This week we examined the assumptions educators and institutions have about students for whom standard American English is less accessible or for whom it is accessible but only at the expense of their own cultural language and individual identities. Our readings, Mina P. Shaughnessy’s text Errors & Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing and La Vona L. Reeves’ article “Mina Shaughnessy and Open Admissions at New York’s City College,” served as the basis for this discussion.
The Complexity of Basic Writing
Turns out there is nothing basic about the often maligned “basic writing” (BW). Shaughnessy’s examination dispels notions about writers of basic English as unintelligent, illogical, or careless. Shaughnessy focuses on errors precisely because “teachers’ preconceptions about errors are frequently at the center of their misconceptions about BW students” (Shaughnessy 6). One class participant asserted, the errors themselves are intelligent errors that occur when one confronts a written system that differs from one’s own.
Our discussion also delved into cognition and practice, two related aspects of learning that are sometimes incongruent. A student of any age or ability can know the rules that govern writing or even the mistakes to avoid but that knowledge does not necessarily prevent errors from occurring, especially for a student whose language, culture, or class has competing or contradictory linguistic rules of usage. By contextualizing learning, teachers can better serve their students. Essentially, “a teacher must ask not only what he wants but what the student is most ready to do and what, from a reader’s viewpoint, is most important” (Shaughnessy 120).
The Academic Writing Trap
Our most lively discussion centered on Shaughnessy’s assertion, “for the BW student, academic writing is a trap” (Shaughnessy 7). This resonated with us as graduate students because though we had successfully navigated the academic landscape, one presumably easier for many of us because of our privileged positions upon entry, we too had experienced some of the “traps” of education.
Academic writing can be subjective, and professors often have idiosyncratic preferences that influence how they assess student writing. Students potentially confront inconsistencies in instruction that compel them to alter their writing for the purposes of pleasing a teacher. The writing then becomes increasingly less authentic and purposeful.
Codes and rules of academic writing and academic success overwhelmingly favor those already familiar with them. As Delpit expressed, “the rules of the culture of power are a reflection of the rules of the culture of those who have power,” so “success in institutions…is predicated upon acquisition of the culture of those who are in power” (25). These codes however are not easily mastered because what
may seem “simple” or even “universal” to a native speaker is incredibly complex and often obscured for someone positioned outside the culture of power (Shaughnessy 38-39).
The role of Class
Several of us commented on the role of class and how it might affect an individual’s likelihood of success. This week’s readings explicitly referenced economic and social class as factors in education. Reeves’ article “Mina Shaughnessy and Open Admissions at New York City College” dispels the assumption that students who take advantage of and directly benefit from open enrollment and nontraditional matriculation requirements are overwhelmingly students of color. In opposition to public perception, the City University of New York’s (CUNY) largest “enrollment increase had been in non-Puerto Rican Roman Catholics, including the city’s Italian, Irish, Polish, Haitian and German youth—first and second-generation Americans” (Reeves 123). Although examining current data related to nontraditional educational programs and the populations they benefit is necessary to substantiate a similar claim today, few would argue that class is a factor in access to education.
We found the readings both stimulating and bewildering. Among other questions, we asked, how can we prepare students for success or expand the current possibilities for success without a transactional exchange that requires a loss for a gain? Why are we not learning other dialects or celebrating linguistically rich communities instead of adhering to an antiquated education model that has proven inadequate? How does teacher education contribute to the prevailing assumptions and practices and how might it improve?
While there are no easy answers to these and other questions, the readings gave us much to consider going forward.
Delpit, Lisa. Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom. New York: The New Press, 2006. Print
Reeves, La Vona L. (2002). Mina Shaughnessy and Open Admissions at New York’s City College. Thought & Action, 17(2), 117-28.
Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors & Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing. New York: Oxford UP, 1977. Print.