Finding and Enacting a Professional Identity in Basic Writing - National Council of Teachers of English
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Finding and Enacting a Professional Identity in Basic Writing

This post was written by NCTE member Karen S. Uehling and is based on her article, “Faculty Development and a Graduate Course for Pre-Service and In-Service Faculty: Finding and Enacting a Professional Identity in Basic Writing” (Journal of Basic Writing, Vol. 37, No. 1, 2018) 


Graduate education in the teaching of basic writing and related professional learning for in-service faculty, especially contingent faculty, are, I believe, at risk, and I fear basic writing may vanish as a specialized field—which puts students at risk.

Current basic writing faculty are diverse with wide ranging degrees and backgrounds, a diversity I value. The range of practitioners and theorists offers the field a democratic, inclusive approach to teaching and research. But if everyone with broad education and experience in the humanities and education can teach basic writing, then anyone can, and no special background is needed; further, faculty can be hired at the last minute without benefits, resulting in contingent working conditions. Depending largely on contingent instructors devalues the students we serve. If we are willing to hire people at the last minute to teach under exploitive conditions, we are saying that that is all the planning and support that students deserve.

Further, in the last decade basic writing has increasingly been folded into first-year writing through concurrent enrollment. With this accelerated model, basic writing students take first-year writing and a smaller linked support course; both courses are often taught by the same instructor, and both courses work toward a single set of outcomes, those of first-year writing (Adams, Gearhart, Miller, and Roberts).

Although I support this approach because students move to a degree or certificate faster than with a traditional self-contained basic writing course, the accelerated model prompts the question, who teaches the basic writing sections? Should first-year writing with a basic writing support component be taught by an instructor with specialized study of basic writing or can any first year writing instructor teach within the accelerated model?

The question of preparation for teaching basic writing is, in my view, really two related questions: what should the content be of a graduate course in teaching basic writing, and, given that many faculty, especially contingent faculty, have not had such a course, what sort of professional learning may help?

There are, of course, abundant resources for basic writing: the Journal of Basic Writing, the Basic Writing e-Journal (BWe), anthologies, and books. Perhaps the most direct and useful work on graduate courses and professional learning is that of Susan Naomi Bernstein. Her collection, Teaching Developmental Writing  (four editions as of 2018), offers a range of historical, theoretical, and practical scholarship and includes apparatus for using the book in a graduate course or professional learning setting.

In addition, a number of full-length books on basic writing have been released, including Basic Writing (2010), by George Otte and Rebecca Williams Mlynarczyk, which offers an excellent summary of basic writing scholarship in a readable, thought-provoking manner.

More importantly, can professional learning even be carried out when contingent faculty teach many courses without benefits sometimes at different locations or work another job? Graduate students may perceive contingency as the main form of basic writing teaching and rightfully wonder how they are supposed to build a professional life within a field often defined by contingency.

These issues prompt me to ask if it is possible for graduate students and early career faculty to find and enact a professional identity in basic writing. Further, is it necessary or even desirable?

I think it is, because we have an obligation to the students who depend on us. If for no other reason, the sheer number of students formerly identified as basic writing students who are now taught by an acceleration approach compels us to provide the best available teaching.

Basic writing faculty have unique teaching expertise, and accelerated models of teaching call upon this knowledge; in what might be called “responsive teaching,” the instructor responds directly to student needs and is likely to slow down, provide more examples, as well as preview and review course materials. Thus, the need for basic writing teaching strategies remains critical, as even more first-year writing instructors teach the accelerated sections.

So we have lack of clear identity as basic writing specialists, contingency, and students who need great teaching. What to do?

One solution is to develop some broad agreements about basic writing as a field—who the students are, what the field is, what basic writing instructors do. This need hearkens back to the mainstreaming debates of the 1990s and 2000s (See, for example, McNenny and Fitzgerald). Although the WPA Outcomes Statement (OS) is useful, agreements about basic writing principles should be more than simply the existing OS or related threshold concepts. We should identify the specific knowledge and skill set unique to basic writing teaching.

Another solution is to develop venues for professional visibility for preservice and early career faculty, strategies for enacting a professional identity in basic writing that are accessible and doable in terms of time, focus, and commitment. Such strategies must fit with what faculty are already doing in the classroom because everything must work together if instructors are to undertake something extra. Some examples include contributing to the Composition Frequently Asked (CompFAQs) basic writing wiki, which serves as a kind of intermediary publishing; writing abstracts or reviews; or partnering with full-time faculty to create conference presentations and journal submissions.

For a larger conversation about professional preparation to teach basic writing, please consult The Journal of Basic Writing. In March 2019, the journal issued Volume 1 of two special theme issues on graduate education [37.1 (Spring 2018)], guest edited by Laura Gray-Rosendale, in conjunction with current editors, Hope Parisi and Cheryl Smith. Volume 2 on graduate education for basic writing will be released soon. I have a piece in the first issue, from which this blog post is drawn.

Adams, Peter, Sarah Gearhart, Robert Miller, and Anne Roberts. “The Accelerated Learning Program: Throwing Open the Gates.” Journal of Basic Writing, vol. 28, no. 2, 2009, pp. 50-69.
McNenny, Gerri, and Sallyanne Fitzgerald.  Mainstreaming Basic Writers: Politics and Pedagogies of Access. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 2001. Print.


Karen Uehling is an Emeritus Professor of English at Boise State University, where she has taught since 1981. She has been involved with basic writing for over forty years, whether teaching the course, offering a graduate course in basic writing theory and practice, or mentoring basic writing faculty. Second Chair of the Council on Basic Writing and a frequent Conference on College Composition and Communication presenter, she has published histories of the Council on Basic Writing and basic writing at her institution and articles on adult learners, teaching, and writing.