Shaughnessy: Diving In

I confess that while reading this piece, I was thinking quite a lot about my English 120 classes and attributing Shaughnessy’s arguments and discussions to my own students, which put me in a bit of a strange place. Aren’t English 120 students supposed to be a step above “remedial” writers? Shouldn’t they already be able to understand some of the things Shaughnessy’s essay discusses? Perhaps times have changed so much that it is no longer possible to draw such a fine line between remedial/basic writers and the simply “unskilled writers” our process readings have discussed. Or perhaps the problem I faced while reading this essay is mine and mine alone, becoming too hung up on labels rather than accepting that basic writing can be applied to all classrooms, particularly freshman writing classrooms.

Nevertheless, I tend to read essays, as I’m sure many of us do, with a sense of practicality: how can this help me in a practical sense? Why am I reading this? What can I gain from this essay that can help me in my teaching or my studies? In this sense, Shaunessy’s four-stage scale serving as a metaphor for the teacher’s perceived place in a basic writing classroom seems incredibly useful. Putting the responsibility on the instructor’s shoulders, rather than insisting that the students must learn (on their own, somehow, almost magically), gives the instructor much more ownership of their teaching, and of what the students end up learning by the conclusion of a course. On a personal level, being able to own my teaching makes me feel a bit more in control, which I appreciate.

The stages of Shaunessy’s scale have returned us to a somewhat linear model, although this model is of writing instruction–or of the various stages of thinking a basic writing instructor goes through–rather than of writing itself. These stages definitely seem unique to writing instruction as opposed to other kinds of instruction. When teaching theory, an instructor can often see students understanding the material at various stages and, I would argue, more often than when teaching writing. Teaching writing is about teaching a craft, and a relatively abstract one at that (abstract, at least, to our students), whereas teaching theory is about teaching more concrete ideas and ways of thinking.

Question 1: On pg. 295, Shaunessy mentions that “we lack models for the maturation of the writing skill among young, native-born adults…” at the time of writing this particular essay. What models now exist, if any? Do those models differ from basic writing instruction today?

Question 2: While Shaunessy’s essay posits a model for how basic writing instructors think, how useful is it in actually helping us teach basic writers? Is it only useful in that it helps us understand the thinking of writing instructors, or can it actually be applied practically?


One thought on “Shaughnessy: Diving In

  1. Q2: I like that you are attempting to break down how the model can be practically applied. I think that Shaughnessy’s model has many implications for how instructors should view their students and develop their instruction. I also think that this self-reflection would also bring about practical changes, even though Shaughnessy does not explicitly state many.

    For example, one valuable idea that I took from the article was that it is more productive for instructors to base their instruction on the students’ needs and abilities rather than a preconceived perception of what stage the students “should” be at. For instance, when Shaughnessy discusses the first stage of instructors’ attitudes, “guarding the tower,” she highlights a common notion that many instructors have on the first day of class” that the students are “incredibly behind any students he has taught before that the idea of their ever learning to write acceptably for college” (312). Similarly, it is insightful that you suggest that we are “becoming too hung up on labels” because I think that what Shaughnessy’s article definitely sets that up. This is also similar to your question of whether English 120 students are “supposed to be a step above ‘remedial’ writers” because Shaughnessy seems to be suggesting that instructors should shift their thinking from how students are “supposed to be” to how teaches can adapt their teaching to more effectively reach the students. Shaughnessy challenges the notion of what is “acceptable” for college writing, because she suggests that instructors should be self-aware of their own teaching, particularly in the “diving in” stage, and be able to adjust their teaching to the needs and abilities of the students. Thus, labeling the students as “remedial” is irrelevant because different students have different skills and abilities. One class labeled as “remedial” contains students who very likely have different levels of skills and knowledge than another.

    Scaffolding is an example of how practical changes can come from this model; perhaps one class struggles to understand rhetorical analyses more than the last class. This does not mean that they are behind and can never catch up but that the teacher can perhaps create worksheets and classroom activities to scaffold the concepts to make them easier for the students to understand. To bring this back to the initial question, I think that because Shaughnessy’s model provides insights such as this into how teachers should perceive students and academic standards, applying the models not only signifies a change in perception but implies that several practical adjustments can emerge from that self-reflection as well.


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