I’ve been researching the rhetorical constructions of Asperger Syndrome, and when I approached this week’s readings for Comp Histories/Theories, I saw a theme emerging from Shaughnessy, Lu, and Rose that addressed the development of the “remedial” student. The frustrations that revolve around basic writing courses—that students are so far behind or that they cannot succeed within the classroom—is perpetuated by disabling language. For example, a student who is labeled “remedial” because she doesn’t (or can’t) conform to SAE has little opportunity to move away from that categorization. Shaughnessy, Lu, and Rose all critically address this issue, demonstrating ways that we can navigate around such harmful language.
Shaughnessy coined the term “basic writer,” but “basic” in no way assumes remediation. In fact, she acknowledges that though she refers to it as “basic writing,” others say “remedial or developmental writing” (389). In the introduction to Errors and Expectations, Shaughnessy describes the aim of her book as an attempt to showcase the difficulties that basic writers have, providing a framework for “how the sources of those difficulties can be explained without recourse to such pedagogically empty terms as ‘handicapped’ or ‘disadvantaged’” (389). She suggests that remediating language only seeks to confuse students who are already having difficulties navigating the composition classroom, “paralyzing” (393) writers.
I can’t really make any connections as to how Shaughnessy addresses these rhetorical constructions throughout the book because we only read the introduction, butt Lu picks up some of these ideas in “Redefining the Legacy of Mina Shaughnessy: A Critique of the Politics of Linguistic Innocence.” Lu argues against essentialist language, claiming, “[L]anguage is best understood not as a neutral vehicle of communication but as a site of struggle among competing discourses” (772). Though she is talking about the language we use when producing discourse, this can also be applied to the language that we use when circulating discourse. When we describe students as “remedial” or “deficient,” that language is subjective and loaded with ideas about disability as an “abnormality.” Lu acknowledges that Shaughnessy’s pedagogy advocates a “respect for discursive diversity and freedom of discursive choice,” but that ultimately, her “essentialist view of language” works against those goals (780). That is, without recognizing the politics behind language choices, Shaughnessy is unable to rhetorically reconstruct more understanding ideas of basic writers.
The issue surrounding essential language reminded me of something I read recently about essentializing disability. For a symposium on disability in Rhetoric Review, Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson warns that rhetoricians must “be on guard to avoid language and arguments that sentimentalize, essentialize, or exploit the disabled for the well-being of the nondisabled” (157). When rhetorically constructing identities, it is necessary not to essentialize groups of people, to construct either/or binaries that trap people into one category or the other. Essentializing basic writers erases their individual strengths and weaknesses, perpetutating mistruths about what basic writers are capable of accomplishing within the composition classroom. This can be seen in the often-disabling language we use to describe them.
Rose is very aware of the politics of language, something that he addresses explicitly in “The Language of Exclusion: Writing Instruction at the University.” Rose writes that to be remedial “is to be substandard, inadequate, and because of the origins of the term, the inadequacy is metaphorically connected to disease and mental defect” (594). Thus, the remedial student is seen in terms of the medical-deficit model, pathologized because of a “lack” of writing ability. Rose writes, “People tried to diagnose various disabilities, defects, deficits, deficiencies, and handicaps, and then tried to remedy them” (595). He argues that this language is exclusionary, that it keeps these “remedial” students from gaining access to the academic community, paralleling the way rhetorical constructions of disability exclude people from a dominant, “normative” society.
By examining the politics behind these constructions, Rose is able to suggest ways to deconstruct assumptions about basic writers and move toward more inclusive pedagogy. He writes, “Remediation. It is time to abandon this troublesome metaphor” (601). That is, in order to move beyond harmful rhetoric, we must deconstruct it and find an alternative. In this case, an alternative should not alienate or exclude students. Rose suggests that to do this, we need to affirm a richer, more diverse model of language—its development, uses, and production (600). Whereas Shaughnessy posits that different discourses are disparate, that one cannot substitute for another—thus excluding certain kinds of discourse—Rose argues that we must see the benefits of all types of discourses in order for students to gain confidence as writers and succeed.
As all three of these readings show, basic writers—and most student writers—have very little confidence going into any college writing course, but once we start assigning harmful labels that construct students as “disabled,” there is little room for them to navigate away from that discourse and succeed.
Shaughnessy, Mina P. “Introduction to Errors and Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing.” Norton Book of Composition Studies. Ed. Susan Miller. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009. 387-396.
Lu, Min-Zhan. “Redefining the Legacy of Mina Shaugnessy: A Critique of the Politics of Linguistic Innocence.” Norton Book of Composition Studies. Ed. Susan Miller. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009. 772-782.
Rose, Mike. “The Language of Exclusion: Writing Instruction at the University.” Norton Book of Composition Studies. Ed. Susan Miller. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009. 586-604.
Tracy Ann Morse, Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson, Kenneth Lindblom, Patricia A. Dunn, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, Georgina Kleege, Tonya M. Stremlau, Jane Erin & James C. Wilson (2003): Representing Disability Rhetorically, Rhetoric Review, 22:2, 154-202