The thing I appreciate most about Mina Shaughnessy’s “Diving In” is that it takes the hierarchical models of development scholars so often use when analyzing their students and (in the fashion of de Certeau-before de Certeau) “cuts it out and flips it over” to inspect the development of the instructors themselves. In this model, Composition instructors ideally move from a position of “Guarding the Tower” to “Converting the Natives,” “Sounding the Depths,” and ultimately to “Diving in.” In this development, instructors move from strict error-markers with red pens to empathetic individuals who truly have their students’ interests at heart.
This is desirable to be sure, but incredibly idealistic. This, in my opinion, requires not merely a change in pedagogical practices but also a change in the hierarchy of English departments as a whole. Those generally tasked with teaching Basic Writing courses–at least in the institutions I’ve attended– are traditionally adjuncts, lecturers, and graduate instructors. This is not to say that these folks are incapable of teaching Basic Writing, but that they are lowest in the system in terms of pay, prestige, etc. It’s all well and good to claim that an instructor of a Basic Writing course should dive in and decide that the work is “not only suitable but challenging work for those who would be teachers and scholars in a democracy” (297).This task, however, is somewhat difficult when someone has a 4-4 teaching load (or a 7-1 load as lovely Des Moines Area Community College sometimes assigns). Someone with such a teaching load and perhaps other departmental and familial obligations has very little time for the individualized instruction and effective lesson planning Shaughnessy and others suggest. Maybe teaching loads were different in ’76? Whatever the case, this appears to me more an issue of institutional structure than of re-framing teachers’ conceptions of students, though the latter is admittedly important as well.
I agree when Shaughnessy suggests that the Basic Writing instructor must land “somewhere between the folly of pretending that errors don’t matter and the rigidity of insisting that they matter more than anything” (295). Ultimately, however, this lands me at my first in a series of many questions.
Question: Where is this magical space between error-hunter and the stereotypically “cool” teacher asking his or her students to write about their feelings and to throw grammatical worries to the wind? Is it something that just comes with practice? Do we know it when we see it? How do we come to this point in other courses more steeped in the rules and regulations of writing (e.g. Writing in the Sciences)?
Question: How do we work to combat students’ fear that there is “something wrong with their writing” (292)? This seems to be something I come across every semester–students who have great ideas, but have been told throughout their years in K-12 that their writing just doesn’t stand up. It seems as though there needs to be more connection between the academy and primary schools in this regard.
Question: How do we make the Basic Writing course a more welcoming place practically? What can I ACTUALLY do to show students, “Here are the errors you’re making. Here’s how to spot them and fix them. They’re not everything, but you should be aware of them for future reference?”