The CEA Forum
Summer/Fall 2009: 38.2
A DIMMER SHADE OF CRIMSON:
HISTORICIZING THE IVY LEAGUE BASIC WRITER
Kelly Ritter. Before Shaughnessy: Basic Writing at Yale and Harvard, 1920-1960. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2009. 192 pp. $32.00 (paper)
Anytime a book incites you to read as Roland Barthes suggests—“to read while looking up from your book”—you know the author has intrigued you, nudged your thinking, woke you up from sleepy ideas (29). In Before Shaughnessy: Basic Writing at Yale and Harvard, 1920-1960, Kelly Ritter explores the history of underprepared Ivy League writers and challenges the composition/rhetoric community to re-envision the definition of the basic writing student and revise (or even abandon) it. By investigating the archives of esteemed American educational institutions, she uncovers a little known account of pre-Shaughnessy writing programs at Yale and Harvard. She states, “This book endeavors to uncover the quiet and pervasive history of basic writing prior to 1960—particularly at elite institutions, specifically Ivy League universities such as Yale and Harvard, and to greatly broaden the definition of basic writer so as to ultimately question the usefulness and applicability of this term in today's writing programs” (10). Through her historical exposé and analysis, she argues that if we don't acknowledge this unspoken history of the Ivy League's basic writing initiatives then we “lack a true historical trajectory for this subfield of composition and rhetoric” (12).
Invoking Shaughnessy in her title, Ritter underscores how the legacy of this iconic figure overshadows “earlier institutional groupings of underprepared writers” at locations where one wouldn't expect them (31). Always contextualized by institutional circumstances, Ritter emphasizes that the term basic writer alters, depending upon the local criteria where a college student writes. She does not ignore the distinctions of status among elite and non-elite schools but stresses that, if we begin our story of basic writers with the non-privileged and underprepared students of 1970s CUNY, we then have created a false historical marker and ignored the reality that even though basic writers might come from very different places and situations, “their literacy needs and especially their stigmatized position in the curriculum remain quite similar” (36). As a result, we have a restricted view of what it means to “need” as a student writer. With a definition of basic writers that collapses social standing with writing abilities, we mistakenly confuse “need” with “needy,” and, as a result, we possibly risk underestimating the composing abilities of these less privileged student bodies, while overlooking the writing challenges of students attending elite universities. As a consequence of ahistorically misinformed perspectives, we fail to recognize the things that actually allow us to compare these students' writing achievements and challenges.
Ritter's analysis is nuanced and well argued yet, admittedly, for the advocate of the educationally disenfranchised still a bit difficult to swallow. This author takes a risk focusing on Harvard and Yale students and the problems they may have with writing while momentarily diverting our attentions away from open-admissions students and, once again, critiquing the legacy of Shaughnessy. Personally, I've been at CUNY for nearly twenty years and feel protective of its history and student community. So for those of us at less elite institutions, pursuing research about Ivy League students and their “plight” will perhaps produce a tsk and a scoff. Admittedly, I initially rolled my eyes, raised my hand, and said No she didn', but once I continued reading Ritter's work, I got over my urban, public institution cynicism and played the believing game. I began to see the productive implications of this work and its potential impact for students, teachers, and scholars alike.
Foreseeing this inevitable bristle of Ivy League suspicion (and, perhaps, envy), Ritter uses her first three chapters to explain and defend the focus of her subject choice. She reviews and synthesizes the literature that has previously glossed over these Ivy League programs, continues with critique about post-open admissions definitions of basic writing, and then explicates the archival narrative gaps of the Awkward Squad at Yale and the English B, C, D, F at Harvard. She reports that from the early-to-mid-20th century Ivy League professors lamented the composing abilities of their selective student body. In well-researched profiles of each writing preparatory program, Ritter reveals the diverse approaches of these two competitive (and competing) educational forces. During the 1920s to the 1960s, both institutions made efforts to instruct their less literacy-gifted students, but while Yale kept its work with the Awkward Squad purposefully quiet, Harvard ‘s special instruction became “an ironically proud enterprise” (95). Harvard advertised its program's existence, sharing its instructional efforts in scholarly books as well as institutional publications. In The Politics of Remediation, Mary Soliday questions the political rationales of “remedial” English courses and asserts that “the anomalous status” of these sub-freshmen programs often characterize institutional identities (22). Similarly, Ritter's research elucidates how these Ivy League schools re-evaluated their institutional distinctiveness in relation to these less-than-desirably-prepared students. It seems that while Yale preserved its status through instructional silence, Harvard chose to sustain its scholastic character by revealing its noble endeavor of producing a "Harvard man." Even with the “burden” of remedial necessity, both Ivy League schools kept their reputations intact.
Inarguably, this historical research reveals another side of remediation that complicates heretofore existing conceptions about the basic writer. Any composition/rhetoric scholar or graduate student would benefit from this text as a model of thorough research and meticulously crafted prose. Yet, I still can't shake the sense of the entitlement that comes with Ivy League membership and how it relates to the subject of basic writers. Does anyone cast the literacy stone at Yale or Harvard students whose writing doesn't quite meet expectations? Are their choices of educational venues undermined by the lack of literacy that their prior educational systems failed to give them? Do the Yalies or Harvard students need to take gatekeeping entrance exams that decide if their limited financial aid will be spent on no-credit courses before enrolling in the “real” curriculum? Do the instructors of the elite ever compromise their teaching to “teach to the test”? Would the feeder high schools of the Ivy League—Andover, Exeter, Groton—ever be scrutinized for their literacy preparation if their students joined the Awkward Squad? Hmmmh? I think not.
Undeniably and more significantly, Ritter's Before Shaughnessy instigates other questions beyond her book's primary mission. This fine piece of scholarship is absolutely justified in highlighting the unexcavated history of underprepared writers at Ivy Leagues. In and of itself, it makes a political statement: don't assume that the privileged, educationally-advantaged can write. (Writing is hard so don't disparage anyone that has trouble performing it.) Ritter presents many internal institutional documents from students, faculty, and administrators that critique these literacy programs, yet external voices of public opinion and media attention remain palpably silent in her investigation. In her final chapters, she makes one reference to outside negative public comment. When Harvard's “Committee on the Use of English by Students” published students' History essays, Ritter reports that “newspapers all over the country seized upon the bad essay, ignored the good one altogether, and published editorials exposing 'the way American college students write today'” (124). Yet, these media critics didn't express concern about how specifically Harvard or Yale students wrote but more abstractly how “American college students” wrote. According to Ritter's research, the critics don't emphasize the Ivy-League membership of the poor-writing perpetrator but, instead, rhetorically make the Ivy League writer an anonymous signifier for a national group of the literacy challenged.
In contrast, how common it is for the CUNY student (or CUNY-like student) to be explicitly called out upon this same question of college preparation. Nearly every five years, depending upon the political administration and the state of the economy, a new onslaught of scrutiny places a public institution somewhere under the proverbial microscope. Entire volumes have been dedicated to the critique of the “ineducable” public institution student (see James Traub; Heather MacDonald). Within the limits of this book's research agenda, Ritter doesn't expound upon this historical criticism of education nor does she investigate the external pressure of media coverage and public opinion about institutions such as Harvard and Yale. I doubt that it exists.
Kelly Ritter awakens ahistorical readers and directs them to ideas that they probably have not considered before. Undoubtedly, her exploration leaves a window of opportunity for yet more composition historians to uncover and analyze the role that these extra-institutional voices play in the educational ambitions of students and teachers alike. Like most successful authors, Ritter has exposed a gap in the historical narrative of composition and rhetoric, while simultaneously alerting us to yet other lines of inquiry. If her thin volume about the Ivy League basic writing student can illuminate such important new interpretive stances about the definition of “basic writers,” it also begs further research about those critics, politicians, and institutional policy-makers who assume the authority to define the basic writer's educational access.
Barthes, Roland. The Rustle of Language. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986.
MacDonald, Heather. The Burden of Bad Ideas: How Modern Intellectuals Misshape Our Society. Chicago: Ivan R Dee, 2000.
Soliday, Mary. The Politics of Remediation: Institutional and Student Needs in Higher Education. Pittsburgh, PA: U of Pittsburgh P, 2002.
Traub, James. City on a Hill: Testing the American Dream at City College . New York: Addison-Wesley, 1995.
Having worked at CUNY for nearly two decades, Mark McBeth currently teaches as an Associate Professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice where he has been Deputy Chair for Writing Programs and Writing across the Curriculum Coordinator. His scholarship explores the relationships between language and sexuality as reflected through issues such as theories of writing, gay urban vernacular, curricular design, and the history of education.
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