Mainstreaming Basic Writers: Politics, and Pedagogies of Access

By Horner, Bruce | Composition Studies, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview
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Mainstreaming Basic Writers: Politics, and Pedagogies of Access


Horner, Bruce, Composition Studies


Mainstreaming Basic Writers: Politics, and Pedagogies of Access, edited by Gerri McNenny and Sallyanne H. Fitzgerald. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum Lawrence, 2001.

This collection of essays presents a variety of arguments, many by prominent scholars of basic writing, for whether, how, and why students otherwise designated "basic writers" (and, in one case, those designated "ESL") might be "mainstreamed" into "regular" composition courses. While all of the essays are new to this collection, several authors rehearse or draw extensively on previously published work. The collection is not a comprehensive gathering of all seminal work on the mainstreaming debate: relevant work by such figures as Peter Dow Adams, David Bartholomae, Tom Fox, Karen Greenberg, judith Rodby, and Rhonda Grego and Nancy Thompson, for example, is discussed in many of the collection's chapters but not included. Nonetheless, the book provides compositionists attempting to better understand what mainstreaming basic writing might mean with a useful introduction to such matters.

Gerri McNenny, the book's editor, opens with an overview of recent shifts in the political climate and public policies prompting or even forcing many mainstreaming efforts and identifies some of the key issues. Following this overview are seven chapters comprising Part I, "The Controversy Surrounding Mainstreaming: Theory, Politics, and Practice." These chapters present not simply arguments for and against mainstreaming,but also arguments about such arguments on the basis of analyses of national trends, local institutional histories, and reviews of the scholarly literature. In Edward White's "Revisiting the Importance of Placement and Basic Studies: Evidence of Success" (a revised version of his 1995 essay "The Importance of Placement"), White reviews statistical evidence from the Institutional Research Office of the California State University and reports from the New Jersey Basic Skills Council on the effects of remedial writing programs on student retention. While cautioning that "[w]e must be careful about generalizing from the California and New Jersey programs" (27), he concludes these do demonstrate success in helping students remain in school. In sharp contrast, Ira Shor, in an extended elaboration of arguments he has made earlier (in "Our Apartheid" and "Illegal Literacy"), denounces basic writing courses as part of a long tradition of using literacy instruction as a means by which to justify and reproduce economic inequality by failing students and then blaming them for not "meriting" better jobs (34). While admitting that "[n]o one plan for change will work anywhere, everywhere, or all the time" (48) and cautioning, "My criticism of the history and politics of writing instruction is not a criticism of my colleagues, full-time or adjunct" (47), he nonetheless condemns alternatives to mainstreaming as inherently oppressive.

Mary Soliday's contribution, "Ideologies of Access and the Politics of Agency," a reprise of some of the arguments she makes in her important book, The Politics of Remediation, points out that the identification of student access with the fate of remedial programs neglects other, more powerful, factors determining students' educational careers, particularly the "devastating economic privatization of public higher education" (57). Using the recent history of remedial programs at CUNY, she demonstrates how an "ideology of access" has held basic writing programs solely responsible for student performance while, in fact, students have tended to be "held back" because of their need to work in order to pay for mandatory remedial courses and newly imposed tuition charges. In other words, it is the "privatization" of the costs of public education that has significantly impaired student access to and success in higher education. In the next chapter, Terence G. Collins and Kim Lynch critique both David Bartholomae's "The Tidy House" and Ira Shor's "Our Apartheid" for what they see as a tendency in these influential articles and in the mainstreaming debate generally to posit a "[conveniently] homogenized basic writing status quo against which mainstreaming is placed as a universally desirable fix" (73).

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