extreme romanticists, but I also know from experience in college, the military, and public education that since both types of people exist and can be potential audiences for your thinking and writing, it is best to be equipped with the ability to think and write in both ways in the university and out of it. By knowing and being able to implement both types of thinking and rhetoric, a person can come to his or her own balance in their writing for any audience that they need to address. I think of it as equipping students to rhetorically code-switch. Survival and prosperity in college and the marketplace are generally all about adaptation and ability to adapt, so isn't that what we need to teach them to be able to do in terms of composition and rhetoric?
Media, Chapter 5: This chapter presented the two school success narratives, one that "violates" it and the other that "salvages" it, about CUNY and the University of Minnesota-General College. I thought it was interesting that Adler-Kassner and Harrington presented how easily the media can sway people. In the CUNY case, the Times felt the "primary cause of the problems in the CUNY system is poor leadership" (65). The source of this problem was the Chancellor of the university, according to the Times, and it seems the students were "powerless" as well. These students aren't successul because they are unprepared from the start, which apprently isn't their fault. In the CG case, the Star Tribune depicts the college as a place for students to prepare for "regular college" as soon as they are ready. This article presents the "iconic" students, according to the authors, who aspire to be doctors, lawyers and so on. what i noticed about both stories is how biased the media can be. It seems, particularly in the CUNY case, that only one side of the story is being presented. This is, of course, very unsettling, but not unexpected. All in all, I thought this was an interesting and eye-opening chapter.
Continuing the Conversation, Chapter 6: I liked the conclusion to the book, and how Adler-Kassner and Harrington discuss our best buddy, the syllabus. They mention, "Syllabi, which are locally produced documents, offer a better window into ways that basic writing is enacted in particular institutions" (85). I liked how the authors tried to collect as many syllabi as they possibly could, and admitted they were aware that they came across some "skewed samples." They note that, as the syllabi collected suggest, "basic writing can be virtually anything" (87). Adler-Kassner and Harrington also discuss when basic writing becomes first-year composition, and mention this happens because of "political debates over funding and curriculum" (95). I thought this was interesting because we employ the stretch model at our campus, rather than having remedial courses. So why did the authors include the discussion of syllabi in their book? The answer, in their own words, is because they "have chosen to end our study with a review of syllabi in order to remind ourselves that basic writing, no matter how theorized or how studied, is fundamentally a classroom-based enterprise" (97). I liked this response because I feel there is not one answer to the questions "who is a basic writer" or "what is basic writing."
Andrea, I agree with quote, and also touched on that same thing. I really like the way in which the authors present the issue/problem, and then follow up with solutions in a step-by-step, common-sense approach. I would agree that we must fully understand the issue/problem before attempting to solve it (81-82). I do believe education reform is possible, little by little, through an examination and replacement of out-moded ideals. But, I also think it will have to be a joint effort and consensus between those within the system and those outside of it (although, who is outside of it, really)? Simply replacing one cog in a broken wheel…well, you know the old clichés. Our educational system is based on/steeped in old, out-dated ideologies. Why do legislators persistently cling to these ideals? It makes more sense to alter educational systems to meet the needs of diverse student populations, instead of continuing to insist that students conform to some pre-Civil War concept of knowledge. (Ok, I exaggerate.)
Again, I see the division, or “split” (85) in the way instructors address literacy, and define “good” writing skills. There are a variety of assumptions, approaches, methods, and theories among those involved. The paradox: We must come to a consensus on some issues, yet remain confident in our own individual approaches, while maintaining the ability to adapt to new ideas. As far as the “framing” of “basic writing,” from what I know about “good” academic writing, students should be taught to look at an issue/topic, think critically about both/all sides of that issue, make some determination based on evidence, and then communicate that in writing (basically, page 91). I don’t think that textbooks make or break a course (85), but the more students read, the more they broaden their foundations for their own writing. And, really isn’t that the issue: their own writing? Students write for a variety of reasons, and the different reasons for writing need to be addressed more in the academic classroom (which they are). But, let’s face it, not many of these students will go on to write novels after they graduate; therefore, a combination of approaches (as well as collecting, sharing info., data) would seem reasonable. In other words, try to cover as many bases as possible, and maybe someday the definitions, tests, and even the system will be modified to incorporate all types of students, and writing, as well.
Ok, so I was a little disturbed by the bureaucratic influences on the CUNY system's writing instruction, and for the same reasons that I think the authors list this example in the book. Even more disturbing was how the media depiction of this situation was so obviously biased (although I am not surprised by it, considering I just had my students investigate media bias in my own classroom). What the examples in the text reveal to me, though, is that there is a serious crisis, not only in some college writing curricula, but also in the way we perceive the ideal student and the way typical students are portrayed in the media. The discussion of syllabi in this text is informative, in that it details the inconsistencies in the use and disbursment of them; and the way in which that translates to modern college populations is revealing.
The article I looked up for class today (should we have the opportunity to discuss them), is about a non-graduate of high school who held a viable position with what she considered to be a life-long employer. Because of the recent economic recession, she, like so many others, lost the job that she intended to keep until her retirement. Her new plan is to get her GED and eventually enroll at the local branch of Ivy Tech Community College in order to obtain an income to help support her family. In the article, the attainment of a GED is described as increasingly hard to come by, simply because so many people are now enrolling the programs that provide them. However, the author and the subject of the article both seem confident that her attainment of the necessary literacy for college entrance is a given, in spite of these obstacles. What is not discussed in the article is the fact that the woman, Donna Sharp, is a 44 year old without the benefit of a complete high school instruction and that her GED test scores may not reflect what the community college's idea of high school literacy is, in terms of the required college composition class.
I investigated the college's requirements and noted that they do offer a separate basic writing course for those who do not meet the test requirements of the comp class. There is a separate skills assessment that is part of admission, but I assume it corrolates somewhat with the standards of the college entrance exam scores that they list as necessary prerequisites. In either case, the increasing number of applicants that I would imagine would result from the overabundance of GED pursuants described in the article most likely do not conform to the traditional standards that are associated with high school graduating test-takers. At the very least, these returning students, already at a disadvantage because of their unfamiliarity with modern academic life, would have different perspectives and needs in terms of cultural literacy. How this plays into the depiction of job-skills training that the article offers is left to speculation; the ability of a majority, or even a reasonable percentage, of this demographic to succeed in the current application of writing instruction doesn't factor into the discussion.
What I am left with, then, is concern that some writing syllabi and their application in certain areas that are subject to relatively high economic hardships will be grossly inadequate and that the schools who are applying them may be depicted as "unsuccessful" in the same way that some of the examples in the book are.
This chapter brought the community perspective to the book that it seemed to be leaning toward with the whole "political act" concept. To me, parts of this book seem kind of repetitive, but it's really to just drive the point home. Adler-Kassner and Harrington keep on mentioning throughout this chapter the idea of the "school-success narrative" which seems to me pretty much like a myth, or an ideal notion that schools try to adhere to, but that doesn't really exist because of the complex backgrounds students come from. It has a "focus on iconic students and the restoration of normalcy in the form of literacy standards" (73). The main idea for this chapter, to me, seemed to be about getting the teachers to be able to reach out to promote an accurate idea of what basic writing classrooms are. Teachers, according to the authors, need to "consider how to 'enter the conversation' about literacy snf so-called remedial education" (81). They basically need to introduce the concepts they talk about in the discourse community surrounding basic writing as a field to the media and community in general, so that it is understood correctly, thus making basci writing a "political act."
In this chapter, they discuss basic writing as a "classroom-based enterprise" (97), meaning that the syllabi define the classroom because they are the first thing that the students see about the class. It is also an "introduction to college literacy," basically teaching underprepared students what they need to know in order to be successful college writers. This is pretty much what we have been saying in class...that basic writers are mainly underprepared for only one thing": writing for the university/academic style. So, bascially, Adler-Kassner and Harrington tell us to ask one central question: “What does it mean to be in basic writing at this institution?” (99). This, supposedly, will solve the problems, by setting the class inside the context of the college, telling the students, faculty, media, and anyone else involved or gaining perspective on the class what it is all about. If not, it “keeps students ignorant of the political decisions and contexts that have shaped the classes and programs they are in, and shaped institutional definitions of their writing abilities” (99).
I like the following quote: “Making basic writing political means making teacher agendas clear in the classroom…but it does not mean that having students sign on to those agendas becomes the purpose of the course” (101). To me, this gives the students some kind of agency in the classroom, giving them a decision to make about their education. The students deserve to at least know what is going on in their classes, how the classes are being shaped, and why. Otherwise, it takes the whole situation out of their control and removes their personal context. Addler-Kassner and Harrington also say that “Students need to understand what kinds of judgments are made about their writing by what institutional powers, and they need to understand how to adjust their own writing in order to be successful in other institutional settings” (102). To me, this means (again) that students should be informed about how they will be assessed or placed or judged in relation to entering the academic world. That way they can know what is expected of them and what they need to do to be successful in college.
Basic writing seems to resist definition, other than “a course for people who need more help.”(84)
Doesn’t this quote illustrate what we have been trying to do in class? When we got in our groups and tried to come up with a definition, we really could not decide on specific points. I think that one of the first steps that are necessary to fixing a problem is understanding that problem. With basic writing, we cannot even define the problem; much less offer any clear idea on how it can be solved. With so many ideas and definitions as to what basic writing is, and where it comes from, it is no surprise that there is no single way to teach it. I really liked the idea of compiling different syllabi from a variety of basic writing classrooms, and using them to understand the way teachers attempt to teach the subject.
Both within and across institutions, basic writing itself is portrayed as everything from a place to learn better spelling to a place to learn life skills (87).
If there is this much variation between the classes, how can we possibly expect to really reach the students? How do we develop a standard way to address the variety of issues that cause writers to be basic? I know that I seem to be asking more questions than I actually answer, but that is how I feel about basic writing. There are many different reasons that a person might be labeled as a basic writer, so how can we address all those possible issues in one classroom.
In discussing our different observations, we can all see how different teachers have chosen to deal with the issues themselves, but how do we decide which of these techniques works best? I just worry that there is no concentration of techniques that is guaranteed to help students, and that they will never really be able to get the specific help that they need to improve their skills.
A 5 Paragraph Essay on Basic Writing as A Political Act By Ben.
I have to say that I’m not impressed with this book. Granted, I didn’t exactly have a chance to sit down and spend a nice fireside evening reading it in my smoker’s jacket with a glass of wine, but I’m having a really hard time figuring out what the point of it is/was.
The whole section with the newspaper articles bothered me the most, though, because I really couldn’t find the logic in their arguments. The newspaper was biased, I get that. Did we really need to analyze the language used in the articles to prove that? When are (Word wants me to change that to “is,” and I’m not anywhere near the computer that told me that “writing is fun even if you is not good at it”) newspaper articles not biased? Where is the evidence that the articles were wrong in blaming the school system? I love blaming school systems.
The only part in this section that didn’t strike me as annoying/whining/knit-picking/(enter verb here) was the mention of the “resident intellectual” added to the school board (67). I get endless amusement from the idea of a guy in a bowler’s derby explaining to a school board how to be sophisticated, as if it were somehow going to affect their job deciding on school policy.
All the talk about reforming schools to meet each others’ standards does seem kind of silly though in certain senses. The idea that students at Hostos shouldn’t be allowed to graduate because they couldn’t pass CUNY’s writing test seems kind of ridiculous to me, unless both colleges are on exactly the same standards and claim to have the exact same calibur of graduates. A liberal education college and a somewhat technical college shouldn’t be graded on the same standards because they aren’t trying to achieve the same goals. However, this isn’t what Adler-Kassner or Harrington wants to address. Let’s analyze the sentence structure. Seriously?
I always thought they idea of publishing a book was to show that you have new ideas, new ways of looking at things, new approaches, or a damn good idea about something. Instead, this one just kind of goes “look how good we are at collecting stuff.” I’m left wondering “okay, what are you trying to tell us?” “What do you want us to do?” and “How does any of this actually help with the conversation?” It’s like instead of extending or furthering the conversation, they’re just telling us where the conversation is at… kind of.
Why Ben Why?-Or Garrett's Response to Writing as a Political Act
Well, I guess after finishing “Basic Writing as a Political Act,” we still aren’t any closer to having a set definition of exactly what basic writing is! If anything, I thought it reaffirmed my belief that there are more similarities with composition than scholars would like to admit: “it is crucial for teachers to help students in basic writing courses situate their work within the broader contexts surrounding those courses” (61). Don’t we do the same for composition, or shouldn’t we? Don’t we try to set the assignments within some real-world contexts, and thus avoid having students write within a vacuum? This was always the problem I had with “Inventing the University,” even though I’m not even sure if Bartholomae was advocating this type of writing.
If anything, I saw a connection with this reading to the article I just had to read for my Comps studies entitled “The Ethics of Expediency: Classical Rhetoric, Technology, and the Holocaust,” by Steven B. Katz. Katz’s basic argument, apart from his assertion that a loophole in Aristotle’s philosophy of rhetoric unintentionally yielded the “expedient” language of documents tied to the Holocaust, is that no writing, and especially technical writing, is without a political subtext. Kassner and Harrington reference DeCastell? and Luke when they quote the passage “ ‘literacy instruction has always taken place within a substantive context of values…[and that] the processes and materials of literacy instruction have been based historically on the ideological codes and material constraints of the society from which they are derived’” (62). Katz writes that “Further, if there is no ideal form of the Good, virtue (like knowledge without the ideal form of Truth) is communal in nature, and is at least partially determined by the society in which one lives” (262). There can’t be any literacy skills that aren’t partly defined by the ethos of the society in which they are emerging out of. So essentially, there are no “objective” literary skills, no magical, quantitative fix-all that will gauge the progress of a basic writer. I like this theory, even though it seems to not hold teachers accountable, for the mere fact that it thumbs its nose at an administration grubbing for easy answers to a problem that we ourselves can’t often clearly define.
Lastly, I seemed to get the overarching idea, especially from the concluding few chapters, that the key to understanding and aiding in basic writing instruction is to not assume that our students are entering the classroom devoid of a sizable amount of knowledge. Therefore, they shouldn’t completely abandon their home discourse, but we should be able to get them to incorporate those things, and at the same time, have them look at writing differently. Why ignore such a built-in well of knowledge?
'John L. - Reading Response #6'
It seems to me, after finishing this book, that the largest problem facing those who support basic writing is the inability to categorize it. Adler-Kassner and Harrington touch upon this problem towards the end of the book, where they admit that: “We still don’t have a good definition for basic writing, but we’ve learned to live happily with our sense that basic writing is always a course (or courses) provided for those students judges to be academically needier than some, or many, of their peers” (102). In an increasingly technical and specialized world, is it any wonder that bureaucracy is both an “enabler and constrainer” of basic writing courses (92)? Or to put is a simpler (and probably crueler) way, why should people support that which you cannot define? To my understanding, this is not a problem unique to basic writing in terms of English studies, although maybe it’s a problem with English studies as a curriculum. Not everything needs to be counted, categorized, and numbered. But is it really that shocking that things that can be categorized receive more funding and prestige than those that can’t?
By the way, am I completely off-base in believing that a simple definition of basic writing exists? Basic writing courses teach composition skills to students who have not reached the mandated (either internally through a program or externally by a government) standards for their academic level.
And, forgive me, I agree with Ben to a great extent regarding Chapter 5. While I understand the authors’ point – that bias against basic writing courses is being perpetuated by a variety of social/political systems – there had to be a better way to present this information than a blow-by-blow study of the various sentences in newspaper articles. And as others have written, bias is a necessary component of any actual writing. Biased doesn’t mean false.