Basic, But Vital

Faculty who teach basic writing say they've been pushed to the margins of composition. Is a comeback in the cards?
April 11, 2011

ATLANTA -- The annual business/town meeting at this year’s Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) was perhaps most notable for its speed and brevity, moving at a brisk pace through a routine 13-item agenda.

But the meeting’s rather prosaic mood took a turn toward the end, when William Lalicker, professor of English at West Chester University, in Pennsylvania, took the floor to propose a “sense of the house” motion on the importance of basic writing. Lalicker is a former chair and executive board member of the Council on Basic Writing (CBW), whose members organized a hasty but energetic last-minute push to compose their motion and propose it at the business meeting.

“Be it resolved,” Lalicker read aloud, “that basic writing is a vital field and its students and teacher scholars a productive force within composition; is under attack by exclusionary public policies; and therefore must be recognized publicly and supported by CCCC as a conference cluster and with featured sessions.”

Basic writing, perhaps more commonly known as remedial or developmental English, is certainly less sexy, and arguably less prestigious, than many of the other subfields of composition and communication, such as theory, creative writing, and rhetoric. But, Lalicker and his CBW colleagues argued, it is not only a crucial part of composition, but a nexus of broader social issues: “Labor, justice, access and equity all come together around basic writing,” Lalicker told Inside Higher Ed. (The relationship between basic writing and social justice is an ongoing topic of discussion among CBW members.)

But the field has been marginalized, the CBW's members say, by a confluence of ill political and social winds -- with the result that many four-year institutions no longer offer basic writing, and the two-year colleges that do don't have space (or funding) for all their would-be students. “If there’s anything good about the American education system,” said Lalicker, it’s that, for students whose high school education didn’t provide them with all the competencies they need, “there’s always been the notion that you can get into a community college or a state four-year school and make it up there. And now you can’t.”

The pattern is one of ever-decreasing access for the students with the most need, and ever-decreasing visibility for those who teach them -- since two-year college faculty are less likely than their four-year counterparts to be able to attend meetings like the CCCC, and tend to command less attention in the public discourse, as well.

This reduced visibility is what the CBW now hopes to combat, with Saturday's sense-of-the-house motion being the first step. While basic writing has been under deliberate attack in the public policy sphere, its fading influence at the CCCC has been more a matter of neglect, said Peter Adams, a CBW executive board member and professor of English at the Community College of Baltimore County. "Basic writing isn't nearly as chichi as it was back in the '80s," Adams said, and the CCCC's "attention has gone to other -- very worthwhile -- activities."

Thus basic writing has not had, for a number of years, its own "conference cluster" -- conference clusters being the 13 or so subgroups around which the CCCC is organized, with every proposal required to fall under one of them. (Lynn Quitman Troyka, adjunct professor in the graduate program in language and literacy at the City College of New York, noted that in the CCCC's 2012 call for program proposals, basic writing, which is part of the area cluster of "Teaching Writing & Rhetoric," isn't even listed as a separate category within that cluster, but is rather in the category of "Basic, first-year, advanced, [and] ESL." "Basic writing is meshed into ESL?" Troyka said, noting that the two are very distinct fields. "Come on. What's that?")

Basic writing has also not been the subject of any "featured session" -- one listed in the program with a separate box of at least a full page, including photographs and background information -- in some years, the CBW members said.

A cluster of its own at an annual professional conference, and maybe a page or two in the program, might seem like trivial goals for a group that sees its work as a force for justice, access and equity. But these changes would in fact have a great impact, said Seth Kahn, an associate professor of English at West Chester. "Everything that happens at these conferences is so catalyzing," Kahn said. "It's what sets the agenda for a lot of what we do ... just to have the authorizing move of saying, 'Yeah, you count,' is very important.

"The most important thing about visibility is that it helps people find you."

The CBW's motion certainly got plenty of visibility at Saturday's business meeting. After Lalicker proposed it, three other CBW members spoke in support; several more were lined up to do so when CCCC chair Gwendolyn Pough, associate professor of women's and gender studies, writing, and rhetoric at Syracuse University, who was presiding over the meeting, broke in to ask whether there was anyone who wanted to speak against the motion. There wasn't. So Pough put the motion to a vote; it passed, unanimously.

Upon the motion's passage, Chris Anson, CCCC assistant chair and University Distinguished Professor of English at North Carolina State University, said, "I have no objections at all to a stronger focus on basic writing, and we can work that out in the [conference] planning process." The audience responded with enthusiastic applause, and Pough moved on to the next item of business.

"I teach anywhere from two to four basic writing classes a semester," Michael Hill, an instructor in the English and world languages division at Henry Ford Community College, in Dearborn, Michigan, told Inside Higher Ed after the meeting. "And the real importance of this resolution today is that it's asking this community to support basic writing teachers.

"When I'm in that classroom, I need that sense of support. This organization can provide that support."


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