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 Beginnings

Trimbur (1991) illustrates the "narrative of literacy’s decline" through a history familiar to basic writing scholars. Interestingly, Trimbur argues that "there is little question that writing programs and composition courses have been direct beneficiaries of the current literacy crisis" (p. 277). To be sure, regardless of the institutional context, basic writing courses exist in order to address "that kind of student writing which disturbs, threatens, or causes despair in traditional English faculty members" (Enos qtd. in Otte and Mlynarczyk, 2010, p. 55). Yet, the skills-based literacy arguments that often serve the interests of a basic writing program in one moment are the same arguments that can easily be shifted to call for the end of a program later on. This is a slippery slope for basic writing educators, whose understandings of literacy and learning may directly conflict with expectations that students demonstrate sufficient competence in the "basics" before they begin to take courses beyond the remedial sequence.

Historically, there has been a close alignment between basic writing courses and institutional discourses of literacy in crisis. In Before Shaughnessy: Basic Writing at Yale and Harvard, Kelly Ritter (2009) reminds readers that "Despite the common perception that basic writers have existed only at less-selective institutions of either public or private status, the Ivy League has a long and complicated history of serving particular, institutionally defined versions of underprepared writers" (p. 3). Ritter’s research confirms Trimbur's (1991) interpretation that this rhetoric of crisis is part of a deep cultural milieu, one that exists to protect the interests of dominant literate cultures in academia. To illustrate her point, Ritter (2009) directs her readers first to Yale’s Awkward Squad which originated in the 1920s, during a time when Yale was facing economic pressure that forced the university to admit students from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds (p. 76). Suddenly, "Faculty raised on Great Books and other pedagogical models of the late nineteenth century were faced with a new type of student—in need of a new type of curriculum" (Ritter, 2009, p. 88).

The Awkward Squad was Yale's attempt to provide remediation for its "new" student body, but as Ritter notes, the university "chose to create a course that existed as a site of necessary (and private) linguistic refinement rather than an integral part of the curriculum. This course existed as such an always-temporary presence, serving a purely corrective and acculturating function as an appendage to, rather than a component of, Yale’s larger English program" (2009, p. 79). Attitudes towards Yale's Awkward Squad were strikingly similar to those that orbited Harvard's "remedial" course, Subject A. As Ritter explains, the course "was considered remedial and was bitterly resented by college faculty members," who assumed "that freshman composition courses were a stopgap remedial measure, a temporary aberration, to be dispensed with after the great propaganda war in favor of more secondary school composition had been won" (Connors 185, qtd. in Ritter, p. 97). In both cases, the prevailing assumption seems to have been that once this "temporary" problem of illiteracy was cured, these remedial courses would no longer be needed, revealing quite clearly that, regardless of institutional efforts to accommodate a changing student body, basic writing was unwelcome on campus.