Basic Writing, handwringing about “standards,” and On Being Included

I’m working out some thoughts about parallels that I’m seeing between the hand wringing over academic “standards” that happened in the 1990s and contemporary hand wringing over “standards” surrounding plagiarism.

I’ve been thinking about these things while reading this week: Rebecca Williams Mlynarczyk and George Otte’s piece about the future of Basic Writing from 2010, Ira Shor’s 1997 article from the same journal likening Basic Writing to apartheid, some articles arguing against the “efficacy” of remedial education that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education in the mid-90s, Victor Villanueva’s “Subversive Complicity,” and returning to Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life: a book that has been really central to my thinking in the last few months. I also started Xiaoye You’s Cosmopolitan English and Transliteracy, which is informing some of my thinking.

As the Mlynarczyk and Otte piece reports, the 1990s were a time when scholars within the field began taking a closer look at the legacy and impact of remedial education. Scholarly critiques of BW focused on the way that the discipline extended hierarchical power relations and reproduced undemocratic systems of tracking and control (Shor 1997). Bruce Horner and Min-Zhan Lu argued that basic writing curriculum was rooted in a lack of attention to the sociopolitical conditions that created “deficit” narratives. Evidence of this line of thinking is also found in Lu’s 1991 challenge to Mina Shaughnessy’s essentialist view of language in Errors and Expectations.

But there was also a lot of handwringing about standards in the 90s: handwringing that continues today in school reform movements, and handwringing that feels very parallel to the kinds of conversations I’ve heard people have about plagiarism and academic integrity.

Movement in the direction of some kind of rhetorical / linguistic pluralism seems like it is almost always met with fretting about THE STANDARDS. But when you look at the trajectory of that fretting in the 90s, it’s really interesting to note that all of the reform people seemed to want to draw on elusive “international standards” by which we should be judging our (largely American) basic writers, and now that the new basic writers ARE, in many cases, international students, there’s an outcry for promoting and enforcing new standards — “American” ones — around plagiarism.

A cartoon face looking thoughtfully up to the sky with the words "Hmm..." in capital letters next to it).

Here are some other fragmented thoughts. Also, memes!

1. Both within and outside of our field, it feels like there are, among others, some ludicrously xenophobic dimensions to the way that we A Simpsons character looks up at the sky and pleads while a crowd of other Simpsons characters look at her with a worried face. The words "Won't somebody please think of the children?" appear across the top and the bottom of the image.argue for the “protection” of the “value” of a college degree in the face of increasing international student enrollment. It’s hard to point to this argument in published material, but it’s certainly something that I’ve encountered in informal conversations, in Q&As at conferences, and on various professional listservs. These conversations are reminiscent of the kinds of “think of the standards!” conversations that we were having in the 1990s, like this one from Marc Tucker, which advocates for “higher standards” in “low-performing” secondary schools (read: schools with lots of minority students). The same logic that supported the particularly icky parts of school reform movements. These are not new conversations — we’re just having them about a new set students — and they’re still just as reductive and ignorant.

Doge, a shiba inu dog, looks at the camera very skeptically

2. There is palpable resentment surrounding the idea that international students (and their tuition dollars) are given preferential treatment over more “deserving” (read: American) students. Regardless of whether or not universities are actually making money off of international students, blaming the students, themselves, for circumstances that are both out of their control and that directly victimize them is not a good look.

3. Rigor, academic “excellence,” student preparation, and high standards are often placed in direct rhetorical conflict with goals relating to accessibility. All of these concepts are, of course, evacuated of meaning until they’re attached to something meaningful. A student becomes “high achieving” when what it means to “achieve” is defined: by test scores, by graduation rates, by GPA, by whatever metric a school decides to use. A student’s ability to access something is undermined when that student’s presence on a campus is not imagined in the first place.

4. While, as Ahmed writes, “diversity” can be a technology of excellence — a metric that we use to prove value — this can only happen when diversity doesn’t threaten excellence at it is currently conceived.

Post-Watson thoughts: translingual pedagogies and reciprocal recognitions

At the beginning of my Orals process, one of my sub-lists focused on the divide between L2 and translingualism. I started with the L2 letter. I read Canagarajah’s reply. I read some of the “defining translingualism” texts in our field (like the Horner, Lu, Royster, and Trimbur piece and the Lu and Horner piece). I read outside of our field (like Jenkins’ work on English as a Lingua Franca, and Garcia and Seltzer’s work on translanguaging, and Flores’ and Rosa’s work on appropriacy).

And I tried to wrap my head around some of the push back. I’m going to paint in very broad strokes here, but just to distill some of it: (1) translingualism ignores students’ interest in learning the English of power; (2) translingualism isn’t practical; (3) translingualism (in Comp Rhet) doesn’t have any, or enough, “concrete” strategies aside from code-meshing; (4) translingualism encourages linguistic tourism and reifies linguistic fixedness.**

After reading, and after attending this year’s Watson conference on mobility work in composition, I think I’m starting to figure out my own place in this debate — at least, my position right now. I want to reflect on that here.

Translingualism has been described as an orientation to language rather than a set of prescriptive methods for teaching it. As a former language teacher, a current teacher educator, and a current Comp teacher, this orientation feels so urgent. But so do strategies. Especially strategies that involve more than just our students.

I’ve been thinking about that inescapable paradox that Eli Goldblatt raised in his keynote address on the last day of the conference: how can we acknowledge the undeniable social fact of difference and its very real and life-threatening material effects while exposing the lies that carefully crafted those social facts in the first place? And I keep coming back to the complication — the violence, really — of placing disproportionate individual “responsibility” for navigating these social facts of difference back on the students whose “difference” is marked without asking for a complementary effort from faculty.

But at Watson, I thought a lot about the contradiction of selling some of the proffered translingual strategies to students in class (i.e. code-meshing, translanguaging, research projects in cross-cultural comp sections) while, in our very own professional spaces, rooms full of people (including myself!) used what I think a lot of people might recognize as the academic discourses of power to communicate with one another. This discourse is, of course, shifting and imaginary. We were, of course, code-meshing: we do all the time. And yet, I don’t know that other people reading our work would recognize our code meshing as such. At least, not in the way that we point out the code-meshing our students are doing in our own paper presentations.

I believe Nelson Flores’ idea that students’ actual practices are, in part, what an audience hears them say or reads them write. A few weeks ago at the Graduate Center, Flores used the bilingualism of Tim Kaine and Julian Castro to illustrate this point. They both speak Spanish. Kaine’s bilingualism is lauded and Castro’s criticized because Castro is “expected” to speak “perfect” Spanish while Kaine can get by with much less because he is white. What actually matters is how much power an audience has to make determinations about whether a speech act failed or succeeded. What the gatekeepers are able to hear and read often has much more to do with the gatekeepers than it does the speaker/writer. What are we doing to help those gatekeepers (whether they’re faculty or students who will eventually be faculty) to listen and to understand their own situatedness and what they think that they’re hearing and reading?

The strategies that Victor Villanueva outlines in his description of a Basic Writing Across the Curriculum program get closer to addressing the issues that I’ve had with pedagogies that primarily pivot around individual student language practices: so, code-meshing, or literacy / linguistic narratives, or cross-cultural composition sections, especially when the numbers of “marked” and “unmarked” students are disparate.

Villanueva describes the tension between what we’re called to do as instructors of writing (assimilate and enculturate) and what we (and many disciplines, of course — not just ours) believe that we should be doing: fostering critical consciousness. A program at his institution called CLASP (Critical Literacies Achievement Success Program) addresses this problem by “[operating] from Fanon’s ‘reciprocal recognitions,” that whatever the students don’t know about how professors operate, the professors are equally ignorant of how these ‘New Students’ operate” (105). The program mandates (and prepares students for) office hour visits. It trains tutors at the Writing Center in “grammars of the dominant dialects of the students who participate in CLASP,” and shows them “the workings of contrastive rhetoric” (105). The program also trains faculty in how to read and engage with student writing in a way that helps them to become “conscious of the conventions-as-conventions” — conventions as ideologically constructed, as motivated, rather than as hard evidence of “good” or “poor” writing (106).

I like this practice because it’s really about mutual listening. It asks both students and professors to consider how “deficient” or “proficient” subjects and codified linguistic codes are constructed (and emphasizes their constructedness). It assumes that professors and writing center consultants need to learn things, too. So, instead of putting the burden back on (already marginalized) students, the burden of inventing the university and of laying bare its institutional logics is distributed.

To add to this idea, I’m wondering if a curriculum that uses critical cosmopolitanism or critical race theory to interrogate the university and its knowledge-making practices themselves (rather than any one student’s individual practices) in order to investigate who gets labeled as a “language learner” or a “remedial writer” or “deficient” or “proficient” — and who does not — could make for an interesting object of investigation across multiple disciplines.

Could rhetoric classes teach students how to do rhetorical analyses of university spaces, of university marketing materials, of strategic plans, of policies, while professors also learn (in a practicum? a pilot?) about contrastive rhetorics, about rhetorical listening, about reading and responding to student writing? Could anthropology classes consider models of schools and schooling comparatively across cultures and places? Could historians consider histories of remediation, histories of honors colleges, histories of austerity and public funding? Could business classes think about the organization of university management structures, tenure and promotion processes, ethics? Can we teach each other, and learn what we don’t know?

If I think back to some of my most productive moments as a Comp teacher, they revolved around pulling back the curtain and letting students in on how the university works. They often don’t know. I didn’t, and still don’t know, so much about these things. I look at them directly a lot more than the average graduate student does, and I still find them mystifying. And yet, if we don’t know what we don’t know, then how can we know how institutions work on us, or how we work on or in them? Are we continuing to obscure institutional practices by focusing so exclusively on individual ones?
**Here’s my extremely brief reply to these critiques:
(1) The uncritical reproduction of the English of power doesn’t empower anyone: it just upholds the legacy and effects of white supremacy.
(2) Dismantling systemic oppression is hard. We often confuse “hard” and “not practical.”
(3) Yeah, that’s a good point. I want more strategies too.
(4) Yes, in some cases. Translingual pedagogy, like all pedagogy, is context-dependent.