In Basic Writing as a Political Act: Public Conversations About Writing and Literacies, authors Linda Adler-Kassner and Susanmarie Harrington discuss how educational ideologies and literacy are not value-neutral in the classroom setting, and argue that examining ideology is key to recasting basic writing as social and actually inherently political. This notion of political must be divested from American cultural semiotics of election, candidate, party, etc.; instead, the authors embrace the “political” as Merriam-Webster introduces the term: “the total complex of relations between people living in society.” Adler-Kassner and Harrington do not explicitly engage in policy discussions, nor do they explicitly address governmental issues that affect Basic Writing; rather, they explicate the complexities of identity and ideology that occur at the intersections of private and public, individual and institutional. The authors focus on practical approaches to basic writing instruction, avoiding popular notions of mastery that rely on quantifiable data and skill-and-drill exercises. The authors repeatedly emphasize the importance of instructors both valuing student contributions and creating a classroom culture of equity-focused inclusivity.
Chapters one and two primarily present a thorough review of literature in basic writing studies. The authors highlight gaps in the research, especially honing in on the apoliticality of much of the discourse around basic writing: “students are often encouraged to develop the strategies necessary to work their ways out of basic writing, but not to consider the relationship between those strategies and what landed them in basic writing in the first place” (6). The authors go on to critique heavy hitters in the composition field—Ira Shor, David Bartholomae, Sondra Perl, and others—by demanding context for the theories presented by each scholar, locating this research “in a vacuum” (17). Harrington and Adler-Kassner are hyper-focused on the contexts surrounding basic writing, and situate their text as solvent for bridging these fields of thought. Instead of centering language-level concerns about generic convention and academic writing, the authors attempt to unpack the potential for basic writing classrooms to “become sites for investigating the contexts and ideologies associated with a range of literacy practices” (31). This, they claim, is basic writing’s unique opportunity for developing political consciousness.
Chapter three offers some insight into how students of basic writing are actually “conceptualiz[ing] writing” (34) that they perform in formal and informal settings by introducing interviews that the authors conducted with student writers about their own writing practices. Many of the student-writers assume that they have to have clearly-formed opinions before actually performing the task of writing (40). This issue of transmission is important both to the students interviewed and to the authors: if students don’t view writing as a process of learning and discovering, it’s doubly difficult for instructors to foster a student-centered learning culture. Even more importantly, the students’ differentiated views of literacy, and, more specifically, of writing, represent a startling “disjuncture” (39) in ideology: “‘writing’, something that is relatively subjective, and ‘writing in school’, something that is relatively objective” (34). Analyzing this and the corollary disconnect between content and form that students articulate throughout this chapter are essential components to Adler-Kassner and Harrington’s notions of becoming a “political” instructor. How do instructors in basic writing and beyond incorporate practical components to combat these restrictive perspectives?
Luckily, the authors value these practical tools highly, and make an effort to provide supportive suggestions for basic writing instructors. The authors focus especially on what they call “social literacy,” or the sociocultural elements that surround the contexts in which their students learn. These political frameworks provide an infrastructure for the crucial discussion of the creation of a basic writer: what identities and/or experiences do these students have (and likely share) that placed them into the basic writing course? Much of this echoes David Bartholomae’s influential essay “Inventing the University”: students with non-hegemonic (sorry, I’m keeping it) identities struggle to see themselves as insiders, or writers, and even to have a right to do so. “Chapter 4: Students Talk About Literacy Outside of School” echoes this concern: students perceive a “disjuncture” between their literate selves outside of the classroom and the role of academic writing. Instead, students’ views of at-school literacy is highly skills-based, with a laser focus on grammar, punctuation and other lower-order writing concerns, privileging surface correctness (48). Here, Adler-Kassner and Harrington really split open a huge divide in writing studies at large: valuing surface correctness often erases the social contexts of students’ writing. This is an issue in both instructors and in the institutions that house this instruction: basic writing is often seen as remedial, or a space in which writers who do not conform to institutional standards (e.g., are “problems”) can be redirected, or mainstreamed.
Adler-Kassner and Harrington’s investigation of these practices reveal widespread assumptions about student ability, perpetuated through mainstream media. The widespread “school-success narrative” is a feel-good reflection of what American culture believes its values are: meritocracy, bootstrapping, rags-to-riches, etc. “Remediation” contributes to this fantasy; students struggle because of [insert grievous circumstances caused by personal failure here] and a cheerful white woman swoops in to help the students find their voices and conform in culturally appropriate ways: “A central requirement of getting this education is amassing and reproducing objective literacy skills, which help to ensure that students are learning the appropriate material to facilitate participation in middle-class life” (62). Here, it is important to recall what Adler-Kassner and Harrington mean by “political;” this is a sardonic critique of capitalism and of the ideologies that must exist to perpetuate Marx’s alienation, Debord’s la société du spectacle, and ultimately, a lobotomized intellect. Thus, political exists beyond policy here; the authors recognize the necessity of engaging on a macro level with ideology and sociocultural semiotics. Their emphasis on this context is crucial for unpacking the reasons why certain populations of students are funneled into “developmental,” “remedial,” or “basic” courses upon entering post-secondary schools. For them, basic writing is a space to critique these institutions that perpetuate capitalist identity manufacturing and in fact, a space to assign value to othered literacies while enabling students to recognize the demand for code-switching in various social contexts. These social contexts are the crux of Adler-Kassner and Harrington’s thesis here: by incorporating recognizable social literacies into how students identities as writers develop in basic writing courses, instructors can imbue these courses with a radicalism and an audience awareness not available elsewhere. While the tangible goal of college-level writing instruction is to successfully mimic a genre (argumentation, usually), this mimicry becomes an exercise in metacognition. Students develop the skills to not only recognize genres in various contexts, but to explicate the ideological motivations for those particular genres within a sociopolitical landscape. This ability to 1) recognize and 2) examine are central to Adler-Kassner and Harrington’s goals here; this radicalism can permeate basic writing courses through successful manipulation of the syllabus.
Syllabi function as public documents that demarcate ideology of the course for which they’re written. For basic writing, the syllabi can successfully bridge the divide between contextual literacy and skills-based literacy. Social/contextual literacy is inherently political, and the authors posit that explicit inclusion of social theory in the course syllabus allows students to both 1) validate their own existing literacies, and 2) develop an awareness of various modes of literacy that they need to master to successfully navigate academic contexts. This demand also extends to instructors. When authoring the syllabus, instructors must critically examine the context in which they are teaching, the needs of their student population, the sociocultural moment, and their own implicit (or explicit) biases. This move is challenging but, Adler-Kassner and Harrington argue, mandatory.