The following post originally appeared on Balancing Jane as part of the Blogging to My PhD series and is being crossposted here.
I teach “developmental writing” courses. You may also hear these classes referred to as “basic writing” or “remedial writing.” Whatever the term, the point is the same: these classes won’t count for college credit, and they’re caught in a gap between college and not-college, a zone that everyone involved–administrators, instructors, and especially students–senses acutely.
As much as I believe in my students’ abilities, and as much as I know that they come into my classroom with rich experiences, perspectives, and ideas to share, there is nothing that I can do to convince them or myself that I am not teaching within a class of writing that is publicly perceived as less legitimate than, subordinate to, and at best working toward “real” college writing: the freshman composition class.
While there have been many wonderful efforts to give students in developmental classes more (much-deserved) respect and college-level treatment (see these for example), the very designation of “remedial” consistently stands as a very real reminder (one that has economic, social, and political consequences) that these classes are, indeed, “other.”
It’s a little ironic that the ultimate goal of someone like myself is to eventually eliminate the need for my own position. Developmental courses are not “supposed” to exist. They are here to fill a gap, and once the gap is filled, students will no longer need them.
The gap, though, is not a small one. Nationally, up to 40% of first-time college students enroll in at least one “remedial” course, and at community colleges, that rate is closer to 50%.
When we’re talking about up to half of the population entering college, we might need to re-think our perceptions of “remedial.” This is not a handful of students who need a little “catching up.” This is a significant portion of the college population that we have deemed unprepared.
And that warrants some historical context. Let’s take a little ride through time.
It is the 1800’s and American education is in crisis (sound familiar?) In particular, it’s having an identity crisis. Under the rule of clergymen, American education was holding steadfast to a classical education that was having less and less to do with the actual workforce and life demands of American citizens who found themselves less with a need for reading Latin and more with a need for building steam engines and whatnot.
In steps Harvard innovation. Under the direction of president Charles Eliot, Harvard moves to an “elective” system (which may also sound familiar) that allows students to choose courses relevant to their interests and career goals rather than simply taking a set core of classical courses. It is radical (in the turn-everything-upside-down sense, and perhaps also in the 80’s slang sense).
Alas, though, these kids! They can’t write! At least, that’s what the instructors were complaining about. See, it seems that no one really likes teaching people to write, and they always expect them to come into the classroom already having that skill. They blamed high schools for their lack of preparation of course (again, familiar?), but something had to be done. Thus was born what is colloquially called “English 101”: freshman composition.
In 1874, Harvard began what would become the ubiquitous freshman comp class, but people weren’t exactly happy to see it. As Mike Rose discusses in his article “The Language of Exclusion,” there were many concerns, including “worry that the boundaries between high schools and colleges [were] eroding.” To help combat this fear, these freshman comp classes were often denied “curricular status” and “tagged” as “remedial” (this should really be sounding familiar).
Harvard’s overall move toward an elective system was also kicking up something of an epic battle between Yale and Harvard (though as seems to be the case with most Ivy League contenders, there are only winners).
Yale held onto the classical mode of education as long as it possibly could while Harvard was quickly making waves with its new elective model. As James Berlin explains in his history of American colleges, Harvard took on a “rhetoric of meritocracy” while Yale depended on a rhetoric that was “elitist and aristocratic.” The identities had been formed: Yale was for the privileged families whose contributions to society and wealth deemed them deserving of an education. Harvard was egalitarian, open to anyone . . . as long as they demonstrated themselves to be smart enough to deserve an education.
Regardless of which thread of rhetoric you follow, though, you’ll find the notion that education is something you earn the opportunity in which to participate running strong. The classical model maintained that only those with superior wealth and breeding were worthy of an education. Harvard’s elective system and new entrance exam (which contained an essay component) challenged that elitism by adding a wrinkle but not changing the fabric: now you could prove yourself worthy of an education by demonstrating superior intelligence. But you still had to be superior.
Harvard’s reach was so extensive that high schools changed their curriculum, “fitting their students to pass the Harvard examination rather than try to give a rounded course of training in English” (Kitzhaber). And with that, the general practice of using someone’s communicative style to classify and judge them became codified through standardized testing. If you write right, you’re in. If you don’t, well, you’re out.