I apologize for writing this so late in the week. I’m inundated by student papers at the moment. Perhaps this is the perfect time to be thinking about Mina Shaughnessy’s Errors and Expectations. In the introduction, the most famous section of the book, Shaughnessy explains that the era of open admissions at CUNY presented a huge influx of students to the then-free CUNY campuses, many many many of whom were unprepared for college writing by the most generous of traditional standards. Much more importantly, instructors trained “to analyze belletristic achievements of the centuries” were completely unprepared for those struggling student writers. From this emerged the concept of the “Basic Writer” (BW), and a body of work aimed to assist Basic (or, now often called, developmental) writers “catch up.”
The big takeaway from this section is twofold. First, Shaughnessy warns instructors against assuming that student writing errors are random or lack an attempt to fulfill the requirements of the assignment. She urges instructors to recognize patterns in student error and to respond to the logic(s) they see within/behind those patterns. Additionally, she stresses that instructors should not see the ‘basic’ of basic writing [as] not how to write but how to be right” (6). Shaughnessy’s aim is not to make student writing error the focus of the class but to inform instructors the errors of their own common interpretations of basic student writing. “[Since] teachers’ preconceptions about errors are frequently at the center of their misconceptions about BW students, I have no choice but to dwell on errors” (6).
Shaughnessy concludes her introduction with an explanation of her view of the role of error in student writing. She describes the BW student’s struggle to write despite the writer’s awareness of the probability of the reader’s criticism over error, and she places the importance of error in no more prominent or important a place than in the economy of audience attention. If the text takes too much time and effort without a big enough payback (it’s not Milton, after all) for the audience then the prose needs reworking. It’s important to distinguish this outlook from one that would suggest BW textual errors amount to illiteracy or an illegitimacy of the writer’s place in college. From errors we’ll now move to expectations.
The major takeaway from “Chapter 8: Expectations” is simply (deceptively simply) that instructors can expect students to improve significantly with regular, though not intensive, instruction based on an understanding of the patterns and logics at work in BW texts. I should, here, note that when I use the phrase “patterns and logics” I’m trying to forward a sense of the concrete that Shaughnessy provides when she advocates for basic writers. I refer to the evidence, which she provides, of something at the heart of what Shaughnessy wants instructors to understand about basic writers: that they are fundamentally intelligent people who deserve a college education and a place in public discourse.
I’d love to elaborate further, but I need to return to my students’ papers. On Monday, I’d love to hear your thoughts about Shaughnessy’s premise in our current system. How much is education actually based on her fundamental premise? How much is your pedagogy driven by this understanding? Is this at the heart of things, or not so much?