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Mere Rhetoric

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history.

Sep 24, 2015

Welcome Mere rhetoric a podcast for beginners and insiders about the people, ideas and movements that have shaped the rhetorical world. Special thanks to the Samantha in the booth and the Humanities Media Project for the support I’m mary h and today we’re talking about Mina Shaughnessy’s book Error and Expectations


Errors and Expectations was published in 1977, but the story that led to it begins earlier, in the late 60s. After centuries of higher education being limited t the elite classes, universities began to open up. In fact, many universities, including Shaughnessy’s City College in New York, began open admissions. This meant that college education was now available to many people who had never before thought that they could attend college. This also meant that many of the new students were underprepared for college. This led to the development of what was called “basic writing”—what had previously been called “remedial writing.” Shaughnessey had to develop a program that would help the students to learn to write in ways that would enable success in all of their college classes. Quickly she discovered tht the students she taught weren’t writing like absolute novices or children, but that their writing had its own sort of logic based on the rules they thought they knew about writing. She found “BW students write the way they do, not because they are slow or non-verbal, indifferent to or incapable of academic excellence, but because they are beginners and must, like all beginners, learn by making mistakes “ But it wasn’t enough just to go off of a hunch. Shaughnessey compiled more than 4000 placement essays—the essays that determined whether students needed to be placed in basic writing—and searched for the patterns in them.


In this way, Shaughnessay was a pioneer in two fields: First off, she was among the first composition scholars to look at the characteristics of basic writers in more than a defitionency model. These students weren’t monkeys bashing away at typewriters when they wrote their essays, but their errors were informed by their expectations—what they thought was good writing. If certain rules or principles hadn’t been taught them, their errors would exhibit those patterns, but Shaughnessy broke away from the idea that some people just couldn’t write or couldn’t be taught how to write. She encouraged instructors to not worry about having to lay ground work but instead insisted ““Words, for the most part, must be learned in contexts, not before contexts” (217).

She legitimized the study of basic writing and dignified basic writers within composition.


As she writes in her introduction “the territory I am calling basic writing and what others might call remedial or developmental writing” is still very much a frontier, unmapped, except for a scattering of impressionistic articles anda few blazed trails that individual teachers propose those their tests, and like the settlers of other frontiers, the teachers who by choice or assignment are heading to this pedagogical West are certain to be carrying many things they will no be needing, that will clog their journey as they get further on. So too they will discover the need of other things they do not have and will need to fabricate by mother wit out of what is at hand”


That kind of rough-and-ready development of a theory, is the other way that Shaughnessay influenced a developing field; she was among the first practitioner-scholars of composition. She taught basic writers for nine years and was intimately connected with these students’ experience, but she wasn’t content to thinking about improving the writing of just a handful of students in just her class. She found patterns in writing, began to classify and characterize these patterns and connected them to the available. When most of the understanding about basic writing was mired in what Stephen North would call “lore,” Shaughnessy was trying to find clear empirical ways of talking about student writing. This isn’t to say she was a pioneer in an ivory tower—each of her chapters gives suggestions to other practitioners and she talks about the importance of “Monday morning, into the life of the young man or woman sitting in a BW class,” where” our linguistic contemplations are likely to hover over a more immediate reality—namely the fact that a person who does not control the dominant code of literacy in a society that generated more writing than any society in history is likely to be pitched against more obstacles than are apparent to those who have already mastered that code” –in short, writing with errors hurts the lives of basic writers. For Shaughnessy, the access to this code was a matter of political and social justice, and was imperative to her age—and if you think about how we have entered a world of incessant texting, blogging, report writing, then you can imagine how important these questions of access are today. You can image these questions of access resonating with later scholars who care about questions of access like Lisa Delpit.


Although we now have many more studies about the patterns of Basic writing and how to educate basic writers, Shaughnessy remains a crucial figure for the discipline and this book Erros and Expectations, is now a classic of composition research.