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Composition Forum 32, Fall 2015

Valuing the Literate Skills and Knowledge of Academic Outsiders: A Retrospective on Two Basic Writing Case Studies

Deborah Mutnick and Shannon Carter

In this retrospective, we reflect on the reciprocity and wider, political implications of our separate, yet related, early research on basic writing (BW) in light of our close collaboration on a more recent project, Writing Democracy. Inspired, in part, by BW retrospectives by Sondra Perl and Kevin Roozen, which appeared in this journal in 2013 and 2014, respectively, we hope readers will consider the current piece as part of an ongoing conversation. For our part, we return to case studies featured in our earlier work for lessons to be drawn about research methods, the discipline, and the political exigencies that threaten not only BW’s future but also masses of students—working class, nonwhite, first generation, and other academic outsiders—whose educational, professional, and personal prospects have dimmed in a neoliberal era of austerity. The two case studies are:

  • “Joe” in Deborah Mutnick’s Writing in an Alien World: Basic Writing and the Struggle for Equality in Higher Education (Heinemann, 1996)

  • “Eric” in Shannon Carter’s The Way Literacy Lives: Rhetorical Dexterity and Basic Writing Instruction (SUNY Press, 2008).

Though we met on the Executive Board of the Council on Basic Writing (CBW) and continue to be interested in the politics of literacy and related theories and practices, our research agendas have turned to community literacy studies and public writing. In what follows, we consider the circumstances of these original BW case studies—not only as authors (and the conditions that influenced our choices as researchers and writers) but also as each other’s readers. Shannon discovered Deborah’s work in graduate school, which opened up new possibilities for her. Deborah encountered Shannon’s work around the time they served together on the CBW Executive Board. Here we reflect on our earlier research in conversation with others in the field and, most directly, with one another. We explore how our ideas have changed since the publications of these studies in 1996 and 2008, especially with respect to the ongoing material, political, ideological, and institutional challenges faced by basic writers represented in some of our field’s most influential studies. We still need “time to know them,” as Marilyn Sternglass so clearly demonstrated in 1997, and we hope to make that argument again through the lenses of our retrospective examination of our own and each other’s research on basic writing in a period of even greater threat to equal access to higher education.

We begin by reflecting on the subjects of our case studies: Joe Baxter (in Deborah’s study) and Eric Carter (in Shannon’s study). We recall what led us to approach our research questions through case studies as well as the particular paths that led us respectively to Joe and Eric. We consider our relationship as teachers and researchers with them at the time, and then turn to our connection with them today. Finally, we consider what these case studies might have to teach us about basic writing today, what we might now do differently as researchers, and how our current research agendas both depart from and circle back to the problems of literacy instruction.

Case Studies: Then

Deborah on Joe

I set out in my study to illuminate the experience of basic writers through interviews with students and their teachers, including close, meta-reflective readings by each participant of the students’ writing. One of the students, Joe Baxter, gave me the title of what began as my dissertation and became a book, Writing in an Alien World: Basic Writing and the Struggle for Equality in Higher Education. A tall, heavyset African American man in his early twenties, Joe invokes the phrase “alien world” at the beginning of his essay, Blacks in Science Fiction: Why Are We Invisible? written for a BW class at one of the university’s extension campuses in East New York, a neighborhood in which half the residents live below the poverty line. A science fiction fan and writer, Joe had been raised on Star Trek and had read Octavia Butler and Sam Delaney among other sci-fi writers; he was also, impressively, working on two books of his own, one about a multicultural crew that lands on a planet still gripped by segregation and another, Cyberfighter, about the depletion of the ozone layer. In his essay, he writes: “Picture an alien world. A sleek craft touches down on the forbidding surface. A hatch opens and a small group of people exit the vehicle, they check the atmosphere with strange instruments. The air is fit for them to breathe so they remove their helmets. All the people are human and all are caucasian.” He emphasizes that, “[M]any novelists only view caucasion-s making the leap into space or across time and alternate realitie-s.”{1}

Joe concludes that paper with a trenchant statement of the consequences of this scenario of the future and the responsibility writers bear in constructing it: “Until other writers share the same vision of Roddenberry and Butler that all races of humans can be explorers of time and space and are capable of dealing with the unknown, blacks and other ethnic groups will be invisible in science-fiction.” Throughout the interview, I could see how this alien, white world, which Joe further describes as assigning black people to subservient roles or killing them off, mirrored the social realities he experienced in his family, community, and school. It was his metaphors of alienation and exploration that supported and deepened my analysis of the impact of exclusionary, racist social practices and policies on the historical-material and subjective conditions of learning how to write. Even though Joe had been placed in a BW class, he was in many ways the exception to the rule; his friends joined him in verbal jousting like the dozens, but they were mostly “on the basketball court” while Joe was “sitting on the bench watching everybody’s coats, reading a book.”

When he does convince his friend Peanut to read Stephen King novels to the extent that “…he couldn’t put books down,” Joe wishes “[Peanut] had stayed more into—you know, I tried to pull him in but, like I said….” He cannot complete the thought of what he wanted to pull him into—reading, presumably, a world of ideas and the agency Joe derived from the written word as opposed to the alien, oppressive, white world—informing me that Peanut “…got shot, no fault of his own…he was always around this guy (a drug dealer) trying to make money…and the guy walked up to him and just shot everybody there.” As a white, female, middle class researcher, I knew this world primarily through news reports, novels, stories, and films; through Joe—whose capacity to stand outside and reflect on his world enabled him to escape some of its harshest consequences, at least at that time, and report on them—I got a sense, however limited, of the socioeconomic realities of growing up black and poor in Brooklyn in the late twentieth century.

Shannon on Eric

Like Joe inspired Deborah’s study, Eric inspired mine. Unlike Deborah’s experience, however, my own inspiration predated Eric’s role as a case study in The Way Literacy Lives by more than three decades. As his older sister by two years, I have witnessed firsthand the damage inaccurate and inappropriate literacy measures can have on an individual’s life. According to traditional measures like standardized tests, Eric was a failure when it came to writing. He dropped out of high school at 17 and enrolled almost immediately in classes at the local community college. There, according to the standardized tests used for placement, he was marked a “basic writer” and enrolled in a BW course designed to teach him how to write error-free prose in timed environments. That first semester in college would be his last.

Yet Eric’s struggles in school belie the reality of his literacy skills. Standardized testing and other in-school traditions surrounding academic writing tended to render invisible his increasingly nuanced and sophisticated out-of-school literacies from computer programming and hardware to electronic music and video games. My goal in The Way Literacy Lives was to represent these vernacular literacies in the BW classroom. However, it wasn’t until I encountered Joe in Deborah’s Writing in an Alien World that I began to understand how I might approach this objective. Through a theoretical framework I began to call “rhetorical dexterity,” I was able to juxtapose Eric’s struggles with in-school writing with his sophisticated out-of-school literacies as an accomplished musician and successful technology specialist. Rhetorical dexterity, as I’ve defined it, is a “pedagogical approach that develops in students the ability to effectively read, understand, manipulate, and negotiate the cultural and linguistic codes of a new community of practice based on a relatively accurate assessment of another, more familiar one” (22). I began to consider “points of contact” and “points of dissonance” between Eric’s successful literacy experiences out-of-school and those valued in traditional academic settings. I began to consider ways I might help students in our BW classes resist what Brian Street calls “autonomous” definitions of literacy (literacy “standards”) and instead apply an “ideological” model of literacy like “rhetorical dexterity”-–making extensive use of their own out-of-school literacy experiences to negotiate those privileged in academic settings.

Deborah on Methodology

When I embarked on my dissertation research, I had just begun to direct a writing program with a large, new, 12-credit, basic reading and writing sequence modeled on the University of Pittsburgh program described by Bartholomae and Petrosky in Facts, Artifacts, and Counteracts. I found in the subject of basic writing a confluence of my own theoretical, pedagogical, and political interests in relation not only to questions of “otherness” and profound social inequalities but also to a desire to see things in their wholeness, their full complexity. I was especially interested in how the multifaceted dialogue among teachers and students, programs and expectations, and individuals and socio-historical-linguistic structures, produced the term “basic writing”—or any of its synonyms, “remedial,” “bonehead,” developmental.” I did not feel that I had to eliminate every trace of subjectivity (Brodkey){2} or start from the premise of political neutrality (Hutcheon) or conform to quasi-scientific protocols. Rather I set out to construct what I would now see as a loosely ethnographic narrative from case studies, a kind of novelistic depiction of basic writers, their writing, and their teachers that I could interpret like a literary work, developing a critical analysis of what Bakhtin called the “chronotope” in which “time … thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot, and history” (119).

I learned a lot on the fly. I had read several articles and books on qualitative research (see, e.g., Bogdan and Biklen), and I met with an NYU professor who taught a qualitative methods course. Though I talked that one time with the professor, I never took her course, and the study I designed and the methodology I used were both imaginative and flawed. I asked BW teachers to circulate a call for participants to their students. Five or six students responded; three ended up in the dissertation and the book. Because I was interested in perceptions, and wanted to focus on textual and contextual analysis—inspired by the idea in composition studies of applying the skills of literary criticism to close readings of student writing—I invited both students and teachers to respond to more or less the same series of “life history” questions and then to read aloud three texts, chosen by the student, and comment (share their inner thoughts) as they read.

When I had finished all the interviews, I transcribed them, an incredibly tedious but transformative experience of close listening. Then I read and reread the transcripts in consecutive “passes”—a method I had picked up from my one meeting with the qualitative research professor—annotating them and discerning patterns and themes. While I had to labor over the transcriptions in my fifth floor walkup apartment at my computer, pressing the pedals of a rented transcription machine, I could take my loose-leaf notebooks to 7A, a café in the East Village that I haunted for months. Probably the biggest lesson for me as a researcher was that it was only through these multiple, layered readings—digging below the surface of the interviews—that I was able to “see” specific patterns. As I wrote in 1996, these patterns made clear that “each case study encompassed a different set of pedagogical issues” (xxv), belying supposedly empirical claims about the categorical “basic writer” and supporting my conclusion that basic writing research that challenged the stereotype had the potential “to generate ‘a politics of articulation’ that [could] validate[s] students as intellectual agents and give[s] voice and visibility to their perceptions of the world …” (xxvi). In other words, the multivocal dialogue I extrapolated from the interviews suggested a complex, differentiated portrait of so-called basic writers that explained their literacy development in socio-historical and political terms while recognizing their unique gifts, strengths, weaknesses, and most of all, their potential.

Shannon on Methodology

My study emerged largely from the circumstances of my life after graduate school, at my first tenure-line position: Director of Basic Writing and the Writing Center at Texas A&M-Commerce, a mid-sized, Ph.D.-granting public university outside Dallas. The program I inherited in 2001 was a progressive one, deeply influenced—like Deborah’s—by the one at the University of Pittsburgh described in Facts, Artifacts, and Counterfacts. Indeed, the person most influential on our various writing programs, including BW, Donna Dunbar-Odom, trained under Bartholomae in the then still quite famous Pitt program. She brought this approach to our entire writing program in 1993, around the time Deborah was most deeply immersed in her research and I was beginning graduate school.

The Way Literacy Lives did not begin as a “study” per se, nor even a scholarly manuscript. In its earliest iteration, it was a textbook created for the BW program I inherited—a rhetorical intervention of sorts into a very specific set of circumstances. Called Talking Back, this 400-page “book” was designed to disrupt literacy myths that I believed impeded a BW student’s ability to successfully navigate academic writing. This interest in resistance would remain a driving theme in my book as well, where I insist that “fostering in our students an awareness of the ways in which an autonomous model deconstructs itself when applied to real-life literacy contexts can empower them to work against this system in ways critical theorists advocate” (2). Informed by Bartholomae and Petrosky, the myth-busting assignments blended analytical reading and writing, inviting students to read difficult, scholarly texts in literacy studies, like “Sponsors of Literacy” (Brandt) and The Violence of Literacy (Stuckey), and whole texts like George Orwell’s 1984. Throughout the sequence, students were asked to consider the politics of literacy and challenges to the persistence of the “literacy myth” (Graff) in traditional, in-school writing contexts—especially standardized tests.

In writing this textbook, I had two audiences in mind. The first audience was the students populating our BW courses. The second audience was the dedicated teachers and tutors I supervised in the Writing Center, the vast majority of whom had no previous training in composition studies and were eager to help but often constrained by traditional models of literacy education. This approach, one I would later apply to our first-year writing program,{3} was designed to challenge problematic assumptions about how writing works. Yet as I began to seek a publisher to market the textbook beyond our own BW program, I quickly learned it would be necessary to step back and theorize my approach. By 2005, I had received much encouragement from three textbook publishers, with two of them sending it out for multiple review sessions. Still, I could not seem to frame it in ways that made sense to the current marketplace. I could not market this textbook as part of the now widespread “Writing About Writing” movement, since there was no WAW movement at that point, shortly before Doug Downs and Elizabeth Wardle would publish their seminal article on the subject, “Teaching About Writing, Righting Misconceptions” (CCC, 2007). Though inspired by Facts, Artifacts, and Counterfacts, it could not be effectively marketed as an alternative to their popular textbook Ways of Reading. In short, I needed to create a scholarly argument for the curricular solution I attempted to enact through that textbook. As I explain,

The Way Literacy Lives is based, in part on our basic writing program, which is designed to help learners (1) recognize “other,” “vernacular,” or “marginalized” literacies as valid so they can begin to (2) draw from them as they learn what it means to write for college audiences—audiences far less unified or predictable than the literacy-as-universal-standard model allows. (16)

I began to approach this project as a scholarly manuscript fueled, in part, by the literacy narratives students had written in our BW program in response to Talking Back.

The study I wanted to conduct wasn’t exactly empirical, though many of my models were. I wanted to build upon work like that of Sondra Perl’s study (1979), which helped disrupt literacy myths. I wanted to illuminate the richly literate lives of students populating our basic writing classrooms. I wanted to reveal the specific, often quite negative ways inaccurate literacy measures and models impact real writers in their everyday lives. I wanted to illustrate the extreme disconnect between what is expected of writers in their everyday lives and how classrooms regularly represent literacy standards. It would be a few years before Kevin Roozen would begin publishing his fascinating case studies that compare in-school literacy practices with out-of-school ones, so I could not yet look to his work for a model. However, I did have Deborah’s Writing in an Alien World at my fingertips. Her approach, especially the multivocal dialogue extrapolated from interviews, had a significant impact on my own approach. Also of primary importance to me were Deborah Brandt’s studies of mass literacy, especially Literacy in American Lives (2001), and Linda Adler-Kassner and Susanmarie Harrington’s Basic Writing as a Political Act (2002).

The bulk of my research came from a blend of student writing (in two sequenced courses featuring their literacy experiences) and interviews based primarily on Brandt’s literacy interview script (see pages 208-210). Using that same script, I interviewed Eric, my brother, over the phone and at his home in Austin, Texas, capturing about 20 hours of data, uploaded to, on a recorder he had set up in his home music studio.{4} The themes I wished to explore were already well established in Brandt’s work, but the relationships between his in-school and out-of-school literacies began to emerge after I transcribed, coded, and reviewed a forth and fifth time for recurring themes. Like Deborah, from this analysis—coding and expanding my notes to identify recurring themes—I learned about the richly literate lives our students lead out of school, even if this richness was often rendered altogether invisible by standardized testing and other measures of traditional literacy. Thus, I began to theorize ways that Eric’s experiences as an electronic musician informed his academic writing experiences. In Eric’s experiences, then, I found what I would begin calling “rhetorical dexterity.”

Deborah on Theory

It was Bakhtin’s theories of language as dialogic, multivocal, “… heteroglot from top to bottom … represent[ing] the co-existence of socio-ideological contradictions between the present and the past … between different socio-ideological groups in the present …” (291) that most powerfully inspired me then. As I look back at these case studies and the conclusions I drew from them, I can see a gap in my understanding filled by the body of research that has come to be known as New Literacy Studies (NLS). The only author associated with NLS I had read as I was completing my research was Shirley Brice Heath, whose study in Ways with Words of literacy in three Carolina Piedmont communities strongly influenced not only my thinking about literacy development but also my decision to embark on a qualitative inquiry of my own. But it was my later discovery of Gee’s theory of literacy as secondary discourse, built on the primary “mother tongue” that gave me a more firmly rooted, linguistic basis for the dialectical-material approach to writing that I was pursuing.

The first crucial aspect for me of Gee’s definition of discourse is his description of it as “an ‘identity kit’ which comes complete with the appropriate costume and instructions on how to act and talk so as to take on a particular role that others will recognize” (21). The second is his clear articulation of the difference between acquisition and learning in the process of coming to control a discourse; that is, we become expert writers through acquisition—repeated, self-motivated practice—in naturalistic settings. Yet I might not have integrated that knowledge into my teaching and research without Shannon’s imaginative application of NLS to the classroom described in The Way Literacy Lives. By tapping into students’ expertise in vernacular discourses outside school from computer coding and quilting to creating Anime, and inviting them to explore the rules of discourse with which literate subjects participate and gain recognition in that community of practice, Shannon bridges the gap between the discursive expertise students bring to the classroom and the academic discourses they must acquire in order as Bartholomae famously put it, to “invent the university.”

The idea of “rhetorical dexterity” can also be understood in terms of Lev Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development and the correction to it, according to Luis S. Villacañas de Castro, made by Paulo Freire’s articulation of critical consciousness or “conscientizacao” (109). In this sense, rhetorical dexterity expresses the dialectic of vernacular and academic discourses in relation to what Villacañas de Castro calls “the pedagogy of Erscheinungsformen” (110). In an important contribution to our understanding of critical pedagogy, Villacañas de Castro traces Vygotsky’s theory of education to Marx’s concept of Erscheinungsformen, or “phenomenal forms,” arguing that Vygotsky’s inattention to the phenomenal forms—the “final pattern of economic relations as seen on the surface” (Marx qtd. in Villacañas de Castro 96)—diminished the impact of his theories of tool and sign use on actual classroom instruction. Villacañas de Castro shows how Vygotsky applies the Marxist anthropological thesis that use of tools distinguishes humans from animals to concepts of signs and mediation in learning “on the phylogenetic, sociocultural, and ontogenetic planes but not adequately at the microgenetic level—the site of instruction.

Because Vygotsky failed to attend sufficiently to the material conditions that arise as a result of the fundamental “epistemological dynamic that creates a complex dialectic between the subject and the object of inquiry” (Villacañas de Castro107), he does not address the tension between the learners’ phenomenal reality and scientific concepts. It is this problem that Freire and his followers take up in their emphasis on the importance of student-teacher dialogue and that accounts for how knowledge is shaped and potentially deformed by Erscheinungsformen. Villacañas de Castro’s’ insightful critique of Vygotsky both confirms the emphasis in my research on the material conditions of education and explains Joe’s highly developed consciousness in terms of his ability—perhaps fostered by science fiction critiques of existing social realities—to extricate himself from the distortions of the phenomenal forms of a racist, exclusionary society and understand his subjective experience from an objective standpoint. As Gee would say, Joe demonstrated his ability to stand outside a discourse in order to criticize it. The role of the teacher is to grasp this same dialectic between the surface forms of reality and “‘the concealed essential pattern’ of any phenomenon” (Villacañas de Castro 103).

Shannon on Theory

Coming at it about a decade after Deborah published her work, my own work was deeply influenced by three theoretical traditions: New Literacy Studies (NLS), critical literacy, and activity theory. I was strongly influenced by NLS, especially studies by Gee, Heath, and Brian V. Street, and made extensive use of Street’s notion of the “autonomous model of literacy” (to represent school-based literacy like standardized tests) in contrast to an “ideological model of literacy” (to represent out-of-school literacies). That juxtaposition formed the basic structure for my book, where I took the ubiquity of the “autonomous model” as a starting point for the difficulties experienced by students called basic writers. An ideological model of literacy, by contrast, was the model I argued students needed to understand in order to navigate the various literacy and linguistic codes making up academic discourse.

Like Deborah’s study and other work in BW that most inspired my research, critical literacy deeply informed my position at multiple levels. I was—and remain—convinced that “the point of composition instruction,” as Deborah Mutnick insists, “… is to equip students with literacy skills along with a critical-historical perspective on reading and writing in school, work, and everyday life” (xii) by teaching them, in Freire’s words, to “read the word and the world.” Thus, after offering a detailed portrait of the local conditions limiting and shaping our basic writing program—especially with respect to the culture of standardized testing in Texas—I dedicate a chapter to critical literacy in BW instruction, including a detailed study of an assignment sequence I designed for our BW program informed via an explicitly critical framework (see Chapter 3, The Way Literacy Liberates). “When we are critically literate,” Ira Shor explains, “we examine our ongoing development, to reveal the subjective positions from which we make sense of the world and act in it” (4). Vital as this seems to me, the problem I tried to capture through deep analysis of student writing was how can we “grade” on scales of oppression and liberation. To illustrate, I offer an extended case study of Ana, a blind immigrant student from Mexico whose writing reveals a great deal of insight into her position in the world and the material realities that complicated her everyday life yet failed to challenge the systemic oppression embedded in literacy learning itself. For Ana, literacy learning would always be approached as an inherent good. In a course built upon the tenets of critical pedagogy, had Ana then met all the course objectives? I remain unsure.

These complexities with respect to critical literacy led me to NLS and activity theory. Although I maintain a deep connection to the tenets of critical theorists who insist on the social nature of literacy, where “learning to read and write is part of the process of becoming conscious of one’s experience as historically constructed within specific power relations” (Anderson and Irvine 82), I wanted to focus more on the acts of writing and reading. This led me to NLS, with its emphasis on an ideological model of literacy that is people-oriented, context-specific, and fluid in opposition to an autonomous model, which treats literacy as a “bundle of skills” (Resnick) independent of the literacy context involved. To drill more deeply into this concept, I found activity theory to be crucially important.

Activity theory, rooted in Vygotskian psychology, is largely concerned with human practice as an “activity system.” David Russell is the first to apply activity theory to the human practice of writing, treating literacy as an activity system. Activity theory enabled me to hone in on why (and how) literacy is irreducible to an autonomous skill-set or to a particular content. The input, output, and tools used in each literacy scene are deeply dependent upon the system engaged by a given literate activity. For example, the input, output, and tools used for a standardized test in a timed writing environment like the SAT differ substantially from the input, output, and tools involved with writing an application for a job as a cashier while standing at the customer service desk of a crowded supermarket. Taken together, NLS, critical literacy, and activity theory enabled me to “make explicit . . . the ubiquity of autonomous models of literacy” and “promote . . . a more context-based understanding of the multiple literacies available to writers—a more realistic picture of the way literacy lives” (Carter 16).

Case Studies: Now

Deborah on Joe

Last year, nearly twenty years after the publication of my book, I decided to try to locate Joe. I found the loose-leaf notebook with all my transcriptions and notations in my basement, but there was no contact information for Joe Baxter. I called the assistant dean, still working at LIU, who had administered the extension program Joe attended; he gave me a street address but no phone number. I entered it into my address book. I looked for a phone number but found none. For months, I did nothing. Finally, during winter break, I wrote Joe a letter. No answer. No returned envelope stamped “not at this address.” Then, one Friday afternoon in mid-March, I drove to the address, 84 Eldert Street, on the border of Bedford Stuyvesant and Bushwick, after getting directions on Google. The neighborhoods I was passing through were dilapidated, with boarded up buildings and soup kitchens, an adjacent but very different world than the “renaissance” in downtown Brooklyn where the university is located. Here was a Brooklyn I did not know well; even the street names were foreign. I had gone through the mirror into Joe Baxter’s world, a world still marked by poverty, isolation, and a gritty urban desolation nothing like the 21st century metropolis I literally see developing daily out my office window on Flatbush Avenue with its newly tree-lined streets and towering luxury apartment buildings.

Back in the 1990s, LIU’s now defunct extension campuses in East New York, Bushwick, and other low-income neighborhoods offered students like Joe access to higher education that had dramatically expanded starting with Open Admissions in the late 1960s. That access had already begun to close, however, while Joe was an LIU student with a confluence of forces inside and outside the academy. In 1992, one of basic writing’s leading theorists David Bartholomae gave his famous “Tidy House” speech at the Conference on Basic Writing, arguing that BW programs had become merely “expressions of our desire to produce basic writers” (8). By the end of that decade, in 1999, New York City Mayor Rudolf Giuliani succeeded in his push to end open admissions at CUNY. While space does not permit me to rehearse the debate over the place of basic writing in higher education here, I do want to survey the geography of access to the social, cultural, and material goods of American society.

I could not find Joe Baxter nor would I presume to invent a life for him beyond the one already represented in my book. Based on what I learned about him in 1992—as Bartholomae was pronouncing basic writing’s death as a “provisional, contested term”—what I can do is list some statistics about African American men who fit his profile to help us imagine what Joe might have encountered. The black poverty rate in the U.S. is 29.1% compared to the rate for white families of 15.9%. Black men’s income is 67% that of white men. The unemployment rate for African Americans remains at 13.4 percent, more than twice that of whites, and rose as high as 33.5 percent for black youth between the ages of 16 and 24 after the 2008 crash. The net worth of black families is $6,100 versus $67,000 for white families. Add to these statistics police killings of young black men, stop and frisk, prison demographics, higher rates of disease, lower life expectancy—and Joe’s prospects look bleak.

Shannon on Eric

Unlike Deborah, I did not have to look for Eric. He’s my brother, after all, and we are very close. Every year, my husband and I spend Thanksgiving at their home in Austin, and Eric and his wife often travel together with us or visit us at our home near Dallas, about four hours away. Insight into the state of BW, however, is available by contrasting Eric’s position with of the story of Joe Baxter. At the time of my study, Eric lived in a suburban area of South Austin—in a rented two-bedroom brick home in a neighborhood of similarly situated, mostly white and Hispanic families. Today, his circumstances are similar. They now own a three-bedroom brick home near a high performing elementary school. Eric still earns a good salary as a technology specialist, and his wife is a middle school science teacher. Unlike Joe, however, Eric is white and middle class. Though he lacks a college degree, the privileges afforded him as a white, middle-class male meant success for him anyway, a point I make at some length in The Way Literacy Lives.

Access to college-level BW in Texas, however, as in New York City, is increasingly restricted. At the community college where Eric enrolled in BW in 1991, for example, students can no longer receive financial aid for “remedial” courses. Many universities no longer offer BW at all, relegating students who may previously have gone to college to adult literacy programs. Access to BW does not, of course, mean access to a college degree. However, lack of access to such programs may mean students unable to meet minimum “standards” on traditional literacy measures (like standardized tests) will have no access to college courses, which, in turn, means no degree. In Texas today, the college graduation rate for white students is 31% versus 11% for African Americans.{5} Many factors contribute to this discrepancy, including inappropriate literacy measures and unequal access to adequate K-12 educational opportunities.

Deborah on Methodology

Were I to replicate the study I did in the 1990s, I would incorporate questions about expertise in secondary discourses along the lines Shannon suggests and Kevin Roozen so deftly achieves in his longitudinal study of his student Charles’ extra-curricular literate activities of stand-up comedy, self-sponsored poetry, and sports writing. I would theorize more deeply the literacies Joe Baxter practiced from “playing the dozens” to writing science fiction. Most interesting to me now, I would investigate the dialectic between form and meaning in light of Marx’s account of the Erscheinungsformen to try and grasp the process by which Joe acquired such a high degree of critical literacy in an environment that leaves many individuals, including his friend Peanut and other students in my study, incapable of understanding or freeing themselves from the historical and economic forces—the phenomenal forms—that shape them.

I would devise a methodology to discern the process by which individuals do or do not come to understand the relationship between themselves and the object of study. As Villacañas de Castro puts it: “…at the core of the phenomenal forms there is a concern for the interferences that obstruct a learning process when the scientific observer wants to understand the same object s/he forms part of” (95-6). According to NLS, the two major moves the individual makes in acquiring secondary discourses are self-motivated practice in natural settings and the development of critical consciousness in order to step outside the discourse and critique it. This theory of literacy resonates powerfully with the pedagogy of Erscheinungsformen in its recognition of the epistemological problem of the relationship between the observer and the observed. One tendency in literacy studies has been to defend the non-literate or illiterate against the “violence of literacy” (Stuckey 1990). However, this perspective simply privileges the phenomenal forms without understanding the effects of oppression on individuals’ consciousness and “the fact that the place they occupy in a given social milieu vis-à-vis the means of production conditions their ability to reach an appropriate representation…of the social phenomenon that surround them, and of which they form part” (Villacañas de Castro 94).

Shannon on Methodology

Were I to replicate the study I did nearly a decade ago, I would also want to offer a more in-depth study of extracurricular literacy. Equally important, I feel, would be some inclusion of adult literacy programs, since so many students barred from college altogether (those who may have been in BW courses before) end up there today, as more and more doors to college via BW programs across the country close. I would also want to offer a richer, more extensive analysis of the local factors limiting and shaping writing instruction and writing assessment. My earlier work dealt with these material conditions to some extent, especially with respect to standardized testing in Texas. However, I am increasingly convinced that the institutional and community histories and histories of our various writing programs may have a significant impact on the work possible in any given classroom.

Basic Writing Studies: Today

Ironically, the future of BW studies looks brighter today than that of actually existing BW programs. When Deborah published her study in 1996, access to higher education was just beginning to narrow as New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani called for higher standards at CUNY’s four-year colleges in what would be the opening salvo in an ongoing, heated, national debate about the role of college-level remediation. By the time Shannon published her study in 2008, many colleges had systematically begun to dismantle BW programs through legislation at state and federal levels. Most emblematic of the conservative backlash against open access for those of us in composition studies was the destruction of the seminal program Mina Shaughnessy had created at CUNY just a few decades earlier. While some popular reforms like Peter Adams’ Accelerated Learning Program appear to have improved BW student outcomes, many state legislatures have simply cut or severely reduced remediation at four-year colleges.

Of course, such threats to BW are hardly new. A Symposium from the May 1957 issue of CCC, for example, asks “Has English Zero Seen Its Day?” At that point at least, the answer was a resounding “yes,” calling attention to the many universities that already had or would soon be dropping BW—then called “English Zero”—including the University of Illinois and Purdue. They further reveal that, “no institution which has not offered English Zero plans to introduce it.” Indeed, they continue, “the potential English freshman who finds college doors gradually closing against him will assuredly enroll somewhere—but where?” (545, emphasis added). Sound familiar? Today many are relegated to community colleges, which are often so overenrolled and underfunded they are no longer open access. Meanwhile, at CUNY, where the student-led movement for open admissions began, such reforms have led to a dramatic decrease in the number of black and Latino/a students at its senior colleges, with the percentage of black students at Hunter College, for example, falling from 20 percent in 2001 to 9 percent in 2013 (Enrollment Trends).

Although the state of BW programs seems bleaker than ever, scholarship in BW appears to be thriving, in large part because the draconian cuts have mobilized scholars and teachers in defense of the students BW historically served. Indeed, it is far more visible today in the larger field of composition outside BW circles than it has been for many years. At the 2013 Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), for example, in his 500-word call for papers, chair Howard Tinberg mentions “Basic Writing” eight times and brings back the area cluster for “Basic Writing” after many years’ absence. The prestigious “Exemplar” Award for CCCC 2013 went to Mike Rose, a renowned figure in BW, and at least one “Featured Panel” was devoted to the topic of basic writing. BW’s place in the larger scholarly conversation has also been reinforced in our field’s major publications. Especially exciting to us are the growing number of book-length studies of BW’s long and complex history, each challenging understandings of BW as monolithic in new and provocative ways. Studies of BW at Harvard and Yale in the early 1900s (Ritter), equal educational programs at University of Wisconsin in the 1970s (Lamos), and other, related investigations of BW at Berkeley (Stanley) and City College of New York (Soliday) reveal significant ways in which BW has historically been defined not by student need but by local conditions.

We are inspired by the ways recent innovations and publications have taken on increasingly complex and important issues in BW, but we are also deeply concerned about trends in both K-12 and higher education that are diminishing educational opportunities, particularly for black and Latino/a working class students. In our own work since publishing the BW studies reflected upon here, we remain interested in relationships between literacy and power. We continue to be informed by many of the same theories that drove our earlier work, including critical literacy and NLS. Today, however, our current research concerns relationships between literacy and power as manifested outside the classroom and over time. While we see our current work as more firmly rooted in subfields like community literacy and public rhetoric than BW per se, we believe it has many implications for literacy instruction in academic spaces—including BW. The most visible example of this recent work is the Writing Democracy project.

Concluding Remarks

The project we have collaborated on most closely together over the past five years is Writing Democracy (, an attempt to create a national network of university-community partnerships modeled after the 1930s Federal Writers’ Project.{6} We conclude this retrospective by articulating the relationship we see between Writing Democracy (WD) and our research on basic writing. The distinction NLS makes between autonomous and ideological models of literacy parallels our move from the narrower study of basic writing students aimed at improving instruction to the broader investigation of writing in communities. This more expanded scope of research and action is in direct response to neoliberal capitalism’s intensifying contradictions, which we see as reaffirming autonomous models of education and exacerbating class stratification in schools. While we continue to teach in traditional classroom settings, we are eager to foster “writing beyond the curriculum” (Parks and Goldblatt 2000) in ways that support academic outsiders—both individuals like Joe who live in segregated, impoverished neighborhoods, and those like Eric whose needs cannot be humanely addressed and whose capacities go unrecognized in a system driven by standardized testing and dominant cultural models of literacy.

Through university-community partnerships—and the creation of a national or even international network of writers, teachers, students, journalists, and other contributors working to write a new cultural roadmap for the 21st century{7}—we are beginning to redefine our own research priorities. We aim to involve our students and the communities surrounding our campuses in the documentation of everyday life and language through personal stories, oral histories, archival research, and ethnographies. Like the state guides produced by the FWP, we imagine a retelling of history that documents diverse social realities and widespread conditions from income inequality and police brutality to deportation and government surveillance along with creating a space for nurturing and promoting community spokespeople, artists, writers, and activists. Inspired by emerging social movements like the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and #blacklivesmatter, we call for a “political turn” that investigates the socioeconomic structures that produce racism, sexism, economic inequality, and environmental degradation, on the one hand, and obscene wealth, privilege, and abuses of power, on the other. We imagine composition instruction engaging students in collaborative, literate activities in naturalistic settings in which they could write for communities, work with faculty on research projects, conduct their own inquiries, and contribute to the creation of a record of our times.

With such a network, we could truly value the literate skills and knowledge that students bring with them; and for those who lack such a repertoire, we would create conditions in which they could acquire it. Thus we aim to continue the work we began in our studies of basic writing in the larger contexts of social history and political economy through close investigations of learning vis-à-vis the Erscheinungsformen. In so doing, we respond not only to oppressive social conditions but also to the abiding epistemological problem that occurs “when the scientific observer wants to understand the same object s/he forms part of” (Villacañas 96).


  1. Joe’s writing is reproduced verbatim with grammatical and punctuation errors including hyphenation in which the hyphen is consistently placed at the left margin on the line below the hyphenated word. (Return to text.)
  2. “To write is to find words that explain what can be seen from an angle of vision, the limitations of which determine a wide or narrow bias, but not the lack of one” (Brodkey 546). (Return to text.)
  3. I directed our First-Year Writing Program from 2007-2010, creating a related textbook for our FYC program that combined ethnographic inquiry with literacy studies to guide the development of rhetorical dexterity with more extensive research and writing. In that time, we went through two editions of Literacies in Context (2007; 2008). In 2010, Tabetha Adkins took over as WPA—so I could dedicate more of my time to the Converging Literacies Center (CLiC), which I co-founded with Donna in 2007 ( As WPA, Tabetha continues to develop curricula that combine ethnographic inquiry with a Writing About Writing approach. (Return to text.)
  4. To create a five-minute video essay about Eric’s literacy experiences called “Standardized,” I edited and remixed these same recordings with home movies and public domain footage from the Internet Archive. My objective with this video, as with my book, was to represent tensions between the automatous literacy model and an ideological model. The soundtrack for this project was Eric’s own original music, primarily his song “Crushed by Velvet,” which articulates his own struggles with severe dyslexia, especially with respect to writing. View this brief video at YouTube ( (Return to text.)
  5. “College Completion,” Chronicle of Higher Education ( (Return to text.)
  6. For more about FWP as it relates to Writing Democracy (and, by extension, our field), see “Notes on a Federal Writer’s Project for the 21st Century” (Carter and Mutnick), “Rediscovering America: The FWP Legacy and Challenge” (Hirsch), and Toward a Twenty-First Century Federal Writers’ Project” (Mutnick). (Return to text.)
  7. Grace Overmyer’s accolade to the FWP (Stott 110). (Return to text.)

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