Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Take the Plunge: Mina Shaughnessy's "Diving In: An Introduction to Basic Writing"

Last week, I had to read Mina Shaughnessy's 1976 essay "Diving In: An Introduction to Basic Writing" for our professional development session at the writing center where I work. I've read her book Errors and Expectations (1977), but this was the first time that I had a chance to read any of her shorter works. Though the article is nearly 40 years old, the problems and solutions described by Shaughnessy are still applicable today.

Shaughnessy's main argument in the piece is that educators need to stop considering basic writing "a writing course for young men and women who have many things wrong with them" (291). Instead, she argues that writing instructors need to begin to examine their own teaching and learning processes and the complex and contextual needs of their students. To show how these issues manifest themselves in the university, Shaughnessy outlines a "developmental scale for teachers," complete with four stages. They are:
Guarding the Tower: gate-keeping and denying access to those who seemingly do not belong, a tactic of self-preservation.
Converting the Natives: assuming outsiders can be "tamed" and fashioned after the elite class, though they can never truly be part of the elite.
Sounding the Depths: realizing there is complexity and that students of all kinds have something to contribute.
Diving In: meeting basic writing students head-on, dealing with their complex needs, and breaking the tradition of thinking "what's wrong with them" 

Though the terminology is controversial, as it is steeped in racial and colonialist overtones, the message is clear. It's not "them" who needs to be fixed; it's "us," the educators, who need to reevaluate our methods. We need to be aware of our own practices, be willing to assess the needs of our students, and quit using one-size-fits-all pedagogies. We need to stop thinking these students are broken and realize that they simply need someone to guide them through the things they have not been privileged yet to know. We also need to stop privileging antiquated ideas of "the typical college student," the ones who come from high performing high schools with a middle class enthusiasm for formal education. These are ideas that are still practical and useful in our current educational climate.

Here are some things we can do to help students, especially basic writers, based on Shaughnessy's ideas:

  1. See students as people with real problems, passions, and pursuits.
  2. Do not think of students as empty vessels or know-nothings who need to be filled with your greater knowledge.
  3. Accept that students bring their own knowledge and literacies to the classroom, even if they aren't the "standard."
  4. Be willing to learn from students.
  5. Remember that at one point, you didn't know either.
  6. And... you didn't know what you didn't know until someone made you aware.
  7. Don't use "it's not my job" or "they should have learned that in [insert course or grade level here]" as an excuse not to help a student with a task that you have the ability to help them with.
  8. Recognize patterns of error and needs rather than worrying about "correctness" (what's correct anyway? whose version of correct?). 
  9. Don't just mark errors. Explain your thought process.
  10. Offer models of academic inquiry and inquiry processes. Students often need to learn how to ask questions more than they need to learn answers.
  11. Do not underestimate your students. 
  12. Challenge students to complete meaningful tasks, but also be willing to help them along the way.

Shaughessy ends these essay with these words: "DIVING IN is simply deciding that teaching them [basic writers] to write well is not only suitable but challenging work for those who would be teachers and scholars in a democracy" (297). If we want democracy, we can't have a fixed notion of who can and cannot be educated. We can't say, "oh they'll never make it" or "they're not 'college material,'" or only a small, likely homogeneous, group of students will ever have the opportunity to succeed. If we want to encourage diversity and all of the wonderful things that come from the intersection of different ideas, then we need to take the plunge and dive in.

Shaughnessy, Mina. "Diving In: An Introduction to Basic Writing." College Composition and Communication 27.3 (1976): 234-39. Rpt. Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. 3rd ed. Eds., Victor Villanueva and Kristin L. Arola. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2011. Print.

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