Basic Writing, circa 1987 1/23/17

Boise State University, 1987, I was learning to be a writing consultant in the Writing Center. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life as an English major. I was transitioning from undergrad to grad and struggling with that. I found a chance to be a teaching assistant to a visiting professor who was teaching four sections of basic writing. It was for credit, I believe, rather than pay.

Things you need to know.

  1. The prof had a classroom she shared with the other Basic Writing instructors filled with round tables and filing cabinets with some computers lining one wall. And a white board on the front wall and side wall. There were no windows.
  2. Filing cabinets held ALL student drafts, notes, writing, finished drafts, faculty feedback, grades, etc. Students could take parts home, but NOT the full file. This was truly the start of a portfolio grading system.
  3. The prof could type about 110 words a minute. She had made a LOT of money previously working part time in the corporate realm. But she was born into a professorial family and knew eventually she would end up doing this.
  4. She had a master’s degree in literature from a university in England and a degree in creative writing from Middlebury College/Breadloaf.
  5. I was in my first year of grad school having taking a couple of writing classes, but MOSTLY literature classes (with minors in history, math, and theater). I had only learned the theory and application of writing consultation a year earlier.
  6. I  was the TA for all four of her classes, two days out of three (MWF class, I attended two, as I recall). I was like an embedded writing consultant. Eventually, she put my in front of the class to teach some lessons, lead the class, see what it felt like.

The way she taught: having students write, reading their writing, giving feedback, checking to see common errors, teaching how to correct those errors, while students kept writing… that was so bizarre to me. I had, up to that point, never really been in classes that weren’t lecture by the prof, notes by the student, 2-3 tests and a final paper (or pretty much that).

What she taught me was that writing isn’t about talking about how writing is done, it’s doing writing, guiding writing, guiding change, guiding the acquisition of correct English usage. I never heard her say a harsh word to a student. I never heard her berate a student for turning in work late. She never criticized a student for failing to turn in work. She was always calm and explain that no work=no grade. Nothing she could do about that. She made it clear she was the guide for students, but learning was their choice. She could lay out all the info and ideas and tips and strategies in as clear a way as she could, but once that was handled, it was all on the students.

Of course, we lost some. But the ones who stuck it out really improved. I love the portfolio method–the way she managed it. She gave each student a short bit of feedback every week, then every unit she wrote them short notes related to the rubric for grading. It was remarkable. She was so hard on keyboards with her unnaturally fast typing, half way through the first term, they had to get a new keyboard. I was stunned by how quick she work, how smart she was, how she could look at a piece of writing, see patterns of error, give advice about what needed to be expanded or deleted. And did I say she was fast? I aspire to 65 words a minute.

She could carry on a conversation and type notes. It was amazing.

I saw real progress for students with that method. At that point I’d never read any composition theory; I didn’t really understand comp/rhet was a field; I had never heard of Mina Shaughnessy. But she knew all that. She’s come from a place (as an adjunct) where comp theory was deep in the curriculum and professionally available to all the teachers in the comp program. I learned a bit through osmosis. It kept me going for a long while and was, really, responsible for me leaving Boise State without a master’s in literature for Secondary Education and enrolling in a master’s program focused on composition for college.

Through my writing consultation at Boise State (which I kept doing a few hours a week) and my experiences with that prof for the whole academic year, I learned to become a better writer. Without the Writing Center, I would have never been able to get through college at all. Without the computer lab they opened, I would have never been able to get through college at all. Without my experience learning from that prof about BW pedagogy and applying some of that to my own writing, I never would have gotten through grad school at all, or to be honest, even tried.

She left at the end of that year to enroll in a PhD program in comp/rhetoric. I moved away from Idaho, too. She ended up at a university in Texas not too far from where I ended up getting my PhD. We kept in touch for awhile, but with a lot of academic lives, we got busy: she was working on getting tenure; I had course work to get through and a dissertation to write.

I will forever be glad I happened onto that experience in those BW classes–it colored, shaped, and made my life what it is. I told her that often before we lost connection. Also she was huge Star Trek fan and introduced me to trekkie life and fan fiction. What gifts I got. Live long and prosper.

P.S. The students wrote about whatever they wanted, but no general topics were allowed unless approved by the instructor, and she made sure they were personal and wacky, so she almost never had a plagiarism problem. She did something very like what we do: focus on the inherent expertivity that students carry with them–activities or experiences they have already valued and in which they developed as experts of a kind. She was super-ahead of her time. I was lucky, but I also knew when to take advantage of a learning situation.