ENGL 5361 Reading Response Feb 13


From BW, Adler-Kassner and Harrington’s “What We Talk About…” and BB, Kassner and Glau’s “The Conference on Basic Writing”

After reading these articles I found myself wondering how and why “basic writing” came to be in the first place – as a course, a topic for discourse, and as a necessity? Was it so English professors didn’t have to worry with basic writers? Get them out of the class, out of the way? Didn’t it used to be that those students who struggled with writing were just worked with extra after class, with the instructor, or in labs or writing centers, or with an actual tutor that God forbid, the student himself took the responsibility to acquire when he realized he might need some help in the course? Are there more basic writers now than before, so that now it is warranted to have basic writing as a separate discipline, as a course, as a topic separate from teaching English?

Is it because high school standards for graduation are lower now? “No child left behind” sounds good in theory, but in practice hasn’t it come to mean that we (I use the collective “we” to make the writing easier but I am not actually comfortable with the inclusion implied) make it so more students can pass even if that means easier course work, easier grading standards? Do we often allow students to pass grades, high school, entrance exams, and even college courses because of age or an alphabet label, a minority or disability or “social location”? Do we require them to master skills to receive credit, and are the skills even the same as they were twenty years ago? Has the watering down of societal standards in every area of life reached academia as well? Does a college degree mean what it used to? Are university and graduate school entrance requirements easier now so more students can get in? Why? Are we dumber now or lazier? More tolerant or less moral? In fact, why should higher education be any different that every other area of life? In sports, we used to name only the top ten to an all state selection; now we name the top ten, the second ten, and the third ten, in five different size classifications, so more young people can get an “honor” (and I use the term loosely) and feel good about themselves. We weigh high school courses now so a 100 isn’t even the best a student can earn. A 100 average won’t land the valedictorian spot. Students think if they are nice and try they should pass. If they are nice and try and don’t misspell many words they should get an A. What have we done?

One thing it appears to me we have done is created this entity known as “basic writing.” I think as long as there has been hieroglyphics there have been basic writers, and those who have unlocked the mystery to teach them. It was done routinely as part of education without all the mystery and politics and discourse getting in the way. And I think perhaps work ethics and values might have been stronger then, than now, and education was something people worked hard to achieve. It was respected, thought of as a privilege to be paid for and worked for, rather than a right to be demanded. So is separating, naming and practicing the teaching of “basic writing” a service to the world community, or a disservice? Lots of food for thought.

Melissa's Response:

Both readings seemed to emphasize the birth of basic writing. And reading the article out of the BB book made me question whether we have gone anywhere with our questioning. What I mean is that the same questions that circulated around Basic Writing in the beginning (i.e. " Should basic writing students be placed in separate courses or be mainstreamed into freshman composition courses, and (2) how do we keep from marginalizing basic writing students? " (14)) are still being asked today, some 10-15 years later. I just have to stop and wonder whether teachers and researchers will ever find an answer that works for everyone.

Kassner and Glau did bring up other issues that I had not given much consideration, such as working conditions for teachers of Basic Writing courses and program accountability: "Although we are getting better at documenting what it means for an individual writer to advance one's writing 'skills' through our classes, a more difficult challenge is to show that an approach, identifiably 'BW,' can be applied and measured..." (19). I believe that part of the reason that Basic Writing courses are seen as "subacademic" is because it is difficult (impossible?) to document student growth. If we agree that standard tests do not measure one's reading/writing ability, which other option is available (that is not as costly, of course) that can gauge a student's linguistic capabilities? So I suppose once we find an answer to that, then BW courses can be given more credit.

In addition, the article, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Writing," highlighted a lot of the issues presented in the BB book, most of which we have briefly discussed in our classroom conversations. I agree with Kassner and Harrington that writing should be a political act, for it is the only way that students will care about and take responsibility for their writing. Also, Adler-Kassner and Harrington discuss program accountability: "traditional categories used to classify and describe the work of such programs are often inadequate for capturing representations of the real work done there" (11). I haven't read much about this, but being able to give account for the amount of work done in BW courses seems to be a pertinent issue. Like Adler-Kassner and Harrington argue, I strongly believe that teacher from community colleges should be given more voice in these issues.

'''Butch's response to Kassner & Glau, Kessner & Harrington

Although I thought that the Kassner and Harrington article had a cheesy title takeoff on Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” I found it a very informative one with respect to the perception of basic writing students, teachers, and programs in and out of the academy as well as the solutions offered to repel its threatened status in today’s American academia. The Kassner and Glau article was interesting with respect to gauging how issues relating to basic writing have evolved during the past 25 years that the Conference of Basic Writing has existed. This article paves the way for reading the Kassner and Harrington article that also addresses many of the issues facing basic writing as a threatened academic field of study. What held my interest the most in the first article is the look forward to the next 25 years in basic writing and the issues that will make or break it such as governmental funding, testing standards, and the working interest of the basic writing instructor that at present seems pretty dismal. The subject of dropping fees for basic writing courses in the future does not seem feasible, at least not in Texas, because of rising tuition fees and higher education mandates.

Meanwhile, I believe that the Kassner and Harrington article adequately addresses the issue of proposed dismantling of the basic writing curriculum and other remedial education programs in some universities and colleges throughout our country and is a pertinent subject to address in our class. This section of the chapter ties in directly to some of the class discussions we have already had on this issue. The reference to the possibility of outsourcing basic writing programs leads me to question as to where would these programs be outsourced and would they follow the lead of literacy programs that have been established in communities through public and private funding. I agree with the authors when they contend that the mere attempt at doing away with basic writing programs in higher education will only serve to marginalize those students enrolled in those programs and to “mainstream them into ‘regular’ composition courses” (8). I can only imagine the resulting chaos this action would bring to freshman composition classes all across this nation’s classrooms. Meanwhile, the Adler –Kassner and Harrington chapter also raised my interest as it cautions that students in basic writing programs have “the potential to disrupt a significant narrative in U.S. education, and the job of basic writing programs should be to prevent that disruption” (3). I wonder of the Department of Homeland Security has identified or even classified this as a potential for “academic terrorism”? I wholeheartedly concur with the authors of this chapter when they explain that not only does a basic writing student’s personal writing reinforce “their notions of school-based, autonomous literacy” (10), but that it also noted that literature is important because they reflect real life as they feel and perceive it. The Kassner and Glau article also reiterates this contention when they urge that students need to read and write about subject they know and enjoy instead of the “skill and drill exercises” (10). Both of these articles present a convincing argument for greater attention and research in basic writing, but I am glad that they first champion the basic writing student and the difficulties that they have and will face in the future.

>>>>>>>---- Elva’s response The Conference on Basic Writing, 1980-2005 by Linda Adler-Kassner and Gregory R. Glau

After reading this article, I realize I would like to join this organization. Feeling like a basic writing student, I would like to teach basic writing but realize the pay is lousy and with limited benefits and the first to be cut when budget cuts. As Kassner mention, “The students who-take basic writing courses, for whatever reason, are especially vulnerable within higher education because they are often the first to be excluded or considered for exclusion when budget cuts or demands for “excellence” are issued… Sometimes basic writing students are viewed as misusing taxpayers’ money to pay for a “second chance” at education when those tax dollars could be better spent on students who are already doing well (9). I am mad! I feel this is unfair for two reasons. First, I do not want to insult Melanie but there are some secondary school districts that are not teaching their students. I was one of them coming from the Westside of town at Driscoll Middle School and Miller High School. Nobody knows what when on in those schools and what I saw and learned. I am against some district especially CCISD. The second reason I am furious is these students are getting the shaft. First, they pay the regular tuition like everybody else including the students who are already doing well. Then, these basic writing classes neither are non-credit classes nor can be applied to the GPA scores. It is easy money for the university. They get their money no matter what. I do not like how the university sees these basic writing students. Like stated in this article, many students have a writing problem. There are many different reasons to consider. What I wonder, is how the university does not consider students who have a problem with nursing, math, economics, accounting, psychology, art, music, etc. How the university does not cut funding of the nursing, math, accounting lab? I do not like when said the misusing of taxpayer’s money for a second chance. The university gets the money one way or another. It is the student that comes out losing.

I think basic writing is a plus all around. My opinion is that basic writing class should be kept separate from the mainstream and should not be looked down as a lower standard class. “Why do my colleagues in the Conference on Basic Writing have to be reminded that basic writing is a universal term that be applied to many contexts not just the universities where they teach” (20). This reminds me about other teachers teaching other subjects and they complain that their students do not know how to write. Guess who get the blame? The English teachers get the blame. How? I am one of those students who were told I needed to improve my writing. So I decided to improve my writing and told them “I will be back, will take some writing classes and resume my public administration degree. I had to think, who would help me to improve my writing. The only answer I could think of was the English Department. They were going to help me how to write and, eventually, I am still here, learning.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Writing By Linda Adler-Kassner and Susanmarie Harrington

I am trying to understand this article. “At the time, Linda and Jaime had a brief discussion about the role of reading in different majors (his was business), and the kinds of demands that students would face in other classes outside of their major (1). I agree with Jaime completely because I am a business major. As I mentioned in last week’s posting because as a business major we write mediocre writing and on top of that, we have secretaries that will edit our writings. In the business field, academic writing is not required. Maybe now days, the business world expects academic writing.

Several things I understood was that state legislatures who “…being pressured to eliminate “remedial” education… mandating particular kinds of testing, and by outsourcing of basic writing and other “zero-level” or “remedial” course (3). As my previous article, I get so upset of trying to, especially the basic writing, to eliminate this course. Now days, we have all kinds of “remedial” education. Why continue to pick on the basic writing? Is it not important? Learning how to write can help across the curriculum and in the working sector.

Another issue I saw confusing is that “But when these issues came up in conversation with people from outside of the academy, they were much different-the discussions often involved explaining that we didn’t teach remedial writing, that grammar wasn’t our first concern, that the students with whom we worked really were quite smart and brought a lot to their work, that yes, we really did want to teach these kinds of classes (3). Is there a different assumption in the students’ thinking? Are the students thinking that basic writing is not to be used at all? Do they think this kind of writing is only been used in the English classes?

Is this an error on the name? Who is “Jason”? “…this narrative are also allusions to our positions as teachers of students like Jason” (4). Were they talking about Jaime?

Well, closing with this article, I have learned that English (academic) writing is a writing that will not be used outside the English classes. Then reading this “However, those who want to make education, like basic writing, a political act must also learn to work within it to try to affect change (8). This quote made me think about Anzaldua’s article about dialect or language. There are different kinds of writing just like the language. We have to use what is appropriate depending with who, where and what.

Adler-Kassner and Glau outline how the basic writing story was “written” by academia and other institutions. Looking at how the story of basic writing plays out helps us see how we, as the “definers” of the “problem,” construct the basic writer and the assumptions that inform our decisions and our pedagogy. Perhaps we also need to reflect on the assumption that a composition course can or should teach conventions. As Adler-Kassner and Harrington point out, it’s not so much a question of whether we teach conventions (which is unfortunately what tends to get discussed), but what happens or doesn’t happen when we do, and how our presentation of the standard affects the student as a writer subject: “students are often encouraged to develop the strategies necessary to work their ways out of basic writing, but not to consider the relationship between those strategies and what landed them in basic writing to begin with” (p. 6).

When Jordan (in last week’s “Nobody Mean More to Me Than You”) encourages the students to use a variety other than the privileged standard, she is not simply teaching them an alternative variety. Instead, she is shifting the parameters (or margins) that assign and ascribe privilege—she is repositioning the subject position in order to make the point that the variety does not contain the meaning. The same point can and should be made regarding “autonomous literacy.” The ideological aspects of defining and teaching “necessary skills” (or “academic writing”) as if they were “natural” or inherently meaningful misleads the students (and the pedagogy) need to be addressed and examined if we are to understand our students and their needs better.

I don’t think we need to make basic writing or education political acts—they already are. As is the case with literacy, our definitions of problems and solutions (cf. Adler-Kassner and Harrington, p.9) (mis)represents and (dis)places the students and their writing. Basic writing pedagogy should acknowledge and address the role the pedagogy itself plays in authoring and validating the basic writing narrative.


One of my main questions about the Harrington article, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Writing,” was how the authors (or the people in the field) define a “political act.” The article addresses the ways that teachers of Basic Writing might reject the “autonomous” idea of literacy, which takes the student’s writing and literacy learning out of the social context. Instead, by placing these things back in context, they make basic writing a political act. However, how can ignoring context be seen as non-political? Isn’t this equally political in the opposite direction? By assuming that literacy and writing are “a set of ‘neutral’ competencies” aren’t we making a political statement that devalues the non-“normative” literacies and writings? While I do understand the idea of “radical” pedagogy vs. non-radical, I don’t think we can get away from political. It just depends what kind of statement we want to make. Just because something has always been taught and is seen as normative, it does not mean it is non-political.

I also like the part of the article that talks about out-of-school writing having a real element of audience. This is why I think service learning would work so well in Basic Writing classrooms. Not only would students have that real audience, but they would also get the message that their writing is “good enough” for a real audience.

Heather Dorn

I was so excited by the article from the BB! It was so wonderful to uncover the history of the emergence of the CBW and all the contributions since then. I was epecially interested in the discussion on mainstreaming—this is right in line with what I am researching. It is good to know some of the movers, shakers, and big names. I already had signed up for the CBW-L, but was thrilled to find out about the teaching basic writing listserve. Here is the link in case anyone wants to sign up: http://mailman.eppg.com/mailman/listinfo/teaching_basic_writing. I can really see the need for conferences and discussion groups given the conditions surrounding the teaching of basic writing such as part time status, no benefits etc. I have seen this at some local colleges. I often feared what was to become of me—was I destined for the same fate? Probably, but it makes it all the more bearable knowing that there is ongoing scholarly discussion and debate and that I have access to it.

I really found Chapter one in BW enlightening. Yes, we have turned an introspective lens toward our class’s definitions of basic writing, but I had never really thought of it on such a larger scale as discussed by Kassner and Harrington. When we define basic writing as apolitical act, then that opens up access for the students in such courses to participate in the debate and learn. I had also never considered the different connotations that terminology in our filed take on in the “public discussions” of basic writing such as the media (newspapers etc.). Harrington claims, “When such questions are raised, the focus of the discussion shifts to developing literary strategies that students can use to be successful in college and to question to definitions and practices of literacy that resulted in their placement in basic writing classes” (6-7).

Even more interesting is the politics surrounding the banishment of basic writing programs. I am not sure I understand what all is going on there. Politics pushed for open-access, now politics are trying to do away with the resources needed by the entrance of a very diverse student body?


Is Mainstreaming a sort of resistance to the politics of removing basic writing courses?

What about the politics—what are they specifically, money? Tenure? What is really going on here—have univ. turned into big business?

What are some solutions besides mainstreaming? What would those who would opt to shut down programs suggest for these students?

Why are there such discrepancies b/w public and academic definitions and discussion on this sensitive topic?



“Many of these articles suggest that students in BW classes have the potential to disrupt a significant narrative in US education and the job of BW programs should be to prevent that disruption.” (3)

This statement reminds of the elementary and secondary teachers’ conflict with spending too much time disciplining the dumb kids and not providing enough of a challenge for the smart ones.

What, exactly, would that disruption look like in a college composition class? Or any core class, for that matter? Would the BW, confused or a bit uneasy about an assignment, throw up their hands, berate the professor and leave? Would their mere presence cause the disturbance? Are traditional students disturbed by the otherness of non-traditional students?

Okay, Basic Writers are a disturbance.

So, hide them in a little room all together, and they can disturb each other in there.

Fix them, clean them up and teach them how to sound, look, act, BE like the ones they disturbed so easily and then send them back out; now unidentifiable from the rest the educational narrative can continue – no potty breaks or questions about plot or concern over a thread in the carpet.

rant, Mere, rant.

Adler-Kassner’s comparison of the Public Discussion to the Academic one was really interesting. We’ve talked about how the state can mandate remedial courses and how they are credited; how the academy doesn’t have access to the standardized tests that often place students into their programs; how public voice drives and [sometimes] changes the policies that govern the academy… and yet the public don’t know what they’re talking about. So the reality of the programs are threatened by the dated perceptions of politicians and thrice removed used-to-be educators. There’s a saying I love by Agi Mishol: “The more I talk about this, the less I actually say”

Also, on a completely un-related and irreverent note, Why do they change the name from Jaime to Jason (p.4) and shouldn’t this sentence on the bottom of p.6 read “to question the definitions…” Obviously the writers were encouraged about their theme and content (which is effective and well-written) but perhaps if one of their proof-readers had done a little editing… I know, I know. I’m obnoxious.

Anne Ries

In Adler-Kassner and Harrington's first chapter we are provided with what was once the working title of their book, "Listening to Learn." While they discuss how they moved away from that title and provide us with a break down of each chapter of the book, I am still confused as to why they titled the book "Basic Writing as a Political Act." Whose political act? The teachers? The students? The media? All? It's very ambiguous. Whose basic writing? This may sound a little nit-picky of a thing to focus on, but seriously, if you are going to name something as charged as "Basic Writing as a Political Act," then justify it.

The authors state that "We realized having conversations with students - about how they thought about writing and reading, what they expected to learn in basic writing courses, how they thought about their own writing and reading, what they expected to encounter in college classes, and where they ideas they had about these things came from - was important to s as basic writers" (2). These concepts sound like the basic values of most comp teachers who practice pedagogies like liberatory learning, feminist pedagogy, and all those fun touchy-feely guys. (Just kidding). I can understand where these pedagogies could be politicized, but I still don't understand what they mean by basic writing as a political act.

"Many of these articles sugges that students in basic writing classes have the potential to disrupt a significant narrative in U.S. educations, and the jo of basic writing programs should be to prevent that disruption." Adler-Kassner and Harrington's discussion about how people outside of the university view basic writing continues to interest me (especially after reading about CUNY in NY and General College). It seems so easy to blame basic writers, precisely because they don't meet the oh so serious normalcy standards. But it doesn't fix anything. Blaming basic writers will lead politically to the cutting back of funding for basic writing classes. Cutting back basic writing funding in institutions that do not mainstream basic writers could mean the loss of millions of college students. College students who may never be a part of the narrative. (Any narrative) It's frustrating to think about.