Theoretical Perspectives for Developmental Education

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Last year I was just beginning to think about how I myself had internalized and was struggling with the deficit model which informs, still, so much of our work in basic writing and developmental education. This model, which identifies students according to what they “lack” in terms of preparation or skills or abilities, leads us to approach our students as exactly that, lacking. We see them, meet them for the first time even, already seeped in assumptions about all that they cannot do. I did not imagine that I would do this. I did not even believe I was doing it at the time I was doing it! But I kept saying things to Tom Reynolds, my colleague and Co-Director of the GC Writing Program, “these students are not ‘real’ basic writers!” “These students are not at all like the basic writers I had out East.” And even, “where are the ‘basic’ writers around here?” Why was I always so surprised? Because, the undercurrent here, the subtext, the unspoken theory about basic writers and developmental education that I was implicitly buying into, was that the primary characteristic of our students is their lack, is their deficit.

We know this underlies the institutional impulse to separate them out. In fact, the same institutional logic separates us from the institution. We, as faculty, have also been diagnosed as lacking in the university culture and have existed in the sometimes precarious margins; because we foreground our teaching and invest time and attention in our classes, it is assumed that we cannot also be real scholars, our research cannot be as rigorous or as productive or as legitimate. Because the university economy values the “tangible” output of research over the less tangible production of quality learning and teaching, the forms of our labor have historically been less valued, if not invisible, and sometimes even called into question altogether. As Deborah Mutnik (1996) said of basic writing, which is also applicable to developmental education in general:

The disempowerment of Basic Writing [developmental education] teachers has the same socioeconomic roots as the alienation and despair of many Basic Writing [developmental education] students. Marginalized teachers play an important role in any analysis of academic borders, especially the low status of Basic Writing [developmental education] classes, frequently staffed by part-time, temporary, and female faculty. (pp. 29-30)

For the faculty at GC, one of our projects during the past year has been to consider the various theories underlying both pedagogy and scholarship in developmental education. Because many of us come to this work from disciplinary affiliations, rather than an originary grounding in developmental theory and pedagogy, we have been interested, in both local and national discussions, to flesh out these questions: is there a dominant theory or philosophical framework informing our work as developmental educators? Has that theory been clearly and explicitly articulated? Or have we worked without the benefit of a shared, visible conceptual framework? Furthermore, of what use is a theory? What value is there in claiming and consciously adopting a theoretical framework? My own comments above show me that what Donald Graves, a composition scholar, once said in passing is indeed true: “You can’t get out of bed without a theory.” Or, in my case, you can’t step into your basic writing class without one, even if you don’t know you’ve got it. In other words, theories are not just formal clusters of abstract statements distinct from us, but also less formally shaped or articulated beliefs and ideas that guide our actions.

Regardless of whether we are aware of it or not, some underlying assumptions, some narratives, guide our everyday actions as teachers and writers. I was reacting to and acting on larger cultural narratives, or theories, about remedial students, about underprepared students and about what we should be teaching them, about what they need or lack, and how to best go about providing that. I did not consciously adopt that narrative. I did not intentionally devalue or demean my students and their abilities and potential. In fact, in other contexts—at a presentation last year, in our teacher development meetings within GC’s writing program, in discussions with people who questioned my decision to leave a doctoral-granting English department to come here to GC—I was actively contesting that narrative. Still, my teaching was affected by it, or at least my thinking about my teaching was. I was considering whether or not to abandon what I knew about how writing happens and how writers develop simply because of the institutional, disciplinary, and cultural categorizing, labeling, and separating of these students.

I also came to those questions and to that narrative of my students and their deficit because of my reading in basic writing and developmental education. Or maybe because there is something called Basic Writing, separate from something else called Composition. Even that separation suggested to me that something was going to be qualitatively different here. I also came to it through discussions with people about what they do in their General College writing and writing intensive (WI) courses. That is, I came to adopt part of the theory not through inquiry into the larger ideas or formally articulated beliefs, but through looking at people’s practices. Practice itself has come to be central to both basic writing and developmental education. On the one hand, that is a signal difference that I want to value because I believe that, especially when pedagogy is at the center of our research, it is important to be aware of the context where our work takes place, to be attentive to the different demands, pressures, and realities we encounter in our institutions and our classrooms. However, as my own blindness above indicates, and as Stephen North (1987) observes of Practitioner Inquiry, it is often fundamentally “reactive: The Practitioner needs to decide what to do as a means to an end determined by someone else, imposed from outside, beyond the bounds of the teacher’s immediate relationship with the students” (quoted in Horner & Lu, 1999, p. 21). Practitioners are concerned with

what has worked, is working or might work in teaching, doing or learning writing. However, practitioners needs to know what to do, not necessarily why. This bedrock pragmatism is habit-forming. Practitioners tend to become habitually impatient with complicated causal analyses, which in turn makes them relatively cavalier about such analyses, even for the purposes of inquiry. (North, quoted in Horner & Lu, p. 21)

I think North’s (1987) and Graves’ point here is that we may come to some actions without much reflection. We may come to an action without any consideration of alternatives. We encounter the action as “natural,” as “just the way things are” or “the way they need to be.” This has been part of the wrestling within and in relation to composition since its beginnings: the seeming quandary of studying and theorizing, of critically inquiring into that, writing, which has appeared to be or has been culturally and institutionally understood to be “self-evident,” “natural,” or inscrutable, but transmissible. The assumption in this chapter, then, is that we profit from stopping to take stock of–or, as Gramsci (1987) suggests, to critically inventory–our choices and the frameworks that inform them. One of my aims, then, is to identify and critically reflect on the beliefs that guide pedagogy in my own teaching as well as those that animate or constitute what is called “Basic Writing.” Critical reflection requires, of course, attending to the specific contexts (i.e., social, disciplinary, institutional, cultural, material, historical) within which theories are shaped and operate. A second related aim is to develop a partial map of the field and to orient myself as teacher and scholar, within that landscape. Obviously, I hope to invite others, new and veteran writing and developmental education teachers alike, to orient themselves as well, to make conscious choices about where we are and where we would like to be, as well as how we are going to get there.

I want to find an answer to that question I found that I kept posing, “how should my teaching of writing change in light of the fact that I am teaching ‘basic’ or ‘developmental’ writing?” Now I have in some ways moved to explore and critique the assumptions underlying the question itself. At least in terms of how I was initially, tentatively answering it: my teaching should somehow become more “basic” was my intuitive, practitioner’s response, a response informed by theories I hadn’t examined or consciously adopted, in fact, by theories I was contesting on other fronts. A theory that was also contested by my students who showed themselves, in multiple ways, to be far more capable than I had expected or given them credit for—from producing a public newsletter for a nonprofit agency in our community service writing course, to analyzing our readings, to engaging in rich and lively discussions about the complicated issues and texts we were working with. In other words, in various contexts and in multiple ways, my students behaved and spoke as writers, they did the work of real writers; they did not behave or perform in ways our culture has come to associate with basic or remedial or pre-writers. What was missing in my early formulation of the question was attention to both the macro and the micro, as well as the inevitable and mutually-determining relationship between the two. This attention to macro and micro strikes me as essential. As my own ignorance demonstrates, when we work without an awareness of both the macro and micro and the relationship between them, we are doomed to miss part of the picture. As Hull, Rose, Losey Fraser, and Castellano (1991) put it,

moving between the micro-level, close examination of oral and written communication and the macro-level investigations of society and culture–seeking connections between language, cognition and context. Without the microperspective, one runs the risk of losing sight of the particulars of behavior; without the macroperspective, one runs the risk of missing the social and cultural logic of that behavior. (pp. 321-322)

Thus, my research began in answer to a now complex question and began as a longitudinal case study of writers as they move through their university careers. I collected all of the writings done in the first year from seven students who will meet with me for interviews, and continue to pass on to me their writings, teachers’ responses, and the assignments that prompted those texts. I was also curious to hear from the students about what they believed enabled and fostered their intellectual and writerly abilities. My hunch was, of course, that development is a much more messy and nonlinear, recursive process than we, in our composition courses, our WI courses, and the institution itself, generally allow for, and I was interested in gaining insight into how we might more effectively work with that mess, how we might learn from these students’ writings and reflection in order to fully support and not fight against development in our classrooms.

My future research aims, then, to synthesize or create a conversation that connects questions of pedagogical theory and pedagogy practice. First, I think the question of how we teach basic writing is still an important one. Because of the assumptions about our work and our students, because of the pressures on us and our students to “perform,” because of the demands placed on us and our students to assume the position (e.g., of successful generic student, of successful generic writer, of effective teaching of an entity known as, but not really known at all, academic discourse), we are not free—as sometimes I was while housed in the department of English—to experiment without attention to boundaries and borders and external expectations and pressures. Even should I choose to challenge those, I must acknowledge them and consider how such a challenge will empower or support my students, because I am always aware that their position in our university and its culture is still seen as marginal, is still understood as provisional, and is still identified by lacks and deficits. I am not centering around how my teaching should change because of the faulty assumptions I carried with me last year, but rather how my teaching is changing as I learn from and with my students here, as I come to better understand the expectations brought to bear on their texts by others, and as I study, reflect on, and revise my work in these classes, with these students. Also, I am curious about studying what the literature in basic writing and developmental education tells me about who I am teaching and about how, what, and why I should be teaching. For me, the relationship between these components—the who, what, how, and why of teaching or teaching writing—is the site on which I can synthesize questions of theory and practice. I am deliberating over how I initially answered these questions, studying the literature in our fields for the answers to be found there, and studying my own classroom in order to understand how my experience working in particular sites is affecting a revisioning, a re-seeing of the answers to these questions. That is, I am no longer extracting the how from the what, who, and why. This means, I hope, that I am embedding my practice in a conscious theory and formulating that theory in relation to the study of my practices.

Mina Shaughnessy (1976) offers a useful articulation of one of the major shifts in how I am conceptualizing this project. She says,

We are much more likely in talking about teaching to talk about students, to theorize about their [her emphasis] needs and attitudes, to chart their development, and to ignore the possibility that teachers also change in response to students, that there may in fact be important connection between the changes teachers undergo and the progress of their students. (p. 234)

What I hope future research in basic writing and developmental education can explore, then, is how we develop as teachers in light of learning from and with our students, rather than how we evolve as teachers by acting on pre-existing, unarticulated assumptions about who our students are, what they need, why they need it, and how to best deliver. Revisioning or reseeing has been central to all of my research thus far (Lee, 2000), as both a kind of organizing metaphor and a process worth continually engaging in, for teachers, students, institutions, and culture alike. Our research should not simply describe what is, or prescribe better practices for working within existing conditions, but rather should generatively imagine ways of intervening in and reforming what is. Our work as developmental educators, in and outside of our classrooms, should enable and support the revisionary efforts of others involved in this work.

Let us move to some particulars now. First, we have the question of how the legacy or tradition of research in BW gets read, represented and misread, and misrepresented. There is a tendency, I think, on the part of us “young guns” (i.e., new faculty, or those of us new to work in developmental education) to gloss over that which was radical about earlier work in our field because instead we shine the light on what, in today’s context, seems regressive, accommodationalist, and repressive. Because we are frustrated to find ourselves in a situation all too similar to that of our forerunners, we blame them for not being radical enough, not seeing enough, not doing enough, and not fighting enough. Still, I think we need to turn our critical lens more often than we have outward—to critique the institutional and cultural discourses that have so much influence over how our work is understood and what is expected, often implicitly, of us and our students (i.e., miracle work, really). As Hunter Boylan and Barbara Bonham (1994) in developmental education and Sharon Crowley (1998) in basic writing point out, the number of programs and curricula for developmental education and basic writing, and the proportion of students assigned to them, has remained largely stable for 150 years. There are not more basic writers now than before. Students are not less prepared now than before. This has not changed. The other thing that has not changed is that we have not been able to claim disciplinary status and a vocal, equal, and viable role in the institution because the attitudes about us and our students remain unchanged, and—although a developmental program like General College is an exception—the support for and understanding of our work, in the institution as well as in the popular imagination, has not changed.

For the purposes of my research, I am therefore hoping to spend less time ungenerously reading the existing literature for its deficiencies and gaps, and more time reading it for what it can offer me, both in terms of understanding where we have been and for understanding what we need to do in order to get where we want to be. Here, to illustrate the kind of reading I mean, are two quotes, one from Shaughnessy (1977) and then Mutnick’s (1996) reading of Shaughnessy. Shaughnessy warns us to be mindful of not asking students:

to look at a piece of writing as something that contains its meaning as a pound of sugar might be said to contain its weight. The text stands outside, then, separate from the reader, impersonal and invulnerable. When the student writes his [sic] paper, it does not occur to him that he is a writer producing reading, he remains a writer producing writing. This alienation of student writer from the text robs him of important insights. (p. 223)


Teachers promote a narrow and inhibiting view of perfection by ignoring all stages of the composing process except the last, where formal correctness becomes important, and by confronting students with models of good writing without ever mentioning the messy process that leads to clarity. The messiness is indeed writing [italics added]. . . . the composition classroom should be a place where the writer not only writes but experiences in a conscious way the stages of the composing process itself. (pp. 79, 81)

And now, here is Deborah Mutnick (1996) assessing the contributions of Shaughnessy:

the problems Shaughnessy addressed were linguistic ones: how to induct these students, these outsiders, into the discourse of the university and by extension, dominant culture. Despite the democratic impulses that guided such efforts, the pedagogical focus on standard language, particularly surface level errors, as the key factor in academic success masked the underlying problems of racism, classism, and other forms of social inequality that necessitated open admissions in the first place. From its inception, Basic Writing has served contradictory functions, giving students a chance to develop reading and writing abilities that are then often foreclosed by inferior instruction–skills, drills, rote exercises and an overemphasis on error. (p. 8)

Both of these scholars produce important and radical insights into our work, yet it strikes me that I did not read quite the same Shaughnessy as Mutnick did. It also strikes me that I wrote similar statements about Shaughnessy’s work when I first read it in graduate school. At the time, I was putting pressure on that text to be radical in ways I would validate, and I missed what is indeed radical about it. The text has not changed; what has changed is the knowledge I bring to it, and my own context in which I read it.

For Shaughnessy to make space for and give legitimacy to the messy process of writing and to writing as a process of making, not simply transcribing or containing already existing meaning, is an important intervention in the dominant assumption that the central purpose of BW is to clean up our students’ writing, or that, within DE, our central mission is to “fix” perceived deficits. To foreground and insist on attention to the whole process of composing, a process that many students have never been introduced to and are unaware that all writers undergo, is a profound shift from earlier models that attended primarily to drills-and-skills and correctness.

At the same time, Mutnick (1996) emphasizes the macro-context that informs our local decisions, and reminds us that standards, and our ways of reading and assessing, are not inevitable or neutral, but rather are situated, constructed, and linked to a variety of extra-curricular conditions. Therefore, Mutnick presents an incredibly important insight: we have choices about how we read and assess, choices about the standards we construct. Here, her text builds on Shaughnessy’s (1977), addressing the pressure we all feel in BW to somehow ensure that our students produce error-free prose, or to see it as the sole indicator of competent, effective writing, even though we know that is impossible. It is impossible because all developmental studies show that, as writers develop, they continue to make new mistakes and even to fall back to making old mistakes because they are conquering new forms, more complex ideas, longer texts, and new vocabularies and concepts. I remind myself: writing is messy; learning is messy. Not only the writing of a single text, but the development of writers as a lifelong process; not only the learning that goes on within a single course, but learning how to learn, how to be a successful student—this is messy business.

As I am researching what others have to say about teaching writing, teaching basic writing, teaching developmental education, as I am studying my own practices and their effects, one of the things I realize is that we just do not know enough about the writing demands placed upon our students throughout the university in order to enable us to effectively prepare them specifically for those demands. What we do know is that those demands are multiple and varied. We know that, even as we all refer to academic discourse as though it is a stable and unchanging and known entity, it is anything but that. We also know that most teachers are not doing the work of teaching students how to meet the particular rhetorical demands they assign to them, assuming instead that those demands are self-evident or already learned. However, as Herrington and Curtis (2000) note in their longitudinal ethnographic study that followed four students all the through their university careers:

Explicit instruction…involves more than requiring, explaining or even modeling the hows of composition. It involves full explication of the whys as well. As Francois’s confusion and Nam’s question, “what is an essay?” [as well as Stephen’s question, “what the hell do you want from me?” (p. 388)] imply, there is nothing “natural” about the essay or about other written forms…All four students [in our study], from their first to last semesters, encountered a truly dizzying array of writing assignments and teacher expectations about them. Depersonalized reports for psychology and sociology; similarly depersonalized literary analysis, on the one hand, and highly personalized pieces, on the other, for comparative literature; self-contextualizing social inquiries and critiques for anthropology and education; “objective” summaries and arguments for philosophy as well as sociology. While some teachers described precisely what formal rules they expected students to follow . . . , few if any explained why those rules existed, what purpose they served and what significance they held, or how they differed from other conventional demands outside or even inside their own disciplines. (p. 387)

This leads me to think carefully about what it is I can and cannot adequately and effectively hope to accomplish in my first and second semester courses. It leads me to realize the importance of a continued effort to educate faculty from all disciplines about how writers actually develop and about how to use writing productively—for learning and for representing what has been learned—in their courses. It reminds me that I cannot teach my class in isolation from the rest of my students’ courses, as some sort of feel-good recess where we are all excellent and excited writers. But it also means I cannot aim simply to prepare them for the wildly divergent set of demands they will face and for the ineffectual, even if well-intended, pedagogy they will encounter. However, this is not to say our task is impossible or so unpredictable as to be immune to preparation and deliberation. Herrington and Curtis (2000) go on to remind us about something we probably know about teaching writing, or anything else for that matter; it is something incredibly simple, a principle borne out in my own pedagogical theory and practice.

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