Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

With "Increased Dignity and Importance": Re-Historicizing Charles Roberts and the Illinois Decision of 1955

Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

With "Increased Dignity and Importance": Re-Historicizing Charles Roberts and the Illinois Decision of 1955

Article excerpt

I realized suddenly that I was not a person, but a footnote. I was a stance, a position, a reference point.

-James Murphy, in Agnew et al.,

"Rhetorical Historiography and the Octalogs"

In the history of basic writing, one moment stands out: the so-called Illinois Decision of December 1955, when the University of Illinois passed a resolution to discontinue remedial writing effective fall 1960.1 The resolution was authored by writing program administrator Dr. Charles Roberts, also the first editor of College Composition and Communication (1950-53). The decision was documented in essays published in CCC in May 1956 (Wilson, "Illinois vs. Illiteracy") and May 1957 (Roberts, "Underprepared Student"; "Has English Zero Seen Its Day?"). As a policy move, the Illinois Decision was unusually public-chronicled, debated, and defended extensively, sometimes in the context of larger conversations on remediation in numerous academic and public news outlets.2 As such, it would be lodged in the annals of composition history as proof of the disdain by English departments-and, by extension, writing programs-for writers deemed "not ready" for college.

As one of the historians who has referenced the Illinois Decision, I am sympathetic to its negative memorialization. In Before Shaughnessy, I argued that it exposed "an unwillingness on the part of [other] colleges and universities during this time period to take significant 'risks' on basic writers" (69). Indeed, the decision mobilized institutional anxieties about underprepared students, resources, and standards. It provided a prominent model for phasing out a course that a significant percentage of students nationwide were deemed to need.3 And absent other evidence, the decision seemed to argue against maintaining a responsible and challenging basic writing course for those students who needed it.

But now, as the WPA at Illinois, occupying the seat that Roberts held for over two decades,4 I want to revisit my earlier assumptions. With an eye toward complicating this narrative that otherwise seems so easy to historicize, I revisit the Illinois Decision to reframe it: not as a policy designed to punish basic writers, but one hoping to create better conversation between, and more reasonable working standards and support for, writing teachers. In doing so, the decision also aimed to clarify and strengthen a curriculum that had long struggled to articulate its goals. I therefore recuperate the history of the decision first, to reanimate discussions about what forces caused such a consequential policy decision to emerge, and second, to rehistoricize the man most associated with it-to change him from a footnote or reference point, in Murphy's terms, to a real person in a difficult moment now relevant to issues of accountability, alignment, and standards in our own college writing programs.

Others before me have written about Charles Roberts, and Illinois, yet there has been no singular attention paid to his role in the Illinois Decision itself. I employ Lisa Mastrangelos assertion that the historicizing of notable field figures is "[u]nlike our recovery of programs, which is often grounded in social/historical contexts," because "our recovery of individuals is typically ensconced in 'lone wolf,' 'king,' and great man narratives" (249). In Roberts's case, I argue that the reverse is also true, as viewing him as a "lone wolf" fails to take into account other local actors involved. Revisiting Roberts and the Illinois Decision also enacts a rereading of "negative or uneven stories" that Mastrangelo contends is rare in our histories (260). In the case of Roberts's apparently single-handed destruction of basic writing at a flagship institution, our aversion to nonheroic field moments have held static his disciplinary narrative, in the process obscuring a deeper understanding of the decision itself, which compromises how we can recall it to advocate for our programs today. …

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