Trajectories of Persons and Practices: Sociohistoric Perspectives of Disciplinary Development. The Case Study of Charles Scott, Jr

Chapter 3 | Mapping Critical Connections:
Exploring the Co-development of Vernacular Journalism and College Writing


What initially drew Kevin’s attention to Charles Scott, Jr. was the incongruity between his placement (and the apparent appropriateness of this placement) in the basic writing course Kevin was teaching and his extensive engagement with and successes in what Anne Ruggles Gere (1994) has called “composition’s extracurriculum,” spaces outside of school where writing plays a significant role (p. 86). The summaries Charles submitted for homework assignments in Rhetoric 101-100, the lowest composition placement at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for example, were merely collages of passages taken word-for-word from the readings in the course textbook. The longer essays he submitted bore numerous traces of his difficulties with marshalling information from multiple sources into an analytic argument. The mechanical aspects of his writing told a similar story; accurate spelling and grammatical correctness seemed beyond his reach in many instances. In short, Charles easily fit within the dominant image of a basic writer arriving at a four-year college.

Yet while Charles was struggling with the literate demands of the undergraduate curriculum, his literate efforts on the vernacular front met with notable success. By mid-semester, four of Charles’s stories had appeared in the university’s student newspaper, his latest in a long string of journalistic publications stretching back several years to his high school days working for New Expression, a student-authored news magazine distributed to public and private high schools in the Chicago area, and for his high school newspaper before that. Several of these stories had earned him journalistic awards, including the Scholastic Press Association Excellent Sports Story Award and the Kansas City Star Ernest Hemingway Writing Award for High School Journalists.

In addition to his success as a journalist, Charles had also been getting his fair share of laughs with the jokes he had written for the stand-up comedy routine he had performed throughout the semester at the university’s Open Mic Night, an opportunity for undergraduates to showcase their talents. The third Wednesday of each month would find Charles on stage at the university’s Courtyard Café reading from a tattered spiral notebook containing the jokes he had crafted and a host of other written and visual texts he used in his act. Other nights throughout the semester would find Charles on stage at the African American Cultural Center reading poetry, including some of his own, that he and some friends had collected from Chicago-area high school students and published two years before.

More than five years of observation, discussion, and textual analysis complicated this story. What began as an investigation of the disconnect between Charles’s placement in a basic writing course (and his apparent fit there) and his extensive engagement with and successes in vernacular literate practices evolved into a much longer, richer, and more fascinating exploration of the interplay between seemingly disparate literate activities.

To fully address the relationships between and among Charles’s multiple forms of non-school writing (i.e, his vernacular journalism, his poetry, and his stand-up comedy, among others) and the writing he did for his various undergraduate courses over five years is beyond the scope of any single chapter. This chapter, then, elaborates the repeated linkages between Charles’s vernacular journalism and the writing for three of his undergraduate courses during his freshman and sophomore years at the university. It also situates these links in an even more extensive trajectory of interplays stretching back to some of Charles’s early encounters with writing and forward into his future writing throughout his undergraduate years and beyond. We argue that the consistent pattern of connections between Charles’s non-school and school writing profoundly shaped his development as a literate person, not only in terms of helping him to meet the literate demands of the undergraduate curriculum but also in regard to the pace and path of his literate life.

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