I think that reading Adrienne Rich’s essay “Teaching Language in Open Admission” is particularly appropriate to begin our class, because rather than discussing the beginnings of basic writing in a dry, impersonal, “academic” tone, Rich details her ideas by drawing from her personal experiences and describing in vivid, eloquent detail the poverty and difficult situations that many of these students face. Rich’s narrative style allows us to step into her shoes and imagine ourselves in her position–one that makes us possibly more empathetic to these student’s individual circumstances. No doubt, these disadvantaged or challenged students were all lumped into one category–that of the “hopeless students”–before Mina Shaghnessy’s revolutionary work with these students that she details in her text Errors and Expectations, and Rich touches on in her essay. I’m especially impressed by Shaughnessy’s, Rich’s, and their colleagues’ insistence on working with these students on their own terms and respecting their style of intelligence. For example, Rich writes that “students who could barely sweat out a paragraph delivered...dazzling raps in the classroom” and describes inner-city African-American students as being “politically conscious” (4,5). In other words, they may have not fit the standards of white, middle-class academia, but they were in no way untalented or lacking in intelligence. I appreciate the contributions of Rich, Shaughnessy, and the others who worked in these programs, because their work reinforces the idea that true learning comes from questioning the norms, rather than blindly accepting them.
Rich, Adrienne. “Teaching Language in Open Admissions.” Landmark Essays on Basic Writing. Ed. Kay Halasek and Nels P. Highberg.