PAB #2

Gray-Rossdale, Linda. “Investigating our Discursive History: JBW and the Construction of the ‘Basic Writer’s’ Identity.”Journal of Basic Writing. 18.2 (1999): 108-135. The WAC Clearinghouse. Colorado State University. Web. 9 Sept. 2015.

Keywords: student identities, Basic Writing students, growth, initiation, conflict


Laura Gray-Rosendale examines the description of Basic Writers in The Journal of Basic Writing throughout several major movements in the discipline. The first (1975-1976) is with Mina Shaughnessy and the growth model. “Relatively disconnected from the context within which the Basic Writer was actually writing, the Basic Writer’s student identity was inscribed first and foremost by the necessity to become more cognitively advanced and more developmentally mature” (110). Shaughnessy acknowledged that the study of students who were underdeveloped for college was too loose and the emphasis on error would lead to more questions about pedagogy than answers. Uniformity in teaching was neither desired nor possible in this model.

1975-1979 moved away from pedagogical concerns to ideological intention. Louise Yellin’s work is quoted extensively here, the “first piece of meta-theoretical criticism published on Basic Writing scholarship itself” (112). Yellin found the growth model to be premised in hope for growth beyond the students’ current abilities but sadly “in danger of fostering a vocational education, which, often despite its own assertions, reinforced social stratification” (113). Additionally, she cautioned not to romanticize students as a “ ‘culture of the oppressed’ and sought to undermine this” (113).

1979 shifted to an initiation model with metaphors of invention and entrance into a discourse community. Students were no longer deficient and in need of step-by-step instruction by the teacher but rather novices to conventions who needed introduction to the academy. David Bartholomae argued for a more rhetorically-based approach. The 1981 issue focused on revision:“Moving between philosophies of revision, teaching strategies for revision, and students’ own revising techniques, the texts in this issue took revision out of the realm of the fixed and static, seeing it as part of the rhetorical situation which was constantly changing and evolving” (116). The journal then lapsed from 1981-1985.

Under new editor, Lynn Quitman Troyka, the newly retitled Journal of Basic Writing revived with issues no longer focused on one theme or issue. A dialogue opened about the definition of Basic Writers, most notably between Kogen and Hays, Kogen arguing for an initiation model while Hays argued for a developmental model. “The Basic Writer student identity within our scholarship could no longer be seen outside of social and historical forces without raising criticisms about whether its premises rested upon the developmentalist models which reigned previously, or conceptions of student identity which treated the Basic Writer as a ‘child’ who lacked adequate development” (119). The debate was no longer about who the student was but rather how he or she was described.

The conflict metaphor began in 1991. The conflict or contact zone metaphor largely arose out of Mary Louise Pratt’s “Arts of the Contact Zone,” which argues that “classes ought to be places where conflicts between discourses were heightened and examined” (121). The new student identity was “in flux, subject to and a subject of many historical and social forces which, scholars affirmed, had problematically created it” (121). The forces at work for and against students now became the source of student identity. Students were presumed to be on the margins as well as oppressed, but at the same time already aware of their marginality and open to discussing it. Additionally, student identities were no longer viewed as binaries but as plural or multiple: “The Basic Writer’s student identity, though it varied from article to article, was describable as a constellation of societal forces which impacted it and shaped it, as gendered, raced, or classed” (124). An outsider position was presumed; social agency and empowerment became themes for coursework. Gray-Rossdale notes that work during this time is often highly contextualized to “specific situations, specific activities, specific institutions, or specific moments” (126).


Although Gray-Rossdale positions each of these metaphors in a particular timeframe within JBW, all metaphors are currently in play during discussions of Basic Writers on the Council of Basic Writing list-serv and at CBW sessions at CCCCs. The observation that all articles were highly contextualized is interesting to me because I still see that happening during any attempt to create policy statements. Rather than being able to define BW programs or students, there is a reaction to any classification that the definition is not inclusive enough to represent all students. The end result is a non-definition. While all eras agree that students’ writing can improve, the method varies tremendously.

I know this is already much longer than it is supposed to be, but I cannot help adding…The reason I chose Basic Writing for the research topic (apart from the other reason shared in email) even though it will not be my main research focus is that I have no formal study in Basic Writing even though I have been teaching it for 13 years. I know I am not alone in this. Basic Writing is routinely in danger of being cut from university programs (when it has not been cut already). One of my friends is arguing for her program as I write this. Studying BW at the graduate level is a dangerous proposition because it could always disappear. I suspect in many ways, we as a discipline routinely invent our epistemologies as we go, picking up values from this and that along the way because we are teaching on the fly. This is not a systematic way of proceeding, and I fear the over-contextualization of the discipline adds to this because we’re apt to disregard what does not immediately apply to us as of little value or relevance to our specific teaching situation.