This post first appeared on Balancing Jane as part of the Blogging to My PhD series and is being crossposted here.
In the first part of this series, I took a look at how Harvard started freshman comp in the 1870’s and expanded college access through meritocracy, a feat which hinged squarely on its entrance exam and essay component. This essay exam essentially existed to ensure that all of the students entering Harvard could write right. This post will further explore what the implications of that practice mean for students and for social perceptions of their education.
Have you ever taken an essay entrance exam? It’s not really about the quality of writing at all. At least, not if writing means being able to articulately and convincingly share information with a specific audience in a meaningful way. No, an essay entrance exam is about testing whether or not you follow the conventions of writing and much less about whether or not you can actually say anything. This is why some students have found success not by making an argument, but by memorizing a boilerplate of essay conventions (key transitionary phrases, impressive vocabulary words, introductions and conclusions of the proper length, a set number of paragraphs with predictable themes) to prepare for the tests.
While Harvard’s elective system did indeed open education up to people who had previously been excluded, it did so under the condition that they demonstrate their ability to conform to Harvard’s language use standards. And language is not just about how you write an essay; language is intimately tied to identity and culture. In theory, Harvard’s standards were based on meritocracy, but in practice, that often translated to reinforcing hegemonic power structures of race, class, and gender, all by policing the boundaries of how someone communicates.
This practice became mainstream over time. The freshman composition class that was created as “remediation” at Harvard and often deemed unworthy of college credit became a cornerstone of the general education requirements. In short, what was once considered “remedial” writing became the standard because the population of students entering the institutions stabilized around a new norm.
That new norm, though, would not last.
The Civil Rights and cultural movements of the 1950’s- 1970’s ushered in an implosion of previously maintained educational boundaries. CUNY’s open admission policy instated in 1969 and the rise of community colleges throughout the nation were the direct results of this rapid change in the collegiate student body. Rhetoric classrooms were now spaces in which those who had previously been marginalized were entering in relatively large numbers. Immigrant students who spoke English as a second language, female students, black and Latino students, and students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds brought direct challenges to the established rhetorical notion of who could speak and how.
As open admissions policies spread with the expansion of community colleges, the crisis the Harvard professors faced in the 1870’s looked tiny in comparison to this one. You thought those kids couldn’t write? Well, these kids really cannot write! And there are so many of them! When The National Review published its landmark 1977 essay “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” it was reacting to the tension and anxiety of a nation. How in the world would we ever get all of these students to be “college-ready”?
Mina Shaughnessy (often viewed as the mother of basic writing) published her landmark book Errors and Expectations that same year (1977). In it, she wrote that basic writers were “those that had been left so far behind the others in their formal education that they appeared to have little chance of catching up, students whose difficulty with the written language seemed of a different order from those of the other groups, as if they had come, you might say, from a different country, or at least through different schools, where even modest standards of high-school literacy had not been met.”
Even in this single quote, the dual tensions of basic writing are apparent. On the one hand, those of us who teach “remedial” students do so with an eye to the political exclusion they have faced in education and the hegemony of the status quo to which they are being measured against to determine their college “fitness.” On the other hand, we are part of the system that tells those students that educational success is fully dependent on their ability to “pass” as a member of that status quo by passing our classes (and demonstrating a mastery of the language conventions that come with that).
It is, not to put too fine a point on it, a difficult place to stand.
Through the Students’ Right to Their Own Language movement, a group of scholars fully embraced one half of this challenge by insisting that measuring students against a hegemonic status quo (one that was white, male, and wealthy) was oppressive and rooted in prejudice. They insisted that students should not be forced to demonstrate adherence to the standard academic conventions of English and should instead be allowed to express themselves academically in non-standard dialects. This work was bolstered through the research of scholars like Geneva Smitherman who ably demonstrated that what we often read as “error” in African American speech patterns can be directly traced back to linguistic features in African languages. They presented their assertion in 1974, and the language of their movement was renewed as a pillar of the CCCC in 2003.
During this time, many basic writing courses became lightning rods for the movement. Impassioned by the rhetoric of this movement and the larger national conversations surrounding identity, race, gender, and diversity, some basic writing courses were essentially places to enact these principles.
But the pendulum began to swing back. While virtually everyone I’ve ever spoken with who deals with developmental education embraces the principles of the Students’ Rights movement, they became harder and harder to use in any practical way in the classroom. Soon, the basic writing classroom, which teetered between a space to assimilate students to standard language practices and one to help them explore non-standard ones became what it largely is today: a gatekeeper.