Domenica Vilhotti

ENG 511

Dr. Carter

November 16, 2006

Increasing Student Investment in the Basic Writing Course: A Literature Review

I dunno it was something like eighty seven years ago when these old guys brought here in dis country a new place that began bein free and were sayin all dis s--t that all da people in dis f----n country are all equal or some s—t like dat… But yo we can’t dedicate, declare, or take away disground yo… This speech aint gonna be remembered but all this dying s—t aint gonna be forgot… We take da courage of dese guys and say dat dese f—kas did not die in vain and dat dis nation we be in right now is where da freedom was born and that da government of da peeps, by da peeps and for da peeps will not go away from earth.

-- A basic writer translates the Gettysburg Address into informal vernacular in a course that espouses the hybrid text method (Maxon 24)

 

            “I feel like I am a real writer now.”

-- An ESL basic writer upon the completion of her Life History Ethnography Research Project (Murie et al 82)

 

            Much has changed in the field of basic writing from its infancy when many colleges loosened or eliminated admissions criteria in the 1960s.  Basic writers were originally defined through inability, as falling short of professorial expectations.  Mina P. Shaughnessy, pioneer of the basic writing field, espoused this view, and envisioned the basic composition class as a foundational one in which students could build skills first in mechanics and eventually in critical thought in order to participate meaningfully in future scholarly study.  Emerging a decade later, David Bartholomae posited that rather than deficient, basic writers were instead unprepared for academic writing.  They experienced difficulty, he argued, because they are only just beginning to learn how to “[mimic] the language and interpretive systems of the privileged community” of academia (135).  As a look into the last five years of scholarship in the Journal of Basic Writing will reveal, the most recent view theorizes the basic writer as oppressed outsider.  According to this view, basic writers are not just unprepared for academic discourse; rather, the academy deems their means of thought and understanding as “non-academic,” and therefore inferior, modes of expression (Moody and Bennet).  Recent scholars criticize this academic reception to basic writers because it may lead to feelings of disempowerment, as students feel they have no rightful place in the university.  They agree with Bartholomae in his view that students should not be defined through error, but take the notion even further, asserting that students must be defined through the strengths they already possess.  Pedagogy, then, must strive to build upon these strengths, as the projects excerpted above attempt to do. 

This literature review focuses on the scholarship emerging from this last wave of basic writing pedagogy.  Specifically, I seek to discuss how innovative basic writing programs, projects, and assignments attempt to help students find themselves within the academy.  In perusing the Journal of Basic Writing over the last five years, I have noticed three major approaches that work to increase student engagement: learning communities, service learning, and methods of establishing basic writers as valued members of the academic community.  This last category is further subdivided into brief discussions of specific projects and assignments, such as the uses of ethnographies, hybrid texts, and literacy narratives.  The common thread among all these broad sweeping and specific approaches is that they seek to value the basic writer as a student who brings his or her own unique strengths to the academy and to establish meaningful connections between the student and the university.       

 

 

Learning Communities and the Basic Writing Course

            Hailed as one of the most promising strategies to improve retention (Jackson 6; Guskin, Marcy, and Smith 1 qtd. in Darabi 55), learning communities are founded upon four key principles: curriculum integration, active learning, student engagement, and student responsibility (Darabi 55).  Among five variations on the concept, the “course cluster” model involves three components: 1) two or more classes linked thematically, 2) a cohort of students who attend all classes together, and 3) instructors who plan collaboratively (Washington Center).  The core intention of the learning community is to create community among students and teachers.  Similar to all other basic writing programs discussed here, a secondary aim is to avoid the “deficit” model of remediation; while students build upon the basic skills they already have, they earn college credit. 

Within the last five years, two innovative programs have refined the “clustered” learning community model to position the freshman basic writing course at its center.  In her article “Basic Writers and Learning Communities,” Rachelle L. Darabi, director of the First Year Experience at Indiana Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW), discusses the effectiveness of learning communities and basic writing.  IPFW created a cluster around the general concept of freshman success, linking Fundamentals of Speech Communication, Freshman Success, and Basic Writing (Darabi 59).  The Synergy Program at the University of Wyoming (UW), lead by April Heaney, embraced the notion of theme as clustering device.  In her article “The Synergy Program: Reframing Critical Reading and Writing for At-Risk Students, ” Heaney discusses how she linked the Basic Writing course with a Reading and Critical Thinking course to ultimately collaborate on an extended thesis-research ethnography on a community of the student’s choice (42).[1] 

            Although small in scope, initial quantitative research results of learning communities integrating the basic writing course are promising.  At IPFW, students who took one of the five sections of learning-community integrated basic writing courses were six percent less likely to fail that course than students who took the non-integrated basic writing course, or respective failure rates of 25 percent versus 31 percent.  The six percent decrease is particularly significant, however, when one considers the finding that passing the basic writing course is the single consistent determining factor whether an IPFW student will graduate (Darabi 59).  Although Darabi doesn’t report specificities, she notes that attendance greatly improved as faculty reported nearly 100 percent attendance rates, a number usually “unheard of” in developmental courses (Darabi 67).  Perhaps most striking, the retention rates drastically improved: 82 percent of students returned for their sophomore year, a 15 percent increase over the IPFW average retention of 67 percent.  Within two years of implementation, IPFW successfully showed that learning communities that integrate the basic writing course improve student investment and retention.

            Qualitative research findings, however, point to more nuanced and positive results.  In addition to data collection, Darabi conducted an intensive case study of one veteran teacher, “Ed’s” learning-community infused basic writing course at IPFW.  The most dramatic difference between learning community basic writing courses and regular basic writing courses was the sharp increase in student engagement.  One student’s comment is illustrative: “If I don’t get my work done, I feel as if I have failed all my classmates” (qtd. in Darabi 62).  As students became more confident in acquiring writing sub-skills, they became increasingly independent learners.  Specifically, the course moved from “presentation” or instructor-centered mode to “environmental mode,” in which the instructor is a co-learner with expertise, to “individual mode,” resembling a writing workshop in which the instructor and peers served as one-on-one tutors (Darabi 63). 

The learning community certainly succeeded in its goal of creating a scholarly community as Darabi reports that Ed’s students showed a commitment to learning by staying after class to help each other, forming study groups, and spending time together in the library and cafeteria.  Ed reported that the quality of the student work itself was more profound than the non-learning community basic writing control group; for instance, revision moved quickly from correcting surface-level errors to raising concerns regarding structure and style (Darabi 64).  Similarly, students took more pride in their work: completed and fully revised portfolios were turned in by 100 percent of learning community students, while only two-thirds of prior non- learning community students had turned in completed portfolios (Darabi 68).           

                        Although they are far from conclusive or comprehensive, Heaney’s findings are quantitative and promising.  Within the program itself, grades improved significantly from Synergy’s inception in 2001 to its third year in 2003.  Notably, while zero percent of students scored an A in 2001, 28 percent did in 2003, a three percent increase over students in the 2001 regular composition course.  Similarly, 48 percent of the 2003 Synergy students scored B’s, in keeping with the regular composition average of 47 percent.  Most impressive, unlike the 2001 Synergy program or the 2001 regular composition course, no students scored a grade of D or F.  Retention rates were also markedly improved among Synergy students: 87 percent returned for their sophomore year as opposed to 81 percent of the control group of contractually admitted students who chose not to participate in Synergy.  Overall academic performance also increased: while 63 percent of the control group was on academic probation at the end of fall semester, only 27 percent of Synergy were.  Synergy students earned an average GPA of 2.39 as opposed to the control groups’ 1.77.  The gain is all the more significant when one notes that Synergy students high school GPAs and ACT scores were markedly lower than those of the comparison group’s.

 

Service Learning and the Basic Writing Course

            The driving objective of service learning, or the integration of community service into the curriculum, is to transform students from passive objects to active subjects.  When service learning is inherently tied to the curriculum, students sense they are writing for more meaningful audiences than the teacher and his grade-book, which increases student investment (Tannenbaum and Berrett 198, Davi 80).  Ideally, improved investment leads to improved quality.  In his authoritative book, Writing Partnerships: Service Learning in Composition, Thomas Deans summarizes that at its core, service learning in composition seeks to make writing matter, to function beyond textual analysis and, when effective, to affect real-time change (Harris 1).

Deans is the first to divide this sub-field into three pedagogical approaches: writing about the community, writing for the community, and writing with the community.  In turn, each type is best associated with specific rhetorical emphases.  Writing about the community pairs service with critical inquiry.  As the model most engaged in introducing students to traditional academic discourse, it  typically features reflective journals or expository essays about social concerns related to the community and the service project, such as an essay on the politics of education following a elementary school mentorship project.  Students are writing for the community when they are engaged in preparing documents for the actual use of community non-profit organizations (Deans 17).  This model addresses genres such as press releases, proposals, newsletters, and data reports (Harris 1).  The final approach, writing with the community, grows from the work done under Linda Flower and colleagues’ leadership at the Community Literacy Center (CLC) at the University of Pittsburgh.  Employing what the CLC calls “literate social action,” this approach aims to use collaborative community writing to “instigate social change” (Deans 44).  Specifically, students work collaboratively with the community to create “inquiry and research” that generates discussion among disparate community stakeholders, such as gang members and police or tenants and landlords (Deans 17).   

The trend that service learning-infused composition courses aim at liberal activism is best exemplified in the writing about the community model adopted by Bentley College’s Contractual Admissions Program (CAP).  In her article “In Service of Writing and Race,” CAP basic writing teacher Angelique Davi explains that among goals of improving critical writing and thinking skills, boosting confidence as members of the academic community, she explicitly infuses race, class, and gender ideology “so that students can recognize these ideologies at work in their lives both inside and outside the classroom” (Davi 73, 78).

Davi’s twist on the traditional use of service learning in composition is the reversal of both subject and target populations.  The traditional model of predominantly white, middle class students doing service for working and poverty class minority communities, has been criticized as “a dressed-up version of noblesse oblige” that does little to reconceptualize societal patterns (Deans 7).  Davi, however, chooses to shift the focus onto the working-class minority students in CAP, assigning them to do service in a predominantly white elementary school so that they can critically trace the complexity of racism that may have contributed to their current assessment of themselves as poor writers (76).  After conducting a series of team-building workshops with elementary students, the CAP basic writers write weekly journal reflections and a final research essay on some aspect of education.  Students are encouraged to theorize and research issues of race, class, and gender inspired by the fieldwork done in their service (81).  

Based on close examination of student journal reflections and classroom exchanges, Davi’s findings are not intended to be conclusive or qualitative.  She invites her conclusions to be viewed as key sites for further research.  In particular, Davi found that basic writing students who participate in service learning benefit from the experience of becoming classroom leaders as opposed to classroom victims.  In providing positive reinforcement to their younger charges, they actively provide a future generation the praise of which they were largely deprived.  In a sense, by influencing others they are reconstructing their own formative years in the classroom.  Service learning, thus, has the power to bestow on basic writers a sense of perspective, transforming potential negativity into positive energy. 

The writing about model in conjunction with the reversed subject/target population of a minority population performing community service for majority population also served students’ critical thinking skills about social reform.  By teaching students the tools of social critique, they have made their first strides in dismantling systems of inequity.  In deconstructing these same systems they had been educated under, students were able to appreciate their own untapped aptitude.  As Davi envisions, in “the best case scenario, students will feel empowered and able to address overtly the subtle racial dynamics” within the predominantly white classes they will go on to attend at Bentley (92).

Not all assessments of service learning are positive, however.  The charge of a lack of efficiency is one of two main faults that California State Polytechnic University’s basic writing professor Don J. Kraemer uses to critique service learning in his article “Servant Class: Basic Writers and Service Learning”.  His second critique is that in being made “servants by writing for-the-community service-learning projects,” students are forced to focus on formulaic product rather than process (92).  As the focus on process is the learner-centered approach that tends to be most effective with basic writers, students lose out on valuable opportunities to practice working through problems within academic discourse. 

He finds fault particularly with the writing for model because it replicates the very status quo the service learning movement set out to challenge.  Specifically, because students must work diligently to produce error-free documents for community organizations, they are spending the majority of their time producing rather than critiquing.  As such, the course can barely rise above on the lower orders of thought, namely knowledge, comprehension, and application.  Based on a year long case study he conducted on three of his own basic writing courses, Kraemer concludes that writing for projects “thrust students into ‘fast capitalism’,” as students are forced to perform “outsourced” labor for neither benefits nor profit (93).  His findings indirectly bolster Davi’s, as Kraemer concedes that the writing about model is preferable as it both serves the ends of increasing investment and reducing student objectification, yet also invites critical thinking in the form of more academic compositions such as critical reflections, editorials, and researched essays (93).

 

Methods of establishing basic writers as members of the academic community

Similar to Learning Communities and Service Learning, the following methods avoid the deficit model of “remediation”.  These innovative strategies specifically seek to acknowledge and build upon student strengths, working to find commonalities between student discourses and academic discourses.  Most of these methods are founded on the concept that fundamental disconnects are deeper than structural or sentence-level issues; they are located, rather, in student anxiety about achieving academic success and learning the new language of academic discourse (Heaney 49).  The common intended result of the ethnography, hybrid text, and literacy narrative approaches, therefore, is for the basic writer to make meaningful connections with the academy.

 

Ethnographies and the basic writing course

            Two pioneering pilot programs at the University of Wyoming (UW)[2] and the University of Minnesota General College (UMGC) hypothesized that if student anxieties about acculturation into the academy were addressed directly through ethnographic research projects, students would be inspired to take ownership over their writing development because they appreciated the value of their places within the academy (Murie et al 86, Heaney 26). 

            The Life History Project at UMGC was developed to engage English as a Second Language (ESL) basic writers in writing for real purposes while building academic writing proficiency.  Creating a de facto learning community, the ESL instructors Robin Murie and Molly Rojas Collins collaborated with Daniel F. Detzner, a professor in Family Social Science.  In their article, “Building Academic Literacy from Student Strength: An Interdisciplinary Life History Project,” they discuss this pilot project taught in an ethnographic research course and Immigration Literature course, two courses in which a single cohort of ESL students.  Based on six hours of interviews, each student created a life history of an elder in his or her community.  Students must also connect these original oral histories to discussions of abstract and “academic” concepts such as human development, the aging process, comparative cultural practices, and the impact of diaspora and immigration on the elderly (Murie et al 79).  In addition to writing for a grade, students presented the life histories to the elders as gifts, which greatly increased task motivation, or investment.  Moreover, students were made to see how their data-collection and synthesis contributed to credible academic research as the elders were invited to have their biographies archived at the University’s Immigration History Research Center (Murie et al 77).

            Based on the informal qualitative measurements of class participation and course evaluations, Murie, Collins, and Detzner deemed the project a success.  Clearly, they see a need for future quantitative research to determine factors such as the effectiveness of the project design or whether this project would prove as fruitful with American-born, non-ESL basic writing population.  While the project outcomes lack hard data, Murie et al identify eight strengths they believe make the project successfully replicable to build academic writing proficiency:

1.      “Audience and purpose were real” (80).  Writing for a revered elder, often a loved one, exponentially increased investment in creating a polished product as well as clarified the revision and editing process, such as the inclusion of helpful charts or specific names and dates (80).

2.      “Data collection was extensive” (81).  The “related-issue” research component combined with typically over 15 pages of transcribed interview notes gave the novice writers more than enough material to work with.  Their skills were further developed as they worked to braid the various strands of information into a coherent document (81).

3.      “Research was contextualized” (81).  As a thesis-research project, students had to identify areas in their subject’s narrative where the reader would need more historical, cultural, or theoretical information.  Murie et al found that while this was a challenging task, students benefited from working with life story as a foundation and could better identify related and discard unrelated sources (82).   

4.      “Student work was connected to literature” (82).  In the cohort course on Immigration Literature, students mined texts for not only content, but also for relevant structures they could use in their own writing, such as the use of metaphor, dialect, dialogue, and imagery.  Both courses were enhanced as students were genuinely reading and writing for meaning.

5.      “Writing was seen as a creative process” (82).  Avoiding the model of teacher as rule-enforcer, the Life History Project encouraged student autonomy in making conscious choices about content selection and style.  As one student best summarizes, “I feel like I am a real writer now” (82).

6.      “Extended drafting and reader response created a safe place to develop fluency” (83).  Murie et al found it was the comfortable production of multiple drafts that markedly developed proficiency as opposed to mark-every-error-editing, which shuts students down.  Murie and Collins did, however, diagnose and explain repeated errors to the student.  Students were also driven to repeatedly redraft in order to do their narratives justice.  The voluminous amounts of writing this produced did far more to increase fluency than would traditional “drill-and-kill” methods. 

7.      “Students were able to find themselves in the curriculum” (83).  For the first time in most of the ESL students’ lives, after struggling for so long to survive pedagogy, the curriculum came to them.  Moreover, many students reported the creation of a tighter bond with their subject, the representative of a culture they have limited access to.  In the most literal sense, students also made substantive contributions to academia, as some contributed the first pieces of scholarship on Oromo or Somali culture at the University’s Immigration History Research Center (84).  

8.      “This project rejected the deficit model of ‘remediation’” (85).  The most important component of this project was that it built upon students’ greatest strengths of being bilingual, "bidialectical", and bicultural.  Besides the obvious advantage of language, these students were singularly poised to understand and employ cultural cues to gently elicit and archive their subject’s stories for the next generation.            

Murie et al conclude that while the final products were certainly not perfect, the process of the project was a success because it boosted confidence in an authentic way while thoroughly investing students in meaningful practice and research.

The Synergy Program at UW similarly stressed the development of thesis-research in the investigation of student identity.  The program differs from UMGC’s and others in that it directly responds to what UW believes to be a lack of motivation among basic writers that springs from an active resistance to the supremacy of the academy.  Based on analyses of student surveys, April Heaney and her colleagues believe that students from disenfranchised communities view the acceptance of academic acculturation as the widening of a rift between themselves and their families (26).  It is not that they are unable to learn the new academic discourse, but rather that they perceive it as a threat to the “discourse of their deepest identities” (33).  By creating a research project focusing on this identity shift, that is, the ethnography, the Synergy program theorized that students could mediate that rift and simultaneously practice sound thesis-research.

Synergy’s Ethnography Project is different from UMGC’s Life History Project in several ways.  Students are not limited to researching their own ethnic communities.  As long as they investigate a community they belong or have belonged to, they can organize their study spatially, such as the ethnography of a freshman cafeteria or junior high school, organizationally, such as a fraternity, or ethnically and issue-related, such as Latina street gangs. Unlike the more unified Life History Project at UMGC, Synergy students prepare for the ethnographic investigation by writing in a variety of related “academic” genres, such as editorial essay, classic argument essay, rhetorical analysis, as well as the ethnographic research paper. 

In the ethnographic research process, Heaney argues that students understand that research can be successful and transformative when one is invested in it; similarly, they are able to deal with the dueling personas of their academic and home identities within the composition setting.  The Synergy program is among the few programs discussed here that offer quantitative findings.[3]  In terms of increased retention, GPA, and pass rates, the Synergy approach is an effective one.   

 

Hybrid texts or the Use of Informal Vernacular in the Basic Writing Course

In his article “’Government of da Peeps, for da Peeps, and by da Peeps’: Revisiting the Contact Zone,” Jeffrey Maxson, Coordinator of First-Year Writing at Rowan University discusses two assignments he uses in his basic writing course.  The first grants students an opportunity to focus on the differences between academic discourse and what he terms African American Vernacular English (AAVE).  This assignment asks students to translate a piece of academic prose, from an article on fuel-cell technology to the Gettysburg Address, into AAVE, Spanglish, or another informal dialect of their choice; afterwards, students complete written reflections of the advantages and disadvantages of each discourse variety.  The second assignment allows students to begin engaging with academic prose through parody.  Students must first identify elements of academic discourse, such as passive voice, jargon, use of statistics, and seemingly objective argumentation.  Next, they apply their knowledge by exaggerating these features in written and eventually performed parody.  Based on Jeffrey argues that these assignments successfully empower students because they deflate formalities, amicably mock authority, and point to some disadvantages of informal vernacular (48).

In his article “Represent, Representin', Representation: the Efficacy of Hybrid Texts in the Writing Classroom,” Donald McCrary, Associate Professor of English at Long Island University/Brooklyn, stresses the need for avenues in which basic writers can make meaningful connections to the culture of the academy and that of their home communities.  He argues that the reading, analysis, and writing of hybrid texts can mitigate the real and perceived effects of “standard English supremacy” (72).  A hybrid text is writing of virtually any genre that toggles either meaningfully or unconsciously between Standard English and any informal vernacular.  Indeed, after establishing “credibility” in elevated MLA-style discourse, McCrary begins toggling himself to make certain points.  He explains, for instance, that many basic writers choose not to learn standard English because they know acquiring it “doesn’t’ necessarily mean they’re going to get the paper, the cheddar, the cream they desire” (73).  Further, AAVE, or what he terms “black English,” serves his students well in negotiating the public and private sphere, got “black people through slavery, and… saved my black behind a thousand times” (73). 

By analyzing and writing hybrid texts from a letter to the editor in an urban magazine to a scholarly article to an autobiographical literacy narrative, McCrary claims that basic writers can locate themselves within the published word and ultimately within the academy.  His assignments strive to show his students that rather than speaking “broken English,” black English is beloved by America and is “intelligible and intelligent” (74).  While he is clear to point out that students must be fluent in both dialects, he argues that students should be allowed to meaningfully code switch even and especially in academic writing (74). 

 

Literacy Narratives in the Basic Writing Course

In his article “Literacy Narratives and Confidence Building in the Writing Classroom,” Caleb Corkery, Assistant Professor of English at Millersville University of Pennsylvania, provides an overview of the effectiveness of literacy narratives in the basic writing classroom.  Literacy narratives, or auto- and biographical stories of one’s first engagement with reading and writing, can be powerful pedagogical tools.  As stories of overcoming obstacles to achieve and appreciate literacy, these narratives ideally function best to build confidence among resistant basic writers.  Additionally, literacy narratives provide valuable material for discussions about how American culture has and does inhibit literacy.  If the student does not culturally or personally identify with the narrator, however, the narrative can have an alienating effect.  Further, as most narratives equate literacy with spiritual and intellectual freedom, they also have the effect of “silencing,” or subordinating, some basic writers’ cultural oral traditions.

            In her article “Conflicted Literacy: Frederick Douglass’s Critical Model,” Wendy Ryden, Coordinator of Writing Across the Curriculum at Long Island University, C.W. Post, investigates the rhetoric of the literacy narrative genre.  She renders the oversimplified pedagogical approach to Fredrick Douglas’ 1845 Narrative particularly problematic.  Minority and working class students are often asked to absorb and parrot Douglas’ “lesson” of the unqualified advantages to acquiring literacy.  Illustrating the Douglas Narrative as a more ambivalent treatise on the fight to achieve literacy, Ryden compares Douglas passages such as, “I would sometimes feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing,” to student responses such as “Everyone should do good and also try their best… Education is important for our future.”    

 

Conclusion

The late Mina P. Shaughnessy had been the pioneer of the basic writing movement ever since the open admissions revolution of the sixties stormed the Bastille of The City University of New York and countless subsequent institutions.  In her landmark book Errors and Expectations (1970) and in her 1976 literature review, “Basic Writing,” Shaughnessy did something virtually taboo by today’s standards: she defined the basic writer clearly and measurably – but through error.  Basic writers, she explained, typically have less academic interests and an increased fear or expectation of failure in academic settings.  The writing they produce is characterized by relatively small volume and large amounts of error, approximately 15 to 35 errors for every 300 words written (“Basic Writing” 179).  While modern definitions that seek to define the basic writer though strength rather than ailment are doubtlessly valid, we must not shy away from certain questions.  Where have these errors gone?  With our new definitions, have our students begun to write more coherently?  Specifically, if students are actually getting invested in writing well, is their writing, in turn, getting “good”? 

            Both fortunately and unfortunately, a new take on basic writing has supplanted Shaughnessy’s Foundational model and Bartholomae’s learning-by-doing model of immersion into academic discourse.  These admittedly divergent models both believed in the academy’s responsibility to teach academic, as opposed to nonstandard, discourse, because it hones critical thinking, allows students to participate in academic discussion, and trains them to eventually become scholars themselves (Moody and Bennet).    The notion that academic writing should be explicitly taught, however, is no longer a given.  As several of the above approaches implicitly illustrate, modern teacher-scholars view the teaching of academic discourse as privileging dominant ideologies while undermining the emotional and expressive validity of alternative discourses (Moody and Bennet).  

            Indeed, basic writing methodologies within the last five years have strayed from any notion of remediation; they instead strive to increase student investment and engagement among basic writers.  As such, definitions of success have also changed significantly, and in many ways for the better.  As opposed to seeking to decrease instances of error, new definitions of effectiveness include increasing pass rates, raising GPAs, and ensuring students return for a second year and ultimately graduate in a timely fashion.  The pedagogy reviewed here range from systemic solutions to innovative short assignments.  From learning communities and service learning to the use of hybrid texts in the classroom each method strives to engage the basic writer and invite her or him to become uncompromised and appreciated members of the community.  

            Because the privileging of academic discourse as the lingua franca is currently passé, however,  these programs conveniently avoid the burden of qualitatively linking student investment to coherent writing.  At the same time, no study reviewed here offers any conclusive evidence that basic writers particularly need investment.  As much as the notion that engagement and investment is generally a good idea, it must be noted that without evidence proving that investment is a significant factor lacking among basic writers, we are only working in questionably representative case studies and assumptions.  What of the equally valid assumption that the very fact these students have graduated high school and have chosen to attend college should attest to their substantive investment?

If assumptions are fair game, then let me offer my own case study.  As I was putting the finishing touches on this literature review, I was interrupted by a request from Darrell, a former student asking for a third edit of his college application essay.[4]  His edited essay describes one of two times his heroin-addicted mother attempted to burn herself in front of him and ends with the statement, “There is a mission out for me to pursue. There are offices calling my name, eyes dying to see me, hearts longing to be healed, fears needing to be killed, backs to be clothed, experiences to be shared, and love to be given. I know that throughout my life, I will achieve my desires. The only way I will make it is to be a leader.”  Despite his powerful ending, after teaching Darrell for three years and based on his SAT scores, I know he will be enrolled in a basic writing course next year.  And yet, Darrell sold his watch to pay for car repairs so he could drive himself to Yale, New York University, and Bucknell this summer, despite what his guidance counselors said about his chances of getting accepted.  He wants to operate his own business one day in a poor minority community.  Darrell does not need bells and whistles investment; he needs to learn how to write.     


Domenica Vilhotti

ENG 511

Dr. Carter

November 14, 2006

Increasing Student Investment in the Basic Writing Course

Annotated Bibliography

Context and Definitions of the Basic Writer

 

Bartholomae, David. "Inventing the University." When a Writer Can't Write: Studies in Writer's Block and Other Composing-Process Problems. Ed. Mike Rose. New York: Guilford, 1985. 134-65.  In this landmark essay, David Bartholomae argues against Mina Shaughnessy’s method of defining the writer through his or her error.  He posits that rather than deficient, basic writers are instead unprepared for academic writing.  They experience difficulty, he argued, because they are only just beginning to learn how to “[mimic] the language and interpretive systems of the privileged community” of academia (135).

 

Moody, Elizabeth, and Alison Bennet, comps. CompPile Basic Writing Home. 2004. Texas A&M University Corpus Christi. 25 Oct. 2006 <http://comppile.tamucc.edu/wiki/BasicWriting/BestPractices-PedagogyAndAssignments>.  Page last modified on 19 July 2006.  Originally a final project for an Eastern Michigan University graduate course called “Teaching Basic Writing at the College Level,” this extensive wiki on basic writing was recently added to the CompPile server hosted by Texas A&M University.  As it provides both detailed historical information, strategies, bibliographies, and links to full-text scholarly articles, the “Best Practices” page is especially useful.

 

Shaughnessy, Mina P.  “Basic Writing” Teaching Composition: 10 Bibliographical Essays Tate, Gary, Ed.  Fort Worth : Texas Christian University Press, 1976.  177-205.  This early literature review by the pioneer of the basic writing field succinctly contextualizes over 50 sources, tracing the development of basic writing from the proceeding 15 years.  Especially pertinent is her definition of the basic writer as associated with error, as this model was hotly debated in the next decade and has been all but vanquished in contemporary scholarship.

 

Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors and Expectations. 1st ed. New York: Oxford Univerity P, 1977. 1-311.  Hailed as the definitive classic of the basic writing field, Shaughnessy writes in eloquent prose on the sociology and personal psychology of basic writing.  Most of the body of Errors is devoted to the study of error.  Specifically, she is interested in what types of errors basic writers typically make and in devising approaches to better conform to “surface conventions.”  It should be noted, however, that while Shaughnessy acknowledges the importance of content, she realizes that teachers are failing their students unless they impart conventions because society and academia tend to notice error first and negatively prejudge content. 

 

Learning Communities

 

Darabi, Rachelle L.  “Basic Writers and Learning Communities.” Journal of Basic Writing 25 (2006): 53-72.  Rachelle L. Darabi, director of the First Year Experience program Indiana Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW), describes her positive experiences with the “course cluster” model of learning communities, which involves two or more classes linked thematically, a cohort of students who attend all classes together, and instructors who plan collaboratively.  The First Year Experience created a cluster around the general concept of freshman success, linking Fundamentals of Speech Communication, Freshman Success, and Basic Writing.  Darabi is unique in positioning the basic writing course at the center of the learning community cluster.  Although limited in scope, her study provides qualitative and quantitative data in the form of pass rates and a case study, respectively.  Her findings include that, in terms of increased pass rates, engagement, and satisfaction, students who take basic writing within a learning community fare better than students taking non-integrated basic writing.

 

Mlynarczyk, Rebecca W., and Marcia Babbitt. "The Power of Academic Learning Communities." Journal of Basic Writing 21 (2002):  69-89.  ESL teachers and Journal of Basic Writing editors Rebecca Mlynarczyk and Marcia Babbitt conclude that students who join an “active, student-centered learning community” are more successful in college than those who do not. 

 

National Learning Commons.  Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education. “FAQs: What Are Learning Communities?” http://www.evergreen.edu/washcenter/lcfaq.htm  This informative website is highly recommended to gain practical knowledge about the features and implementation of learning communities at the undergraduate level.  The site provided detailed answers to questions about living/learning communities, costs, effectiveness, technology integration, course and community design, best collaborative practices, and how to market the program to administration.  This site also links to an organized series of full-text articles about the topics above.

 

Wiley, Mark. "Rehabilitating the 'Idea of Community'" Journal of Basic Writing 20 (2001):  16-24.  Although not an actual study, Mark Wiley provides a useful compilation of research and theory suggesting the effectiveness of learning communities in the general composition classroom.  His specific focus is on positively reconsidering the concept of community itself, particularly in light of the “root metaphor of conflict” currently informing many first-year composition courses.

 

Service Learning

 

Davi, Angelique. "In the Service of Writing and Race." Journal of Basic Writing 25 (2006):  73-95. Academic Search Premier. North Carolina State University, Raleigh. 27 Oct. 2006. Keyword: Basic Writing AND service learning.

Rachelle Darabi, the Director of the Center for Academic Support and Advancement and the First Year Experience at Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne posits that basic writing classes are more successful when they are an integral part of first-year learning communities.  She provides a concise review of the definition, description, and effectiveness of learning communities.  She defines success as: increased retention rates from freshman to sophomore year; higher pass rates within the basic writing course itself; improved performance in subsequent courses as determined by improved GPAs; increased student engagement and investment as evidenced through increased attendance, and higher quality and timely completion of work; and enhanced classroom culture.  She uses qualitative analysis, specifically pre- and post- pass and retention rates to successfully prove her hypothesis.  She also complements the narrow scope of qualitative analysis with an intensive case study of the development of one basic writing course within a learning community, using teacher and a few student interviews to support her claims about increased quality of engagement, culture, and quality of work.

 

Deans, Thomas. Writing Partnerships: Service-Learning in Composition.  Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2000.

Thomas Deans is the first teacher-scholar to divide the service learning in composition sub-field into three pedagogical approaches: writing about the community, writing for the community, and writing with the community.  Writing about the community pairs service with critical inquiry about the experience.  Students are writing for the community when they are engaged in preparing documents for the actual use of community non-profit organizations. The final approach, writing with the community, employs “literate social action” to use collaborative community writing to “instigate social change.”

     

Kraemer, Don J. "Servant Class: Basic Writers and Service Learning." Journal of Basic Writing 24 (2005):  92-109. Academic Search Premier. North Carolina State University, Raleigh. 28 Oct. 2006. Keyword: Basic Writing AND service learning.

      The charge of a lack of efficiency is one of two main faults that California State Polytechnic University’s basic writing professor Don J. Kraemer uses to critique service learning in his article “Servant Class: Basic Writers and Service Learning”.  His second critique is that in being made “servants by writing for-the-community service-learning projects,” students are forced to focus on formulaic product rather than process.  As the focus on process is the learner-centered approach proven most effective with basic writers, students lose out on valuable opportunities to practice working through problems within academic discourse.  He finds fault particularly with the writing for model because it replicates the very status quo the service learning movement set out to challenge.  Specifically, because students must work diligently to produce error-free documents for community organizations, they are spending the majority of their time producing rather than critiquing.  Based on a year long case study he conducted on three of his own basic writing courses, Kraemer concludes that writing for projects “thrust students into ‘fast capitalism’,” as students are forced to perform “outsourced” labor for neither benefits nor profit (93).

Hybrid Texts or the use of Informal Vernacular

Maxson, Jeffrey. "'Government of Da Peeps, for Da Peeps, and by Da Peeps': Revisiting the Contact Zone." Journal of Basic Writing 24.1 (2005): 24-47.              Jeffrey Maxson, Coordinator of First-Year Writing at Rowan University discusses two assignments he uses in his basic writing course.  The first grants students an opportunity to focus on the differences between academic discourse and African American Vernacular English (AAVE), the term he uses.  This assignment asks students to translate a piece of academic prose, from an article on fuel-cell technology to the Gettysburg Address, into AAVE, Spanglish, or another informal dialect of their choice; afterwards, students complete written reflections of the advantages and disadvantages of each variety.  The second assignment allows students to begin engaging with academic prose through parody.  Students must first identify elements of academic discourse, such as passive voice, jargon, use of statistics, and seemingly objective argumentation.  Next, they apply their knowledge by exaggerating these features in a written and eventually performed parody.  Jeffrey argues that these assignments empower students because they deflate formalities, amicably mock authority, and point to some disadvantages of informal vernacular.   

McCrary, Donald. "Represent, Representin', Representation: the Efficacy of Hybrid Texts in the Writing Classroom." Journal of Basic Writing 24 (2005):  72-91. Academic Search Premier. North Carolina State University, Raleigh. 26 Oct. 2006. Keyword: Basic Writing AND Hybrid Texts.                                                 Donald McCrary, Associate Professor of English at Long Island University/Brooklyn, stresses the need for avenues in which basic writers can make meaningful connections to the culture of the academy and that of their home communities.  He argues that the reading, analysis, and writing of hybrid texts can mitigate the real and perceived effects of “standard English supremacy” (72).  A hybrid text is writing of virtually any genre that toggles either meaningfully or unconsciously between Standard English and any informal vernacular.  By analyzing and writing hybrid texts from a letter to the editor in an urban magazine to a scholarly article to an autobiographical literacy narrative, McCrary claims that basic writers can locate themselves within the published word and ultimately within the academy.     

 

 

 

Ethnographies

 

Heaney, April.  “The Synergy Program: Reframing Critical Reading and Writing for At-Risk Students”.  Journal of Basic Writing 25 (2006): 26-52

         April Heaney, director of the Synergy Program at University of Wyoming (UW), specifically stresses the development of thesis-research in the investigation of student identity.  The Synergy Program differs from other basic writing programs in that it directly responds to a lack of motivation among basic writers that springs from what UW believes to be an active resistance.  Based on analyses of student surveys, April Heaney and her colleagues believe that students from disenfranchised communities view the acceptance of academic acculturation as the widening of a rift between themselves and their families.  It is not that they are unable to learn the new academic discourse, but rather that they perceive it as a threat to the “discourse of their deepest identities” (33).  By creating a research project focusing on this identity shift, that is, the ethnography, the Synergy program theorized that students could mediate that rift and simultaneously practice sound thesis-research.  Unlike the more unified Life History Project at UMGC, Synergy students write in a variety of “academic” genres that adhere to the ethnographic investigation of a particular community, such as editorial essay, classic argument essay, rhetorical analysis, as well as the ethnographic research paper.  All writing assignments concern issues surrounding a community students belong or have belonged to.  Heaney concludes that research can be successful and transformative when one is invested in it; similarly, through ethnography, students are able to deal with the dueling personas of their academic and home identities within the composition setting.

 

Murie, Robin, Molly R. Collins, and Daniel F. Detzner. "Building Academic Literacy From Student Strength: an Interdisciplinary Life History Project." Journal of Basic Writing 23 (2004):  69-93. 

Murie et al describe the Life History Project at University of Minnesota General College, which was developed to engage English as a Second Language (ESL) basic writers in writing for real purposes while building academic writing proficiency.  Based on six hours of interviews, each student created a life history of an elder in his or her community.  Students must also connect these original oral histories to discussions of abstract and “academic” concepts such as human development, the aging process, comparative cultural practices, and the impact of diaspora and immigration on the elderly.  In addition to writing for a grade, students presented the life histories to the elders as gifts, which greatly increased task motivation.  Moreover, students were made to see how their data-collection and synthesis contributed to credible academic research as the elders were invited to have their biographies archived at the University’s Immigration History Research Center.  In addition to the detailed project description, the most useful aspect of this article is the discussion of eight identified best practices in using ethnographies in the basic writing course.  Although this program was geared towards an ESL population, the project is likely modifiable for an non-ESL population.

 

Literacy Narratives

 

Corkery, Caleb. "Literacy Narratives and Confidence Building in the Writing Classroom." Journal of Basic Writing 24.1 (2005): 48-67  Caleb Corkery, Assistant Professor of English at Millersville University of Pennsylvania, provides an overview of the effectiveness of literacy narratives in the basic writing classroom.  Literacy narratives, or auto- and biographical stories of one’s first engagement with reading and writing, can be powerful pedagogical tools.  As stories of overcoming obstacles to achieve and appreciate literacy, these narratives ideally function best to build confidence among resistant basic writers.  Additionally, literacy narratives provide valuable material for discussions about how American culture has and does inhibit literacy.  If the student does not culturally or personally identify with the narrator, however, the narrative can have an alienating effect.  Further, as most narratives equate literacy with spiritual and intellectual freedom, Corkery argues they also have the effect of “silencing,” or subordinating, some basic writers’ cultural oral traditions.

 

Ryden, Wendy.  “Conflicted Literacy: Frederick Douglass’s Critical Model” Journal of Basic Writing 24 (2005): 4-23.  Wendy Ryden, Coordinator of Writing Across the Curriculum at Long Island University, C.W. Post, investigates the rhetoric of the literacy narrative genre, rendering the oversimplified pedagogical approach to Fredrick Douglas’ 1845 Narrative particularly problematic.  Minority and working class students are often asked to absorb and parrot Douglas’ “lesson” of the unqualified advantages to acquiring literacy.  Illustrating the Douglas Narrative as a more ambivalent treatise on the fight to achieve literacy, Ryden compares Douglas passages such as, “I would sometimes feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing,” to student responses such as “Everyone should do good and also try their best… Education is important for our future.”    

 

 

 

 



[1] For a detailed description of the Synergy program, refer to the Ethnographies and  the Basic Writing Course section on page 11.

[2] As it also employs learning communities, the Synergy Program at UW is also discussed in the learning communities section.  For more information on the quantitative measurements of the Synergy Program’s success, refer to the learning communities section.

[3] See the learning communities section for a detailed discussion of Heaney’s findings.

[4] I have changed this student’s name to protect his identity.