Academic journal article Research in the Teaching of English

Theorizing Failure in US Writing Assessments

Academic journal article Research in the Teaching of English

Theorizing Failure in US Writing Assessments

Article excerpt

Failure in writing classrooms may very well be one of the most important yet undertheorized concepts in composition studies. Past discussions about remedia- tion and basic writing and writers have questioned the nature and production of failure by questioning who the basic writer is (Bartholomae, 1987; Hull & Rose, 1989), the inherent racism in basic writing programs and concepts (Fox, 1993, 1999; Jones, 1993), and the relationship between the kinds of languages used by students (often marked by culture, class, gender, and race) and dominant, White, middle-class, academic discourse (Horner & Lu, 1999). In fact, Shaughnessy (1977) has revealed logics to errors in student writing, thus suggesting students' "failure" to write the expected dominant English was a result of "social inequities, not per- sonal failings" (Otte & Mlynarczyk, 2010, p. 8). But in her pedagogy Shaughnessy ignores the politics, the uneven power arrangements occurring around competing languages in the writing classroom. Lu (1991) critiques Shaughnessy's pedagogy, saying it exhibits a "politics of linguistic innocence" (pp. 27, 30) that fails to address the reality that changing students' sentences to match the dominant code of the classroom may change students' ideas and thinking. Taking a macro view, Soliday (2002) convincingly argues that institutional crises from open enrollments in the 1960s created the alleged need for remedial students and classes (pp. 60, 62). Thus institutional needs for remediation constructed the basic writer and, in the process, writing failure. In effect, Soliday can be used to critique the production of failure in writing programs since she reveals the ways institutions produce remedial students (failing students) for particular historical reasons and institutional needs. Educators produce failure because it suggests something to audiences at their institutions and outside of them, something about the rigor of writing programs, about standards held (against many students), and about teachers doing their job right.

Dressman, Wilder, and Connor (2005) illustrate that understanding the nature of failure, however, is not a simple matter of choosing which theoretical orientation works best-a cognitivist (e.g., Shaughessy, 1977), sociocultural (e.g., Bartholomae, 1987; Hull & Rose, 1989; Lu, 1991), or macrostructural one (e.g., Horner & Trimbur, 2002; Prendergast, 2003; Trimbur et al., 2011)-nor is it a matter of blending the best of each theory to create a "unified theory" of failure (Dressman et al., 2005, p. 17). Cognitivist perspectives tend to focus on individual learners and their cognitive processes, seeing failure as a product of either peda- gogy or individual learners' behaviors (Dressman et al., 2005, pp. 10-11). This makes literacy practices, such as reading and writing, normative and failure in these practices abnormal. For example, in her discussion of the failure of "decen- tered pedagogies," Judy Segal identifies "blaming the student" as an early theory in understanding failure (1996, p. 178). Sociocultural perspectives emphasize the subjectivity of the learner as a "gendered, ethnic, economic user of language" (p. 11), conceiving failure not as abnormal but as a product of mismatched literacy practices. Writing failure stems from irreconcilable differences between expecta- tions of White, middle-class literacies in school and the raced, cultured, classed, and gendered home literacies that learners attempt to use in school. Macrostructural perspectives are similar to sociocultural perspectives, only they focus on "law and history that name specific historical events and legal precedents" as constructors of literacy norms, and thus historical events, laws, and legal decisions create the conditions that produce failure in schools (p. 14).

Failure, in this view, is not just an individual, political, cultural, institutional, or social problem to solve. Failure is a complex blend of these various elements, an inevitable aspect of any writing classroom or program. …

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