What Do I Look Like, the Shell Answer Man?

This week’s texts by Mina Shaughnessy, Mike Rose, and Min-Zhan Lu highlight ongoing problems with philosophies that shape the approaches colleges and universities have taken and continue to take to remediate. . .um, scratch that. . .meet the needs of remedial students. . .no, scratch that. . .basic writers. Shaughnessy’s work has helped people re-envision basic writers as lacking the academic discourse rather than ability; their errors have logic, and they can learn the discourse. Rose points out that it is critical to treat writing as more than a set of skills that can be taught – or remediated – in a semester. Lu acknowledges the contributions of Shaughnessy, but wonders if students’ meaning – the actual intent of their message – is changed in the “translation” to academic discourse.

Shaughnessy’s claim has been around for over three decades, long enough that we have research and policy developed around it. Today, an educator who questions the ability of every child to learn, and, moreover, to learn to proficiency as measured by standardized tests, is a pariah. Rose’s ideas, even though they are from roughly the same time, are more controversial. Teachers of writing certainly view it as a complex, “integrated body of knowledge” (592), challenging both to teach and learn. We lament Rose’s too-true contention that writing is reduced to a set of skills because, this way, it is easier to measure (590).

Then along comes Lu, and her claim complicates things so much that – okay, this is very nonacademic of me – I want to put my hands over my ears and go “nah, nah, nah, I can’t hear you.” Because, frankly, I don’t have any answers, and the idea of screwing people up is really scary. How do we honor students’ nonacademic language in an academic environment? What is the purpose of the academic environment? Are we preparing children to pass a test so we can keep our jobs? So they can access higher institutions of learning? Do we want them to know the academic discourse because many jobs that pay well expect it? Because we want them to have options? If we just recognize and acknowledge that translation, even if it’s from home language to “Engfish,” always changes meaning in some way, will this be enough to counter the cultural hegemony of the great white beast? If we pull children from class in order to give them a double dose of language arts, are we harming them by labeling them? If we don’t, aren’t we harming them by failing to teach them to read and write?

Anyway, these are the questions I was supposed to answer in this week’s post:

Were you ever labeled a “remedial” writer by teachers or think of yourself as “remedial”? Did you have students in your classes or school who were placed into remedial sections? Why do you think this happened? What criteria were used to identify remedial students? Do you think those courses met the needs of the students placed into them? Now, thinking either as a teacher or a student, how do you think our educational system should address the needs of students whose writing abilities do not meet the standards? What should those standards be? How can writing teachers balance the need for students to be successful in college and beyond with a respect for the diverse literacies that they bring to the classroom?

Umm . . . I don’t know? I mean, no, I wasn’t a remedial student. In the primary grades we had reading groups. Now, it’s called guided reading, and it’s all about teaching students in their zone of proximal development (remember Vygotsky?). We kids knew who could read well and who couldn’t, so we figured the groups out pretty fast. Writing was more private, but instruction was not differentiated. In the intermediate grades, reading was whole class, including the painful round-robin read aloud. Then, in seventh grade, the last year of elementary school, we all took an IQ test. We gathered in the cafeteria and spread out at the long tables. Shortly thereafter, our parents received letters stating our IQ – determined on that single day by a single oh-so-scientific measure – along with notification of our placement in junior high. There was the college-prep track, the college-prep track with a gifted humanities class thrown in as an elective, and then all of the other kids. I don’t know what their track was called, and if it was one track or multiple tracks. I’m ashamed of my ignorance. Somehow, though, most, although not all, of the kids who ended up in the college prep track were middle income and white, and this in a school that was 60% African American. Imagine.

Now consider these snippets of information:

  • As early as 1969, researchers had documented the greater negative effects of test anxiety on African American students as compared to Caucasian students. Bronzaft, Murgatroyd, and McNeilly (1974) compared test anxiety between two groups of black students: American minority blacks with overall negative school experiences to Trinidad, West Indian majority blacks with generally positive school experiences. The black students in New York had significantly greater detrimental test anxiety. Perhaps even more significantly (and I’m sorry, I can’t locate the source, but I read this recently), African American students perform better on a given test if they are not told it is a high-stakes test. For example, if one group of African American students takes a standardized test and is told that it will determine their placement in a class, they will score significantly worse on that test than a group of similar African American students who believe the same test has no bearing on their future.
  • Richard Hernstein and Charles Murray published Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life in 1994. According to Plucker (“Human intelligence”), they claim that, while Asians have a slight genetic advantage over Caucasians when it comes to IQ, Caucasians have a substantial advantage over African Americans. The authors use IQ tests to help substantiate their claim. In the first several months, the book sold 400,000 copies.
  • In 1996 Stephen Jay Gould, a Harvard paleontologist and author, revised The Mismeasure of Man, originally published in 1981. He wrote that he did so because biological determinists, who “have often invoked the traditional prestige of science as objective knowledge, free from social and political taint” (52), had found fertile soil in the political landscape of the 1990s. Thus, the success of The Bell Curve, which did not contain new ideas, just new packaging. In the book, Gould recognizes that “science, since people must do it, is a socially embedded activity. …Much of its change through time does not record a closer approach to absolute truth, but the alteration of cultural contexts that influence it so strongly.”

I haven’t answered this week’s questions. I can respect the languages that my students bring to the classroom and realize that nonacademic discourse does not correspond to lack of ability. But beyond that, there does not seem to be any consensus around what is best for students, whether we are talking about self-esteem, academic gains, or opening up future opportunities to access power structures.


Bronzaft, A. L., Murgatroyd, D., & McNeilly, R. A. (1974). Test Anxiety Among Black College Students: A Cross-Cultural Study. The Journal of Negro Education, 43(2), 190-193. Retrieved April 21, 2010, from JSTOR.

Gould, S. J. (2008). The mismeasure of man. New York: W.W. Norton.

Lu, M. (2009). Redefining the legacy of Mina Shaughnessy: A critique of the politics of linguistic innocence. In S. Miller (Ed.), The Norton Book of Composition Studies (pp. 772-782). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1991)

Plucker, J. A. (Ed.). (2003). Human intelligence: Historical influences, current controversies, teaching resources. Retrieved [insert month day, year], from http://www.indiana.edu/~intell

Rose, M. (2009). The language of exclusion: Writing instruction at the university. In S. Miller (Ed.), The Norton Book of Composition Studies (pp. 586-604). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1985)

Shaughnessy, M. (2009). Introduction to Errors and expectations: A guide for the teacher of basic writing. In S. Miller (Ed.), The Norton Book of Composition Studies (pp. 387-396). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1977)


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by es335 on April 21, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    I think you did something very positive when you assigned a multimodal assignment to your class. Now, how are you gonna grade it? By obvious levels of participation and effort? Will there be any room for “error” in this assignment? I think the class cheered because they felt emotional chains being removed from their souls! Discourse, the different ways we talk, is tied to cultural, social, and political identity and freedom, and when you assigned this project the students probably felt like they were finally being allowed to talk in a format where they are usually told what and how to say it. (That format being tests/papers, I’m sure you’re a cool teacher in the classroom).

    I decided after Tuesday’s class that I need to be more open, less cynical, and more positive as I am reading and discussing these pedagogical theories. I sense a similar practicality in you, but more so in you being that you are a teacher. Your struggle with the word “remedial” at the beginning of your post is symbolic of the rhetorical effect such labeling has on the academic environment. The questions you ask at the end of your third paragraph are the same ones I ask myself, but in a less informed way. I always just wind up saying “how the hell are we supposed to change all of this when the administration, school system, testing companies, and national education regulators are all making us teach a certain way?”

    Changing the rhetoric of something is a way to change its reality. Thanks to Rose, we know that “remedial” is a highly politicized word. The fact that so many educators believe that one day the problem of writing skills will be fixed is another subconsciously rhetorical fixture which protect us from the truth, which is that there will always be different discourses rubbing up against each other. What if we did call it “transitional writing”?


    • Thanks so much for your response, and for your encouragement with the multimodal assignment. The kids are definitely excited about the music component. I can’t believe how many 4th graders have iPods!

      You know, I really wasn’t ready to have the kids start this project; I was just running the idea by them. But they wanted to start immediately. So groups formed yesterday and started kicking ideas around. Some kids didn’t even wait for me to get a storyboard form drawn up; they made their own. Several brought iPods today, even though I won’t let them begin downloading songs or images until I’ve approved their storyboard. And we hadn’t even talked about still vs. moving images, how long song clips could last…we got into some of that today. So we will be creating the grading rubric together. I want the emphasis to be on how important the five scenes they chose are to the book, the rationale behind the image/video choice, and how well the song lyrics or mood fits the image/scene from the book.

      One advantage of having the kids working in class is that I can have these conversations with them. A group of girls wanted to use “Hey Jude” for their introductory slide, which sets the stage for the novel. I asked them why they chose it, and they couldn’t tell me. But they came back to me several minutes later, after they’d found the lyrics online, and pointed to the lines, “The minute you let her under your skin/Then you begin to make it better/And anytime you feel the pain, hey Jude, refrain/Don’t carry the world upon your shoulders.” They said that this represents how, even though she’s dead, Bud carries the memory of his mom with him throughout his journey, and when he feels low, he remembers how much she loved him, which helps him get through tough times. Wow. These are 4th graders. That’s some profound thinking going on. I already consider this assignment a success for that group of girls.


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