PAB #3, Articles 1 and 2

Matthews Pavia, Catherine. “Issues of Attitude and Access: A Case Study of Basic Writers in a Computer Classroom.” Journal of Basic Writing 23.2 (2004): 4-22. Print.

This article is a case study of computer use in a Basic Writing classroom. The impetus for the study: “I could discuss many positive aspects of teaching in a computer classroom, among which are pedagogical variety, student interest, expanded audiences, a broader definition of ‘writing,’ and so forth. But I also need to consider individually the students in my classes who struggle with the computers. I feel that there is personal and pedagogical value in doing so and harmful repercussions for these students in failing to do so” (6).

Matthews Pavia interviewed students in her BW class who had varying levels of expertise with using the computers in the classroom and examined their major writing assignments, writing habits, and informal writing assignments. While she studied four students, her case study is only about two of them: Matt and Maria. Matt is a Caucasian freshman. He regularly arrives in class early to work on the computers. The first computer in his home happened when he was in high school and he did not know how to use it. The computers in his high school were old; he not only had little practice with them but did not have much experience with writing in high school at all.

In class, he generated much shorter responses than the other students because they had more typing experience than Matt. Writing on the computer was more difficult for him than writing on paper but he expressed a desire to improve because “you’re going to need to learn how to use them, to use them good when you get a job and stuff, so that’s why. . . I like to use them” (qtd. in Matthews Pavia 9-10). Though he could work on computers in his dorm room or the library, he prefers the classroom because he says there are fewer distractions (10).

Maria was the only student to routinely submit hand-written drafts. She grew up in the Dominican Republic. In high school, she immigrated to the U.S. to join family but would return to the Dominican Republic for summers. Her parents traveled in order to find work. She was raised by an aunt and then cared for by her brothers when she went to the U.S. Despite the family’s poverty, Maria had a computer at home that her brothers provided for her when she was 16. The same old computer (pre-owned when it was purchased two years ago) is what she uses in college. She writes her essays on paper because the speed is so prohibitive. She also says the cost of printing prevents her from typing and printing early drafts. Only her final draft gets typed and printed. She dislikes writing, feels uncomfortable typing, and only values the computer for non-academic use.

Student Attitudes and Access

Matthews Pavia notes that both students have generally positive attitudes about computer use, particularly their place in the classroom, but both “feel hesitant or inferior when it comes down to their abilities to use and write with the machines” (13). Both mention their shortcomings. These shortcomings are caused at least in part by their limited access: Matt was late to learn how to use computers and can only use them in his dorm or the library, where he is distracted. Maria has a computer of her own, but it is too slow to function at the same level as her classmates. “Basic writing computer classrooms can be viewed as makers of opportunities– the basic writing classroom becomes a place to give all students the opportunity to write with technology, an opportunity students like Matt and Maria do not readily have. Yet, even as computers in the classroom create opportunities, they may accentuate differences in opportunity” (15).

The conclusion Matthews Pavia reaches is that computer use is a great option for basic writing students to have but enforced use of them may further disadvantage some students who need first and foremost to build their confidence in writing (18). She now assigns technology narratives as the first paper of the semester, so she can determine what the needs of the class. The computers in the classroom then are one option for students but not a requirement. “I have decided to avoid assignments in basic writing classes that might subsume writing by involving technology in the writing process in even more complicated ways than word processing does” (19).


I selected this piece because it is representative of my experience talking to many basic writing instructors. First of all, I firmly believe that the type of computing being done here is what I call “the glorified typewriter.” This is typing a paper and utilizing spellcheck and grammar check. I don’t want to be too hard on the article, though, because instructors using the glorified typewriter model for BW in 2004 were and are ahead of some BW instructors today.

I also selected this article because it is representative of another struggle: how much do we allow the experiences of a few students to shape our pedagogy for all? We know for sure that Matthews Pavia had four students who struggled in some capacity with computer use in her classroom. Four out of how many? There were also students who were generating pages of text in the time that Matt eked out mere short paragraphs. I have found this sort of extrapolation from the few to be somewhat typical of BW. I think this is in part because of the social justice epistemology; if not all students have access, then it would be a detriment to the few to continue for all. We must provide an equal education for all.

I’d like to say more about this in my OoS paper, but as a short short version to remind myself what I want to write in a few days: universal design promotes creating learning opportunities for all, not through identical options but through the options that work for students, and, above all, it is done to empower, not to step backward. Considering the number of students who need accommodation in BW, it is shocking to me to backwards accommodate students– to remove a hindrance to their education in Basic Writing is not to remove the hindrance from FYC. It only delays the discomfort they have with technology to another course, a course they will be taking for credit and with a grade that will impact their GPA. (Clearly, I feel strongly about this)

Selfe, Cynthia. “Literacy and Technology Linked: The National Project to Expand Technological Literacy.” Technology and Literacy in the Twenty-First Century: The Importance of Paying Attention. SIUP: Carbondale, IL, 1999. 3-24. Print.

This selection is from 1999. The field of rhet/comp has evolved tremendously in its use of technology since then, but I find the reading highly relevant still to a discussion of technology and literacy in BW. The National Project to Expand Technological Literacy was the impetus for this writing. Selfe argues that the field must pay attention to this:

On the specific project to expand technological literacy, we must bring to bear the collective strength of our profession and the broad range of the intellectual skills we can muster as a diverse set of individuals. The price we pay for ignoring this situation is the clear and shameful recognition that we have failed students, failed as humanists, and failed to establish an ethical foundation for future educational efforts in this country. (5)

The reason we will have failed as a discipline is because we cannot ignore the inequities of technology use. In several pages, Selfe shows how the groups in America who most need to benefit from technology are the least likely to. To increase technological literacy for some but not all is to widen the gap. “In other words, the poorer and the less educated Americans are in this country– both of which conditions continue to be closely correlated with race– the less likely they are to have access to computers and to high-paying high-tech jobs” (7). The people most interested in issues of literacy cannot afford to ignore technoliteracy or its affect on society. “In a formulation that literacy educators will feel most keenly, the project to expand technological literacy implicates literacy and illiteracy– in their officially defined forms– in the continued reproduction of poverty and racism” (7).

Selfe says the project is interested in a functional literacy– a computer literacy– that has at its core a focus on student ability to recognize and use a computer and all of its parts. More important, though is technological literacy:

Rather, technological literacy refers to a complex set of socially and culturally situated values, practices, and skills involved in operating linguistically within the context of electronic environments, including reading, writing, and communicating. The term further refers to the linking of technology and literacy at fundamental levels of both conception and social practice. In this context, technological literacy refers to social and cultural contexts for discourse and communication and the ways in which electronic communication environments have become essential parts of our cultural understanding of what it means to be literate. (11)

The cultural practices are shaped by national and governmental programs, but they could also be shaped by teachers who are aware of the issues.

At this point, Selfe rallies for us as a profession to pay more attention: “Unfortunately, anyone familiar with the traditional values of humanism knows that, as a group, English studies, composition, and language arts teachers prefer that technology remain quiet and well-behaved in the background of our lives, where we can use it when we choose– but pay very little attention to it most of the time” (21). Again, this was written in 1999. Having graduated from high school in 1995 and college in 1999, I can confirm that my English teachers frequently had the reputation of needing assistance with working a VCR or Elmo projection unit. Anyone young reading this needs to remember that this was a time when the internet existed but Google did not.

This selection is the first chapter of a book on technology and literacy. It can be summed up in the following quote: “We are teaching students who must know how to communicate in an increasingly technological world. Further, these students need not only have the capability of using computers. They must also have the ability to understand, from a critical perspective, the social and cultural contexts for on-line discourse and communication environments have become essential parts of our cultural understanding of what it means to be literate” (24).


I realize in hindsight that I was unable to resist quoting Selfe repeatedly. I am not alone in this.

1999 seems like ages ago for me now, particularly when writing of technology. The New London Group had already written A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies in 1996. In 2015, we have not reached the levels of awareness and ease of classroom use referred to in these works in 2015 for BW as a whole. There are pockets of instructors who use technology in their BW classes and use it well, but there is resistance too. This piece helps reveal why: there are serious socioeconomic boundaries in place for access to technology for some of our students. Selfe writes specifically of the impact on African-Americans and students in poorer school districts. People with a lack of easy access to technology will not learn to use it at the same pace as their associates. The same groups of people Selfe identifies as having the least ease with access to technology are today the students most likely to need developmental education. In the Midwest, the student population in BW is decidedly different in demographics than in FYC, and BW instructors do not want to further disenfranchise students who are already on the margins.

Classroom whiteboard with terms brainstormed by Basic Writing instructors at TYCA 2015: distinguishing characteristics of basic writers
Classroom whiteboard with terms brainstormed by Basic Writing instructors at TYCA 2015: distinguishing characteristics of basic writers. Photo credit: Nicole Hancock

Paper #2 ENGL 810: Basic Writing Pedagogy and Content

Key terms: basic writing, pedagogy, skills/error, confidence, metacognition, literacy

Basic Writing helps students to improve their current writing skills to the point where the students should be able to earn a C or above when taking FYC the first time. Placement tests determine their writing level. In some institutions, students also have to pass an exit exam in order to be eligible to take FYC. The goal is to prepare students who were previously deemed unable to succeed at college work to be ready in 8-32 weeks, depending on the Basic Writing course set-up.

For additional information about placement, visit this site: National Survey of Basic Writing Programs: placement

Initially, BW courses focused almost entirely on basic skills. Although this method of instruction fell out of favor at least 40 years ago, it is still possible to find lower level BW courses that focus on sentences and then sentences to paragraphs and so forth. While the textbooks for the courses are not quite that reductive, the electronic course supplements that are promoted by publishers still have that tendency.

Rhet/comp moved from a current traditionalist focus on product in the 1960s and 1970s to a “linear and reductive conception of the composing process” (Lauer 113). It then got stuck in the modes, particularly EDNA: exposition, description, narration, and argumentation (Crowley qtd. in Lauer 115). Even though Janice Lauer writes of rhet/comp studies, what she says is particularly true of Basic Writing as well:

The reasons for this intransigence are multiple. A huge percentage of composition teachers are unfamiliar with the above work on modes and genres because they have not been educated in the field of rhetoric and composition. Others wish to remain comfortable with a modal and form-based approach to teaching writing with which they are familiar. Textbook companies are also loath to go against this profitable grain. (116)

Although more rhet/comp professors have training in their field today, the same cannot be said of basic writing instruction. Considering basic writing students are an amalgam of unprepared students, teachers frequently retreat to safe assignment designs so there will be enough time to address all levels of error (organization, purpose, mechanics, etc).

Assignments are often course-driven classroom exercises that lack the authenticity of “real college work.” Basic Writing is proverbially stuck in between that rock and a hard place; while not wanting to focus entirely on error, it does have to be addressed for students to function in FYC. Teachers who adopt more complicated writing assignments than the modes often draw time away from mechanics to help students revise what could be messy ideas and complex organizational schemes. “If postmodern thought helped English educators understand the complex dynamics of language, knowledge, discourse, and power, it also helped reveal their vexed role in the normative process that is formal schooling” (Yagelski 304).

If Basic Writing is not supposed to be a skills course and is not to focus on the modes or aims, what should be the content and pedagogy?

Most concur that practice with literacy is needed. In 1996, the New London Group wrote, “The new fast capitalist literature stresses adaptation to constant change through thinking and speaking for oneself, critique and empowerment, innovation and creativity, technical and systems thinking, and learning how to learn” (New London Group 67). In The Way Literacy Lives, Shannon Carter argues that we must give basic writers “the tools they need to experience literacy differently– to look again at the ways in which literacy functions in the multiple and intellectually viable lifeworlds in which they are already full-fledged members” (163). Susan Naomi Bernstein agrees: “a curriculum which foregrounds students’ prior and developing knowledge presents exciting possibilities for basic writing pedagogy” (67).

The core writing assignments should build from worlds familiar to students and gradually introduce them to the discourse of the academy. Pedagogy should also focus on students’ identities as writers and helping them to grow in confidence as student writers. This should be done through a combination of pedagogies: situated practice, overt instruction, critical framing, transformed practice (New London Group 88). In particular, students in BW benefit from the metacognitive work of transformed practice.

Shannon Carter discusses a way in which to show students where they are and where they could be through her pedagogy of rhetorical dexterity: “Rhetorical dexterity treats learning new literacies as a situated activity” (162). Students examine the literacies around them in an effort to become more aware of their multiliteracies and their relationship to them. Students who were previously agitated at the ways in which the rules seemed to change from one course to another could now see the system that creates the different rules and be able to adapt to the change without as much frustration. In a pedagogy like this, students are transformed not only as writers but as students.

A similar conversion occurred when Klages and Clark used ePortfolios with BW students; the students “began to transform their relationship to writing, emerging as confident writers with a new sense of how they can translate their authority onto the page” (47). Klages and Clark’s emphasis on reflective practice, at both the individual level and by commenting on the work created by their peers, enabled students to grow as both readers and writers.

At the heart of this type of pedagogy is concern about social inequality. Students in BW often feel as though others have been given a rule book while they are navigating the world without one of their own or that the rules were created intentionally to benefit a group of people other than them. Through pedagogy, Basic Writing instructors seek to level the playing field and reveal not only the rules but the systems that have created the rules.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Susan Naomi. “Basic Writing: In Search of a New Map.” Modern Language Studies 40.2 (2011): 60-75. JSTOR 24 Sept. 2015. Web.

Carter, Shannon. “The Way Literacy Lives.” Teaching Developmental Writing: Background Readings. Ed. Susan Naomi Bernstein. 4th ed. Bedford: Boston, 2013. 161-183. Print.

Klages, Marisa A. and J. Elizabeth Clark. “New Worlds of Errors and Expectations: Basic Writers and Digital Assumptions.” Journal of Basic Writing 28.1 (2009): 32-49. ERIC Web. 21 Sept. 2016.

Lauer, Janice M. “Rhetoric and Composition.” English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline. Ed. Bruce McComiskey. NCTE: Urbana, IL, 2006. 106-152. Print.

New London Group. “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures.” Harvard Educational Review. 66.1 (1996): 60-92. Print.

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