Rhetoric and Print

So much emphasis is placed on the vernacular versus print in basic writing discourse, as is the case with Basic Writing by George Otte and Rebecca Williams Mlynarczyk. The authors support the idea of tolerance in varied forms of English and a reference to comfortably code switching from academic discourse to more relaxed language usage. But, I argue for acceptance. Acceptance shuns the notion that one form of English is better than the other, but establishes a base line of communication all parties can agree on. Unfortunately, all who helped in the evolution of English language rules were not all parties who must learn the rules now.

Otte claims students should be taught how to engage with and produce academic writing, but not to disregard their natural spoken dialect as “inferior” when compared to print (84). The concept of acceptance sort of rebuttals Shaughnessy’s approach to errors in basic writing. Although the author commonly refers to this process as “tolerance” the term has a negative connotation to begrudgingly accepting something deemed as outside of the norm. To classify basic writers as substandard and to then harp on Black English Vernacular (as Shaughnessy does) negates dialectical studies of regional language usage, such as the infamous Northern “can I have a gum” or “may I have a coffee” as opposed to the Southern “cup of coffee” or “piece of gum.” I’ve heard various genders of a variety of races of all socioeconomic classes in the North say “a coffee, a gum” and have never heard a Southerner of any race or socioeconomic status to say the same. Shaughnessy’s theories conclude these errors as being “wrong” only and not also simply different (84).

Although, one could argue if a student is American and taught to be more comfortable with code switching then that learner could be labeled as an ESL student. If this situation were the case then are not most basic learners close to being labeled ESL students? According to the article, the ESL department had not experienced an increase in participation just yet and so in defining the basic writer must have included elements of foreign learners. Otte points out that basic writers have a number of “incalculable variables” contributing to overall writing other than Standard English (88). Since George Otte is more concerned with digital scholarship and blended learning this text seems to forge his own journey to ‘seeing’ the writer and the writer’s language and not so much the writer’s racial or economic status. Basic writing instructors deal with “cognitive development and social identity” while Otte and Mlynarczyk also point out that the lack of enlightened approaches to addressing errors could have also led to the use of technology as a “medium” to correcting errors (89, 90). As the focus of error shifts from “oversimplification” to the students’ actual thinking process Otte has moved the field of basic writing to a pedestal other theories can reach for.

New methods can be utilized to enrich the basic writer and avoid errors. Christy l. Wenger in Yoga Minds, Writing Bodies: Contemplative Writing Pedagogy argues that the entire student must be engaged to avoid errors. To engage fully, mind and body develops the cognitove functioning of the student. Indeed, students are simply too “different” and “diverse” to be measured by standardized means (94). The statement seems to contradict the discourse of basic writing because the very essence of instruction still comes down to correcting the different and diverse “errors” teachers encounter.


5 thoughts on “Rhetoric and Print

  1. That is an interesting take. I am not sure I agree with your assessment of Shaughnessy, though. Every language has their rules, and yes, while there are always varieties in dialect, we have to come to a consensus. Shaughnessy followed the academic consensus of the time, in regard to error. She was not saying that these students are inferior, but that their struggle with writing might lead to them failing university. She did not set up the rules of how academia writes. She tried to figure out why students make the errors they do, and how we as instructors can find better ways to help them succeed. I don’t think she considered those students or their dialects inferior. Yes, adopting the academic discourse while retaining a form of one’s own native vernacular is a form of code-switching that is similar to ESL students, but it is still not quite the same. As Shaughnessy also pointed out, BW students do not struggle in their daily lives and interactions with language. They can express themselves, they can communicate, and they don’t need to learn a new vocabulary to function in their daily lives, while ESL students had to learn a completely different language. They could not function in the daily lives here without learning a new vocabulary.

    I do agree with your distinction between “acceptance” and “tolerance,” and I also advocate acceptance over tolerance, but at the same time, for as long as the academic discourse at universities is what it is, students need to learn it. They need to become comfortable using it. I am all for working on changing the discourse of the academy to make it more inclusive for different voices and backgrounds. Yet, this is a slow process, and while we are moving in the right direction, I think we would do our students a disservice if we did not encourage them to adopt the academic discourse while they attend university.


    1. I’m not arguing for students to not learn academic discourse in college, what would be the point in going. I’m asserting that what is considered “wrong” in basic writing is mislabeling some writers as intellectually lacking versus “different”. I believe Otte and other authors assert this same notion. Also, there are ESL students who speak and write English better than American students and are labeled as ESL by the educational system based on the assumption that they need to acquire basic writing skills because they are from another country. These students are also “different” and lumped into a broad category based on a standardization of error.


      1. Well, yes, but again, Shaughnessy did not label students as such. But yes, there had been the idea (and some still have it) that students are inferior because they are from a different linguistic background (within the same language).

        I am not sure I agree with your statements about ESL students. I am not a native English speaker. When I applied to AUM as an undergraduate student, I had to show my TOEFL test results (or better, the testing center had to supply AUM with them). This test is supposed to show that a student can speak/read/understand English. Yes, AUM accepts one of the lowest TOEFL scores in MGM or even Alabama, but that does not mean that this causes students to automatically be placed in Basic English by virtue of being a non-native speaker.


  2. I agree that there is a difference between tolerance and acceptance. The social and political climate in the world today necessitates that differentiation. I also agree that we shouldn’t shun one version of English for another. I am curious, though, what you mean when you say that acceptance “establishes a base line of communication all parties can agree on.” I’m a little hazy on that.

    The rules of English, at least the major ones, are the only ones that don’t change that often. In the past 20 years or so, we’ve gone from having to use a he/she model (or denote people in the masculine) to being able to use the singular “they” (a really good thing in my book). For this, I might argue that Shaughnessy’s use of tolerance may have been less a matter of negativity, and more the common vernacular of the late 70’s.

    I’ve only had a few multilingual students in my time teaching, and none of them have had to take basic writing prior to coming to my class. I know that is not the norm, but we really need to talk about the difference between people who speak a different dialect of English, and those who speak languages that have nothing in common linguistically with English, like Korean and Arabic. Codeswitching only goes so far for non-English speakers until they are more familiar and comfortable with all of the nuances of English, no matter what the linguistic background. I still believe that those who speak English, but not Standard American English, have a shorter time to fluency than those coming from non-English backgrounds.


    1. I’m sharing a fellow student at AUM’s ESL experience, I couldn’t know much else about it other than the story she shared in class in relation to Native Speaker by Chang Rae Lee.

      When the field of basic writing became something of necessity and the standards that defined a basic writer were rules agreed upon by a very narrow range of people in comparison to the wide range of educational functioning levels. I don’t see where I said acceptance had anything to do with this other than to say the term acceptance is a better way to go about describing the evolution of the discourse within the field.


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