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 and Maintaining Standards

CUNY has become a symbolic example of the potential impacts of a discourse of literacy in crisis; concerns that the presence of basic writers lowers standards certainly persist elsewhere. Scholars writing about the University of California system have been presented with similar arguments from stakeholders ranging from other faculty to administrators and state legislators that suggest that students who place into remedial courses are not “really” engaging in university-level work. California, like New York, is home to a large population of working class and immigrant students, many of whom began to seek admission to the university during the latter half of the 20th Century, providing further evidence that attitudes towards remedial courses are often encoding tacit assumptions about the abilities of a "new" population of students at the university. Reaffirming Trimbur’s (1991) argument about the cultural hegemony that literacy crises enable, Jane Stanley (2010) writes “For Californians, as for other Americans, the rhetoric of crisis was a way to confer dignity upon opinions about whom the gates of academia should bar” (p. 2).

Here, as at CUNY, a variety of stakeholders respond negatively to the presence of basic writing courses (and therefore students) on a university campus. Writing in 1985, Mike Rose introduces an article for College English with quotes “from University of California and California state legislative memos, reports, and position papers and from documents produced during a [then] recent debate on UCLA’s Academic Senate over whether a course in [their] freshman writing sequence was remedial” (p. 341). Striking among these comments is one that states simply, “One might hope that, after a number of years, standards might be set in the high schools which would allow us to abandon our own defensive program” (Rose, 1985, p. 341), a statement that indicates that here, just as Ritter’s research indicates was true of Yale and Harvard, basic or remedial writing courses are considered temporary—something that exists only as a defensive measure that is part of the “campus’ siege against illiteracy” (Rose, 1985 p. 341).

A few years later, in Lives on the Boundary, Mike Rose (1989) devotes a chapter to the “politics of remediation” and its impact on funding for remedial courses at UCLA: “We had heard that some faculty members were questioning the money being spent on our programs. They were lobbying to have it shifted, Chip [the WPA] explained, to what they saw as ‘the legitimate research mission of the university’” (p. 194). Although at the time of Rose’s writing, the remedial courses at UCLA were still running, the issues he outlines are eerily similar to CUNY’s story. Conversations about low literacy skills and academic standards inevitably turn to shifting resources to something that is more “appropriate” for university-level work.

As the examples above indicate, the perceptions of outside stakeholders can have significant impact on the work—or even the existence—of a basic writing course or program, particularly when budgetary needs are evaluated as part of the conversation. Traditionally, the type of academic work that these stakeholders are likely to value aligns with a conception of academic writing that values argumentation, a reliance on scholarly sources, and, of course, grammatical correctness.

If arguments about maintaining academic “standards” and an appropriate measure of “rigor” are vital to the health of basic writing programs, it is understandable that any vigilant administrator or faculty member might think twice before introducing an assignment that further tests those same boundaries, as multimodal composing often does. Yet, as I will argue below, multimodal composing is also becoming part of those same standards at a fairly rapid pace. It is in this intersection of standards-based arguments that basic writing exists in the twenty-first century academy, trying to avoid the “Johnny Can’t Write” argument on one side, but facing the possibility of a “Johnny Can’t Blog” argument on the other. In the next section of this webtext, I argue that basic writing as a field must stake its claim on multimodal composing in order to define standards that are appropriate for the work that we do and the students that we serve and that failing to do so will leave the field at an increased vulnerability to attacks based on a discourse of literacy in crisis.