The Council on Basic Writing and Teacher Empowerment: The First Equity

By William B. Lalicker

The great Mina Shaughnessy, one of the Founding Mothers of our professional praxis in basic writing, famously analyzed the programmatic assumptions that stigmatized Lalicker_Photos_TSA_JUN2018.jpgneophyte academic writers and that supported ineffective pedagogies. We remember how, in Errors and Expectations, she excoriated the institutions and practices that eschewed research (whether cognitive science or the compilation of teacher experience); she condemned ways of teaching that reflected the most sinister biases about race and class and that focused on the mere surface features of texts rather than on the intellectual lives of students challenged by written academic English. But it is easy to forget that Shaughnessy, while concerned with basic writing’s program structures and pedagogical methods, aimed a forceful focus on the agency of the teacher. The material conditions under which the teacher labored, the freedoms granted or exigencies exacted on the teacher, had (and have) a manifest effect on the success of the basic writing student. Shaughnessy’s Errors and Expectations was about helping student writers mainly by helping teachers: helping teachers to see basic writing students in a new light, and encouraging teachers to trust and apply their own teacherly knowledge. As Shaughnessy said in her introduction describing her approach,

Sometimes I offer actual lessons; sometimes I recommend a method or strategy…and at others, I merely urge a fresh perspective on an old problem. The teacher therefore who is searching for a tightly and fully structured writing program will not find it here. This book is concerned with the orientations and perceptions of teachers in relation to a specific population of student writers. It assumes that programs are not answers to the learning problems of students but that teachers are and that, indeed, good teachers create good programs…(6)

But have good teachers been afforded the agency to create good programs? In the four decades since Shaughnessy wrote, we have found the freedoms of the basic writing teacher consistently restricted, the exigencies regularly exacerbated, and the respect for teacher knowledge continually attacked by administrators, public pundits, legislators. One could argue that there’s been great progress in the acceptance of program structures that recognize the burgeoning body of research into what helps basic writers write. When I wrote “A Basic Introduction to Basic Writing” in 2000, and even in the subsequent decade when that article was republished and anthologized, the great Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) model for mainstreaming basic writers was, I believe, not much known beyond the Community College of Baltimore County; now this highly successful basic writing model is practically a field of study itself, with conferences on ALP, textbooks based on it, 296 colleges and universities using it (ALP Schools List) at last count—Peter Dow Adams, ALP’s guiding light and paterfamilias, is like Abraham founding a tribe for the ages. Unfortunately, even programmatic improvements and respected research in basic writing have not resulted in the empowerment of basic writing teachers, who do their jobs in ever more scholarly and productive ways while still largely being denied the choice of employment options beyond part-time and non-tenure track status. And thus it is high time to shift our focus again on empowering basic writing teachers.

Fortunately, the Council on Basic Writing has consistently focused on empowering teachers through scholarly and practical approaches to basic writing. Karen Uehling’s history of the Council on Basic Writing (originally the Conference on Basic Writing) makes clear that creating a community of mutually supportive practitioners was a central step in the origin of this professional organization; she references early chairs of the organization, notes the diversity of intellectual contexts that basic writing teachers represented, and emphasizes “the organization’s democratic nature” (8).

The Council on Basic Writing has a long history of activism and social justice in defense of basic writing students, with Susan Naomi Bernstein providing the impetus behind the CBW 2008 Social Justice Statement. Bernstein notes that “systematic disparities in educational conditions for our students enrolled in our basic writing courses across the United States present substantive roadblocks to full matriculation to college”; and while her emphasis is on conditions for basic writing students, she goes on to follow Shaughnessy’s example by connecting the injustice to students to its compound effect in the systematic inequities to basic writing teachers: “It is recognized that many basic writing educators work under considerable challenges, including substandard wages, large course loads, and lack of sustainable employment and job security”—but she holds out hope that programmatic change that creates equity for students will lead to equity for teachers: “it may be argued that improved conditions for students will inevitably lead to more equitable circumstances for teachers.” Ten years later, we can see that, though programs have improved for many students, we are still seeking equity for most teachers.

And as recently as March, 2018, at the annual Conference on College Composition and Communication, the full-day CBW Workshop opened with a segment on “Reconsidering Graduate Education and Teacher Training in Basic Writing Contexts,” an active presentation and dialogue facilitated by Darin Jensen and Christie Toth based on their article “Responses to the TYCA Guidelines for Preparing Teachers of English in the Two-Year College” (TYCA is the Two-Year College Association), part of a September, 2017 special issue of TETYC focused on the preparation and professionalization of two-year college faculty. As a large proportion of basic writing teachers are two-year college faculty, it’s clear that agency and empowerment for basic writing teachers remains a topic of prime importance. In the workshop, Jensen and Toth specifically focused on preparation for basic writing faculty—a faculty category whose heavy teaching workload (generally teaching more classes per term than their four-year college counterparts) means a sometime denial of scholarly opportunities and moments for reflection on innovative practices. The final segment of the CBW Workshop was a discussion, led by William Lalicker and Wendy Olson, continuing work on a Statement of Basic Writing Principles originally generated as a draft in the CBW Workshop of 2017 led by Michael Hill, and equity for basic writing faculty remains an ongoing issue as the members of the CBW continue to work toward a final draft (see Klages-Bombich). Clearly, we still have work to do when it comes to basic writing teacher equity.

In fact, as an activist for justice in higher education, I think justice and the provision of agency for teachers is the first condition for righting some of the wrongs visited upon students, especially basic writing students. In my chapter “The Five Equities: How to Achieve a Progressive Writing Program Within a Department of English,” I make faculty hiring practices the first equity. (For the whole chapter-length argument, go to https://wac.colostate.edu/books/minefield and see pages 293-320.) Although faculty of many disciplines, and even teachers of the more traditionally prestigious areas of English Studies (such as literary criticism), are suffering from a neoliberal trend that treats teaching work as piecework rather than a profession—with the shrinkage of fully professional tenure-track positions that support academic freedom and thus teaching innovation—basic writing teachers and two-year college teachers have long borne a second-class faculty status, with inimical results for their students and for our field. To summarize my “Five Equities” argument: rank and tenureability are generally tied at least partly to scholarship; scholarly production represents the prestige currency of most institutions; this prestige currency, and the policy influence that accompanies it, means power in the discussions that determine officially approved and resource-supported program conditions—that is, what we teach, how we teach, who we can teach. Basic writing needs policy influence to enact progressive program structures like the Accelerated Learning Program; to keep the number of students per class section small enough to encourage teacher-student interaction; to include support services for second language students; and for a host of needs that determine student success. And in the competition for resources, if (for instance) the literature faculty is largely tenured and promoted, producing scholarship and voting in policymaking committees in the department and division and college, but basic writing faculty are mainly part-time freeway flyers without the right, the time, or the reward system to do that policymaking, lit will get the resources and policies, and basic writing—our basic writing students—will be stuck with leftovers. Justice for basic writers requires attention to justice for basic writing faculty, this first equity.

It’s not just that basic writing teachers (or composition teachers, or two-year college teachers, or non-tenure track teachers: choose the ingredients of your Venn diagram where we all meet!) usually don’t receive the professorial perquisites—time and promotion for research, support for conference travel, even the recognition for innovative teaching—that literature faculty, or college faculty generally, can take for granted. It’s that denying the first equity denies the value of teaching, of basic writing, of basic writers themselves.

Forty-plus years after Shaughnessy, thirty-plus years after the Wyoming Resolution championing part-time and graduate faculty rights (Robertson et al.), almost three years after “The Indianapolis Resolution: Responding to Twenty-First-Century Exigencies/Political Economies of Composition Labor” (Cox et al.), we still haven’t, in our programs, adopted their principles of equity for writing faculty, in particular basic writing faculty and non-tenure-track faculty. It’s not necessary that our institutions all make our lives easy, or that our departments and divisions suddenly become model employers; it’s only necessary, as a start, that the material conditions under which we labor, the intellectual freedoms with which we make our teaching work for our students, match those of English faculty for whom writing is not a central concern. It matters that the first equity recognized in our striving for better basic writing is equity for basic writing teachers. It matters that basic writing teachers achieve the first equity because they do the most challenging and most important intellectual work in higher education, for students whose intellectual empowerment through their ability to communicate effectively in the dialect of authority has the most transformative potential for themselves, for the workforce, and for our larger culture.

The irony is that we’re in an era when the supposedly traditional liberal arts (never mind that our field originates in the high-tradition of classical Greek rhetoric) such as literature are institutionally sidelined, as some strain to see the relevance of these disciplines when all that matters is employability in a job-insecure age. Frank Bruni’s recent New York Times essay summarizes and analyzes a Chronicle of Higher Education special report with the unacademic gibe, “History is on the ebb. Philosophy is on the ropes. And comparative literature? Please”—making the point that these high-prestige traditional majors aren’t what employers need (3). And although I might argue for the value of the liberal arts and against an anti-literature reconstruction some would see in the futurism of the Chronicle report (see, for instance, Selingo), nobody is disputing the value of writing. Bruni’s essay is called “Aristotle’s Wrongful Death”; I would argue that we should keep Aristotle the philosopher alive, but also Aristotle the rhetorician, a guiding light for our student rhetoricians in our basic writing classes. In fact, every employer survey seems to put written communication at the top of the list for academic skills that employers want (see, for instance, Hart Research Associates). Yet the institutional assumption is that literary criticism (where it still exists) requires a stable, scholarly tenure-track (where it still exists) set of teachers. Well, good for those lit teachers. But it is time to confront the injustice that teachers of writing—teachers who share the most practical and job-applicable discipline in the broader world of English Studies—and especially basic writing teachers, are still not granted equity for our vital calling. Let’s apply Shaughnessy’s visionary emphasis on empowering teachers to the current conditions and real needs that basic writing, with its focus on effective written communication in so many applications in our culture, can provide in the maturing 21st century. We can start by focusing on the agency of basic writing teachers as the first equity, the necessary priority.

About the author: William B. Lalicker (Ph.D., University of Washington, Seattle) is Professor of English at West Chester University. A former co-chair of the Council on Basic Writing, his publications include research on structural equity and labor justice in writing programs; basic writing; and transnational and intercultural composition pedagogies.

Works Cited

“ALP Schools List.” http://www.alp-deved.org/alp-schools-directory/ . Accessed 1 June 2018.

Bernstein, Susan Naomi. “CBW’s 2008 Social Justice Statement.”

https://bwe.ccny.cuny.edu/7.1%20Social%20Justice%20Initiative%20for%20BW.html.

Cox, Anicca et al. “The Indianapolis Resolution: Responding to Twenty-First-Century Exigencies/Political Economies of Composition Labor.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 68, no. 1, 2016, pp. 38-

Hart Research Associates. “It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success.” Liberal Education, vol. 99, no. 2, 2013. American Association of Colleges and Universities. www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/it-takes-more-major-riorities-college-learning-and.

Jensen, Darin, and Christie Toth, coeditors. “Symposium: Responses to the TYCA Guidelines for Preparing Teachers of English in the Two-Year College.” TETYC, vol.. 45, no. 1, 2017, pp. 29-46.

Klages-Bombich, Marisa. “Workshop Redux: Reconsidering Graduate Education and Teacher Training in Basic Writing Contexts.” Council on Basic Writing Blog. 15 March 2018. https://cbwblog.wordpress.com/2018/03/15/workshop-redux-reconsidering-graduate-education -and-teacher-training-in-basic-writing-contexts/

Lalicker, William B. “A Basic Introduction to Basic Writing: A Baseline and Five Alternatives.” BWe: Basic Writing e-journal, vol. 2, no. 2, 2000,. http://www.asu.edu/clas/english/composition/cbw.

Lalicker, William B. “The Five Equities: How to Achieve a Progressive Writing Program within a Department of English” A Minefield of Dreams: Triumphs and Travails of Independent Writing Programs, edited by Justin Everett and Cristina Hanganu-Bresch, UP of Colorado, WAC  Clearninghouse, https://wac.colostate.edu/books/minefield

Robertson, Linda R., Sharon Crowley, and Frank Lentricchia. “The Wyoming Conference Resolution Opposing Unfair Salaries and Working Conditions for Post-Secondary Teachers of Writing.” College English, vol. 49, no. 3, 1987, pp. 274-80.

Selingo, Jeffrey J. “It’s Time to End College Majors as We Know Them.” Chronicle of Higher Education, 20 May 2018, www.chronicle.com/article/It-s-Time-to-End-College/243448.

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

Uehling, Karen S. “The Conference on Basic Writing, 1980-2005.” The Bedford Bibliography for Teachers of Basic Writing, second edition, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Gregory R. Glau, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005, pp. 8-23.

Author: darinljensen

I am a writer and a teacher who is interested in issues of class and social justice.

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