If you write, you’re a writer 1/18/17

What’s in a Name? (original post from 5 Sept. 2011–with a few changes here and there)

“Basic Writing” has staying power. At least for about 40 years now. Have we made much progress as a field, as a sub-field anyway? It seems not so much when I read about the history of basic writing. Still a plain of contention with armies raging. I am more than troubled that this is so.

I have always been struck by the naming game of basic writing. I went through the naming game when I first arrived at AUM. Our pre-composition course was called “developmental writing.” I changed it to “basic writing” after the first year. Now we are toying with pre-composition (like pre-calculus)–the course one might need to take before composition, to be more prepared for college writing (whatever that means–and you’ll see why I say that later). Not everyone I’ve chatted with about the re-naming is thrilled. Some are outright dismayed, but most of the newest teachers to the profession I work with are digging it. Why? No idea.

[We never made that name change. It just didn’t feel right. AND so it turns out that a BETTER name is “Introduction to College Writing” with Composition 1 and 2 becoming College Writing 1 and College Writing 2. Now that feels right.]

Personally, it appeals to me because I took a basic writing class when it was named “remedial writing”–actually, it might have been called, “English grammar” or something along those lines, but it was a non-credit course in the remedial part of the composition program. I learned a lot from that class, such as: there are about four ways I need to use a comma that I should remember–the rest I can look up or figure out depending on the style required by a particular teacher or field. I also learned that a topic sentence should be the first of a paragraph followed by 5-8 sentences that deal specifically with the topic and one transitional sentence at the end to ease the reader to the next paragraph. Additionally, I learned that look alike/sound alike words are the bane of many a writer’s existence (including mine). I was one of 75 students in this remedial English grammar class. We did exercises in a programmed workbook and turned in three paragraphs all term–I received grades but no feedback on drafts, so why read the final comments? The paper was over. Of what use were the teachers comments two weeks after I had turned in the paper? There were no conferences, no peer reviews, no discussion, no thinking, no anything but the content we were supposed to digest, and in three efforts we would turn our newly vast content knowledge into prose that was elegant, eloquent, and effective. Right.

And when I got my credit for that class, I went onto English 101, Freshman Comp 1, which I immediately hated and which I barely passed (I was given a C… I probably earned a D). I remember going to this class–sometimes. I don’t think I was regularly in attendance, but I wonder if it mattered. I believe we used the Little, Brown handbook and reviewed grammar rules and wrote more paragraphs–about what? No idea. Admittedly, it’s been a very long time ago that this happened, but I have had reason to consider my composition experiences as that is what I teach and have taught for a lot long time (and created curriculum most decidedly NOT like that I was in the midst of as a freshman).

My Freshman Comp 2 came a few years later. Because I was so turned off by Comp 1, I kept avoiding the second part until it was just getting silly. It was a literature and comp class. I felt like a total idiot because there was so much assumed that the students knew that I didn’t: plot, setting, motif, character, and so on. I never got any of that in any English class ever. I avoided that learning whenever I could in high school (yuck). I loved to read and that saved me, but the analysis of literature and writing about it–not working for me. But I had a patient teacher. When I visited him in office hours (the first smart thing I did in college), I confessed that I was entirely lost and felt distant from the text and the class discussion. I read the stories and poems and could get the literal meaning, occasionally, but the deeper stuff was too deep for me. He said, read everything twice.

Honest. I wanted to drop. Read everything TWICE? I was already mystified; how was that going to work? Me + mystified x 2 = me still mystified.

I tried it. What else could I do? I was going to have to take it sometime. Much better. I read once for the literal meaning, then I read again for the figurative meanings (and so much for my social life). I still felt like I wasn’t reading it for the meaning the teacher wanted me to get, but I was seeing metaphor, image, and symbol in what I was reading and the literature text about analysis wasn’t nearly as awful by the end of the term. I consistently got Cs and one B on my papers (no conferences, no feedback on drafts, no peer reviews, and little discussion), but I got an A on my final exam. I kept that final exam for a long time as it was a triumph for me. I compared archetypes of male antagonists in literature and film. It was loads of fun.

I went on to take five more literature classes and finally became an English major (it was a long and winding road to be sure, but I got there). I ended up with seven Elizabethan lit classes (six were Shakespeare), about seven in British lit of the 18th and 19th centuries, with others mixed in to get my BA in English with an emphasis in British literature (at my final university, an English major could pick an emphasis in world lit, Brit lit, or American lit, or creative writing). It was as a junior, though, that I learned how to write beyond the academic–thanks to the Boise State University Writing Center, some remarkable teachers, and peers. My real writing life began there (and that’s a whole ‘nother story). When I learned to tutor, that really changed the game. The rest of my life was set at that time, though I didn’t know it until recently.

Perhaps it sounds as if I am disparaging my early training in comp; I’m not. I’m just owning it, and I’m owning the fact that I try to teach and lead in directions that don’t go in those same ways, or at the very least, I try to offer more options than I had. And more importantly, I see comp from the perspective of a non-English major (the majority, ahem, of students in freshman writing classes).

So what’s in a name? A lot. I was a remedial writer, and I knew it. I couldn’t write, not because I didn’t have anything to say, but because I didn’t know how to write what others expected of me at the academy. Academic discourse? WTH? College was alien to most of my family, so I couldn’t get help there. I assumed I was just born as a non-writer (NOT a non-storyteller–big difference) and that college might not be for me. When I got over that–with a lot of help from others–I realized that I had named myself early on (as others had named me–“not really gifted at writing,” “basic writer,” “developmental writer,” “remedial” and more. And those names dictated my path initially. How could I have known any different?

What I think we need to consider in 2017 [you’ll see I wrote this a LONG time ago intially, but all this is still true] is how we name others, students, writers, and/or peers when we undertake any endeavor. When we hear something enough times, it’s easy to believe. You’d think a bunch of folks who were so involved in how we say things, the power of language, the danger of language mis-used, highly educated rhetoricians all, would be seriously aware of and uptight over how we still name emerging writers, colleagues, programs, classes. People who strive at writing are not basic, nor remedial, or developmental; they are writers.

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