Developmental Writing in the Historical Trajectory of Rhetoric

conversations, failure, teaching

This post originally appeared at Balancing Jane

“So when you get your PhD, will they let you teach real classes?”

This question came from a student in my first year of teaching developmental writing. I was saddened by her apparent belief that she wasn’t a “real” student and told her so, but the question kept coming up in different forms.

One particularly strong writer who had spent the semester producing complex pieces of analysis written with poetic flair seemed almost angry as he visited me in office hours (voluntarily) to talk about his future plans as a writer: “What is this? Are you just trying to be a big fish in a small pond? Why are you teaching this class?”

Most heartbreaking of all was a student who said in front of the entire class, “You seem really smart, so why are you teaching us?”

It’s a question I’ve gotten from other sources, too. Colleagues and classmates have asked me what I want to end up teaching, as if a career in developmental education could only be a stepping stone and never a goal. They mean well, and I actually think it’s often meant as a compliment, but it stings because I know that their perception is contributing to the cultural climate that makes my students think of themselves as unworthy of “real” teaching, as unfit for a “real” college class.

It, quite frankly, breaks my heart.

And as a scholar of rhetorical history, it also perplexes me.

In The Formation of College English, Thomas P. Miller writes about the way that college writing classes were transformed with the spread of English literacy through the British provinces. In his conclusion, he extends the metaphor of the border lands this language spread created to more contemporary landscapes:

“the borders of the educated culture have been its most dynamic area of development. If I am right that the history of college English began not at the centers of the educated culture but in the provinces with professors and students who translated the learned culture into a new language because the classics did not make sense of their experience, then one would expect that the future of the discipline may now be emerging not simply in the latest theoretical trends continued within it but also in those courses that are most broadly involved with the changing experiences of students.”

If a student has been placed in a developmental writing course (any of the non-credit-bearing courses designed to prepare a student with low placement scores for college-level courses), then s/he has already been relegated to the border land of academia. There is no way to argue that developmental courses are not alienating or othering because being alienated and othered from the general college population is part of the defining characteristics of the courses themselves. Even recent efforts to “mainstream” developmental students by co-enrolling them in college-level courses with their higher scoring counterparts still require an initial labeling in order to identify them as the developmental cohort. These students are on the border between college and not-college, and they are very aware of that.

But their placement on the border is precisely why I think that working with these students is so important from a rhetorical standpoint: rhetoric is about difference and conflict.

The drive to communicate comes about when we find a difference between what we believe and what we perceive our listeners to believe. There’s no reason to communicate if we all see things the same way.

Sharon Crowley insists that difference is a key component of rhetorical invention: “modern senses of invention as discovery or creation gloss over the roles of difference and contingency in making arguments available.”

Ideas are not simply extant waiting to be discovered as a writer casually explores the linguistic landscape; they are honed, created, invented out of the struggle to articulate them in the face of difference.

The developmental writing classroom, then, filled with students who have been pre-determined to be somehow different in the face of mainstream academic discourse, should be a space in which invention is more likely, not less. This group of students is at a unique position where the tension is already articulated. That tension is necessary for everyone to produce ideas and effective rhetoric, but not everyone enters a class with the tension already identified and running electrically around the room. Developmental students have (or should have) that advantage: their tensions are laid bare. They can get to the work of inventing from them immediately.

Hold up. Did I just seriously try to argue that students placed in developmental writing classes are rhetorically at an advantage?

Don’t I know the abysmal success rates?

Don’t I know that many of these students can’t form complete sentences in their writing?

Don’t I know that they don’t know the difference between their, they’re, and there? (Or where and were? Or ideal and idea? Or our and are?)

Don’t I know that these students don’t even turn their work in half the time, skip class, drop out halfway through without so much as a word to their instructor, vanish for weeks at a time and come back expecting to pass?

Oh. Trust me. I know.

I know it acutely because watching those students vanish mid-semester is the hardest part of my job, because grading those papers takes up hours of every week of my life, and because some of my students keep me up at night with worry.

But they also keep me going with hope, and I stand by what I said: these students are at an advantageous position when it comes to rhetorical power. We just have to create classes that allow them to use it.

Traditionally, the art of rhetoric is divided into five canons: Invention (coming up with things to say), Arrangement (putting them in order), Style (how you say them), Memory (memorizing the speech for public speaking), and Delivery (actually giving the speech).
Of these five canons, invention has been among the most vulnerable. Sharon Crowley explores this vulnerability in The Methodical Memory: “Rhetorical invention goes in and out of fashion because it’s intimately tied to current developments in ethics, politics, and the epistemology of whatever culture it serves.”
In the history of American rhetoric instruction, there was a long period of instruction where invention was effectively removed entirely. In this time period (dubbed the “Current-Traditional”), empirical data was privileged over all other ways of knowing, and it was therefore considered unnecessary to invent information within rhetoric itself since all knowledge and truth was thought to be external to language. Put simply, the truth was something gathered through observation of the natural, scientific world, and language was merely the delivery method of that truth, not the creator.
Current-Traditional rhetorical practices, then, were concerned almost entirely with style and surface-level correctness. The idea was that effective rhetoric was that which most clearly communicated the truth in its easiest-to-digest form, and that meant meeting grammatical standards and writing stylistically clear sentences.
Postmodern theories have moved us away from such a view of truth and knowledge-making. Our academic inquiries are now largely informed by the complex ways in which language creates, shapes, and alters knowledge. Composition classrooms have moved away from simply teaching grammar rules and are now places where knowledge is not simply recited, but created.
The developmental writing classroom, though, is a place where Current-Traditional practices have often clung on stubbornly. Despite evidence that teaching grammar in isolation is ineffective (and oh so boring), the developmental writing classroom is particularly prone to being stuck in the patterns of correctness and style.
This is largely because it is those surface-level errors that placed students in the developmental classroom to begin with. Most schools rely on national placement tests like COMPASS or Accuplacer to determine who will go into college-credit courses and who will go into developmental courses. These tests are standardized, multiple choice, and rely heavily on grammatical rules and stylistic concerns. It makes sense that when students are placed into a class for their stylistic “mistakes” teachers would want to address them; honestly, the students are often eager to address them, too. They see writing as a code of commas and semicolons that they just need to learn to move on. Invention is often not part of the equation.
But it should be.
When the Sophists first started teaching rhetoric, it was as an art of invention, an invention predicated on difference and dissonance. Citing Lyotard, Lester Faigley writes in Fragments of Rationality that invention is “born of dissension, not consensus.” In other words, focusing our developmental writing classrooms on creating a consensus of grammar and style practices is not rhetorical. In fact, Sharon Crowley makes that explicit argument in The Methodical Memory in a chapter entitled “Why Current-Traditional Rhetoric is Not Rhetoric.”
Developmental writing classes are often seen–by both students and teachers alike–as a series of hoops that must be jumped before students prove themselves ready for “real” college writing.
This, I believe, is not only a problematic way to frame a class when it comes to student engagement and faculty enthusiasm, but it’s also a missed rhetorical opportunity. Developmental writing students are at a unique advantage when it comes to practicing the art of rhetoric. We’re removing that advantage when we refuse to teach in such a way that allows invention to take the primary focus.
There have been several reform movements within developmental writing due to the aforementioned low success rates and the ever-present problem of low funds for education. Taxpayers are starting to notice that the federal money used to move students through college is often getting “wasted” in developmental education when it doesn’t lead to a degree (or too often even the completion of a single class). A change is gonna come, and many states have already enacted legislation to ensure it.
One such reform measure comes out of California and is championed by Dr. Katie Hern at Chabot College. Dr. Hern has been invited to several speaking engagements across the country to promote her integrated and accelerated developmental reading and writing class, which is boasting tremendous success rates. I’ve had the pleasure to hear Dr. Hern speak a few times, and her passion and enthusiasm is contagious.
She spends a lot of time discussing the structural redesign that makes her program a success. By condensing what could be up to 18 credit hours of developmental coursework into one 4-hour course, she simply removes a lot of opportunities for students to disappear. The success rates are phenomenal, and the students who complete the 4-hour course go on to succeed at equal or higher rates than their counterparts who were not required to take developmental courses. It’s a dev ed dreamland.
What she’s spent less time talking about (though it’s certainly mentioned) when I’ve heard her speak, though, is the curriculum changes. She does not give her students grammar worksheets and have them write prescriptive five-paragraph essays to demonstrate their grasp of a particular style and form. She gives them college-level, full-length texts to read and then gives them the opportunity to discuss what they’ve learned with each other before writing about it. And the writing assignments are open-ended and put trust in the students’ abilities to create their own thesis and supporting arguments.
Here’s a video of her classroom in action:
I do not want to downplay the structural changes made to the developmental education model at Chabot College. Reducing the number of credit hours and the amount of time needed to move into college-level writing is crucial.
But I don’t think it’s enough on its own. These students are succeeding because they are being given the chance to invent. In Dr. Hern’s classroom, she is not only trusting in students to be capable of invention in their own right, she’s taking advantage of the fact that the diverse backgrounds and experiences of students in a developmental class make invention–if given the chance to percolate through conversation and writing–a guarantee.
When my students ask me why I don’t teach a “real” college class, it breaks my heart, but it is my goal each and every day to prove to them that I already do.

Photo: Gwen Harlow, Rutger van Waveren, Mrs. Trusty, Woodlouse

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