I’ve been cleaning out all my files in my university office – about time, too, since I retired 18 months ago! – and it’s been one blast from the past after another. I’ve come on all kinds of drafts of early articles and also some priceless student work. But the thing that really took me back was a newspaper article from 1978. First, a bit of background:
I finished my Ph.D. in 1977, with a dissertation on basic writing and on what became Ohio State’s exemplary basic writing program, called the Writing Workshop, and headed off to the University of British Columbia for my first post-Ph.D. job. I had finally managed to publish an article or two, one of them in College Composition and Communication. I was thrilled to have this publication, of course, but I didn’t have much time to enjoy it, because on June 19, 1978 the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a “back page” story called “Vowing Academic Poverty: Is this what all of our education can be expected to produce?” by Harold Fromm, then an associate professor of English at Indiana University Northwest. Fromm was especially outraged by this paragraph in my article:
For me, the pressures and frustrations paled dramatically one day early Winter quarter when a former pilot project [Writing Workshop] student hurtled out of a crowd and ran toward me waving, bursting with good news: ‘Today in English, we got back our first papers, and I got a C+.’ For that student, and for his teachers, those pressures and frustrations and disappointments were worthwhile.
Well, this little paragraph really set Fromm off: he called me, among other things, satisfied to be a “humble servant of the Lord.” Well, here’s a little of what he had to say:
Although not totally worthless, since they do help a small percentage of able but poorly educated students, remedial writing courses are apt to be founded upon an unlimited faith in the power of pedagogy to transform sows’ ears into purses of silk, . . . Slogging away at getting marginal students to overcome their astonishment at learning that “we is” is not the traditional locution of the middle class professionals and technicians whom they aspire to become, professors soon come to believe that salvation for everyone lies in pummeling these students into mouthing a syntax that is too sophisticated for them to intuit and hence impossible to master.
In a recent issue of College Composition and Communication, for example, one reads a veritable horror story by a professor from Vancouver, Andrea A. Lunsford, about her efforts in remedial pedagogy. In “What We Know—and Don’t Know—About Remedial Writing,” Professor Lunsford describes the demoralizing regimen of trying to find new ways of reaching students with catastrophic language deficiencies. . . .
After quoting the paragraph about the student who is happy with a C+, Fromm goes on with his diatribe:
As for society, it will not so easily be tricked into thinking that C+ is good enough to satisfy its professional and technical needs. For when Professor Lunsford has to visit a physician, she will not choose to put her money and her life in the hands of some proud C+ product of a medical school. . . . I don’t really believe that Professor Lunsford’s gratification at producing a C+ will be quite so great when she finds herself the helpless victim of a similar product of someone else’s gratification.
Note that this blast was written in 1978, FOUR years after the Students’ Right to Their Own Language was ratified. Re-reading this piece was a shock all over again, and believe it or not the piece goes on, and on, and is so full of egregious misrepresentation and fallacious thinking as to be breathtaking. I remember reading it at the time and doing a double-take when I realized he was talking about ME and MY STUDENTS.
In the next week’s Chronicle, many scholars talked back to Fromm, noting the not-so-latent racism and elitism, not to mention the nearly hysterical tone and the deep disrespect of students evident in Fromm’s essay, and patiently explaining that he had, spectacularly, missed the point of my essay. My dissertation director, Edward P. J. Corbett, immediately sat down and did a full rhetorical analysis of the essay and sent it to me, saying “He’s the one who needs some ‘remedial’ education.”
I will write in future weeks about the lessons I drew from this encounter with Professor Fromm, but for now I’ll just say that after 36 years, many still hold to Fromm’s attitude and to his view of student learners. This attitude makes me as furious now as it did all those years ago, and I’ve spent much of my career trying to counter it and to demonstrate that students with so-called “deficiencies” have a great many strengths of their own and that our job is to teach them and to teach them in ways that will allow them—and us—to learn. And needless to say, I’m not giving up on this goal now!