Before Shaughnessy: basic writing at Yale and Harvard, 1920-1960
by Kelly Ritter
“Imagine, if you will, a first-year program at Equitable University that looks like this: A first-year writing curriculum with a menu of course options for incoming (and transfer) students, each with equal course credit, each with a small course capacity (of twelve to fifteen students), and each with a simple, objective name. One course is called “Writing 1.” The next is called “Writing 2.” The next is called “Writing 3.” Each course is regarded publicly—in all marketing for the institution as well as in communication with prospective students and their parents—as college-level, and incoming students are encouraged to choose, through a process of guided self-placement, which course along the sequence meets their initial needs. No student is called remedial or basic and certainly not precollege.”[i]
In Before Shaughnessy: basic writing at Yale and Harvard, 1920-1960 Kelly Ritter proposes this “broad, utopian vision” [ii] as a replacement for what she states is a disjointed and stigmatized undergraduate writing curriculum; a writing curriculum that unsuccessfully sorts out basic writers and places them in separate, “special” classes. The above model, she asserts, would remove the stigma and rigidity of current basic writing courses and resolve system flaws that have “effectively kept underprepared students at a disadvantage for resources and funding given to other, “regular” students—as these underprepared students represent to legislators an uncomfortable and frustrating result of the always-present weakening of secondary and postsecondary educational outcomes. We need to level the playing field,” Ritter states, “and we need to do so now.” This is her call to action.
Before Shaughnessy is an exploration of the definitions and limitations of basic writing courses, historical account, critical analysis and call to action. Ritter, a fifteen year veteran of teaching first-year college writing, uses the analysis of the basic writing programs at Yale and Harvard during the years 1920-1960 to support her potentially controversial call to action—the elimination of basic writing programs.
Ritter’s discussion of the location and development of basic writing courses adds new layers to previous discussions of the location and development of first-year writing courses. She explores the differences and similarities of basic and first-year writing courses across time and across institutions. One well developed point is the idea that despite the fact that they share the same labels (basic, first-year) at the majority of colleges, they do not share the same content. Both basic and first-year writing courses are institutionally defined. Interestingly, although content of the courses vary, the purpose remains consistent—to acculturate the student into the college’s rhetorical and cultural values.
She moves from those concepts to present a historical overview and analysis of the basic writing programs of Yale and Harvard during the earlier half of the 1900’s. She uses her analysis of these programs to support these points as well as to provide an new look at what a basic writer has been, is now or could be in the future. Her research shows that basic writers have been found and served at elite institutions in the early part of the 1990’s. This fact complicates the typical view of basic writing, one that begins to take shape after the publication of Shaughnessy’s canonical work.
This well focused handling of a specific topic would be of great interest to administrators, including WPAs and those “above” them and instructors at both the secondary and post secondary institutions. These individuals would find that Ritter’s analysis and call to change provides a rich collection of facts and ideas. These facts and ideas will generate reflection, assessment, and future planning. This holds true regardless of whether the reader agrees, disagrees, or is undecided on Ritter’s ultimate suggestion. Additionally, educators from or historians of elite educational institutions would find her research of the basic writing programs at Yale and Harvard illuminating and fascinating. For these individuals, the text might serve as a starting point for future historical compilation or interpretation.
 Ritter, Kelly. Before Shaughnessy: basic writing at Yale and Harvard, 1920-1960. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2009), p140-141. Ibid., p 141.