PAB #1

Villanueva, Victor. “Subversive Complicity and Basic Writing Across the Curriculum.” Journal of

            Basic Writing 32.1 (2013):97-110. Print.

Villanueva begins with a memory of a meeting with the provost, a meeting where he will have to use rhetoric to lobby for retaining Basic Writing classes and not cutting them from the program as the provost plans. This memory of a day in 1984 is provided without context, but it serves as a great example of one man deploying subversive complicity to save the basic writing program. The office visit serves as a metaphor for how we all encounter situations where we need to know the language to use with those in power positions.

headmaster's office
Representation of the office in Villanueva’s anecdote

As Villanueva points out on page 99, “[…] when economic crises loom, the racialized, non-middle-class version of ‘remedial’ writing is immediately slated for removal. And the way to save it is to invoke a rhetoric that cobbles together a multiculturalism or equal opportunity and assimiliation.” While writing teachers teach students to embrace their own voices, they struggle against forces in the university that see their role as enculturation and gate-keeping. Students are expected to write in the voice and standardization of the dominant culture by course’s end.

Villanueva pulls from several disciplines to show how work is being done regarding language use and racism, narrative, and code-meshing. He says that “What we [in English departments] know that they might not is that as language carries meaning, meaning carries cultures and their ideologies, ideologies and their economies” (101). We have much to learn from colleagues across disciplines as they may learn from us about our developmental students. He suggests a dialogue across the disciplines where we pass on what we already know as a discipline about contact zones and critical pedagogies.

The key issue, though, is “how to teach the written rhetoric of power without negating students’ power, the power inherent in their own ways with words” (102). He uses the Puerto Rican concept, jaiberia, a “subversive complicity,” as the answer. Subversive complicity is an intentional mimicry used with full-knowledge to reverse the current hegemonies. This is the sort of language work Villanueva employed in his meeting with the provost. He spoke her language, one of budgets and comparisons to the nearest community colleges; this was not his natural inclination, but he had learned what she wanted and needed to hear.

In Basic Writing, Villanueva teaches students about power and language and the language of power. He shows them how academic articles are structured and the class works together to translate some of the diction of the articles. Students mimic the language, but do so through the lense of an “anti-racist critical pedagogy” (103). There is an act of reciprocity involved. He takes this a step further with the CLASP program at his school (Critical Literacies Achievement and Success Programs). This is an inter-disciplinary program where professors and students learn from one another. It presumes that just as first-generation college students have much to learn about how academia works, the professors have much to learn about their new students. They meet together, get to really know one another on personal levels, and learn deeply from one another. The program intertwines with the Writing Center as well. The tutors are better able to understand the patterns they see in students’ writing. The students are able to learn the discourse of the university.


On first glance, this may seem like an odd choice for Basic Writing history. It is not really an overview of the discipline in a traditional sense. Sure, Villanueva refers to the beginnings of BW and gets in the pre-requisite Shaughnessy references. What makes this piece a part of BW history is that it acknowledges the tenuous relationship BW had always had within the power structure of the university.

BW programs are always at risk of being cut, particularly if the economy takes a turn or other disciplines in the university do not see enough evidence of student enculturation. Villanueva calls out the enculturation as racist, and he’s not wrong. The placement tests that funnel students into BW favor the dominant culture, as do the procedures that are often in place for students to promote to FYC. Rather than try to persuade the entire university structure to at long last embrace student voices as those in writing studies have done, Villanueva argues for us to help students recognize the system and learn how to use it to fight the system.

Truthfully, I am still ambivalent about subversive complicity. Certainly, students arrive in our classes thinking that the course will teach them how to use commas properly, etc. They often think that academic writing comes naturally to some students but not to them. It is helpful for them to see that everyone has to learn academic language and how it works. Exposure to it and training in it is what Villanueva recommends, presumably at a pace that is less than that of a FYC course.