Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Reflections on Kelly Ritter's Before Shaughnessy

I am confused by Ritter’s reluctance to use the term “college level.” After demonstrating that the definitions of basic and “college level” vary from one intuition to another, she states in her suggestion that the word basic be replaced with the word introductory because that category, “would encompass all versions of first-year writing at the college level.” Here she has implied that there is such as thing as first-year, college level writing. Furthermore, by indicating that her Writing 1-3 sequence would encompass all versions of first-year writing, she is implying that college curriculum should, in a sense, reach down to include those who had previously been labeled basic. I am not meaning to explore that point of whether colleges should or should not reach down to capture all students, only to indicate that Ritter herself acknowledges that there is such a thing as college level, despite its undefinability.
Another point I found troubling, was the suggestion—which is supplied to support the Writing 1-3 sequence—that those students who need basic writing coursework might be pushed out of an academic system that is being stretched to its limits due to increased enrollment and budget issues. She asks, “Will basic writers be the first to be sacrificed because they are so easily segregated?” (p141) This is seemingly inconsistent, considering she had stated earlier that colleges added basic writing courses as a result of increased enrollment which was brought on by budget issues.*

Additionally, Ritter argues for the elimination of the label basic to be replaced by the label introductory. This category “would encompass all versions of first-year writing at the college level, not just the first or lowest course in the sequence, thus eliminating the designation of remedial/basic/”precollege” courses within the curriculum.” Her rationale: “Such a leveling of terms, rather than a standardizing of values or expectations, would serve as a symbolic step toward addressing the warring conceptions of “college-level” designations in first-year writing curricula today.” (p140)

While breaking apart the initial writing courses of undergraduate writing work is an intriguing idea, I am confused by the notion of removing the term basic from a course catalogue and merging the formerly “basic” students with the “regular” students in order to resolve the writing needs of students. Simply removing the term will not simply remove their need; the needs will still have to be met. Ritter seems to imply that the writing needs, the missing skills, will somehow just appear once the term basic has been removed. Or, that those who have “basic” needs will have them well met in the “regular” class. Perhaps there is research that shows such an implication is true; if so her argument would have been stronger had she mentioned it.

While I did find the above points conflicting and confusing, they are not questions that lingered long after closing the book. There was one, however, that did linger. Ritter declares, “By making limited, ahistorical assertions about the places in which basic writers have existed, we ignore the rich models—and powerful lessons—we can take to our classrooms and programs in search of equal institutional status and opportunity for all writing students. In order for research in basic writing to truly contextualize its origins, we must consider all sites of instruction when assembling a social history of the basic writer or student whose writing is outside what is considered standard/acceptable to the institution at hand and the culture in which it operates.” Ritter has done a thorough job of establishing this point; however, her assertions brought to mind a question that, for me, lingers. Given that basic writing programs are institutionally defined and serve primarily to acquaint the student with the values of their chosen institution, do basic writing programs work? Perhaps the next step is to merge Ritter’s observations and assertions with that lingering question.

Ritter, Kelly. Before Shaughnessy: basic writing at Yale and Harvard, 1920-1960. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2009)

* On page 75 Ritter notes; “…the face of the first-year program was changing nationwide, evolving to meet the needs of the student—and the financial solvency of the institution.” She continues on to add that enrollments were rising, due to a “mass-culture shift [which] occurred between 1915 and 1940.

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