Errors and Expectations

Hi All,

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?





3 thoughts on “Errors and Expectations

  1. Sakina Laksimi Morrow

    Good catch Jojo. I was laughing to myself as I recalled how I’ve lost all semblance of control in the balance between paying close attention to my own classwork and preparing/carrying out the three courses I am teaching this semester. Due to a general oversight on my part, I have received the papers of all my courses within a one week span, and as such, I am trying to chip away at providing helpful/productive feedback in a timely manner while sticking my head into this forum to see where everyone is at with the texts for the week, while preparing my presentation and paper for another class. The traffic jam of intellectual/mental work that populates my mind at this point in the semester has me both feeling stupid and smart.

    As to the initial provocation: How much is your pedagogy driven by this understanding? Oh boy what a loaded question. I think about pedagogy on several fronts; as practical, as epistemological, as ontological, and as experimental. While I must return to wrapping up some of the texts that I haven’t gotten to yet (sorry!) and therefore I cannot go into great depth in explaining these categories, I will relate them to one quote from Shaughnessy piece.

    “There is no easy or quick way to undo this damage. The absence of errors, it is true, does not count much towards good writing, yet the pile up of errors that characterizes BW papers reflect more difficulty with written English than the term “error” is likely to imply. To try to persuade a student who makes these errors that the problems with his writing are all on the outside, or that he has no problems, may well be to perpetuate his confusion and deny him the ultimate freedom of deciding how and when and where he shall use language. For him, error is more than a mis-hap; it is a barrier that keeps him not only from writing something in formal English but having something to write.”(Shaughnessy 11)

    The internal conflict of practical external measures (both for the teacher, the college and the student), the epistemological considerations of our social world (vis a vis the formal production of knowledge in language and in institutions), the ontological implications of deficiency/social-cultural hierarchy, and the constant negotiation and re-vision of definitions of success and progress as they play out on various classrooms are encapsulated in Shaughnessy’s deliberations on what error implies, how it is constructed and negotiated, and the teacher’s precarious role within this relationship. The classroom as such as a locus of power, for the better or worse, in addressing the various categories, definitions and measures of progress and development

  2. Sara Vogel, PhD. (she/her)

    I appreciated the asset-based rather than deficit-based thinking Shaughnessy brought to the conversation about BWs. In K-12, most teachers have already accepted the fact that no matter the subject they teach, they are literacy teachers. This has yet to land in higher education, though I’ve tried to practice it in my own work in higher ed spaces.

    Given all of that, I learned more from Elbow’s piece about how to actually support writers. Students in my SPS online class are usually juniors and seniors when I meet them, and they don’t tend to make too many sentence level errors. Most of their challenges are organizational and deal with the strength of their arguments and evidence.

    Elbow’s piece taught me formal names for practices I already have: I always provide opportunities for low and high stakes writing, including weekly discussion postings and journal entries, a midterm project and a final research paper. I require drafts and peer reviews on the project and paper. I have a detailed rubric to go along with every assignment, which I use as a tool for providing feedback on drafts, and also provide coaching for peer evaluators so they might become keen observers of what’s needed.

    Something from his text I might practice is matching the type of writing to one of the feedback methods along that low to high continuum. I learned the “sandwich” method a long time ago (this is what worked, this is what you need to work on, this is what worked), but I like the idea that even just a straight or squiggly line might speak volumes.

  3. Jojo Karlin (she/her/hers)

    Alexis, I really appreciated your bringing up grading papers as you read Shaughnessy. The intersections of teaching and learning seem to crop up a lot. How does your reading affect your grading process (not only how you think about your assessments and comments (in light of Elbow), but also your personal labor — do you put your students’ work first or do you feel a higher priority in completing those tasks you owe to yourself? The question of oppressed faculty who are also oppressive teachers that Makeba noted also falls along fault lines of professing learning. I don’t know how, as a permeable learner/educator, you negotiate these distinctions. Advocating for co-intended classrooms depends on determining a consensual aim.

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