Posted in CCCC 2013, History of Basic Writing, Politics of Remediation, Who is Basic Writing?

F.28: The Work of Scholarship: Hermeneutics in Public and Institutional Arguments on Basic Writing

This session, chaired by Hannah Ashley, focused on public and institutional discourses about Basic Writing and Basic Writers. The emphasis was on rewriting the narrative of Basic Writing as part of shaping the public and institutional policies that affect Basic Writing programs, Basic Writers, and faculty and staff.

Karen Uehling presented on “Assessment, Placement, and Access: Framing Arguments from Local and National Histories.” She provided a very comprehensive overview of the history of Basic Writing by examining the trends and history in Basic Writing. I’m going to ask if she’ll share her bibliography for her paper because it’s a treasure trove of the history of trends in Basic Writing and because it was hard for me to keep up with all of the references. [Update: the bibliography appears at the end of this post AND is a separate post on the blog].

Uehling outlined the current language of a “literacy crisis” in our society. She posited that we do not have a literacy crisis. “There was never a golden age when students could write better than they can now,” she asserted.

She then moved to discussing the strand in Basic Writing scholarship of looking at the human costs of the decisions that we (and policy makers and administrators) make about basic writing. “Story is one way that we make sense of the world,” she said, emphasizing the importance of returning to the practice of  including student stories and human narratives into the discussion of Basic Writing. Focusing on numbers and data alone do not paint the picture of what’s at stake, for whom, and why.  As a side note, this has been a trend at CCCC 2013: looking at a return to the importance of narrative & story. I think much of this was influenced by Malea Powell’s address to CCCC 2012 where she dramatically demonstrated the power and importance of story.

William Lalicker explored “Agency through Assessment: Developing a Basic Writing Program Strength Quotient.” He was focused on the question of “How is our work as basic writing professors interpreted, understood and valued?” He suggested that programs engage in a 12 point program strength quotient analysis. It includes questions such as:

  • Does your program use a fair, accurate, and ultimately student-empowering placement system?
  • Does your program employ qualified, theory-savvy instructors who are committed to the value of Basic Writing and its students, and who have the institutional credibility to advocate for their pedagogy and student?
  • Do your Basic Writing courses teach students through research-validated approaches linked to rhetorical principles? That is, are your students encouraged to take a rhetorical stance, have a thesis, write whole essays, develop multiple drafts, make errors and fix errors in their own writing (rather than doing busywork fill-in-the-blank workbook exercises or writing isolated sentences or formulaic paragraphs)?
  • Do your Basic Writing courses get credit as legitimate college courses?
  • Does your Basic Writing program have a viable outcomes assessment regimen?

Each of these questions had a set criteria linked to a point system. For example, question #2 looks at who is teaching Basic Writing. The first criteria is “If your Basic Writing sections, or other learning situations for basic writers, are taught completely by unwilling non-tenure-track instructors assigned due to minimal seniority in the course-choice hierarchy, or by student peers alone, or by lit professors who couldn’t get jobs teaching Chaucer, or other uninspired or unempowered placeholders, assign 0 points.” There are multiple criteria for each question.

Lalicker’s point is that if you assess your writing program, you are able to talk about how you are serving Basic Writers with administrators and stakeholders.

Michael Hill addressed “The Work of Philosophical Argument in an Age of Mechanical Assessment.” Hill began by observing that mechanical grading software is something that perhaps all of us have wished for when facing a stack of papers. An administrator suggested that the college adopt e-Write software because it would solve all of the college’s issues with placement.

Hill focused on the importance of Basic Writing faculty authority. “I am Basic Writing,” he said. As a teacher of basic writing, he understands that it is important to . The data that e-Write is effective, something that influences administrators and politicians, is corporate-funded research. That matters. And, it’s a critical piece of the conversation.

As we think about writing, writing to an audience, and writing for expression, Hill argues that it’s important to remember that writing as an expressive act is transactional: between writer and reader. What happens when that transaction is removed?

Hill suggests that we need to explore and engage in a philosophical argument. Although it’s difficult to get people to listen to ideas, it’s also important to be more persuasive, using our authority and experience as Basic Writing faculty.

e-Write software  changes the communicative paradigm. One cannot be persuasive, one must follow standards that can be quantified in the software. There are also questions about student authorship and authority: who owns the writing, what does it look like?

e-Write and dialectical materialism: Hill invoked Walter Benjamin and the age of mechanical reproduction. e-Write turns Benjamin’s “glee” in mechanical reproduction into something darker. The only power left in the exchange is a voiceless exchange. Writing becomes simply functional. Why are we promoting the deauthorization of writing? e-Write takes authorship and authority away from students. Student writing is voiced into nothing. It becomes a simple number for placement.

e-Write software can also be analyzed through a lens of : it is a failure of a democratic ethic. Robert Dowell claims that democratic society is based on “intrinsic equality.” In e-Write, individual voices are not equal. Instead, they are assessed by a mechanical arbiter of standardization. e-Write fails to participate in democratic education, preparing students to engage in citizenship. e-Write is a tool that is a failure of democracy by erasing a writer’s voice before she is even done writing.

e-Write is a tool for prescription and correction, not for building and guiding student development of voice. This is not the philosophy of Basic Writing, the pedagogical approach to Basic Writing, nor the best practice in the field.

Hill urges us to consider: what are the ramifications of this kind of software? What is the ramification of ANY product that enters the classroom to affect instruction? 

If we do not engage in these discussions and create the scholarship, debate, and policies, then we allow corporations to define Basic Writing, our field, and our philosophy.

Abby Nance presented on “A Tale of Two Classrooms: Practicing Trauma-Sensitive Placement.” Nance began by referencing a previous session (A17) at CCCC when Carla Maroudas asked “How many of your departments use Accuplacer or a similar program for placement?” Most of the room raised their hands. To the second question, “How many of you believe these softwares are accurate?” no hands went up.

Nance focused on a study she did (IRB approved!) about the role of trauma and Basic Writing placement. She was interested in the question of trauma and whether that affected student performance.

She next referenced an ACE Study by the CDC, the work of Jeffery Duncan-Andrade, the work of James Pennebaker, and a 2005 study entitled “Helping Traumatized Children Learn: Supportive School Environments for Children Traumatized by Family Violence” by S. Cole, J.G. O’Brien, G. Gadd, J. Ristuccia, and L. Wallace.  These studies suggest that early childhood trauma leads to serious health problems and a shortened life span.

Nance was interested in exploring if there is a relationship between students’ traumatic experiences prior to enrolling in college and their placement in a college writing classroom and is there a relationship between the acknowledgement and expression of traumatic experiences?

She defined traumatic experiences by: traumatic deaths, family upheaval, traumatic sexual experiences, physical violence, illness/injuries, and other.

She asked students “Prior to this semester, did you experience a death of a very close friend or family member? If yes, how old were you? If yes, how traumatic was this experience?” Students were asked to use a numerical scale.

As she looked at trauma as a whole, there seemed to be very little correlation between trauma and placement.

So, Nance examined the kind of trauma. There are “secret traumas” that are not discussed or publicly acknowledged (e.g. sexual violence in a household versus a death or illness which might be more public).

This data suggests that if there is a relationship between trauma and placement, it’s a complex relationship.

Nance suggested a moderate response to trauma-sensitive placement: by developing sensitivity to these issues.

She also suggested a more radical response: to write and talk about these experiences with students. We know about the healing properties of pomegranates. The healing properties of writing as therapy have been documented and explored. So, how do we engage this and document this and create evidence for this?

Hannah Ashley noted a thread of “seize the discourse” across each of these narratives because it’s critical to establishing our authority, the field all in the service of students and student success.

Resources for this post:

Karen S. Uehling provided this incredibly useful bibliography for her talk on “Assessment, Placement, and Access: Framing Arguments from Local and National Histories” as part of her CCCC presentation March 15, 2013.

Assessment, Placement, and Access: Framing Arguments from Local and National Histories

A Bibliography by Karen S. Uehling

Adams, Peter, Sarah Gearhart, Robert Miller, and Anne Roberts. “The Accelerated Learning Program: Throwing Open the Gates.” Journal of Basic Writing 28.2 (2009): 50–69. Print.

Adler-Kassner, Linda, and Susanmarie Harrington. Basic Writing as a Political Act: Public Conversations about Writing and Literacies. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton P, 2002. Print. [See Chapter 5, “Looking Outward: Basic Writing and Basic Writers in the Mainstream Media,” for information on newspaper coverage of the General College of the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis in 1996 and City University of New York in New York City in 1999.]

Bartholomae, David. “The Tidy House: Basic Writing in the American Curriculum.” Journal of Basic Writing 12.1 (1993): 4–21. Print.

Buber, Martin. I and Thou. 2nd ed. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958. Print.

Collins, Terence G. “Basic Writing Programs and Access Allies: Finding and Maintaining Your Support Network.” CBW Newsletter 13.3 (1998): 1–6. Print. [Available as a PDF through the CBW archives.]

———. “A Response to Ira Shor’s ‘Our Apartheid: Writing Instruction and Inequality.'” Journal of Basic Writing 16.2 (1997): 95–100. Print.

Glau, Gregory R., and Chitralekha Duttagupta, Eds. The Bedford Bibliography for Teachers of Basic Writing. 3rd. ed. NY: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010. Print.

Gleason, Barbara. “Evaluating Writing Programs in Real Time: The Politics of Remediation.” College Composition and Communication 51.4 (2000): 560–88. Print.

Greenberg, Karen L. “A Response to Ira Shor’s ‘Our Apartheid: Writing Instruction and Inequality.'” Journal of Basic Writing 16.2 (1997): 90–94. Print.

McNenny, Gerri, Ed. Mainstreaming Basic Writers: Politics and Pedagogies of Access. Mahwah: Erlbaum, 2001. Print.

Otte, George, and Rebecca Williams Mlynarczyk. Basic Writing. West Lafayette, Indiana: Parlor P, 2010. Print. [Also available as open access book on the WAC Clearinghouse:

Ritter, Kelly. Before Shaughnessy: Basic Writing at Yale and Harvard, 1920–1960. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2009. Print.

Rose, Mike. Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves A Second Chance at Education.
NY: New Press, 2012. Print.

—. Lives on the Boundary: The Struggles and Achievements of America’s Underprepared. New York: Free, 1989. Print.

—. Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America. Houghton Mifflin: 1995. Print.

—. The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker. NY: Penguin, 2004.

Shor, Ira. “Our Apartheid: Writing Instruction and Inequality.” Journal of Basic Writing 16.1 (1997): 91–104. Print.

Soliday, Mary, and Barbara Gleason. “From Remediation to Enrichment: Evaluating a Mainstreaming Project.” Journal of Basic Writing 16.1 (1997): 64–78. Print.

Soliday, Mary. The Politics of Remediation: Institutional and Student Needs in Higher Education. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburg P, 2002. Print.

Sternglass, Marilyn S. Time to Know Them: A Longitudinal Study of Writing and Learning at the College Level. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 1997. Print.

Traub, James. City on a Hill: Testing the American Dream at City College. Reading, Mass.: A William Patrick Book/Addison-Wesley, 1994.

Uehling, Karen S. “The Conference on Basic Writing: 1980-2005.” The Bedford Bibliography for Teachers of Basic Writing. Ed. Gregory R. Glau and Chitralekha Duttagupta. 3rd ed. NY: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005. 8-22. Print.



Thanks to Rakka at for my gravatar image, "Binary Easter Egg." Awesome photo!

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