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Composition Forum 22, Summer 2010

Ritter, Kelly. Before Shaughnessy: Basic Writing at Yale and Harvard, 1920-1960. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2009. 171 pp.

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Dylan B. Dryer

As a certain upper-level administrator once said, breezily deflecting a conversation about increasing support for writing-intensive courses, “Harvard doesn’t have a writing center.” Now, that was a) demonstrably untrue, and b) even if it were true, neither something for Harvard to brag about nor something for the university for which we both worked at the time to try to emulate. Yet commonplaces like that one are convenient and ubiquitous in university administration: some institutions don’t have to worry about, support, or allocate resources to their students’ writing, and it is evidently a mark of having arrived in that lofty tier of institutions that “basic writers” have stopped applying, gotten their act together and stopped being “basic,” or, best yet, just gone away to somewhere folks are willing to deal with them (or are resigned to doing so). Such truisms are not just irritating; they are potent obstacles to our work with all writers, and Kelly Ritter’s Before Shaughnessy is an important contribution to the ongoing work of problematizing those commonplaces.

Ritter’s project is to demonstrate that basic writing has neither “‘safe’ research designations” nor, for that matter, a “safe” research era (9). That is, she helps make the case that at least some writers some of the time were considered “unprepared” for work at all postsecondary institutions all of the time. This means that Ritter also has to work against what she considers the CUNYfication of a deeply heterogeneous group of writers. Whatever else Errors and Expectations accomplished, Ritter argues, its influence and accessibility also made those particular writers at that particular institution at that particular historical moment stand in for all writers designated “basic” everywhere (29-31). As the institutional (and quite different) responses of Yale and Harvard show, the perception of some writers as “basic” is not inevitably a consequence of socio-economic, ethnic, and linguistic diversities, despite composition’s historical memory of Open Admissions as the “beginning” of basic writing.

Ritter thus concludes that “basic writing is exclusively an institutional construct, a locally specific course designation that stems from, develops from, and ends with the unique culture of each institution” (9). Chapter 2 provides a review of contemporary research, the consensus of which is that the adjective “basic,” cannot be anything but a site-specific designator. Chapter 3 extends this analysis back into the countless testimonials published in English Journal, College English, and College Composition and Communication so as to reveal the “scrutiny put upon basic writing and basic writers” from 1920 to 1960 as well as “the proposed ‘remedies’ for eliminating the need for remedial programs in English” (49-50). Taken together, Chapters 2 and 3 confirm the introduction’s hypothesis: the designation of “basic” relies on an occluded comparative: basic relative to what matriculation, persistence, and/or graduation requirements or “typical” student profile? And since one institution’s “basic” is another’s mainstream, no one can say for certain who basic writers are; since the course varies so much from institution to institution, no one can say just what it is they need to know (6-7).

These extensive literature reviews do mean waiting 72 pages to get to Yale and Harvard, although having the previous chapters under one’s belt means being able to see Yale’s so-called “Awkward Squad” and Harvard’s “English F” as not only evidence that there were indeed basic writers before Shaughnessy, but more to Ritter’s point, that they were particular writers unprepared for the particular institutional contexts of those two schools. Well-aware that archives are always susceptible to researchers with axes to grind, Ritter keeps her own methods and choices carefully in view while reconstructing two intriguing narratives out of the unstudied “memos, policy statements, reports, and even visual renderings” of two admittedly already-storied English Departments (72). These narratives put paid to tacit assumptions that “elite institutions are somehow immune to the problems with student preparedness plaguing other institutions” (73).

Yale’s “Awkward Squad” sounds like skill and drill at its worst and dreariest; the course was also deliberately firewalled away from anything resembling higher-level instruction or content (83, 93). As a “freeform appendage” to the mainstream first-year course, the Squad could supplely absorb and release unconventional writers and their writing while ensuring that no “remedial” coursework ever officially appeared in the Course Catalogue (86-7). Harvard’s sub-English A courses, Ritter argues, make an interesting comparison to the “somewhat secretive and certainly punitively constructed Awkward Squad” (99). The rhetorical construction of “English F” was initially and for some time “assistive,” rather than punitive, its pedagogy reminiscent more of modern writing center tutorials than the product-oriented theme-corrections I’ve always associated with that era. Harvard’s efforts to both develop and to promote “postadmission” (as opposed to “subcollege”) work on writing led to seemingly endless attempts to revisit and reconfigure the courses (101, 117). More interestingly still, Ritter uncovers some remarkable early attempts at systematic data collection: who enrolled in English F, who was recommended to do so, what percentage of the total student population was being served, and, significantly, enrollees’ secondary institutions (109-14). These sometimes-surprising findings—for example, that remedial instruction was not limited to arrivistes from the “frontier of the western United States” (114)—enabled Harvard to challenge the conventional wisdom that, unquestioned at Yale, evidently stifled productive rethinking of basic writing courses there.

Ritter never engages in special pleading on behalf of her Yale and Harvard men, noting that it is indeed “easy to feel fewer sympathies for these elite basic writers” (42), yet part of the stated rationale for the project relies on something of a straw man. Ritter questions whether the “nearly standardized national definition of ‘basic’ is any longer a beneficial one for the positive growth and democratic development of first-year [writers]”; a page later, she suggests that “the term has been so variously defined throughout the twentieth century as to be virtually useless as a universal classification” (11-12, emphases mine). I’m not persuaded that there is such a universal definition of the “basic writer” out there to be problematized. So quiet are institutions about “remedial” instruction and so wide are the chasms between secondary and postsecondary schools that there haven’t been many opportunities for a “nationalized” definition to emerge, let alone one wielded by “public and nonacademic observers” (54, see also 143). Certainly there are occasional and influential outbursts, e.g., Nathan Glazer’s memorializing the vanished CUNY of his youth in the Chronicle (and evidently misremembering while doing so [see Soliday 20-21]). I would argue, rather, that the problem is more that the classification and definition of who basic writers are and what basic writing is (and where either of those sorting mechanisms hold true and don’t) aren’t enough in the national conversation. It’s perhaps more that this vacuum allows other myths (the always-decline of literacy skills, the “inoculation” model of literacy acquisition, and what Mike Rose has forever dubbed “the myth of transience”) to rush in to do the work of operating assumptions like that of the administrator above.

Even if the definitions in question are local rather than national, Ritter makes a powerful case that increasing awareness of basic writing’s “disparate social histories” can also make the entire rhetorical construction of first-year composition available for rethinking (127). Ritter rightly notes that institutional difficulties with situating basic writing are bound up in the language used to construct the courses themselves. For example, Ritter begins by describing the varied experiences she’s had with different students designated “basic.” These writers, she argues, might be characterized as “lacking a larger social and intellectual context” (2); “hesitant,” “unpracticed” (3); “linguistically underprepared” and needing “pure grammar instruction but possessing ideas” (4). These are obviously descriptors Ritter is working against, but they prove impossible to extirpate entirely from her own characterizations of basic writers, as indicated by her insistence that “the largest problem facing the basic writing student—of past and present, at any institution—is how to become socially and intellectually integrated into the mainstream of his/her institution” (42). Like all such descriptors of basic writers in terms of what they “cannot or did not do” (Adler-Kassner and Harrington 15, qtd. on 26), this positions basic writers in terms of what they must do, rather than in terms of their difference, their unconventionality, or simply, as James Slevin might have said, their admission to an institution unprepared for them.

This is not to nitpick; it’s to show what degree of nomenclatural vigilance will be required to realize Ritter’s ambitious suggestion to rethink the curricular space of first-year composition. We might, Ritter argues, do away with “basic” and “mainstream” designations entirely in favor of three linked writing courses (named simply 1, 2, and 3), into and, crucially, among which students could move as best suits their needs. In lieu of any “pre” distinction, she asks that all writing courses be named “preparatory”—to and for the “local context of the individual college or university” (140). Such a shift would force institutions to articulate what it is, specifically, their writing course are an introduction to. Even better, I would argue, Ritter’s idea would facilitate the understanding that no writer is prepared for college—indeed, since writing is always bound up in its social and material contexts, no writer not at college could be. To this end, Ritter’s historicizing of basic writing becomes something more than a productive complication of our notion of the “Ivy League”; it is a way to think through the historicity of the “curricular designations and student stratification” our institutions make it easy for us to take for granted (142).

Works Cited

Adler-Kassner, Linda, and Susanmarie Harrington. Basic Writing as a Political Act: Public Conversations about Writing and Literacies. Cresskill: Hampton, 2002. Print.

Rose, Mike. “The Language of Exclusion: Writing Instruction at the University.” College English 47.4 (1985): 341-59. Print.

Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors and Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing. New York: Oxford UP, 1977. Print.

Slevin, James. Introducing English: Essays in the Intellectual Work of Composition. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2001. Print.

Soliday, Mary. The Politics of Remediation: Institutional and Student Needs in Higher Education. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2002. Print.

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