I’m all for chaos.
The state of my dorm room reflects that. So do my notes, my brainstorming charts, the *creative* layouts of my academic essays. And maybe I’m just being romantic, or unpragmatic, or stubborn, but there’s something beautiful about its messiness—something so intrinsically human—that when I read arguments in favor of standardization, the rebel in me roars.
And then, of course, I read Sullivan’s An Essential Question: What Is “College-Level” Writing?”. And as much as I wanted to fight it, I think I might have to accept that some sort of standard is necessary. I don’t like it, I’m not happy about it, but I do, albeit begrudgingly, agree—especially when I focused on the concept of remedial programs, something I whole-heartedly support.
Here’s how my resolve broke down:
I. Equity vs. Equality
Sullivan discusses at length community colleges and what he calls “non-traditional students;” students unprepared or lacking the skills needed to succeed at “college-level writing” (whatever that means). According to Susan and John Roueche, this applies to nearly “50 perce of all first-time community college students,” a percentage that has not changed “significantly across the United States in the last two decades” (Sullivan 7). Since a unified, agreed-upon standard for college-level writing doesn’t exactly exist yet, it makes sense that students, having attended various highschools, enter college with varying sets of skills and levels of preparedenss. And it is here that we must consider equity vs equality. Not all students are “traditional,” and thus different students need different levels of support in order to succeed—equity (acknowledging students have different backgrounds and therefore might need extra help) vs. equality (the blanket treatment of all students). Acknowledging this, Sullivan goes on to talk about remedial programs and their efforts to address this problem by providing “nontraditional students” with the support and resources they need. However, as Sullivan explains, on a national level politicians are increasingly withdrawing support for these essential programs, citing that the remedial efforts are “rewarding incompetence” (Sullivan 11). The word “incompetence” I had a similar reaction to as Mai. I even drew an angry face next to it; that’s how much I disagree. It assigns blame onto nontraditional students, something I believe is unfair and uncalled for. Many factors—social, political, economic— could go into a lack of preparedeness, none of which are the students’ fault. And, like Mai argued, if the point is to standardize expectations for college-level writing in order for students to succeed, why would we ever remove a program that helps “non-traditional students” do just that? As James Traub put it, “[t]he right to an education for which one is hopelessly underprepared is not much of a right at all” (Sullivan 10).
In light of this, my bias towards chaos just doesn’t work. Having clearly defined standards would support the idea of remedial programs because the standards would provide a clear idea of what the programs could address and what students need strive for. We need the standards as foundation in order to even judge whether a student is prepared or not.
One point Sullivan, zero points Sam.
II. Real-World Implications
The above reminded me of something important: There are real-world consequences to what superficially appears to just be a theological debate. It’s easy—at least for me—to lose my head in the clouds and forget that what we are discussing matters in a larger context than just *fun* intellectual sparring. Perhaps chaos can be a goal to strive for, but standards are what we need first. You gotta learn the rules in order to break them. For someone who perhaps didn’t have my privalege of attending a private school that’s been preparing me for college since the sixth grade, clearly-defined standards would give a crucial sense of direction amidst, well, chaos. And not just for the students, but for teachers, administrators, educators, politicians.
Sullivan also talks about how teachers are often excluded from the political sphere of decisions surrounding writing programs, an exclusion that leads to important programs such as remedial ones being cut. I’m no armchair general, but it seems to be that definitive standards would act as a sort of weapon against critical politicians. How can we really expect politicians to support funding to help underprepared students reach a “college-level” of writing if we can’t even tell them the defintion of “college-level” writing or what standards we are measuring these underprepared students against?
Two points Sullivan.
However, as we go about finding these magical, unicorn standards (if they even exist beyond figments of our imagination), I do still believe we need to be wary. Students from all backgrounds—social, political, economic, educational—must be considered. All types of educators—not just English teachers!—should be consulted. And we should still make sure the standards address the messiness—dare I say chaotic—nature of college-level writing. There isn’t one right way that works across all disciplines, and this is something we must keep in mind. And finally, let’s say we do successfully come up with a set of standards, I believe there would still be a need for constant revision. They must not be left to stagnate like still water, flies buzzing over old ways of thinking. BUT, as long as we keep these things in mind, standards would provide clarity for all, and they would arm educators in the political debate against remedial—amongst other—programs. Standards are and would be an essential part of this ongoing pedagogical debate.
(but, like, secretly, I still support chaos)