The Politics of Remediation: Basic Writing Beginnings

Basic Writing at CUNY

Basic Writing and Maintaining Standards

The Politics of ReMEDIAtion: Evolving Standards and the Politics of Curricular Change

Development of a Multimodal Standard

Politics and Ideological Clashes

The Politics of ReMEDIAtion Meets the Politics of Remediation: Basic Writing in the 21st Century Academy

Staking our Claim






Basic Writing at CUNY

Some decades later, the need for a course that would help “new” students meet the demands of college life persisted amid Open Admission at The City University of New York (CUNY), as a sudden increase in minority and working class students tested the institution's ideological and curricular boundaries. Mina Shaughnessy (1976) writes that many faculty suspected, “Whatever the sources of [basic writers’] incompetence—whether rooted in the limits they were born with or those that were imposed upon them by the world they grew up in—the fact seems stunningly, depressingly obvious: they will never "make it" in college unless someone radically lowers the standards” (p. 235). Whereas at Yale and Harvard, basic writing was seen as a means of maintaining academic standards by providing struggling students with individualized instruction and remedial support, at CUNY in the 1970s, basic writing was discursively constructed as a threat to academic standards. This slight difference in rhetorical stance is one that would ultimately prove fatal to basic writing at CUNY.

By the 1990s, concerns about the academic rigor of remedial courses as Shaughnessy’s own City College rang out in the popular press. Among the most widely cited examples of this was James Traub’s (1995) critique, City on a Hill: Testing the American Dream at City College.

In the “Preface,” Traub notes:

For many young people, I found, City College still represents an almost miraculous salvation from a life of poverty and hardship. It is, for them, the American Dream in all its glory. A great many others, however, especially those who would not have been admitted under the old standards, flail around helplessly and drop out. And City is often forced to stoop to try to raise them up. (p. viii)

This conflation with declining standards and the weak academic literacy skills that basic writers frequently demonstrate continued at CUNY. Three years following the publication of Traub’s book, CUNY was publicly scrutinized by New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Giuliani responded publicly to concerns about remediation at CUNY by saying: ''If we are promising a college education, we should deliver one…And if we stay on the present course, that isn't going to happen… and I'm sure this task force will make recommendations that dramatically change that course and re-establish for CUNY college-level work” (Arenson, 1998). In the wake of this, and many other articles published in the New York Times that bemoaned the lowering of standards at CUNY to meet the needs of remedial students, “On May 26, 1998, CUNY’s Board of Trustees passed a highly controversial resolution to bar students from CUNY’s senior colleges if they failed even one of the three skills tests, including the writing test" (Gleason, 2001, p. 580). Less than three decades after the publication of Shaughnessy’s groundbreaking Errors and Expectations, a text that is often cited as the seminal work in basic writing, the discourse of a skills-based literacy crisis spelled the end of remediation at CUNY’s senior colleges. This crisis discourse persists today.

It is difficult not to wonder what could have happened at CUNY if basic writing faculty had actually been more involved in constructing the discourse about student skill. Writing on the heels of CUNY’s decision, Lynn Quitman Troyka (2001) published an open letter to the editors and readers of the Journal of Basic Writing, entitled “How We Have Failed the Basic Writing Enterprise.” Troyka points specifically to an apparent failure to attend to public relations, particularly insofar as responses to a discourse of literacy crisis were concerened. Recalling the publication of an article on basic writers in the New York Times, which included unedited excerpts of work produced by basic writers, Troyka writes:

Predictably, most public reaction to that story and similar articles was negative. What are illiterate students doing in college? Won't an OA program that attracts such students water down the value of our hard-earned college degrees? Why are public funds being spent to repeat what students should have learned in high school if only they had paid attention"? For months after that article appeared, I, along with my BW colleagues, was grilled with such questions when I saw friends or went to a social gathering of non-academics. Sadly, the tone was far more enraged and bitter when academics, particularly senior and almost senior faculty, got together. To this day, some thirty years later, these attitudes persist vocally (p. 115).

Here again, the rhetorical stance towards basic writing shifted. By the time Troyka was writing, attitudes about literacy skills and college-level work had been shaped by a discourse of literacy in crisis both within and beyond the walls of the academy: from multiple perspectives, it was argued that these “illiterate” students simply do not belong in college.

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