Author Bio

Writing Beyond Statistics

posted: 2.28.11 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

Patti, a young pregnant woman, drops out of college. Like many young women and men from working families, she cannot return to school. For a time, Patti lives in the laundry room of her parents’ home. Later her pregnancy becomes the scandal of her hometown, so Patti moves in with a young couple far from home. She gives birth, then gives her baby up for adoption. Patti finds a temporary factory job, but is laid off at the beginning of the summer. She soon leaves for New York City, homeless and penniless. She sleeps in doorways, alleys, and subways, and relies on the benevolence of strangers to make her way. Sometimes she resorts to stealing, and often she is desperately hungry.

Patti’s story in no way resembles the story in Juno, a film in which a pregnant teenager’s family and friends, and the baby’s adoptive mother, create a community of love and acceptance for a teenager who is transgressing social norms. Patti tells of a lonelier, more brutal, and more desperate situation. As the story of a young woman who leaves school because of difficult circumstances, Patti’s situation holds similarities for many students enrolled in our developmental writing courses that leave school, but do not return.

Some studies cite the high percentages of students that enroll in developmental education, but fail to complete college degrees. Recently, a variety of educational stakeholders have used these statistics to eliminate developmental writing courses across the country. This use of statistics disregards the real lives of students and reduces authentic people to numbers and stereotypes.

Many people leave school to manage complicated lives that cannot be encapsulated by statistics. Patti, for example, is Patti Smith, the artist, poet, rock star—and the author of the book Just Kids, winner of the 2010 National Book Award. In Just Kids, Patti writes of the challenges that compel her toward her career—and propel her toward a chance transformative meeting with her first love, the artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Just Kids also documents the power of using our voices, and sections or chapters of the book can be adapted for classroom or independent reading.

In the middle of February, I had the privilege of attending Patti Smith’s performance at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. She read from Just Kids and her book of poems, and she performed several of her songs with guitarist Lenny Kaye and playwright Sam Shepard as backup musicians. Their last song was “People Have the Power.”

As she left the stage, Patti called out: “Don’t forget it! Use your voice!” I often give similar advice to developing writers, and so I smiled. Patti Smith’s work reminds me to imagine our students—not as numbers to crunch, or statistics to be lamented—but as rock stars, with “the power to dream.”

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Categories: Campus Issues, Developmental
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2 Responses to “Writing Beyond Statistics”

  1. Mick Parsons Says:

    That’s the problem with bean counters. They try to reduce us all to statistics… it’s just sad that people tend to let themselves be reduced to abstract and more or less pointless numbers.

  2. Susan Naomi Bernstein Says:

    Mick, I agree, and worry about the long-term impact when we are reduced in such ways. When we focus primarily on measuring short-term “outcomes,” we lose the present moment. In losing the present moment, we forget the significance of a sustainable future. For me, Vygotsky says it best:

    “[Instruction] must be aimed not so much at the ripe
    as at the ripening functions…. we must consider the upper threshold as well;
    instruction must be oriented toward the future, not the past.” (Thought and Language 104)