The Rhetoric and Realities of Writing Instruction Today

As I re-read Rhetoric and Reality, some twenty years after my first reading of it in graduate school, I similarly observed the inattention to race, gender, and language diversity Asao Inoue and Terese Guinsatao Monberg noted in their recent SWR blog posts. I also noticed Berlin’s neglect of two-year colleges in his historical review of writing instruction. Although two-year colleges were a significant part of the postsecondary landscape throughout the historical period Berlin chronicled—and have long been the primary site of basic writing instruction, two-year colleges (and basic writing) are largely ignored in Rhetoric and Reality, despite their contributions to writing instruction theory and practice. Today, two-year colleges and open-admissions colleges, the most democratic of postsecondary institutions, enroll half of all college students and teach the majority of undergraduate writing, between developmental writing and first year composition courses. However, they are still under-represented in disciplinary scholarship.

In my review of Rhetoric and Reality, I was also particularly struck by the repeated rise and fall in prominence of particular beliefs about writing and writers and their manifestations over time, the consequences of such beliefs, and the conditions that create and recreate them. A few familiar patterns immediately caught my attention: the denigration of students and student writing (see Hesse’s recent Chronicle article), the vilification of high school English teachers, the shifting purposes of writing (e.g., a vocational skill, a means of exclusion, a service to other disciplines, the foundation of democracy), the reliance on objective standards and standardized testing in writing assessment, the marginalized place of writing instruction and instructors in the academy, even the erasure of First-Year Composition and Basic Writing from the curriculum. Reading Berlin’s historical account of writing instruction made me think Karr may be right: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

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