Perspectives on the History and Future of Basic Writing

With inconsistent internet and an overwhelming stream of panels (and textbook parties), I want to do a brief post on what’s freshest in my mind – the wonderful histories presented by Andrea Lunsford, Mary Soliday, Gregory Ott, and Kelly Ritter in “Perspectives on the History and Future of Basic Writing”  — and return later today to the panels on English language learners that I attended yesterday.

Both Andrea Lunsford and George Otte provided overarching, bite-sized histories of “basic writing” and how basic writing has become a contested field of study. Lunsford discussed the recurring Crisis in Literacy that we are once again in the midst of today. She discussed the concern in 1970, with the article “Why Can’t Johnny Write?” that invented the need for “remediation.” She discussed her first 4Cs in 1969 in which the chair, Geneva Smitherman, gave an address called “Black Language is Black Power”; Shaughnessy’s work in Errors and Expectations; and how in 1980 the 4Cs first included “basic writing” and how the field developed in the 1980s. Otte opened his talk discussing how the “definition” of basic writing and basic writers is perpetually unstable and called into question. What makes basic writing is a special kind of attention, according to Otte. He then charted that attention, beginning with Mina Shaugnessy’s attempt to uncover causation in error. He then discussed the cognitive turn from scholars like Lunsford and Mike Rose, and the critique of a purely cognitivist approach from Rose. From there, he discussed David Bartholomae’s critique of the emerging basic writing subject, that “in the name of sympathy and empowerment, we have once again produced the ‘Other.’” Following this would be Ira Shor’s critique of BW as “our apartheid.” While basic writing is constantly contested, Otte suggested that basic writing teachers and scholars need less a united front than a persistence of attention. Lastly, Mary Soliday used archival information from CUNY professors in 1970 evaluating their basic writers. Though there was no established scholarly field for basic writing at the time, she praised the observations of these teachers, such as form drives proficiency (i.e., when a student knows a subject, she/he produces more fluent writing). Soliday suggested that these observations – that “excitement is the hook on which we are engaged in intellectual life” – should continue to guide how we teach basic writers, that we should pursue academic inquiry rather than the modes (get rid of the modes, both she and Kelly Ritter suggested), that our basic writing courses should be more like book clubs, not the acontextual modal approach that is still dominant in basic writing textbooks.

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