Are We Still Living in a “Tidy House”?

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The following post originally appeared on Balancing Jane as part of the Blogging to My PhD series and is being crossposted here. 

Today I’m reading a couple of landmark essays on developmental writing by David Bartholomae: “Inventing the University” and “The Tidy House.” It’s the latter that’s really resonating with me and my work as a developmental writing instructor working decades after he published these words:

“Basic writing has begun to seem like something naturally, inevitably, transparently there in the curriculum, in the stories we tell ourselves about English in America. It was once a provisional, contested term, marking an uneasy accommodation between the institution and its desires and a student body that did not or would not fit. I think it should continue to mark an area of contest, of struggle, including a struggle against its stability or inevitability.

Let me put this more strongly. I think basic writing programs have become expressions of our desire to produce basic writers, to maintain the course, the argument, and the slot in the university community; to maintain the distinction (basic/normal) we have learned to think through and by. The basic writing program, then, can be seen simultaneously as an attempt to bridge AND preserve cultural difference, to enable students to enter the ‘normal’ curriculum but to insure, at the same time, that there are basic writers.”

Bartholomae is suggesting that we (a “we” in which he includes himself) have fallen into a binary trap. We are so invested in the categories of basic/normal, remedial/mainstream, developmental/credit-level that we work to retain them even as we are working against them. That is, our job is to move students out of the “lower” categories and into the higher ones, and it is work that we take very seriously and are very invested in achieving, but first we must work to ensure that the categories stay rigidly in place so that we can do that work. We are, in some ways, creating our own problem to solve.

 By coincidence, I also read this New York Times article from last week today: “Raising Ambitions: The Challenges of Teaching in a Community College.”
The article is very good, and as a community college teacher, I found myself nodding along with much of it. The overview of the breadth of community college impact as well as the diversity of the student body and the challenges instructors face as well as the rewards they receive are all presented powerfully.

But I came across a part of it that stuck me and kept bothering me:

“Professors at elite four-year colleges can trust that students share a bank of references, that they will understand principles of critical inquiry, that they will appreciate conceptualization for its own sake. None of this can be assumed at a community college, where ‘the idea of academic discourse is completely foreign,’ Melinda Karp, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, said.

To introduce and make uniform the expectations of college, LaGuardia and some other two-year colleges across the country have recently begun requiring new students to take a freshman seminar, which is aimed at connecting students to faculty members in their majors. Beyond that, its purpose is to guide students toward the habits and styles of thinking that college, and by extension, adult life, demand.”

The line, in particular, that was piercing me like a splinter is “its purpose is to guide students toward the habits and styles of thinking that college, and by extension, adult life, demand.”

The implication here is that our students have not entered “adult life” until they have picked up the habits and mannerisms that a college environment will provide them. This is directly linked to the preceding paragraph’s discussion of community college students lacking even the “idea” of academic discourse. 

In this particular article, we’re drawing that distinction between four-year college students and community college students, but we play some version of this game at just about every level of the academic hierarchy. When I was in a four-year college setting, it was played by demarcating some students as “honors” students prepared for “tougher” classes and therefore more sophisticated discourses. Within the community college, it’s played by demarcating some students as “college ready” and others as “developmental” (or “remedial”). 

 I’m not arguing that these categories have no use. Indeed, I was one of those “honors” students, and I very much enjoyed the benefits of getting to take interdisciplinary coursework that was only offered to students within the Honors College. I teach “developmental” students, and they often are unprepared to be successful in the college-level classes and need preparation those endeavors. These categories are not without meaning or utility, but they are, as Bartholomae explained 20 years ago, a little too comfortable. I share his belief that these labels should be “an area of contest, of struggle.”

And I think that, as educators, we have less and less incentive to introduce that struggle and contest over these labels. After all, there is mainstream panic about a potential education bubble. There are constant news stories and speculation on whether college is even worth “it.” 

By falling into our old stand-bys of binary oppositions, we have an easy way to demonstrate that college is indeed worth “it” because “it” becomes adulthood itself. Those who have successfully demonstrated their adherence to the academic discourse pass out of a category of “non-adulthood” and into one of “adulthood,” out of “unprepared” and into “prepared.” 

 But that’s ridiculous. I have students in my classroom who fought in Vietnam. I have students who have children, grandchildren, and occasionally great grandchildren. I have students who have retired from entire careers, students who are incredibly skilled in highly specialized fields, and students who are well-versed in cultural texts that are important to them. I have students twice my age. And every single one of my students comes into my classroom with discourse fluencies that I do not have, discourse fluencies that have served them well in many environments, often environments that I would not be able to successfully navigate.

Am I really supposed to look at these students and tell them they are not “adults” unless they can pass the arbitrary standards of the class I’ve put in front of them? Unless they can write in multiple paragraphs and identify topic sentences? Unless they put their commas in the right place? It is these tests and not their service or employment or personal experience or history that makes them worthy of the label as “adult,” which is shorthand for “real, contributing member to society”? 

I can’t do that, and I won’t try. 

My students (even the ones fresh out of high school who roll their eyes when I assign reading and play on their cell phones every time I turn my back to them) are adults. I teach adults. Treating them as if they are children is a disservice to them, but it is also a disservice to me.

By pulling upon that wealth of knowledge and experiences my students bring to the classroom, I can create a space that is rich in opportunities for learning far beyond those I can craft on my own. It is the understanding that my students bring something to the table that makes my classroom work. 

Still, those labels persist, and I have to wonder if Bartholomae’s insistence that we are as invested in maintaining them as we are in moving students through them isn’t right. This, as Bartholomae points out, makes our house a lot tidier, but I’m not sure that stuffing all the dirty laundry in the basement is really helping the cause.


Photo: David Gallagher

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