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



Staking our Claim

When multimodal composing is brought into a basic writing framework, the potential exists for competing narratives of literacy crises to collide. On one hand, increased expectations for composing with new media invite Trimbur’s narrative of progress. At the same time, although multimodal composing is finding its way into the mainstream of composition studies, there is ample evidence to suggest that some stakeholders may still have doubts about how this work supports the learning objectives that a composition course is intended to address. Add that conflict to basic writing, a course that in many institutions exists in order to address what Trimbur would term a literacy crisis of declining skill. In the case of basic writing, all too often the purpose, objectives, and worthiness of such a course is evaluated by someone not teaching it. 

If an analysis of the potentials for multimodality in basic writing curricula were limited to these points, it would be relatively easy to argue that the challenges of bringing multimodal composition into a basic writing curriculum might well outweigh any potential benefits. After all, if the purpose of a basic writing course is to address students' perceived deficiencies in the areas of focus, organization, development, grammar, and mechanics—and if multimodal composing doesn’t directly address those concerns—why bother, particularly in light of the evidence which suggests that arguments about students’ weak literacy skills can easily become the rationale for reducing or eliminating a program? But, if the analysis extends a bit further to consider how academic standards are being redefined to include multimodal composing, it becomes alarmingly clear that the potential exists for another literacy crisis to impact basic writing: this one, a crisis of literacy’s progress. The subtle truth of the matter is simply that today’s crisis of progress will be tomorrow’s crisis of declining skill. A look back over the shifting role of computers in the composition classroom just over the past several decades will reveal how quickly a new technology or a new mode of communicating can become a standard part of a composition course. In the not-so-distant past, word processing on computers, networked classrooms, course management software, online databases, and email were new and exciting tools for composition instructors. In each case, what was new and exciting in one moment quickly became part of the minimum expectations for first-year students.

Considering NCTE’s consistent efforts to bring new media and multimodality to the forefront, along with the increased emphasis that Digital Humanities work has begun to earn over the past few years, it seems reasonable to expect that multimodal composing will be a standard requirement for composition courses in the relatively near future. Evidence that this is already taking place can be found in several references to composition studies’ “multimodal turn”  that have appeared in the past decade (Ellerston, 2003; Shipka, 2011; Sheridan & Inman, 2010).

To avoid the negative repercussions of yet another literacy crisis, basic writing as a field needs to take a clear position on multimodality and its place in our teaching and scholarship. Rather than simply responding to the "exigent present" that Soliday (2002) identifies, the field must acknowledge that this "exigent present" is changing beneath our feet and setting up the very real possibility that basic writing will soon have to respond not only to a skill-based discourse of literacy in crisis, but that we will also have to respond to a progress-based discourse of literacy in crisis at the same time that "basic skills" are being redefined to include digital and multimodal literacies.

As the field of composition studies continues to grapple with the myriad of ways in which new media, multimodality, and digital literacies are changing our work, basic writing as a field must carve its own path in this conversation. The local politics and the needs of basic writing students and instructors require different pedagogies and models for assessment of these pedagogies. Issues of economic status, age, and cultural and linguistic diversity affect basic writing classrooms disproportionately and each play into the opportunities and challenges of engaging in multimodal composing in different and complex ways. The history of basic writing reveals the dangers inherent in allowing outside stakeholders to set the boundaries of curricular expectations, but at this historic moment, the writing on the wall is clear: to avoid the pitfalls of what will eventually be a skills-based digital literacy crisis, basic writing must act now in order to stake a claim for our students and faculty. Even the slightest indication that our students are even farther behind in academic literacy skills than their mainstream counterparts can, and will, become one more argument for denying "those students" access to higher education.