Magazine article Academe

What Can We Learn from Composition Instruction in the 1960s?

Magazine article Academe

What Can We Learn from Composition Instruction in the 1960s?

Article excerpt

What Can We Learn from Composition Instruction in the 1960s? Interests and Opportunities: Race, Racism, and University Writing Instruction in the Post-Civil Rights Era Steve Lamos. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011.

From Form to Meaning: Freshman Composition and the Long Sixties, 1957-1974 David Fleming. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011.

Reviewed by Dana Nichols

Steve Lamos's and David Fleming's new books work to locate college composition during the turbulent years of the 1960s, when open admissions, racial protest, and the antiwar movement produced the boom years in the field of composition as institutions across the country scrambled to create new courses for a new student body. Lamos and Fleming both argue that we can learn critical lessons about contemporary writing instruction by revisiting the long sixties. The lessons they take, however, are quite different.

In Interests and Opportunities, Lamos seeks to trace how basic writing instruction for "highrisk" (underprepared low-income or minority) students has been shaped by white privilege and political ideology since the 1960s. Using the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as his case study, he focuses particularly on how administrative and programmatic decisions affected the racial consciousness of UIUC's educational opportunity program (EOP) rhetoric program. EOP rhetoric was instituted in 1968 as part of a larger initiative to recruit and retain five hundred African American students a year. For Lamos, 1968 was the apex of race-conscious writing instruction at UIUC. The rest of the book is intended to explain how the EOP rhetoric program was eventually dismantled, resulting in a shifttoward a "color-blind" approach to writing instruction. In Lamos's estimation, faculty members at UIUC (and, by extension, composition teachers generally) can either teach students race-conscious, identity-based writing or teach students to write Standard English. The UIUC faculty picked Standard English, and Lamos contends that it was a disastrous choice.

Lamos argues that this choice was driven by uncritical and unreflective appeals to "standards" that maintain white privilege. He claims that race-conscious programs were watered down by the view that "high-risk writing programs ultimately needed to embrace Standard English as the endpoint of instruction. Bidialecticalism asserted that Standard English was the only real key to the 'front door' of the American mainstream." Against the backdrop of a widely touted "literacy crisis," universities more readily adopted "mainstream interests in preserving purportedly color-blind standards and the white linguistic status quo that these standards upheld." Matters did not improve during the culture wars of the 1980s, Lamos argues. Not only did the drumbeat of "standards" grow louder, but newer pedagogical approaches pioneered by Gerald Graff, Henry Giroux, Mary Louise Pratt, and David Bartholomae, which sought to reimagine high-risk basic writing instruction through the lens of progressive politics, lost "the power that race-based 1960s-style identity politics had long afforded programs for establishing official institutional spaces for minority support activity." Pratt's contact-zone pedagogy (the practice of teaching texts as the products of power struggles waged in contexts such as slavery or colonialism) is insufficient, in Lamos's estimation, to generate meaningful critiques of the primacy of Standard English.

The faculty reconfigured UIUC's EOP rhetoric program into a new academic writing program geared toward any unprepared student in the face of concerns that the original 1960s-style program was isolating and stigmatizing to minority students. Lamos argues that this shiftcreates a more colorblind university and that minority students did better when given minority spaces. Progressives, in Lamos's view, were misguided when they reimagined 1960s-era writing instruction. …

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