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Histories and futures of Basic Writing: Response to George Otte and Rebecca Williams Mlynarczyk’s Basic Writing (2010)

George Otte and Rebecca Williams Mlynarczyk’s Basic Writing (2010) presents a series of topic-focused historical narratives of the field of Basic Writing (BW). Each chapter–regardless of its focus on BW research, pedagogy, or institutional politics–begins its inquiry with the pivotal work of Mina Shaughnessy and the emergence of BW as a discourse in the era of CUNY Open Admissions and tracks through to the present day of the book’s publication. Through these narratives, we see how debates about assessment, pedagogy, administration, and educational politics have shaped the work BW scholars do. And by presenting not one unilateral history, but multiple interlocking histories, BW emerges not as a singular entity, but as a multiply articulated response to local and national institutional forces–with discourses and a contexts in constant productive (or disruptive) friction.

Because this book draws most of its evidence from BW scholarship as it is archived in journals, conference talks, and prominent books in the field, it’s able to offer a dynamic overview of the shifting discourses of basic writing scholarship. In the long view of each focused, topical chapter, we re-examine the bibliography of BW to see how ideas and ideologies shift as the field slowly swaps one set of questions for another. So, in the chapter “Research,” for instance, we see how the field’s initial questions about error–how to classify it when we see it in finished texts–led folks like Emig, Perl, and Flower to investigate error within the process of text production, allowing them to develop methods for applying close scrutiny to the behaviors of basic writers themselves, rather than their products. Once the field recognized the complexity of writing from a cognitive standpoint, research turned to exploring the equally complex social and cultural factors that affect students as they write. At each turn, we reject some of the questions asked by previous researchers and develop others into new paradigms for understanding the work of BW. And by tracking through these progressions with a range of different foci, I get some view of the conflicting, nebulous discourses that have evolved as BW scholars respond to the local and national politics of remedial writing programs.

I was hoping to learn more in this book about the administration of BW programs and the institutional life of BW–a more on-the-ground understanding of what BW has been since the days of Open Admissions. In some respects, I got this history most concretely in the book’s extensive discussions of assessment schemas and the implementation and revision of writing tests. In these instances, I see scholars like Edward White presenting models of thoughtful assessment to counter standardized writing tests, and all these contrasted to less regimented models like guided self-placement. Likewise, Otte and Mlynarczyk chronicle the shift in assessment processes from the college level to the high school level, as high schools begin implementing exit examinations that apply the “standards” filter one step down the ladder. These shifts in approaches to testing and placement correlate to changes in practical, on-the-ground administration of BW programs; though, since the focus of this book is bibliographic, I don’t get an in depth investigation of the practicalities of these institutional structures. That is to say, I think, that this book is not pitched as a WPA’s how-to guide; nor does it claim to be. Getting bogged down in the details of specific BW program administration would fight the narrative cohesion achieved throughout this book, no doubt. Though I think that’s one thing I wanted from it.

Predictably enough, I found myself most drawn to the sections of these narratives that discussed cognitive approaches to basic writing, especially the work on writing/thinking processes emerging in the late 1970s through the 1980s. In my list with Jason on cognitive impairments and education, I will be diving more in depth on nearly all of the authors cited in these accounts, especially Rose, Flower and Hayes. Since I took a course on comp/rhet pedagogies with Sondra Perl, I’ve been aware of this legacy, and for my work in my comprehensive exams, I explored many of the earlier cognitivists researchers and theorists like Janet Emig and Perl herself. I really should go back to read these works again.

Indeed, the biggest revelation for me in reading Basic Writing was encountering just how much of the scholarship discussed that I had encountered before without ever having thought of myself as a BW scholar. I don’t know whether it’s because I have been trained as a compositionist within the CUNY system where the legacy of BW is still alive and kicking, but I realized continually as I read this book that what what I had assumed was simply mainstream comp/rhet theory and practice had actually emerged specific to questions of BW. In Sondra’s Exploring Pedagogies class, I learned about cognitive process models, of course, but also about ethnographic research on k-12 literacy education, service learning pedagogy, and identity-based literacy pedagogy (Alexander on sexuality)–all important trends drawn out in Otte and Mlynarczk’s narratives. Mark McBeth’s course on Writing Program Administration introduced me to Shaughnessy’s and Bartholomae’s and even Mark’s own administrative practices, each rooted (as Basic Writing explained) in different answers to the implied questions of what basic writing is and who basic writers are. So, I was surprised that while I never thought of myself as knowledgable about BW scholarship–because it’d never been packaged to me as such–I found much of the scholarship described in this book to be comfortingly familiar. I don’t know whether my experience is consistent with compositionists trained outside the “hothouse” of CUNY that plays such a prominent role in Otte and Mlynarczyk’s accounts, but for me, the history of BW and the histories I’ve learned about comp/rhet in general showed enormous overlaps.

My final comment on this book relates to my interests in disability, which is notably absent from the discussion Otte and Mlynarczyk present. Particularly, I think about the late 80s and early 1990s as important moment of institutional shift in the administration of BW instruction, where remedial programs were being ousted from the four-year-college level, and progressively shifted farther away from their initial position as access points to higher education degrees–both by moving remediation one step away into the community colleges, and by establishing earlier gatekeeping structures in high school exit exams. I think also about how this is the same period that the ADA and disability activism were making inroads into institutions of higher education and creating new forms of access for previously excluded populations who, in some respects, share the vulnerabilities of BWers, and likely share many of the same stories. I hope that as I do more research about the institutional history of disability access in public higher education I will be able to write my own history to go alongside the ones in Basic Writing. And in this, Otte and Mlynarczyk’s models are supremely instructive while also leaving me an opening to explore in my own scholarship.
Otte, George and Rebecca Williams Mlynarczyk. Basic Writing. West Lafayette, Indiana: Parlor Press, 2010. Print.

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