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






Politics and Ideological Clashes

The examples in the previous sections represent just a sampling of the important work that has been done in the area of multimodal composition. These particular examples offer a clear indication that at the national level conversations about the work of a college composition curriculum had, by 2004, explicitly begun to include new media compositions. In 2013, it would certainly seem that the pendulum has swung. It is uncommon today to attend a professional conference or read a leading journal in our field that doesn’t include at least one reference to multimodal composing, and, slowly but surely, even requirements for FYC programs are expanding to include new media. Yet, despite these forward movements, there is also ample evidence in the scholarship that composition instructors have, at times, faced significant pushback as they have attempted to “remediate” a course or program curriculum. This pushback often surrounds the politics of curriculum development, particularly insofar as the goals and expectations of a writing class are concerned.

Writing for the WPA Journal in 2003, Dennis Lynch and Anne Frances Wysocki point to a potential failing of the New London Group’s call for “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies” by noting that the document does not “address potential institutional resistance to their pedagogy” (p. 151). Such resistance was realized by DeVoss, Cushman, and Grabill (2005) just a few years later. In a CCC article, the authors share a powerful analysis of the material and political obstacles that an instructor experimenting with new media in the writing classroom faced.  DeVoss, et al. observe that “Many of the writing teachers [they] work with indicate an interest in developing teaching practices that better attend to visual rhetorics and multi-media writing, but these teachers also voice the concern that such teaching is impossible because of the institutional resources currently available to them” (p. 16). DeVoss et al. make clear that the challenges they faced extended far beyond mere material access to technology and technical support: “We know many people, including ourselves, who have been prevented from working in certain ways as teachers and writers because it was infrastructurally impossible in a given context. Not intellectually impossible. Not even strictly technologically impossible. Something deeper” (p. 17). The “something deeper” that DeVoss and her colleagues became aware of reflects deeply-rooted ideological assumptions about what constitutes scholarly work, as DeVoss et al. note that the complexities of digital and multimodal composing “often emerge as visible and at times invisible statements about what types of work are possible and valuable (encoded, often, in curricula, assessment guidelines, standards, and policies)” (p. 15).

Despite the ongoing efforts of scholars in the field and our professional organizations, resistance to projects that engage students in work that falls outside the boundaries of what is expected in a composition class is still very much a part of the work of teaching multimodal composing. In the Introduction to Towards a Composition Made Whole, Shipka (2011) describes a specific moment of standards-based resistance that she encountered during a WAC workshop:

I had encouraged the session's participants to ask questions while I was describing the tasks and student texts I had brought to the session, but it was not until I shared with the group a pair of pink ballet shoes on which a student had transcribed by hand a research-based essay that a member of the audience, a teaching assistant in the history department, interjected, ‘I have a question. So where did she put her footnotes? On a shirt?’ Despite being phrased as a question, his tone, facial expression, and body language suggested this was not a genuine question or attempt at a clever pun so much as his way of signaling his discomfort with the kind of texts I was proposing students might produce.

This was certainly not the first time the shoes received this kind of reaction, nor would it be the last. Whether implicitly, as was the case here, or explicitly stated, some of the questions lurking behind the reaction seemed to be ‘How is that college-level academic writing?,’ ‘How can that possibly be rigorous?,’ or ‘How can allowing students to do that possibly prepare them for the writing they will do in their other courses?.’ (p. 2)

The ideological challenges that Lynch and Wysocki (2003) and DeVoss et al. (2005), and Shipka (2011) identify as they attempt to introduce multimodal composing into a curriculum reveal that significant amounts of time, energy, and political capital are necessary to enable the reshuffling of priorities and resources that this work requires. It is precisely these requirements that make this work extremely difficult within a basic writing context. For basic writing, any discussion about what sort of work “belongs” in a composition course strikes at the very heart of our field. Basic writing has, since its inception, worked in the service of training students to write within the boundaries of Standard Academic English and the conventions of scholarly discourse. Historically, concerns about students’ inability to comply with these rules has, as Trimbur argues, framed discussions about literacy crises based in a perception of declining skill. The problem for basic writing here is a complex one: a discourse of declining skill is, on one level, what fuels our work, yet, these same sentiments can—and often have—served as the rationale for downsizing or dismantling a basic writing program when it becomes clear that “those students” need to complete remedial courses elsewhere in order to be afforded access to the “real” work of the academy.

What all of these conversations have in common—those that advocate new media and multimodality and those that question its place in a composition course—is a clear focus on the question of what sort of work is valid in a composition course. As the above examples indicate, many advocates of new media composing are particularly interested in providing opportunities for students whose home language is not Standard Academic English to engage in the work of the academy in a powerfully rhetorical way. For those who are interested in composition that engages with students’ authentic voices and lived experiences, this sort of pedagogical approach holds obvious appeal. Unfortunately (and particularly for basic writing), conversations among outside stakeholders about what a course “should” do are often framed in order to address the “Why Johnny Can’t Write” version of a literacy crisis, emphasizing the features of the “traditional” academic essay and the grammatical imperatives of Standard Academic English.

Because basic writing has, historically, been viewed as the place where underprepared or linguistically “different” (read: working class, multilingual, and non-standard dialect speakers) students would begin to correct any perceived deficiencies, discussions about academic “standards” all too often point to basic writing courses to cite as an example of work that is inherently below what “university-level” work should be. The ideological clash that basic writing courses often invite is one that is centered around questions of access and educational equity on one side and academic standards on the other, and frequently, as Mary Soliday (2002) notes, these ideological clashes, combined with economic pressures, can dramatically tip the scales against a basic writing course.