'The Rhetoric of Remediation'

Remedial education has long been a political football on campus -- and far beyond.

April 29, 2010

Remedial education has long been a political football on campus -- and far beyond. Universities complain that high schools are sending them underprepared students; high schools say it isn't clear what the standards are, or how they can be met; community colleges grumble that everyone expects them to function as a second round of the 11th and 12th grades. Meanwhile, lawmakers just want to see more students graduating (but more quickly, and for less money). And everyone agrees that remediation is an expensive headache that, too often, drives students away before they ever reach credit-bearing courses.

But those debating the present and future of remedial education may know little about its past -- a past that offers some surprising insights into the issues of today. In a new book, The Rhetoric of Remediation: Negotiating Entitlement and Access to Higher Education (University of Pittsburgh Press), Jane Stanley delves into the long history of remediation at the University of California at Berkeley, finding that remedial students -- with their nebulous Schrödinger's-cat status as both good enough and not, accepted to the university but not acceptable to the university -- have played a crucial role in allowing the institution to navigate its own discordant position as both elite and public.

Stanley, who is associate director of college writing programs at Berkeley, responded via email to questions about the book.

Q: Throughout the book, you criticize the longstanding notion that the reason so many students arrive at college in need of remedial education is that high schools are failing to prepare them adequately. Why is this idea wrongheaded -- and is there anything right about it?

A: I wouldn't describe this idea as "wrongheaded," but I would suggest that it embraces a particularly static view of how each of us learns to read and write. When I hear people say about new college students, "They should have had this in high school," I picture the high school English class as some sort of vaccination clinic in which students are to be inoculated against imprecise or ineffective writing, with the expectation that they'll carry this immunity with them throughout their college years. Thankfully, that's not how high school works, nor college composition classes, for that matter. I tend to think of all writing instruction as developmental: each time students encounter a new level of complexity in the materials they read, they are called on to articulate their thinking in more complex -- and thus more rhetorically skilled -- ways. Students new to college commonly undergo a big shift in the cognitive demands placed on them, and consequently they experience a need to develop strategies to help them read and write in a richer, more entailed way. Something similar happens quite often in their junior year as they enter their majors, and need to write more deeply and in a more concentrated way; and again in grad school.

Q: How has "the construct of the remedial student" allowed Berkeley "to establish ... its status among other institutions of higher education"? Would you say that this continues to be true?

A: Every generation of men and women that has dealt with first-year writing on this campus finds students who would benefit from additional work in composing so that they might more fully participate in the academic conversation. My book is not about the claim that such students do not exist or that coursework for them should be abolished. Rather, my claim is that these students, even as they were benefiting from the instruction offered them, were also conferring benefits upon their university. The identification of these students as "remedial," "incompetent," "deficient," "beautiful-but-dumb," and, yes even "feeble-minded" has helped the university assert its standards at key moments in the state's and the campus's political life. Concern about standards in students' writing proficiency has been a political phenomenon as much as an educational phenomenon. The call for higher standards, or more significantly the outcry that they are not high enough has been a rhetorical move in the university's complicated 140-year-long dance with the legislature, the taxpayer, with other colleges and universities.

Is this construct of the remedial student particular to UC Berkeley? I wouldn't say so. It's possible to read the story I tell about UC Berkeley as an odd, isolated, exceptional instance of rhetorical legerdemain from a university that has always taken an exceptionalist view of its mission. California herself was built on the notion of exceptionalism; from her earliest days she has been a special case, a land of opportunities exceptional even in a nation full of opportunities. But in the university's duty to the state, Berkeley is not different from other public universities. A public university has many complex responsibilities, of course, but perhaps its core duty is to mediate the competing demands for access and exclusivity. The ability to offer a disdainful embrace to so many of its entrants over the decades has helped this university, in small and not-so-small ways, with that difficult balancing act.

And, yes, I think the phenomenon continues.

Q: Why is it the case that "when economic downturns and enrollment upsurges co-occur, the university embarks upon an energetic program of asserting its standards?"

A: UC Berkeley, just like other public universities, has to find ways to regulate the tension between taxpayers' demand for access for their children and grandchildren, and the demand that the status of the institution be maintained. It's about the tug of democracy and the lure of elitism. Loudly asserting the institution's high standards at times of enrollment upsurges is an elegant way to negotiate that tightrope.

Q: "[T]he welfare of the university," you write, "depends in no slight way upon the remedial student." If every member of Berkeley's entering class this fall were to pass the Analytical Writing Placement Exam, what do you think would be the outcome -- and why?

A: If that were to happen, I think that other ways of reminding the public about the university's exacting standards would arise.

Q: What has been the relationship between Proposition 13 and remedial education?

A: Prop 13, enacted in 1978, was followed in 1980 by Prop 9, a corollary initiative to reduce personal income taxes and exempt businesses from certain categories of taxation. This proposition represented a threat to all of California's public education, certainly, but was seen as singularly inimical to the well being of UC. This was, of course, not the first time in its history that the university faced the dire consequences imposed by shrinking revenues and ballooning student need.

Confronted with the threat of severe budget cuts, UC President David Saxon found himself in a quandary familiar to several of his forbears in the office. He was bound by the ethos (and in California since 1960, the law) of mass access: admission to the top 12.5 percent of California's qualified graduates. He was also driven by the market pressure of an enrollment-driven budget to provide coursework appropriate for all the students the university accepted. And, finally, he was bound to assert and maintain the standards expected of the jewel in the crown of California's three-tiered higher education system. UC Berkeley's Martin Trow framed the question so: "What will the increased costs of remedial education do to the public research university? What are the costs of not doing it?"

As had his predecessors, President Saxon answered -- or at least held at bay -- the question by commissioning a study of the extent and nature of the remedial courses offered, their costs, and the possibility of reducing the need for them.

Saxon's Committee to Study the Status of Remedial Education at the University of California had barely worked its ways through the preliminaries when the legislature spoke. The 1981-2 Budget Act called on the regents to adopt the policy of insisting that students complete remedial writing instruction by the end of their first year on campus. This mandate, codified as SR633D, was an assertion of standards in a minor key. The taxpayer was assured that the university distributed its instructional resources justly, but prudently, giving those questionable outsiders a year, but no more than that, to catch up and become a credit to their university. But at UC Berkeley, SR633D was neither a genuine educational reform nor a belt tightening in response to difficult economic conditions; very few students were dismissed after a year's failure to catch up. It was more accurately a reaffirmation of the values of the university's earliest days, when questionable students were "conditioned." Conditioned students did work for the youthful university. By their conditioned status they asserted the university's standards. They publicly defined the academic level to which the university, though public, would not sink.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top