Paper #6: Becoming a Scholar of Basic Writing

INTRODUCTION TO BECOMING A SCHOLAR OF BASIC WRITING: THE WHY

When I started this semester, I thought I would dabble in learning about the major debates of basic writing. I didn’t think I would be exploring a potential dissertation topic. You see, I was convinced that I would not be studying basic writing much during my degree. In fact, I saw a bit of myself when we read Yagelski: “Many English professors did not want their professional identities to be defined by what was widely considered a skills-based course whose purpose was to enable students to write well enough to do the ‘real’ work of college study” (282). My worry wasn’t about having my identity defined by a discipline that is considered less than; I was and am concerned about aligning with a discipline that could be potentially phased out in the future.

Then again, basic writing has been on the chopping block for decades. It is always changing, adapting, fighting for space and respect. If everyone veers away from it as a potential research focus, then how can it be expected to flourish? I began my studies, hoping to join the ranks of community college professors who research because they want to. In writing Paper #5 and standing up for #actualCCprofs, I realized I probably need a secondary hashtag: #actualBWprof. There are others out there doing this work, but if I don’t join them in a visible way, I’d be a hypocrite. So, here I am, beginning the research I said I would do someday but not now. My whole career seems to have worked this way: I pursued coursework in rhet/comp while earning my master’s in literature because I knew I’d probably teach writing too, only to end up predominantly teaching basic writing and first year composition with a side of literature. I’m not alone in stumbling into a career of teaching basic writing. I’m a little surprised it has taken me this long to realize I am fighting myself about something I should probably give into.

Most of my professional and faculty development has come from conference attendance and passive participation in community list-servs. When I think of the major debates in basic writing, I think of the current issue of placement, and what the discipline will do now that Compass is being discontinued as a placement test. Alongside that is the issue of direct placement and whether it is a viable option for community colleges. I think, too, of the debates about acceleration models like ASU’s Stretch and CCBC’s Accelerated Learning Program and how these models attempt to move students more quickly through their preparatory classes and more directly into their credit-bearing courses. These are the hot topics on the Council of Basic Writing list-serv and the topics of many recent conference presentations. Then, there is the old standby of pedagogical concerns like which genres are appropriate for basic writers and which lexile difficulty level they should be reading for the course. These discussions seem to be never-ending, with scholars cycling through different ideas about what is most appropriate.

The issue that is of most interest to me is not a major debate at all but rather a secondary or tertiary debate. Many schools have worked to advocate for better technology in the classrooms, but I see less attention paid to precisely what should be accomplished with the classroom technology when it pertains to basic writers. It seems that the first year composition world is moving full-steam ahead into multimodality while much less is being written about basic writing and composing with technology.

PREPARING FOR THE RESEARCH: WHOM TO STUDY

There is much that I need to read. To truly become a scholar of basic writing, I will need to immerse myself in classic works that are frequently referenced: Shaughessy, Bartholomae, Rose, Bizzell, Horner and Lu, and Soliday. At the top of my reading pile for the break in between classes is Time to Know Them: A Longitudinal Study of Writing and Learning at the College Level by Marilyn Sternglass. Because of my research interests, the same pile includes: Race, Rhetoric, and Technology by Adam Banks, The Way Literacy Lives by Shannon Carter, Going Wireless: A Critical Exploration of Wireless and Mobile Technologies for Composition Teachers and Researchers by Amy C. Kimme Hea. Only Sternglass and Carter are texts about basic writers, but I hope to extrapolate from the other two to apply what is said about technology to my subfield.

In 2011, Mike Rose noted the problem of both disciplinary and methodological silos in research about basic writers. Higher education journals are not drawing from the work done in Journal of Basic Writing, nor is JBW drawing from more scientific research methodologies:“But if we hope to really do something transformational with remediation, we’ll need to use all the wisdom we can garner, from multiple disciplines and multiple methodologies, from multiple lines of sight” (Rose 29). I will need to leave my silo to visit other silos; in particular, I will need to go beyond the Council of Basic Writing at CCCCs to also attend the National Association of Developmental Educators conferences and take advantage of the research coming out of that realm. I already consider myself part of the TYCA Midwest community as well as on the fringes of Computers & Writing.  I intend to draw from these “multiple lines of sight” in my work. I hope to do the same in what I read as well.

Practitioners of basic writing are generally an inclusive group; it’s part of what we do. We take everyone into our classes. We take all instructors in the field into our fold too. I would like to be inclusive in my citations, particularly ensuring I recognize the scholarship of fellow community college professors in my work. If I, as an #actualCCprof, do not recognize them in my work, then how can I expect others to? This reminds me of something Cheryl Ball said in her Computers & Writing keynote presentation in 2015 when announcing Vega:

How does a field share its knowledge internally AND externally so that socialization of its scholarly values transcends its own disciplinary boundaries? C&W is a multitudinous discipline of computers and composition, multimodal comp, digital rhetoric, digital media composition, networked writing, code studies scholars, digital pedagogy, etc. Whatever you want to call yourself, if you’re here, you’re part of this community. Even if you’re not here, and you cite the long history from this community, you’re part of this community.

I’ve been in the basic writing community in one way or another ever since I began teaching basic writing what feels like a lifetime ago (in 2002!). I would like to more visibly join the community via participation in scholarship. The first step is to be a consumer of it. The next step is to join the conversation. I feel like I have been a rather casual consumer of it so far but will now rely on the accountability of being in a research program to buckle down and read more judiciously. Likewise, I will attempt to be a less passive and more visible participant in the basic writing research community. I have one collaborative project in the pipeline with Lynn Reid. I also have data that I presented at Computers & Writing in May that I could use for an article in JBW or the Basic Writing e-Journal.

JOINING THE DISCUSSION: THE WHAT AND HOW

During conference attendance over the past nine years or so, I have run into several basic writing colleagues who share my overlapping interest in basic writing and computers and writing. One of these colleagues, Lynn Reid, writes, “Despite the paucity of published scholarship that directly addresses multimodal composing in basic writing, online forums, email lists, conference presentations, and corridor conversations with colleagues make clear to me that basic writing faculty are, without question, employing a wide range of digital pedagogies in their courses.”

Like Reid, I am convinced that many more basic writing instructors are using computers in their classes and, one would hope, using them as more than a glorified typewriter. And yet, I am also convinced that there is a disparity between the functional and technological literacy as well as access to technology for some basic writing students. What I would like to know is what this disparity looks like and to what extent it is widening an already extant gap between the students who are the furthest behind and the students who entered college already prepared.

I also see many assumptions being published about what basic writers are likely (or unlikely) to be able to do on a computer, with the information about the students conveniently suiting the pedagogical slant of the authors (Moran 212). In 1991, Hawisher and Selfe noted, “What many in our profession have yet to realize is that electronic technology, unless it is considered carefully and used critically, can and will support any one of a number of negative pedagogical approaches that also grow out of our cultural values and our theories of writing” (56).  I would hope that almost 25 years later, we now appreciate the ways that technology can both hurt and harm our pedagogy, but I also question some of the practices that continue to be used in spite of research against them.

I think it is fairly safe to say that in the field of basic writing, we also realize,“The focus of postmodern theory on the contingency of knowledge making, the instability of the subject, and the connections between power and discourse has in a sense forced English educators to confront their complicity in the process by which schools, as social institutions, can contribute to injustice and marginalization” (Yagelski 304). In some ways, some of the resistance to using technology in the classroom comes from very kind motives not to leave any student behind:“Access to the Web is difficult at some institutions and for some students. Moreover, students enter our classes with different degrees of facility and experience with computers and with the Web, and we are rightly hesitant to penalize inadvertently those students already part of the ‘technological underclass’” (Sorapure, Inglesby, Yatchisin 335). At the same time, we as a field are inadequately preparing writing students for their first year composition classes if we ignore technology use or only use it in superficial ways if students will be expected to magically change into technologically-adept writers the moment they step into a first year composition classroom. There has to be a comfortable middle ground between technological use that is so advanced that it fatally discourages or discludes the student without access and use of a computer that is little more than typing a paper.

In an article about basic writing methodologies, DeGenaro and White noted the one and only issue that BW scholars have been able to agree upon in recent decades is that formal grammar instruction does not work as a method of teaching basic writing. And yet, publishers continue to shill products that contain skill and drill activities for basic writers to complete in order to improve their overall writing aptitude. I cannot say for sure how many teachers use these products as part of their coursework, but the practice exists. Likewise, some instructors delay exposure to methods and strategies beyond use of Microsoft Word for revision because they conflate basic writers’ ability to use technology with their ability to write fluently with ease.

In any discussion of basic writers, we must remember that they are not a homogenous group. One school’s set of basic writers can have very different demographics than another’s. In some schools, ESL students make up a majority of the students in a basic writing program while that same population can be almost invisible at another school. Many journal articles focus on the unique contexts of their school’s program to narrowly discuss results of an experiment or focus group. What I would like to do is examine the same issue closely in several different learning environments. Charles Moran writes, “…for if we are to do fully-useful scholarship, we need to include in our field of study the material context in which students and teachers work with new technologies” (207). It is my supposition that many who consume basic writing scholarship often discount it if the context does not resemble their own. In exploring an issue from multiple contexts, I would hope to better represent the many variables in play across the nation in basic writing programs. To say that basic writers are universally able or unable to access particular technology isn’t possible, but to explore the impact of the variables on the types of access has fascinating potential.

Hawisher and Selfe warn, “Along with becoming acquainted with current composition theory, instructors, for example, must learn to recognize that the use of technology can exacerbate problems characteristic of American classrooms and must continue to seek ways of using technology that equitably support all students in writing classes” (55). The current definition of all students has since expanded to not only include students of all ethnicities, socioeconomic levels, and linguistic capabilities, but now all levels of ability. The percentage of students who require accommodations is higher in a developmental course than in a traditional first year composition class. When we as a field introduce new technological strategies into the classroom, we will not only need to think of functional access and technoliteracy but also universal access for students of all (dis)abilities. This is yet another variable I would like to study but one I am less confident about exploring. As a teacher of basic writing, I have been disappointed each time an outsider has written about my context based on narrow anecdotal evidence. Given the wide spectrum of accommodations needed by students in our classes, I don’t know how I could address every potential situation, and yet I do not want to pick and choose which are convenient or observable for me and hypothesize based on similar anecdotal experience. I don’t want for this population to be ignored in my research about access, though.

One of the factors I will need to consider is which methodologies I will utilize. As I said in Paper #4, I have noticed that narrative evidence is in favor in the articles in JBW. I fully recognize that the stories of our classes are the reasons we research and write, and I believe they have a place within the research. But I want more than narrative. As McComiskey said, “No single methodology from linguistics or discourse analysis or creative writing or rhetoric or composition or literature or literary criticism or critical theory or cultural studies or English education– no single methodology (or set of specialized methodologies) can solve a complex social problem” (32). The culture of my subdiscipline will not require acquisition of new research skills, but the problem I am trying to address demands it. Supposition and theory will not cut it, nor will small focus groups or narrative about individual students. I need data too. In order to put the data to use, though, I will need to draw from my professional knowledge to apply the data properly. As Rose said,

Most higher education policy research on remediation does not include historical analysis of the beliefs about cognition and instruction that inform curriculums. In fact, there’s not a lot of close analysis of what goes on in classrooms, the cognitive give-and-take of instruction and what students make of it. And I’m not aware of any policy research crafted with the aid of people who actually teach those classes. Finally, we don’t get much of a sense of the texture of students’ lives, the terrible economic instability of some of them, but even less of a sense of the power of learning new things and, through that learning, redefining who you are. Profiles of students in remedial classes, when we do get them, are too often profiles of failure rather than of people with dynamic mental lives. (29)

This is a significant part of why I advocate for #actualCCprof status in research writing. If the research is going to be about community college basic writing students, then the context of the classroom and the students’ lives needs to be interpreted by the professors on the front lines. Progressively, basic writing classes are being discontinued at universities, so this research would/could/should fall to the community college professors to perform and analyze. I cannot guarantee that the profiles will all be of successes rather than failures, but the dynamics of students’ lives should be an anchoring part of the research about access. As the students are redefining who they are and what they believe about writing, I think the story about their access should also be reshaped and redefined with information collected specifically about basic writers and their contexts. Too often, I have seen the Pew Research Center data about college students’ technology use and comfort applied to the basic writing classroom, a classroom that is not usually the same demographical constitution as the typical entering freshman class.

In her 2004 article about basic writing students in online courses, Linda Stine writes, “Basic writing students, typically older, poorer, less apt to come from stable, highly educated families, and more apt to have learning disabilities, are still less likely than the average student to have easy access to the kind of technology that distance learning requires, both in and out of the classroom” (390). I would like to explore what types of access they generally have now and the extent to which mobile devices could bridge that gap. It is my theory that basic writing pedagogy needs to adapt to the access students have and can use comfortably. It is also my hypothesis that our students are largely more comfortable using mobile phone tech than traditional college classroom PCs, although this will not be true of all of our returning adult students. This thread of study may also require information collection about teaching demographics.

I hesitate to make generalizations here, so I will focus on what I have observed from my time as my department’s Computer-Aided Instruction Coordinator. When I would order replacement machines for the computer lab, I had to use approved vendors and choose software that was adopted by the entire institution. My school happens to be a Dell and Microsoft school. While some faculty members utilize laptops and tablets for their course preparation, the vast majority of them use PCs or Macs for their writing, grading, etc. I propose that many of our anecdotes about student ability are stories of contact zones where students who are more accustomed to laptops and mobile devices are experiencing moments of discomfort (or lack of transfer) when using unfamiliar operating systems or programs on the PC. The student population in basic writing is usually placed in basic writing because of these issues of transfer with their writing skills. Is it too far of a leap to suggest that they have technology skills but need to be explicitly shown and probably even reshown how to do some specific skills on the computer rather than have the ability to use the technology completely discounted and delayed? I have watched as the same instructors who complain about how their students cannot use the computer try to use a Dell all-in-one computer. The moment of “Where’s the CPU? Where is the on button?” in those instructors is quite similar to when a student who is used to OpenOffice is asked to go to Microsoft Word; the question makes the user look like they have never seen a computer before when the user hasn’t seen a computer exactly like this before.

When I gave a report about my data to our Outcomes Assessment group on campus, I included information that suggested that students were not particularly computer-inept, but they were not necessarily familiar with Microsoft products as many more shifted to low-cost laptops as their devices of choice. The Outcomes Assessment Coordinator later told me that this was an “aha moment” for the math department, as they had recently given a Microsoft-based assessment to be completed off-campus and received very poor returns when the same assessment worked well on-campus just a few years ago. They could not understand why students would be unable to do it now, until I showed them that not all students have equal access to costly Microsoft programs at home. Admittedly, this is a very local and specific example of the type of result that could come from exploratory research about students and their technoliteracy contexts, but the impact for pedagogy is great. These issues of functional access and technoliteracy have real pedagogical consequences. This praxis is what interests me most. Fortunately, I think the basic writing audience is interested in matters of praxis as well.

As I continue in this thread of research, it is my hope that the data can cross over to all of first year composition as well, since basic writers are being prepped for the work in first year composition, and the technology use should overlap. I cannot say for sure where the research will lead until I collect and analyze data. It is my hope that I can expand my project with the assistance of many others across the nation to implement data collection that is representative of many types of basic writing programs.

Works Cited

Ball, Cheryl E. “The Future of Scholarly Publishing, or How C&W Rules the World!” Keynote presentation at Computers & Writing, University of Wisconsin-Stout, WI. 2015, May 28.

DeGenaro, William and Edward M. White. “Going around in Circles: Methodological Issues in Basic Writing Research” Journal of Basic Writing 19.1 (2000): 22-34. ERIC. Web. 16 Oct. 2015.

Hawisher, Gail E. and Cynthia L. Selfe. “The Rhetoric of Technology and the Electronic Writing Class” College Composition and Communication 42.1 (1991): 55-65. Print.

McComiskey, Bruce. Introduction. English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s). Urbana, IL:NCTE, 2006. 1-65. Print.

Moran, Charles. “Access: The A-Word in Technology Studies.” Passions, Pedagogies and 21st Century Technologies. Ed. Gail E. Hawisher and Cynthia L. Selfe. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1999. 205-220. Print.

Reid, Lynn. “The Politics of ReMEDIAtion.” Strategic Discourse: The Politics of (New) Literacy Crises. Ed. Lynn Lewis. Logan, UT: Computers and Composition Digital Press/Utah State University Press, 2015. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.

Rose, Mike. “Remediation at a Crossroads.” Teaching Developmental Writing. 4th ed. Ed. Susan Naomi Bernstein. Boston: Bedford, 2013. 27-30. Print.

Sorapure, Madeleine, Pamela Inglesby, George Yatchisin. “Web Literacy: Challenges and Opportunities for Research in a New Medium.” Computers in the Composition Classroom: A Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Michelle Sidler, Richard Morris, Elizabeth Overman Smith. Boston: Bedford, 2008. 333-349. Print.

Stine, Linda. “The Best of Both Worlds: Teaching Basic Writers in Class and Online.” Computers in the Composition Classroom: A Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Michelle Sidler, Richard Morris, Elizabeth Overman Smith. Boston: Bedford, 2008. 389-403. Print.

Yagelski, Robert P. “English Education.” English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s). Ed. Bruce McComiskey. Urbana, IL:NCTE, 2006. 275-319. Print.

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