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Writing Challenges: From Developmental to Transformational

posted: 1.18.11 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

In this season of changes and resolutions, as a new year begins and as we observe Martin Luther King’s eighty-second birthday, I find myself in the middle of a flurry of writing projects, from book manuscripts to articles, to my first blog post for Bits. As I wrestle with this writing, I recall the writing challenges faced by the students enrolled in my developmental writing courses. As teacher and students working together, all of us had potential as writers, and all of us struggled with writing as well. We may have doubted our capacity to endure our struggles or our ability to achieve any measure of success (and especially those measures of success required by the institution). At the same time, many of us also were engaged in surviving as writers within the limited time and space that we had to devote to writing.

We are not all developmental writers, however. As teachers, whatever our varied histories, we are not now labeled by post-secondary institutions as “developmental,” “basic” or “remedial” writers. But our students, if they are enrolled in our developmental writing courses, do carry these labels, and often the unfortunate stereotypes and consequences that are attached. The reasons for these stereotypes and consequences often meet at intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, age, language of origin, or other categories that identify students as different from “regular” students (an issue I take up in my work-in-progress, “Writing Through ADHD”).

Yet students labeled “developmental” can be as capable as any other student of achieving long-term academic success. Many of the students enrolled in my courses attended schools that did not have the economic and material resources to offer adequate preparation for college writing. They often needed access to multiple and intensive experiences with writing over time to learn and grow through the writing process. Developmental writing became a catalyst for some students to discover not only their potential as writers, but also a passion for writing to persuade and communicate with readers beyond the classroom. Some of these lessons we learned through reading works by Martin Luther King, and discussing and writing about King’s persistence and resilience through often insurmountable difficulties.

We can claim a moment of solidarity with our students as we struggle with the writing process. We may need to revise not only at the word and sentence level—but also at the level of our critical thinking. We must learn (again and again) to move beneath and beyond the surface features of our texts, to transform our writing.  For me this process is deeply embodied, as it is for many of us—as students have often described. We sweat, we squirm, we walk away from our writing in deep frustration, we return with great hope. And sometimes, we—both teachers and students—choose not to return at all, but to move on to projects that demand other talents and energies. Like that book manuscript we may have abandoned in order to fulfill obligations for teaching and service. Or that course we cannot complete because we must comply with the never-ending need to keep a roof over our heads and to feed our families.

I see these reasons as deeply interconnected. In other words, we must not only change our fragments into complete sentences and make sure that our subjects and verbs are clear and in agreement—we must also reframe our thinking. We must consider new audiences and more thoughtful purposes for our writing. We must move beyond the words on the page or screen, and reimagine what we need to say—and why we need to say it. We also, at some point, must complete our writing, even as it may continue to conflict with other equally pressing needs and desires. All of these potential obstacles may engage our attention simultaneously, and may leave us feeling unfocused and flummoxed.  No wonder writing can become so painful.

In her Bits blog “Selling the Value of Revision,” Holly Pappas offers specific suggestions to deal with basic revision obstacles.  As we approach this process, we must not only reread our texts and research our worlds with great care. Indeed, this more contemplative work involves more than relying on Google or Wikipedia or library databases. We also must interrogate issues of identity, and the ways in which identity is formed and reformed—through schooling, paid and unpaid work, intersections with local communities and global cultures—through life experiences in the context of ever-changing material realities.

But as we work through these challenges, we also open ourselves to the experience of becoming more confident and competent writers as well. All of us have the potential to learn and grow as writers. And all of us, including students enrolled in developmental writing courses, must have access to this first and most important step. In my Bits blog throughout this semester, I will continue to explore roads to access, especially under the difficult conditions that many of us face in our journeys with developmental writing.

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Categories: Basic Writing, Developmental
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4 Responses to “Writing Challenges: From Developmental to Transformational”

  1. Mick Parsons Says:

    Some solid points here, Susan. It’s easy to take the writing process for granted, especially on the teacher’s side of the Big Desk.

  2. aaron kerley Says:

    Well put, Susan. Process is the forward movement of ethos building from students who are struggling with not only linguistic “problems” but institutional concepts. This struggle must not be diminished because it is so given for those of us working within the academy.

  3. Susan Naomi Bernstein Says:

    Thanks for posting, Mick. I am fascinated by the intricacies of the writing process and its many manifestations. Clearly a great many writers benefit from a process broken into manageable steps. But sometimes the steps can become a substitute for thinking critically about our subject and our point of view. Then revision will be more than a matter of changing a few words or sentences. The more practice we gain with critical inquiry of our own writing, the deeper our possibilities for transformation.

  4. Susan Naomi Bernstein Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Aaron. The connection between ethos-building and the writing process is so crucial for developmental writing. Your post jogs my thinking about the many facets of the writing process that perhaps, as writing teachers, we may take for granted. However, like our students– we always have the potential to learn so much more about that process– about what we must do (over and over again) to engage as writers.