Basic writing resources 2/14/17

Happy Basic Writing Day! I’m just declaring that today is also Basic Writing Day besides being Valentine’s Day. Why not? There doesn’t seem to be a declared Basic Writing Day, so I’m just saying. For this year anyhow.

There’s so much that the first Mutnick article refers to beyond Shaughnessy (and including Halsted and Otte & Mlynarczyk), that I thought I’d put a bunch of the resources here for you in one spot. When you decide what you might like to explore on your own about basic writing, these will be handy places for you to visit.

Rebecca Moore Howard’s bibliographies linked to her book, Writing Matters, are always a great place to visit to get an overall scope of articles. Howard’s bibliographies are extensive, so be prepared to get distracted:

The logo on the page of CompPile.

The logo on the page of CompPile.

I like this place too: CompPile. There are any number of areas of you could find articles about from this place. Many of my comp/rhet friends have worked on this, including the writing of the Norton Field Guide to Writing, Rich Haswell. It’s a reputable site to explore writing studies:

You know the Journal of Basic Writing, of course, but here’s the link just the same (always good to bookmark this one):

There’s also the Council on Basic Writing Share:

And here’s the basic writing e-journal:

And for looking beyond the specifics of basic writing, because there are great articles about BW in another journals in rhet/comp. It pays to know the journals in the field and have a broad perspective when doing research in a field. The WPA pages are instrumental is defining our field from an administrative perspective–with loads of important documents and policy statements (as does NCTE/CCCCs). If you ever undertake administrative roles, this is the group to get involved with–there is no better. Here’s the list of journals on their page:

With all of these resources, you’ll never need to worry that you’re out of the loop when it comes to BW or writing studies in general. Finding time to read all this is another story. That’s something every single one of us will worry about us regularly. One way to tackle such a history and plethora of scholarship, pick a small topic and then: start exploring; take your time; stick to it; it will take time; but you’ll have time because you’ll make time. That’s how scholarly endeavor works; it’s how eudaimonia works; it’s how life-long learning works.






JBW matters a lot 1/27/17

Once I presented at a 4Cs with Gary Tate and Ira Shor. OMG. I was so intimidated and thrilled and overwhelmed. The room was PACKED. I usually gave conference presentations to myself, my co-panelists, and two friends in the audience. (I will eventually circle around to JBW toward the end–it’s all connected.)

I talked about what it was like to use my comp/rhet college teacher experience in a 2nd grade classroom trying to implement not only writing across the curriculum, but standards-based learning. I also talked about, I think, what I’d taken from K-12 writing scholarship and used in college classrooms when I got back to that. I focused a lot on race, class, and gender when I taught writing back then because we all have some of that. And I care about clarity.

None of those three things are easy to talk about with anyone, let alone 2nd graders. I look back on that year as one that was audacious. I had some nerve: no formal education background, experiences, or classes in college (maybe two about 6-7 years prior, but I’m not sure I even finished that semester!). I had been teaching mostly for the last six years in college classrooms and studying comp/rhet (my MA focus and some of my PhD focus) and literature (another PhD foci). So what did I do when I found myself teaching second grade? I eventually set up every subject like a college class. The principle required a lesson plan for every subject for every day, submitted each Monday morning. Like I ever stuck to that. BUT still I had to do it, so I did. It was kind of fun once I got into the rhythm of it–it was like a giant year-long syllabus and schedule.

I included parts of college texts for the kids to read because their texts were 30 years old (small, Catholic school with no money–the social studies text was the oldest, printed in 1958). I had to copy those texts at my own expense because we only got 500 pages of copy paper a month to use, but we did have a copier AND a mimeograph, so we had options for use. I had been using John Trimbur’s Call to Write as a text in my college writing classes, so I just used that for the kids. I taught them the SAME things as my college students, but I took all year because they were little humans, and we had to go slower. Instead of reading kid books published in NYC about kids in NYC, we wrote our own stories about kids in Texas and “published” those for each other. We had guest speakers and artists drop in from the university and local businesses. We had open “house” every Friday afternoon when we’d invite community helpers to visit our classroom for popcorn and an MGM musical so we could do social studies collaboratively with the people who actually were community helpers (the focus for 2nd grade social studies). We read 19th century British authors together and I read several things aloud to them. We spent three weeks on “The Lady of Shalott” (1832) by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. We’d read one stanza and look up every unfamiliar word, post those on our poetry word wall. Next day, we’d re-read the first stanza and then add in the next. We also created an illustration of everything we “saw” in the poem on a white board with multi-color dry erase markers. Everyone got to write on the “story” board and contribute to the poetry word wall. Next day, three stanzas. I always read aloud, and then we listened to Dame Judi Dench read the same stanzas. I brought in big art books with Victorian paintings depicting the poem at the end of our time reading. The students were riveted by the poem, by Dame Judi’s voice, by the story, adn stunned by the paintings. Their writing in response was awesome–at first it was all summary, but by the end we were doing higher level work–synthesis, imitation, creation. OMG. Seriously, like the best teaching I’ve ever done in my life.

At the start of the year, after “Back to School Night,” several parents were asking for the principal’s head on a platter–complaints to the diocese were a pretty regular thing for about a month. I was unorthodox. I was too hard. I expected too much. I was asking them to write all the time. I required too much reading. I wanted to go through too much math, too quickly. I assigned homework (like: bring in your family grocery list, or any other writing you could find around the house; make a list of three things you talked about with family members; write three sentences describing a wall in your home; ask everyone in your home to say one thing about Then they got into the swing of things. It was a remarkable year. Everything was connected to writing, and everything was connected to race, class, and gender.

As soon as that became clear–that I was rebel scum and part of the resistance–more complaints to the diocese and the principal AND the assistant principal, too. But they weren’t going to fire me mid-year, I hoped. I never got a sense they had my back exactly, but I every Monday, I wasn’t fired, so there was that.

And here’s what I know: the kids were all paying attention, working hard, handling themselves, doing writing in every subject, behaving in class, in line, at recess, at lunch, nobody had untied shoes, no one messed with anyone’s space, no name calling, all respect and support, and reading like college kids: for content and as writers. We were kicking it, and the kids knew it. The parents were just afraid. I get it. New is weird, new is hard, new is not proven, new is uncomfortable. The worst part for the parents might have been that I was this wild thing doing unconventional things with their children’s education, and I was also the one who was going to teach them the Roman Catholic Catechism they needed to make their First Communion. It was a lot for a parent used to traditional teaching to take in, even though I’d taught Saturday Catechism for four years to fourth graders while I was in high school. Also, I disallowed desks in rows in the classroom (that freaked out everybody, including my colleagues). THAT was really strange.

JBW helped me a lot back then. I had access to this journal through my subscription to NCTE/CCC and through my university, too. I read these because I didn’t know any better. Turns out JBW made a world of difference in the way I taught those second graders (I know you all can see that now that you’ve dipped your toes in the JBW waters), and when I got back to teaching college, I was a different teacher.

I was fond of telling the little kids that there was no real difference between them and college students, except college students could drive away. We’d laugh and then be all bowed up about what we were doing, but what I was really doing was teaching basic writing across the curriculum with a theme: race, class, gender. We were little radicals, moving and shaking up that little school. We changed the conversation from “if I get to college” to “when I go to college”–for some of the students whose parents had never set foot on a college campus, this was huge. We even toured a college campus–stayed all day, visited four academic departments for snacks and mini-lectures (and a hands on demo class in the dance dept.), took an architectural tour of the campus with a design prof, ran around on the football field and got pom-poms and programs, visited admissions where we got pencils and book covers, ate lunch with a group of college students on the lawn. After lunch the college kids played frisbee, kickball, and tag with my little kids. We were only about a half hour from the college campus, but most of the kids fell asleep on the drive back to our school. It was an entire win.

Like I said, best teaching I’d ever done ever. And JBW helped me. They didn’t intend that, I know, but it was the one place I could find gentle, kind, and rigorous thought on teaching to students not quite ready for what many consider college writing. It was surprisingly perfect. As we dig around more in JBW, don’t think its only impact on you will be as a teacher of college writers or a college student–if you let it get into you, you’ll see it’s about writing for anyone and everyone.

Perhaps, it’s not just about basic writing, or how it worked to guide my odd year-long journey. Maybe it’s a journal that’s just right for everyone. At the very least it does this: it advocates for a kind of education that breaks down traditional barriers. Maybe that’s why it matters so much.

[if I can find my 2nd grade class picture, I’ll add it in here later]

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.

Ain’t nothing basic about it… 1/9

In my next post, I’ll write about the troubling history of the word “basic” when applied to writing classes and what came before. For today, I want to explain the name of my blog.

This thing--I sort of like it.

This thing–I sort of like it.

I saw this “meme” on Pinterest and it piqued my interest because it struck me as funny. I knew that a new definition of “basic” had become current–see the Urban Dictionary for details: “An adjective used to describe any person, place, activity involving obscenely obvious behavior, dress, action. Unsophisticated. Transparent motives.”

I quibble with the use of basic as applied to writing and to life, for a lot of reasons–one has to do with this largely negative definition. I suggest most basic writing classes should be called “Introduction to Composition” or “Introduction to College Writing.” You know. Like how they do it in Math Departments, calling the class before College Algebra, “Introduction to Algebra.” No stigma there. I took that class. (A few times, actually.)

Another reason I don’t like this current definition is that it belittles the obvious. Sometimes the obvious is perfection. I certainly don’t value vaguery or the obscure or the ambiguous for their own sakes’; I like to work straightforward, straight up, and honor straight talk. In my attempt to own “basic” again, I’m saying “basic” pirates are good enough to be pirates. One doesn’t need to be spectacular or extraordinary to be a pirate. AND I like to think pirates have it going on when it comes to principles of higher education.

Check out these phrases from Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl:

  • Take what you can; give nothing back.
  • Well! I think this has been a very good experience for all of us, eh? Spiritually? Ecumenically? Grammatically?
  • The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can’t do.
  • Keep to the code. // Aye the Code.
  • Any man who falls behind is left behind.
  • Every crew member is to have an equal share in any treasure found.
  • Knowingly targeting and sinking other pirate ships is strictly forbidden.
  • Everyone who invokes the right of parlay shall be granted parlay: temporary protection while brought before an enemy (captain) to “negotiate” without being attacked until the parlay is complete.
  • There’s the Code to consider. // The Code? You’re pirates. Hang the Code, and hang the rules! They’re more like guidelines anyway.

Is there anyway we can see these as applicable to the best practices of higher education? Think about it.

In the meantime, please check out our own codes. These will be listed on the page, The Pirate Code. These are guidelines by which 21st century writing curriculum should be based (created by writers, writing teachers, writing professors, and writing program administrators and librarians). All worth knowing.

Writing Program Administrators’ Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition (if this is what students should know after Freshman year–then these are outcomes we need to be aware of when crafting curriculum for “basic” writing classes):

Framework for Success in Post-Secondary Writing

With these two documents in hand, you will have a solid foundation that will bridge the gap between those who have and those who don’t–and if our students “don’t have” we need to get them in a position where they can “take all they can; and give nothing back.” Approaching the business of the Pedagogy of Basic Writing like pirates is powerful. (Like the best of the romanticized pirates–and open source/open access/copyleft folks–more on this later.)

So reclaim the word basic for your semester of piracy–every pirate equally shares in booty. We’re going to own “basic,” rethink it, revise it, and rework it, until it makes sense for the 21st century online, on paper, in person, and any way we like. Know the guidelines that govern the best we can do for our students who could use a little of the chutzpah romanticized pirates have. We’ll be epic this term. Yo ho.