Diving In

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?”


3 thoughts on “Diving In

  1. I am not sure how to create a post on this page! So I am leaving this post as a reply..

    What I like about the readings regarding Basic writing is that they cover the assumptions then they get into what the situation really looks like and how to deal with it. It is difficult to imagine an established teacher or school being flooded with a new population they have never worked with before. It is even more challenging when that population includes students from different educational, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, in addition to their preparedness for college. It is a challenge to take but it is one as the readings suggest where teachers need to be open to experiencing this new situation.

    BW is a democratizing force. For example the “No child left behind” project is one that created many of these classes and developmental programs. This kind of project is created mainly due to economic and social pressures. Including and educating more citizens by empowering them through education is a noble goal. Basic Writing classes, therefore, take the role of helping out in introducing these students to the world of academia. I believe that by keeping this goal in mind, teachers would be patient with a population of students they don’t know how to work with and work through understanding their needs and capacities.

    As Shaughnessy points out in ‘Diving in”, teachers have to be aware of the influence cultural and linguistic backgrounds may cause different learning situations to occur.
    Diving in means getting to know your students and deciding to be open to learn about them and from them. This step understandably is a difficult one to take but it is an important one to start to scratch the surface on working with such classes of writing with a good teacher preparation. It is not expected that a teacher becomes a cultural expert and linguistic expert for all the populations he/she teacher, maybe not even any of them. However, it is expected that the teacher is open to learn and realizes that these backgrounds may influence. From this point pedagogies maybe on how to use that for class purposes may arise.

    The definition of a Basic Writer seems to be general on purpose. The definition seems to cover all those who are unprepared for college classes. Maybe this general definition serves the purpose of including the wide diversity represented in such writing classes.


  2. I actually formulated a question to tomorrow’s discussion very similar to one of yours. Can teachers be supportive in their role as instructors yet let the basic writers come to an understanding of what nearly “error-free” writing they should produce with an understanding of their audience and writing context?

    I will be combining your #1 and #3 for our discussion of the readings. It’s good to hypothesize not only about mere possibilities but also actual things we as instructors can do in supporting basic writers.


    • I wonder if there’s a space for instructors to share their own writing as part of the teaching and learning process. My first drafts are certainly FAR from error free, and the revision process often takes me in new directions. There’s no way to avoid the instructor being perceived as the “expert” in a classroom, but maybe modeling could help break down notions of right writing as only “error free” writing and move to a more generative learning environment?


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