Theoretical Perspectives for Developmental Education

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Each student [in our study] reported learning most from instructors who gave them positive recognition as thinking persons behind and within their prose; each reported learning far less—or nothing at all—from those who did not. Teachers who dismissed or demeaned the students’ own felt presence within their writing—whether it was there explicitly or not—were resisted, perhaps actively or passively, but always resisted. And that included instructors who turned writing into a simply “academic” matter…And each [student] demonstrated that, without implicit or explicit invitation from their teachers to be heard within their written forms, they disengaged from the task as well as the text, writing less or less coherently, and learning less in the process. (p. 361)

This is so obvious a point that I think we often overlook it, whether in theory or in practice. We forget to talk about how important it is for writers, and any writer in any writing situation, to believe that what they have to say will be heard, read, engaged, and will matter. We often ask students to write simply as a performance, to prove that they have learned what we wanted them to learn, and read what we asked them to read. We then correct how they went about proving it. How much more effectively might our time be spent responding to, or conversing with what they have said, and what they are thinking? What if we spent time drawing them into a conversation between two writers, two readers, and two thinkers? Much of my own course is organized around providing precisely this sort of occasion, among students, between myself and individual students, between students’ texts and the texts we read.

This, then, has become a central thread of my research project. Treating students as writers, as Shaughnessy (1977), Mutnick (1996), Sternglass (1997), Haswell (1991), and Herrington and Curtis (2000) have all emphasized, is crucial to our success in helping them develop as writers. This is an absolute turn-around from focusing on what they need, what they lack, and what I must give them. I do not suggest we should ignore the weaknesses in our students’ writing, nor that we should simply celebrate all of their work unconditionally and uncritically. To do so would be disrespectful of the effort and time they put into their work. It would be to not engage their writing. But I wonder how we can revision what it means to engage students’ writing, so that, even in the midst of the pressures of a stack of papers or of so much to cover in our courses, we commit time to studying and concentrating on the writing they produce. How can we treat it as writing that matters, writing that deserves to be engaged, and writing that says something? How can we center our courses around providing this element which, in every case study I have read, is deemed by students and researchers alike to be central to their motivation, commitment, and development as writers?

This bucks the trend indeed. It directly challenges and revises the dominant myth that what students lack is knowledge about correct prose or about what constitutes error or error-free-ness in prose. It contests the notion that our students are best served by being corrected. I think most of us work daily in our classes to contest the dominant myths about underprepared students. I think we work hard and successfully to help our students learn and to provide them with a sense of what “the game’” is and how to play and even, as Gee (1999) suggests, with the empowering belief that sometimes they have the right to “call” the game because the rules are fundamentally unfair. But what I don’t think we have done yet is take a public enough stance on this. We are so often fighting simply for our survival, or have spent our time sharing practitioner knowledge with one another in order to meet the exigencies and demands of our daily work in the classroom, that we have not had the time or the luxury to claim more space, in the university or in our culture. We have not been able to demand a revisioning of the space we do claim: it is not a “privilege” for these students to have been “granted” access to the university, at least not any more so than for any other admitted student. It is a responsibility of the university and its faculty to provide not only this access, but the means to ensure all students’ success. Sometimes, this means we have to challenge more vocally the standards to which we and our students are held. Other times it means we need to re-educate more actively and work to change the institutional culture and the popular imagination (i.e., the media, legislation, stereotypes).

Here, for instance, are how some researchers in BW and DE have articulated the need to demand a reciprocal relationship between our local missions, institutions of higher education, and our society at large. Shirley Brice Heath (1983), who did an ethnographic study of three communities (i.e., two working class, one White and one Black, and one White middle class) in North Carolina identified specific linguistic features in preschoolers that predicted their performance in school. She traced those features to the oral behaviors displayed and passed on in their home communities. Heath’s hope was to use this knowledge to enable teachers to examine and influence their teaching practices so as to benefit all communities. In other words, understanding the literacy practices students brought with them to the classroom could help teachers understand individual learners’ strengths and needs rather than teaching to a generic or universal student. Teachers who participated in Heath’s study as students in her class did indeed change their teaching practices as they came to possess a deeper understanding of and respect for the context within which different learners are embedded, such as in their homes, communities, and schools.

Eventually, however, the increased pressure to conform to standardized tests and so-called objective assessment measures led to ever-dwindling teacher autonomy. Consequently, Heath (1983) says, many teachers were forced “to choose either to leave the classroom or to revert to transmitting only mainstream language and cultural patterns” (p. 368) in spite of their knowledge that this would not ultimately be as successful for most students. She concludes,

unless the boundaries between classrooms and communities can be broken, and the flow of cultural patterns between them encouraged, the schools will continue to legitimate and reproduce communities of people who control and limit the potential progress of other communities and who themselves remain untouched by other values and ways of life. (p. 369)

Here also is Martha Marinara’s (1997) cautionary conclusion upon examining what she calls the disappointing legacy of basic writing thus far, in which the basic writing course has effectively become

an introduction to academic discourse, an introduction to what a scholarly conversation is about and looks/sounds like. The university doesn’t change; the knowledge and work that is most valued by the university doesn’t change....Instead, the narratives of [traditionally underrepresented students], rather than acting as a transgressive collective, are subtly shaped to fit representations of cultural knowledge that serve to reproduce the academy intact. The academy effectively shields itself from the transformation it would realize if it recognized that when students learn, they create meaning from past experiences, making connections with rather than merely assimilating new knowledge…The university’s role as a change agent is incomplete and unspectacular. Rather than reconstructing the culture of the academy so that it is more enriched, academic literacy as a gatekeeper to education only gives access to standard rhetorical conventions and thought…Change is not enacted on notions of academic excellence or epistemologies, but on those students labeled “remedial” or “basic.” (pp. 4-5)

This leads me to the final question I have posed for my research, as well as a question I believe we should prioritize in our research on developmental education: instead of wondering how I should be changing my students so they can be successful in the university, and instead of just wondering how my teaching should change so I can help my students develop as successful writers, I want to foreground how the university itself, and yes, the popular imagination as well, should be changed by the presence and participation of these traditionally underrepresented students. Without pursuing a fundamentally reciprocal notion of change, wherein the institution, its representatives, its students, and the prevailing culture explicitly respond to and impact one another, I fear we are doomed to simply keep on keeping on, fighting our forerunners and one another, rather than truly creating a more democratic and vital society, both within and outside of the university.


Boylan, H.R., & Bonham, B.S. (1994). Seven myths about developmental education. Research and Teaching in Developmental Education, 10 (2), 5-12.

Crowley, S. (1998). Composition in the university: Historical and polemic essays. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh.

Gee, J. P. (1999, March). Learning language as a matter of learning social languages within discourses. Paper presented at the 1999 Conference on College Composition and Communication, Atlanta, GA.

Gramsci, A. (1987). The modern prince and other writings. New York: International.

Haswell, D. (1991). Gaining ground in college: Tales of development and interpretation. New York: Routledge.

Heath, S.B. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life and work in communities and classrooms. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University.

Herrington, A.J., & Curtis, M. (2000). Persons in process: Four stories of writing and personal development in college. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Horner, B. & Lu, M.Z. (1999). Representing the “other”: Basic writers and the teaching of basic writing. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Hull, G., Rose, M., Losey Fraser, K., & Castellano, M. (1991). Remediation as a social construct: Perspectives from an analysis of classroom discourse. College Composition and Communication, 42, 299-329.

Lee, A. (2000). Composing critical pedagogies: Teaching writing as revision. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Marinara, M. (1997). When working class students “do” the academy: How we negotiate with alternative literacies. Journal of Basic Writing, 16 (2), 3-16.

Mutnick, D. (1996) Writing in an alien world: Basic writing and the struggle for equality in higher education. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

North, S. (1987). The making of knowledge in composition: Portrait of an emerging field. Upper Montclair, NJ: Boynton/Cook.

Shaughnessy, M. (1976). Diving in: An introduction to basic writing. College Composition and Communication 27, 234-239.

Shaughnessy, M. (1977). Errors and expectations: A guide for the teacher of basic writing. New York: Oxford University.

Sternglass, M. (1997). Time to know them: A longitudinal study of writing and learning at the college level. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Bakhtin’s Notion of Dialogic Communication and a Discourse Theory of Developmental Education

Thomas Reynolds, Assistant Professor


This article explores Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of dialogism in relation to Dana Lundell and Terence Collins’ recently proposed Discourse theory of developmental education. Built on ideas put forth by James Paul Gee, the role of developmental educators in such a theory is to help students add Discourses to their primary, home Discourses. It is important to note and theorize the role of communication when working with students within this framework. Bakhtin’s writings on the dialogic nature of communication offer an expanded, socially involved notion of student-teacher exchange. Building communication around this model values student experience and secures the student-teacher relationship as one that necessarily recognizes students as fully able communicators.

One of the more important challenges facing developmental educators is how to build on the literacies that students bring with them to college. No longer a new insight, students communicate effectively, rationally, and intelligently in a number of linguistic registers and textual forms, with various purposes determined by local circumstances (Heath, 1983; Rose, 1985). Some of this practice may intersect with “standard” written English as usually mandated in school settings, but some may not. This situation has left educators asking new questions about how to prepare students for success in college and beyond. Instead of asking how teachers can better convince students to leave behind their home languages and behaviors associated with literacy in favor of those that will give them success in school, many literacy researchers have begun to see education as implicated in the larger project of individuals developing a wide assortment of literacies. For many, an improved task for literacy instruction is to give students practice in and knowledge of historically standard forms such as the formal essay while also encouraging them to draw on and develop literacies unrecognized, and often undervalued, by the academy.

Discourse Theory and Bakhtin’s Notion of Dialogic Communication

Dana Lundell and Terence Collins (1999) have addressed this situation, implicitly, in their attempt to theorize developmental education, after the ideas of James Gee (1996, 1998, 1999), as one of students taking on new “Discourses.” In this view, we acquire at home, and then bring to school, a “primary Discourse,” which “forms our language uses and defines for us the basic terms of human interactions” (Lundell & Collins, pp.12-13). Primary Discourse shapes us into participants in the world who use “culturally specific vernacular language” (p. 13) with accompanying “interpenetrating patterns of values, ‘knowledge,’ language, beliefs, roles and relationships” (p. 13). Gee’s (1999) term of “authentic beginners” (p. 1) describes students who have not successfully brought together their primary Discourse with those “secondary” Discourses of the school (Lundell & Collins, p. 14). Crucially, secondary Discourses are acquired only by way of successful mediation through one’s primary Discourse (Lundell & Collins, p. 13).

Gee’s Discourse theory leads Lundell and Collins (1999) to suggest a number of tentative approaches and directions for developmental educators: basic respect for student Discourses, which are closely tied to identity; repeated, “meaningful” (p. 17) practice of secondary Discourse practices as a way to acquisition; an unmasking of the correct practices of secondary Discourse so that students understand what they are to do in order to take hold of that Discourse; construction of secondary Discourse knowledge on student knowledge carried from the primary Discourse; and a building of a critical awareness of how primary and secondary Discourses are related to one another.

Lundell and Collins describe, along with Gee, a scenario that accounts for the various sites of academic and nonacademic literacy and student ownership over any one Discourse. Their view is convincing in its valuation of students’ non-school literacies (the vernacular) as they come into contact with school-based literacy. But what is the process for taking on new Discourses? Their theory suggests, but does not elaborate on, a basic communicative ground on which the acquisition of Discourses occurs for students. Indeed, although Discourses encompass entire “ways of being in the world” (p. 19), it is communication among students and masters of secondary Discourses that facilitates acquisition of those Discourses. Each of the directions suggested for developmental educators by Lundell and Collins points to a kind of communication that must occur if students are to be successful in their attempts at acquiring secondary Discourses. Together, the directions suggest that the kind of communication that needs to occur is a complex, dialogic one. Developmental education has traditionally been the domain of nontraditional students (Payne & Lyman, 1996). If these students are to successfully acquire new Discourses, then communication that encourages exchange within a number of different registers will have to provide the basis for such learning.

Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1981, 1985) theory of the dialogic offers developmental educators a way to picture teaching as a communicative act with students that demands recognition of the wider context of that communication. When joined to the Discourse theory of Lundell and Collins (1999), it provides a way to imagine what takes place at the intersection of primary and secondary Discourses. As students seek to acquire a secondary Discourse, the information that is exchanged and the practices that are acquired occur in a process made clearer by Bakhtin’s theory. Although first proposed in relation to literary texts, Bakhtin’s theories hold broader significance for many communication processes. In particular, an examination of the basic Bakhtinian notion of the “utterance” (1985, p. 120) opens a sense of possibility for a necessarily broader definition of communication within the act of teaching than that afforded by traditional deficit models of developmental education.

A Widened Notion of Communication Within the Act of Teaching

Traditional models of developmental education assumed that students brought deficits of various sorts with them to college and that the task of educators was to impart the needed knowledge so that they could “catch up” to their peers. Bakhtin’s (1985) notion of the utterance, a necessarily relational act embedded in social relations, suggests that this model may have closed off much of the richness of the teaching situation by framing the student-teacher exchange as one that relied on a more or less monologic model of knowledge transmission. Teaching writing, for example, has traditionally been defined as an erasure of deficits through the transference of rules that were not understood or attended to by students in the past (Berlin, 1987).

From Lundell and Collins’ standpoint, on the other hand, communication would involve exchange of language to be understood as issuing from two different Discourses, two different ways of living in the world, each respectable and coherent. Communication within this scenario would also appreciate words and language as rich with meanings that may not be easily translated across Discourses. Furthermore, the two languages of students and teachers would inform and respond to the other; secondary Discourses would become informed by students’ primary Discourses, as well as the reverse. Making the negotiation of the difficulties involved in such exchange a primary goal of education, the project of teaching would involve constant attentiveness to language on this level.

Bakhtin’s (1985) communication schema is best understood as an ongoing series of essentially social acts, or utterances, that take place as language events. Utterances involve three forces acting equally to produce the communication event: the speaker, the “hero” (Bakhtin, 1989, p. 399), which can be understood as a productive, forceful, almost personified subject, and the listener. In his revised notion of the traditional speaker-message-listener model of communication, Bakhtin gives a social significance to the utterance that arises both out of the immediate situation as well as the identities and histories of each of the three interacting elements. In Bakhtin’s (1985) words, [t]he concrete utterance…is born, lives, and dies in the process of social interaction between the participants of the utterance. Its form and meaning are determined basically by the form and character of this interaction” (p. 401). Charles Schuster (1998) has likened Bakhtin’s theory to a whirling, planetary “orbit” (p. 3), each of the three elements acting on the others in order to create communication. Determining the significance for any utterance involves analysis of both the immediate situation of communication and the socio-historical roots of that utterance. For developmental educators interested in a dynamic interchange with students and the materials of education, Bakhtin offers a model of communication that assigns value to all the players in that exchange.

When thinking about the implications that Bakhtin’s theory holds for developmental education, particularly Lundell and Collins’ model of acquisition, it helps to imagine education as Bakhtin’s multi-layered scene of communication. As teachers help students to acquire a secondary Discourse, students face a situation in which they seek to communicate with teachers about the various habits and expectations of the secondary Discourse. This is an exchange that must recognize the student’s move as a communicative act of vast complexity. Too often, perhaps, teachers recognize student utterances, and here the term can be used broadly to include the many familiar forms of educational “communication” such as tests, projects, papers, and speeches, as emanating from a position of intellectual paucity or educational failure. In Bakhtin’s (1989) view, such utterances carry far more complex meaning stemming from their social embeddedness. As participants who understand that this complexity exists, teachers and students create a space in which the communicative exchange occurs not only on the level of evaluation as conceived of from within the overriding secondary Discourse of education, but also as from within a framework of wider social realities and ideologies that have also created such utterances.

The dialogic opens up communication as a social act in a number of ways that can be demonstrated by considering the particular area of writing instruction. In order to demonstrate how deep the social significance of any one utterance may be, it helps to think of texts produced by students as a familiar site of analysis. Some researchers who have sought to apply Bakhtin’s ideas to the area of student writing have limited their analysis to features of student texts. Thomas Recchio (1998), for example, analyzes a student text in terms of four “discourse modes” (p. 200) that he finds, each, in Bakhtinian terminology, “interanimating” (p. 204) the others. An effective teaching strategy, Recchio claims, would be to make the student aware of these modes as competing for control in the piece of writing and as in need of consciously making use of the modes in order to produce what the paper lacks, a sense of coherence.

But a wider construction of the scene of writing around Bakhtin’s ideas is also possible. Construing dialogism in terms of a broad notion of textuality, Nancy Welch (1998), for example, discerns multiple “voices” in a student’s text and sees discussion of the text as an opportunity to “recognize those forces that have shaped who the student is and how he or she writes” (p. 223). Where Recchio uses dialogism in order to arrive at a more informed notion of dealing with student deficits, Welch sees the teaching situation as one in which the teacher is helping the student “take charge” of her text but also of “the person she is and the person she is becoming” (p. 223). In framing the situation to include the student as a person and learner with an identity beyond the immediate task of the paper at hand, Welch shows how a Bakhtinian notion of the radically social nature of the communicative utterance represented by the paper obtains value in teaching.

Welch and Recchio both deal with multiple presences (“voices” or “modes”) in student texts, but it’s also important to see how, from a Bakhtinian perspective, texts invite discussion around the contexts that produce them. In this sense, the social sphere that envelops the immediate communicative situation also informs and constitutes the act of communication represented in the student text. As an illustration, I recently gave an assignment to my basic writing class that asked them to write about the relevance of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1993) for us as readers today. One of my students got stuck fairly quickly, I learned in a conference, because he felt that Douglass’ text involved the history of another race and so had little to do with him. He had started the paper by pointing to Douglass’ learning experiences, but did not know where to go from there. His paper could be said to have “lacked” precisely at the point where learning the demands of the secondary Discourse represented by my class did not filter through his primary Discourse. Nevertheless, he had told me earlier in the course about the opportunities that he enjoyed in his job at Home Valu to learn skills that he considered valuable. Through conversations related to earlier writings based on that experience, we worked out that he did indeed have connections to Douglass, whose experience was, of course, thick with learning opportunities that he created in the face of no freedom. From my perspective, the student was learning to deal with the Discourse of college writing, inventing and practicing language that links important ideas like opportunity and freedom to particular texts like Douglass’ Narrative. From his perspective, the student was learning to take on the practices of college writing through his own experience as a worker. More to my point, we worked with what was not in the draft by establishing a line of communication around the text of his experiences.

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