Shaughnessy, Mina P. “Diving In: An Introduction to Basic Writing.” In Cross-Talk in Comp Theory. Ed. Victor Villanueva. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English, 2002.
In her article, Shaughnessy creates a developmental model for how we, as composition teachers, grow to accept the problems basic writers have as pedagogical challenges. Pointing out that all of the terminology used to describe basic writers is medical and remedial in nature (clinic, lab, etc.), Shaughnessy calls us to put that aside, as it masks the real issues at stake. She lays out a progression of four steps that trace how teachers treat basic writers:
- GUARDING THE TOWER – We can’t let these horribly underprepared students into academia! The teacher teaches these basic writers the same way he has taught them in the past, beacuse not doing so would be “cheating.”
- CONVERTING THE NATIVES – The teacher begins to recognize that at least some of the students are capable of making it, and sets out to give the students formulas and rules so they might imitate academic discourse.
- SOUNDING THE DEPTHS – Seeing that the no-fail formulas are, indeed, flunking with the students, the teacher looks for reasons why these seemingly smart young men and women can’t write well. The teacher begins to realize the gap between the students’ written and spoken lanuage. Could the problem lie there? In spoken discourse, knowledge is batted around willy-nilly; there is no need to explain or press issues further. Students, used to this type of discourse, don’t translate well to academic writing, where they are encouraged – and expected – to play with language and subtle layers of meaning. The students need to learn how to be students. Only then can they become writers.
- DIVING IN – This is the step where the teacher embraces the unique challenge of the basic writer. Working with basic writers is no longer a chore, it is a worthwhile professional and pedagogical pursuit.
Good Quotes (great article – I could quote it all!)
“DIVING IN is simply deciding that teaching them [basic writers] to write well is not only suitable but challenging work for those who would be teachers and scholars in a democracy” (317). She hit it right on. I despise teachers who think that freshman level – not even to mention basic writing – is “below” them. Isn’t that what we want to do? Give all members of a democracy the tools to participate in it? To me, having that role in a democracy is so exciting. I am empowering people to change the society they live in for the better.
“Our teacher begins to see that teaching at the remedial level is not a matter of being simpler but of being more profound, of not only starting from ‘scratch’ but also determining where ‘scratch’ is” (317).
“The writer might lack the vocabulary that would enable him to move more easily up the ladder of abstraction and must instead forge out of a nonanalytical vocabulary a way of discussing thoughts about thoughts, a task so formidable as to discourage him, as travelers in a foreign land are discouraged, from venturing far beyond bread-and-butter matters” (317). I like that – discussing thoughts about thoughts. I think that’s what paralyzes so many students who are learning how to really analyze for the first time. I can see some of my WRT 105 students in here.
“Are they [students] aware, for example, after years of right/wrong testing, after the ACTs and the GEDs and the OATs, after straining to memorize what they read but never learning to doubt it, after “psyching out” answers rather than discovering them, are they aware that the rules have changed and that the rewards now go to those who can sustain a play of mind upon ideas – teasing out the contradictions and ambiguities and frailities of statements?” (316) I think this is so right-on-the-mark good. I’m going to put in on my syllabus next semester. I mean, isn’t this what we’re trying to do in our composition classrooms? And how often is this NOT the case in other classes?
“Somewhere between the folly of pretending that errors don’t matter and the rigidity of insisting that they matter more than anything, the teacher must find his answer, searching always under pressure for short cuts that will not ultimately restrict the intellectual power of his students.” This line is so hard to find! I like how Shaughnessy is continuously stressing the intelligence of basic writers. It’s not something we really think about, is it?
“Obliged because of the exigencies brought on by open admissions to serve his time in the defense of the academy, he does if not his best, at least his duty, setting forth the material to be mastered, as if he expected students to learn it, but feeling grateful when a national holiday happens to fall on a basic-writing day and looking always for ways of evading conscription next semester” (313). I liked this quote a lot because I saw myself in it – the first thing I do every semester is see when class is cancelled beacuse of a holiday! Yikes!
Shaughnessy is writing in response to the change to the open-admissions policy, which brought in lots of underprepared writers to the universities. Were there basic writer problems before open admissions? How else has open admissions changed our composition classes?
Shaughnessy wrote this in 1976 – 30 years ago. Have things gotten better for basic writing pedagogy?
What kind of instruction will best prepare basic writers to participate in democracy? What is important? What is not? Should our “regular” composition classes look like our basic writing class, if the emphasis is on democracy?
How do Honors classes pose the same challenges as basic writing classes?