[journal entry] on Mike Rose’s “Remedial Writing Courses: A Critique and a Proposal”

October 31, 2007
Journal Entry on Mike Rose’s “Remedial Writing Courses: A Critique and a Proposal” (The Writing Teacher’s Sourcebook 193-211)

First, I’m wondering if, since it was published in 1983, this article reflects an different state of affairs regarding remedial or developmental writing courses.  Some of what Rose critiques no longer seems true, anyway.  From what I know, pre-college-level writing courses no longer emphasize product over process, no longer use main workbook sentence or paragraph exercises (though in the “lowest” developmental courses, they might), and most that I know of do ask students to work with texts.  And many of them certainly do assign academic topics and schemata.

Rose wants “remedial” writing courses to include assignments with “academic substance” (210), which work with texts, an emphasis on the writing process (to move students away from a paralyzing over-emphasis on correctness), an emphasis on reading and thinking as well as writing (integrating the three), and more focus on global “schemata,” organization patterns and ways of investigating and explaining that will cross disciplinary and professional boundaries.  Overall Rose’s proposal seems sensible, though it does assume a couple of things.  While reading this essay, I kept thinking that Rose was focusing on what student writers needed to learn, but not so much on how they learn it.  I appreciate his point that we need to assign assignments that make the student feel motivated and involved in the academic world around them.  And I’m intrigued by the studies he brings in that say beginning students off with narrative and/or description doesn’t help them move to more complex modes.  But other than that, I wish he’d gotten more into how “remedial” writers learn. He assumes personal writing is assigned too much or inappropriately by teachers who are misunderstanding or at least exaggerating the work of Ken Macrorie, John Rouse, Stephen Judy, and Janet Emig (202-203).

I do take his overall point, though: we need to figure out a way to help students dive into writing complex structures, get them interacting with texts, show them the richness of the writing process, shaping their thinking the way academics and other thinkers do, not hiding them in too simple or too personal projects (I assume by the way he talks about using the “expressive, exploratory dimension” of “academic topics as much as personal ones” (210) that he is not saying all personal writing is unhelpful but only the too simple variety).  On one hand, that’s harder said than done.  On the other, at YVCC, a lot of the instructors used very similar assignments in their college-level and their pre-college level classes.  For the latter, they might simply leave off a component or rephrase the main question.  These were the “English 75 classes,” though – only one step from “college level.”  The lower developmental classes often focused simply on writing good paragraphs, often using personal topics and no readings.

What I mainly take away from this article is his emphasis on moving “remedial” writers immediately into academically-complex writing (especially with structures that will apply in many situations) and his emphasis on helping writers see the richness of the writing process (the need to help them get away from focus on correctness over content).  I’m also going to follow-up on the studies which conclude that narration and description do not help build up students writing abilities (204-205): Suzanne E. Jacobs and Adela B. Karliner, “Helping Writers to Think” CE 41 (1979-80), 19-37 (204 footnote).

P.S. Rose begins his article making a distinction between “traditional college ‘remedial’ writers” and “truly ‘basic’ writers” (193) – a distinction I don’t understand, since I use those terms interchangeably.  I wonder if his proposal applies to the lowest level of developmental writing (what at YVCC we called “Developmental Writing  41”) as opposed to pre-college writing (what we called “English 70 and English 75).  There certainly is a difference between those levels, the DVWRI 41 classes being taught more closely to the model Rose critiques.

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One thought on “[journal entry] on Mike Rose’s “Remedial Writing Courses: A Critique and a Proposal”

  1. Interesting. I teach all three classes very differently, though my goal is that they build on each other. (By “three,” I mean 70, 75 and 101.) In 70 students write summaries of their texbook chapters, as well as personal/narrative essays in which process is emphasized. I begin with just getting something on the page, then move to helping them organize their writing, and finish with a focus on mechanics that involves their own writing.

    In 75 I ask students to do the kinds of writing they’re expected to do in academic coursework. Little personal writing, in other words. (This move from personal to academic writing was prompted by a summer workshop facilitated by someone from the Evergreen Center a few years ago). They write summaries, practice answering exam questions, and finish with an essay in which they evaluate the academic credibility of a website (Obviously I have multiple goals for that assignment!) I don’t know how well it works compared to personal narrative, but I’ve had students tell me over and over again that it parallels what they’re being asked to do in social science courses or has helped them in a psychology paper or whatever.

    In 101, I’m playing with different approaches, but one of the things I’ve noticed in almost 19 years of teaching (counting my graduate TA classes) is that students can get quite good at personal writing, and somehow not transfer those skills to academic papers. Since their college success depends on academic discourse, I’ve moved towards asking for more academic papers. I want them to learn to read and incorporate other people’s ideas (as well as their own personal experience) rather than just drawing on their limited experiences and often fairly dualistic opinions to make grand statements.

    Still, I have questions. I’m always changing things, trying to get a step closer to making a difference for more students. It’s an ongoing project.

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