At a moment when more than 75 percent of basic writing students— those enrolled in remedial or non-credit composition courses—are not making it through college (Bailey and Cho, 2010), this dissertation ethnographically investigates how the material conditions of working class students’ lives contribute to their failure or success in writing classes. Ultimately, this dissertation uses both archival and ethnographic research to argue that in order to best support students’ literacy learning, instructors of basic writing must recognize three aspects of students’ lives: their existing literacy skills, the racism and poverty they often face, and the powerful motivations for writing those challenges can bring.
I start to address this issue through a unique archival review of scholarship in basic writing. My analysis of more than 900 scholarly articles addressing basic writing from 1969-2013 reveals that the field itself has promoted harmful stereotypes of BW students. These stereotypes stem from articles that draw on personal memory rather than formal study, while the few studies employing rigorous methods paint a picture of basic writing students as motivated and capable. But if students are motivated and capable, what accounts for their low rates of academic success?
To answer this question, I conducted a two-year-long ethnographic study of a basic writing class, including daily observations of the course in order to get at students’ experiences in the classroom, a number of interviews with nine focal students and the instructor to better understand their literate and material lives, and follow-up interviews with these students over the following three semesters to explore how these students continue to balance their literacy learning, material realities, and educational goals.
I analyze these data using grounded theory and Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT). Grounded theory coding allowed me to identify significant trends in the ethnographic and interview data which highlighted the importance of material conditions, race, and social class in students’ lives and their interactions with the instructor. CHAT allowed me to put these at-the-party moments into conversation with the broader sociohistorical legacy of which they are a part, pinpointing areas of conflict and their underlying cultural logics.
Findings & implications
I find that these basic writing students often experience writing as rhetorically complex and deeply meaningful, though their rhetorical savvy is often misinterpreted in the classroom. Where their formal education may have fallen short, the students in this study developed into successful out-of-school writers by learning to respond to the demands and pleasures of writing in their daily lives. The instructor, however, designed a curriculum that—in line with much BW scholarship—focused on helping students develop an appreciation for education, goals he feels are realistic, and ultimately, to help them escape the cycle of poverty. The students in this study, however, already valued education and demonstrated strong motivation to overcome significant barriers to getting that education. They wanted to learn about writing and, while many students stuck it out—albeit discouraged by this mismatch in expectations—many more dropped out.
This finding has implications not just for the nine students and instructor I engaged with for this study, but for our understanding of basic writing more broadly. It suggests that recent attention to the supposed problematic behaviors and attitudes of basic writers reproduces the not only problematic behaviors, racially-informed scholarly constructions of basic writers in earlier scholarship by misappropriating the insights of new literacy studies, but may also sometimes cause the problematic attitudes it seeks to ameliorate.
From quantitative work on attrition to qualitative work in the classroom, who scholars believe basic writing students are affects not only who gets studied and how these studies are designed, but—most crucially—how we interpret our findings. Likewise, because many popular basic writing programs including the Accelerated Learning Program draw on these problematic critiques, this study’s findings may also help us revise basic writing pedagogies to better serve the needs of our students. Finally, because instructor expectations have a real, demonstrable impact on students’ experiences and performance in the classroom, from how a course is designed to student performance in the course (and thus their work toward a degree and career), I also hope that the findings of this study will reach instructors who may cultivate more equitable educational environments for our students.