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Special Field Exam: Sample Questions

Composition Studies, Basic Writing, and Race - Steve Lamos

1) Theorists in a wide range of fields including philosophy (Goldberg, 1993; West, 1999), legal studies (Bell 2000; Haney-Lopez, 1996; Harris, 1993), sociology (Omi & Winant, 1994), linguistics (Smitherman 1977), and social psychology (Wetherell and Potter, 1992) posit race as a key analytical term within their fields, separate from other analytical categories such as class and gender. Yet, despite this vast body of work in other disciplines, Composition Studies is often criticized for ignoring or undertheorizing race within its scholarship (Ball & Lardner, 1997; Gilyard, 1999; Prendergast 1998).

In what ways are theories of race either present or absent within well-known texts that historicize (or otherwise characterize) the field of Composition (e.g., Berlin, 1987; Crowley, 1998; Faigley, 1993; Gilyard, 1999; Harris, 1996; Horner, 2001; Miller, 1991; North, 1987; Ohmann, 1976; Trachsel, 1992; Villanueva, 1993)? What might be gained from more explicit attention to race within historical accounts? In what sense (if at all) does the treatment of race and racism within Basic Writing (BW) histories (e.g. Connors, 1987; Gray-Rosendale, 1999; Horner & Lu, 1999; Lunsford, 1987; Rose, 1985) differ from that presented within these mainstream Composition texts?

2) In recent years, vigorous debates have taken place within the BW literature over the abolition of basic writing programs. Proponents of abolishing programs (Bartholomae, 1993; Grego & Thompson, 1996; Rodby & Fox, 2000; Shor, 1997, 1999) suggest that the programs do more to foster inequality than help students, and thus should be eliminated. Opponents of abolition (Greenberg, 1997; Mutnick, 1996) suggest that BW programs are essential to the success of many students, and thus ought to be retained. Others (Gilyard, 2000; Soliday, 1996) suggest that sweeping pronouncements about the future of BW should be avoided; instead, they argue that reform efforts must be tailored to the unique institutional, educational, and political conditions existing within each BW program.

How has race entered into this abolition debate? How might more explicit attention to discourses of race and racism, particularly those related to institutional contexts, yield new insights and new methods for reforming BW?

3) A number of Composition theorists including Rose (1985), Lunsford (1987), Connors (1987), and Shor (1997) argue that versions of “basic writing” programs have long existed within the modern academy. They include a number of programs within this BW lineage: the composition program at Harvard in the 1890s designed to “remediate” deficient incoming students; skill and drill programs of the 1920s and 1930s designed to instill students with a sense of linguistic “correctness”; and programs of the 1940s and 1950s designed to accommodate large numbers of veterans attending college on the GI Bill. Yet, as Horner & Lu (1999) note, the “birth” of BW as a movement is still typically associated with Mina Shaughnessy’s work at City University of New York (CUNY) during the 1970s.

What circumstances have lead to positing CUNY in the 1970s as a symbolic birthplace of BW programs? What discourses within BW itself, particularly those related to the “frontier” metaphor analyzed by Horner & Lu (1999), have contributed to this phenomenon? How might an understanding of discourses of race and racism yield further insight into CUNY’s unique status within the BW field?

4) In a recent piece in the Journal of Basic Writing (Lamos, 2000), I note that BW students tend to be labeled “non-white” by BW discourses. This label seems especially ironic since studies show that a majority of BW students are racially white (Horner & Lu, 1999; Lavin & Hyllegard, 1996), and since many BW scholars have noted the multiracial and multiethnic makeup of their classes (e.g. Enos, 1987; Greenberg, 1997; Shaughnessy, 1977). In attempting to account for these contradictory descriptions of race within BW, I invoke the notion of education as a kind of “white property” (Bell, 2000; Harris, 1993). With this concept I suggest that BW writers are discursively labeled as “minorities” (regardless of their racial background) because they represent a threat to widen access to the white property of education, thus diluting its value to those who already possess it.

How might the notion of education as white property further illuminate the circumstances of white BW students? In particular, how might it help to explain the differential treatment that whites receive within these programs (e.g., Agnew & McLaughlin, 1999) even as they are discursively labeled as “non-white”? How do these white BW students help to illuminate further the operation of race within BW?

5) The theoretical work on race included in my reading list covers a range of interests. One group of texts offers historical accounts of racialized discourses in the hope of better understanding their complex origins (e.g., Goldberg, 1993; Haney-Lopez, 1996; Pennycook, 1997; West 1993, 1999). Another group focuses more on how contemporary discourses of race and racism are established, justified, and critiqued, emphasizing the ways in which these discourses are employed by individuals and groups to achieve various ends (e.g., Frankenberg, 1993; Omi & Winant, 1994; Sykes, 1985; Wetherell & Potter, 1992). A third group of texts focuses on exposing and correcting racist practices engendered in particular discursive formations including law (e.g., Bell 2000; Haney-Lopez, 1996; Harris 1993) and second-language instruction (e.g., Frye, 1999; Rivera, 1999).

In what ways do each of these types of texts-historical accounts, contemporary analyses, and anti-racist analyses-represent distinct approaches to analyzing race? What underlying commonalities do they share? How do each of these areas help to justify the contention that discourses of race and racism play a central role in the development and evolution of BW programs?

Institutions and Basic Writing

6 ) As noted in question #2, scholars are increasingly calling for attention to the institutional contexts of BW programs, evidenced best perhaps by the debates between “new abolitionists” and those opposed to abolishing BW. However, relatively little extended analysis of BW institutions currently exists in the literature. Indeed, most of the well-known book-length studies within BW are case studies of students (e.g., DiPardo, 1993; Gray-Rosendale, 2000; Mutnick, 1996; Shaughnessy, 1977; Sternglass 1998; Villanueva, 1993), utilizing institutional context only as the backdrop against which to understand individual student performance. This may be in part a function of the fact that as Gray-Rosendale (1999) suggests, BW is often perceived to have its roots in “teaching” rather than in “theory.”

In order to address the scarcity of extended work on BW institutions, my dissertation will attempt to historicize the implementation and development of Educational Opportunity Program Rhetoric at UIUC, paying special attention to the role that discourses of race and racism have played in its overall development. Student performance will not be my focus; rather, I will concentrate on the myriad historical contexts in which the program itself has been imbedded.

In what circumstances and toward what ends is explicit attention to the institutional contexts of BW work justified? In what ways can such work augment the large number of other studies that are focused on students and student performance?

7) The late 1960s and early 1970s marked a time of increasing emphasis on faculty research and graduate education across all levels of higher education (Jenks & Riesman, 1969; Kerr, 1991, 1994; UIUC Commission, 1973), particularly the Research I context. Many policy makers of the time went so far as to suggest that the Research I institution should be relieved of some of its undergraduate teaching responsibilities in order to concentrate more fully on its research mission (e.g. Carnegie Commission, 1973; Dunham, 1969; Thackeray, 1971).

In some ways, then, the Research I institution of this timeperiod seems to be an unlikely place for the development of BW programs. Yet, programs like the one at UIUC appear across a variety of research-driven institutions during this time (e.g., Enos, 1987; Kasden and Hoeber, 1980), and many programs have remained into the present day. The development and longevity of BW within the Research I context prompts the following kinds of questions:

For what reasons might the Research I university choose to “sponsor” (Brandt, 2000) BW programs? How might this sponsorship be related to debates over teaching and research occurring in public, academic, and Composition Studies arenas during this time? How might this sponsorship be related to debates about racial justice on one hand, and Bell’s (2000) notion of “interest convergence” on the other?


8) By definition, work in the Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) tradition examines relationships between discourses and social structures with the goal of rectifying unjust power formations (Fairclough, 1992). CDA has especially rich traditions in two areas: analyses of racist discourse (e.g., Bonilla-Silva & Forman, 2000; Kleiner, 1998; Wetherell & Potter, 1992; van Dijk, 1997) and analyses of organizational discourse (e.g. Connell & Galasinski, 1999; Iedema & Wodak, 1999; Mumby & Clair, 1997). Because my work focuses specifically on relationships between racialized and institutional discourses, a strong familiarity with these strains of CDA work seems essential.

What connections between discourse and institutional formations exist that warrant the use of CDA as an analytical tool? What features of CDA make it more “critical” than other discourse analysis and/or close reading techniques? How can CDA be used to address the issues relevant in my work? How might incorporating aspects of Mailloux’s (1999) “rhetorical hermeneutics” into my analysis complement facets of the CDA approach?

9) Due to the nature of my study of UIUC’s Educational Opportunity Program, archival documents will be a primary source of data. Archival study has a long history within Composition (Connors, 1992), and myriad examples employing archival techniques are present in the Composition literature (e.g., Gere,1997; Mailloux, 1999; Paine, 1999; Parks, 2001; Trachsel, 1992). Yet, scholars note that there is much methodological disagreement over the treatment of archival sources (Brereton, 1999; Connors, 1997, Ferreira-Buckley, 1999).

What are key issues related to collecting archival data within the context of Composition Studies? How are these key issues represented within the debates mentioned above? How are these issues manifested within literature from the field? How do these issues inform my own work?

10) Mortensen and Kirsch’s (1996) collection Ethics & Representation in Qualitative Studies of Literacy raises important ethical questions about qualitative work, including questions about the researcher’s sense of “self,” representations of the “other,” and the presentation of research within the text. Such ethical issues are clearly relevant to analysis of race, particularly since race is so closely linked with issues of social justice, power, status, and prestige in our society. Knowledge of the articles in this collection will form the basis for answering the following questions:

Sense of Self-What motivations drive the work that I will be conducting? What do I stand to gain (or perhaps lose) from my work? How does my background as a researcher, teacher, and scholar interested in racial issues shape my interests and motivations? What influence does my own racial background have on my interests and motivations?

Sense of Subjects-Who might be assisted by my research, and who might be harmed by it? How can I insure a fair and ethical representation of these multiple “others”? How can I deal with instances in which interests of the “other” may compete and contradict with my own?

Representation via Text-How can I insure that data is presented fairly and gives voice to a variety of perspectives? How can I best provide careful attention to the interplay between text and context as I interpret and explain the data that I collect?