Basic Writing, handwringing about “standards,” and On Being Included

I’m working out some thoughts about parallels that I’m seeing between the hand wringing over academic “standards” that happened in the 1990s and contemporary hand wringing over “standards” surrounding plagiarism.

I’ve been thinking about these things while reading this week: Rebecca Williams Mlynarczyk and George Otte’s piece about the future of Basic Writing from 2010, Ira Shor’s 1997 article from the same journal likening Basic Writing to apartheid, some articles arguing against the “efficacy” of remedial education that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education in the mid-90s, Victor Villanueva’s “Subversive Complicity,” and returning to Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life: a book that has been really central to my thinking in the last few months. I also started Xiaoye You’s Cosmopolitan English and Transliteracy, which is informing some of my thinking.

As the Mlynarczyk and Otte piece reports, the 1990s were a time when scholars within the field began taking a closer look at the legacy and impact of remedial education. Scholarly critiques of BW focused on the way that the discipline extended hierarchical power relations and reproduced undemocratic systems of tracking and control (Shor 1997). Bruce Horner and Min-Zhan Lu argued that basic writing curriculum was rooted in a lack of attention to the sociopolitical conditions that created “deficit” narratives. Evidence of this line of thinking is also found in Lu’s 1991 challenge to Mina Shaughnessy’s essentialist view of language in Errors and Expectations.

But there was also a lot of handwringing about standards in the 90s: handwringing that continues today in school reform movements, and handwringing that feels very parallel to the kinds of conversations I’ve heard people have about plagiarism and academic integrity.

Movement in the direction of some kind of rhetorical / linguistic pluralism seems like it is almost always met with fretting about THE STANDARDS. But when you look at the trajectory of that fretting in the 90s, it’s really interesting to note that all of the reform people seemed to want to draw on elusive “international standards” by which we should be judging our (largely American) basic writers, and now that the new basic writers ARE, in many cases, international students, there’s an outcry for promoting and enforcing new standards — “American” ones — around plagiarism.

A cartoon face looking thoughtfully up to the sky with the words "Hmm..." in capital letters next to it).

Here are some other fragmented thoughts. Also, memes!

1. Both within and outside of our field, it feels like there are, among others, some ludicrously xenophobic dimensions to the way that we A Simpsons character looks up at the sky and pleads while a crowd of other Simpsons characters look at her with a worried face. The words "Won't somebody please think of the children?" appear across the top and the bottom of the image.argue for the “protection” of the “value” of a college degree in the face of increasing international student enrollment. It’s hard to point to this argument in published material, but it’s certainly something that I’ve encountered in informal conversations, in Q&As at conferences, and on various professional listservs. These conversations are reminiscent of the kinds of “think of the standards!” conversations that we were having in the 1990s, like this one from Marc Tucker, which advocates for “higher standards” in “low-performing” secondary schools (read: schools with lots of minority students). The same logic that supported the particularly icky parts of school reform movements. These are not new conversations — we’re just having them about a new set students — and they’re still just as reductive and ignorant.

Doge, a shiba inu dog, looks at the camera very skeptically

2. There is palpable resentment surrounding the idea that international students (and their tuition dollars) are given preferential treatment over more “deserving” (read: American) students. Regardless of whether or not universities are actually making money off of international students, blaming the students, themselves, for circumstances that are both out of their control and that directly victimize them is not a good look.

3. Rigor, academic “excellence,” student preparation, and high standards are often placed in direct rhetorical conflict with goals relating to accessibility. All of these concepts are, of course, evacuated of meaning until they’re attached to something meaningful. A student becomes “high achieving” when what it means to “achieve” is defined: by test scores, by graduation rates, by GPA, by whatever metric a school decides to use. A student’s ability to access something is undermined when that student’s presence on a campus is not imagined in the first place.

4. While, as Ahmed writes, “diversity” can be a technology of excellence — a metric that we use to prove value — this can only happen when diversity doesn’t threaten excellence at it is currently conceived.

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