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.”

Although Berlin’s history illustrates waxing and waning in the prominence of undergraduate writing courses and writing teacher support and preparation, his closing offers a confident view of the future of writing instruction and its value in higher education. He notes, “Writing instruction has been dramatically transformed in the past twenty-five years, a transformation that is salutary and ongoing” (189), and he describes the various way in which writing courses are respected for their role in preparing students for the academy and the world.

In many ways, this perception appears accurate today. Freshman composition is almost universally required in postsecondary education, graduate programs centered on rhetoric and writing studies have proliferated, and composition scholarship has broadened and deepened in the decades since the publication of Rhetoric and Reality. Certainly, a look at the CCCC 2017 program affirms the importance of writing instruction, in theory and practice, to our discipline. Nearly one-third of the accepted sessions fall under the categories of first-year writing, basic writing, and writing pedagogy, and when sessions related to professional and technical writing, digital media and online writing instruction, ELL, translingualism, and multilingualism, and writing programs are added to the mix, that total raises to over half of the program specifically dedicated to writing instruction, primarily undergraduate writing instruction.

Still, Berlin’s progressive view of the future of writing instruction seems overly optimistic. Berlin addresses a 1973 report by Ron Smith, which observed the reduction of and exemption from first year writing offerings at colleges and universities and predicted the eventual erasure of freshman composition. Berlin responds, “Smith’s prognosis, like all other predictions of the demise of the freshman writing course, proved to be inaccurate . . . Today the freshman writing course remains an essential element in the education of the majority of college students, and the graduate training and research effort given to rhetoric history, theory, and practice is greater than ever before” (182-183). While I agree in principle with Berlin’s final sentence, I can’t help but wonder, in the current political and economic climate, if Smith’s warnings were not erroneous, but premature.

Smith noted a set of symptoms, including alternative means of granting credit for freshman writing courses, and a set of causes, such as tighter budgets, difficulty of demonstrating course’s “value-added,” external and internal pressures to reduce gen. ed. requirements, that are eerily reminiscent of today’s higher education landscape.

While “accountability” rhetorics are not new to the discourse surrounding higher education, as Berlin illustrates, the present accountability movement has increasingly gravitated toward neoliberal economic ideologies, which tie performance measures to public funding and define the value of public education in primarily economic terms. This “paying for performance” view of accountability permeates all levels of government, and, increasingly, “venture philanthropists” and reform-minded grant-makers are shaping higher education policy.

At the same time, competency-based education, prior learning assessments, dual credit, and credit by testing are proliferating—and eroding the traditional vision of first year writing Berlin examines, and colleges increasingly rely on an adjunct and contingent academic labor force to teach developmental and first year composition courses.

All of these trends put first year writing—and the students and programs (including graduate programs!) that such courses support—at risk. With the sites of writing instruction shifting quickly away from universities, the traditional freshman composition course Berlin heralds is indeed endangered. As a discipline, we bear some responsibility for this endangerment. Despite arguments for the value of first year composition in undergraduate curriculum, we often assign responsibility for teaching those courses to the least experienced and least supported instructors and sometimes resist engaging in public conversations or in assessing our work in ways that are meaningful to public audiences.

We need to respond quickly, intelligently, and creatively, whether it’s reimagining postsecondary writing instruction, improving it in its current myriad forms and sites, engaging with the publics who make decisions about postsecondary writing instruction and providing understandable (and quantifiable) evidence of the value of writing instruction, or something else entirely. I believe the future of the field relies on writing studies professionals to be teachers, scholars, and advocates.

-Carolyn Calhoon-Dillahunt, Yakima Valley College, CCCC 2017 Program Chair