Chico State Back in the Day!

RODBY & FOX, “BASIC WORK AND MATERIAL ACTS”

First off your reactions. What were your experiences with writing immediately after high school?  Did you:

  • Take a “Basic Writing” course before transferring to Chico State?
  • Test out of composition/Academic Writing (GE Area A2)?
  • Take a series of writing courses at a community college?
  • Take the English Placement Test (EPT)?

Do the economics of college credit—baccalaureate, transfer, financial aid, etc.—shape people’s reactions to college courses? One argument: the construct of the Basic Writing class, the “basic” curriculum, created basic writers; instead of “fixing” students, as if that were possible or warranted, it created a box and then shoved students in.  Student frustrations, teacher frustrations.

Let’s place this piece in some historical context. “Composition” is largely an American invention that focuses on developing students’ general reading and writing skills (if such a thing exists!).  As I’ve mentioned before, composition courses started during the panic around one of our very American literacy crises, in about 1876, when Harvard faculty realized that their newest students couldn’t read Latin and Greek fluently–and more than that, didn’t have those upper-class sensibilities.  So composition was in some senses always “remedial”: designed to “fix” students’ literate skills and habits of mind so that they’d be “prepared” for the real, upper-middle-class work of college.  Always focused on basic skills, always preparatory, always boring.  (I don’t think this, of course!  But as the course nationwide that college students take most often, our tendency is to think it’s another thing in college to “get out of the way.”)

But another way to look at it was as a way to increase access.  “Remediation” through this lens was originally a progressive impulse tied to increasing access to college by offering to bring students “up to speed.”  Since that first supposed literacy crisis in 1876, bouts of progressive energy spurred the creation of new colleges and “land-grant” universities all over the country, which through the Morrill Acts agreed to take on more and more of what we’d now call “first-generation” college students: students who were the first in their families to enter higher education.  Each successive wave of progressive action opened more doors to people attending college, but posed more problems for teachers not trained in process pedagogy who’d actually teach writing, not just assign it.  And “Basic Writing” was the most recent of these efforts, coinciding with the “open access” movements of the late 1960s and 1970s.

TL,DR:  The “Basic Writing” Rodby and Fox are discussing are those remedial efforts focused on bringing writing skills “up to par,” with new writing courses created to “remediate” students.  The “Basic Writing” that Rodby and Fox are opposed to is most often viewed as pre-college-level work, not given college credit–so you have to pay money to take it but you don’t receive graduation credit in return.  Ouch!  They note the “irony” in eliminating the thing that was promised to help students “get prepared” for college–but succeeded only in frustrating them and slowing down their progress.  So if they’re not opposed to student success, and are generally for access, what parts of “Basic Writing” ARE they really opposed to?

Well, this article gives us how that looked at Chico State before about 1990 (almost 30 years ago!): English 16 and 17 (Basic Writing courses) into English 001 (the for-credit course now called ENGL 130).  Since then we’ve changed the names and some of the specifics, but generally the program and its rationale are the same.

Still, the piece needs unpacking.  As a piece of “fine theory,” some of its claims are a bit dense, and many ideas are thrown at us.  So let’s unpack it.

IN GROUPS

In groups of 4, please find a passage or two that you really responded to (or perhaps commonplaced) and share that with your group.  What was it about that part of the article?  Feel free to choose something that confused or frustrated you–or, of course, something you agreed with or applied to your life.

Let’s share them and talk about what you’re noticing!

Here are some of mine:

  • p. 87: “But while the basic writing courses changed, the economy legitimizing them did not.” Their point, which I think we realize, is that there’s no necessary relationship between what you learn in a class and the credit you’re offered for it.  And perhaps that our ability to make a course more meaningful won’t automatically change the system in which it operates.
  • “They didn’t need to learn something basic first.” This seems like an example of where our folk language for writing and schooling fails us.  Everyone seems to call for a “back to the basics” movement!  But what if no one knows what “basic” might be, or if their idea of “basic” isn’t really basic after all?
  • “It was almost as if Valerio’s learning disabilities might disappear within a context that was not a testing ground.”  Studies by McDermott and others have shown many more cases like this, especially one of “Adam,” in which this also proved true: students placed in certain high-stress situations, like school, can be perceived by others as less competent than they are.  Is it a wonder that some people feel they’re not good writers?  Or good test-takers?
  • p. 94: “Students need to construct a mental model of what writing is in this new context.”  Writing isn’t uniform but changes drastically from situation (or context) to situation.  And since it’s hard for all of us to remember what we learned in an early situation and apply it accurately to a later one, constructing a mental model of what needs writing can be difficult.  We’ll talk about this phenomenon, often called “transfer,” a bit later in the course.
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Hey! I'm a professor of Rhetoric and Writing in the English dept. at Chico State. Also disc golf player, indie music listener, and vanilla Marxist.

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