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A Closer Look at the Term “Remedial” (Part 3)

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

In Part 1, we looked at how Harvard’s elective system expanded the boundaries of who got to go to college while using written entrance exams to police language standards.

In Part 2, we examined how the creation of open admissions colleges and the expansion of community colleges imploded existing boundaries around college admissions and created new crises in language standard maintenance.

I started this series by questioning what it means to label classes as “remedial.” As we’ve seen, what was once “remedial” can quickly become the new standard. Some will view this as meaning that we have “dumbed down” our curriculum to accommodate students who couldn’t meet the rigor of the previous standards. That’s one way to look at it, I suppose.

But once you take into account the socioeconomic elements of identity that are tied around educational inclusion and exclusion, it can’t be that simple. Language is so much more than an entrance exam, transitional words, introductions and conclusions, or conventions about whether you should say “who” or “whom.” Language is how we express our sense of self and our relationship to the world around us. As many postmodernist theories have posited, language may very well be existence as we know it. When you’re policing how someone can speak, you are–at the core–policing who they can be.

So when we say that the standards changed and what was once “remedial” became the new norm, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we simply accepted something that was once substandard and weakened our educational expectations. It means, quite frankly, that we stopped excluding some people from the norm. Once they were no longer labeled as “remedial,” as “lacking,” they simply became freshmen taking freshman comp.

But there are always new boundaries. The influx of students to open admission colleges in the 1970’s that continues today is the greatest challenge to those boundaries imaginable, yet they hold. They hold through the gatekeeping power of classes like the ones I teach. That’s a fact that I have to grapple with every single day.

When you read the grim statistics about remedial education, they can certainly be daunting. Students who take remedial coursework tend to not graduate. In fact, these remedial courses–which were initially simply juggled from four-year institutions to two-year institutions–are now seen as a drain on resources overall. Some states are now taking legislative action to weaken the gatekeeping role that developmental courses play.

As these legislative mandates are passed down, schools are finding innovative new ways to manage their courses and students. Many are accelerating and integrating their existing developmental classes to get students to college-level coursework faster. Some, though, are concerned that these classes are actually just juggling labels, renumbering what was once a 000-level (non-credit) course as a 100-level (credit) course and, again, “watering down” the quality of instruction.

I don’t want to completely dismiss these concerns. There are valid, complex issues in play here, but I do want to offer a perspective that I feel gets lost in these discussions of policy and course credit and financial aid.

The American college composition class was “remedial” from its inception. Its move into a standard position is directly connected to an expansion of American educational opportunities that are more diverse and inclusive, an expansion of standards that challenged hegemonic power structures.

We need to admit that those standards and that hegemony (while broadened) are still in play today. When we talk about the “crisis” of remedial education, we are talking not just about what students write, but also who they are. A label of “remedial” often allows us the comfort to dance along the borders of a power structure we’d rather not admit we see (or maybe would just rather not see at all). When we really start to question what that label means, we can no longer ignore that the margins of our educational frameworks contain some fences that don’t quite fit with our cultural ethos of equality, meritocracy, and diversity.

Sometimes, I think we wear the comfort of our educational standards like a blindfold that protects us from the truths we’d rather not confront. When those standards are challenged, we’re forced to sneak a peek.

 

Photo: dreamwhileGeeta NambiarSybren Stuvel

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