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Qualifications to Teach BW: Questions from the CBW Listserv

posted: 10.14.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

In a recent conversation on the Council on Basic Writing’s listserv (CBW), a correspondent asked about minimum qualifications for teaching Basic Writing. A listserv discussion ensued about appropriate degrees and necessary training. As minimum qualifications remain a long-standing question for the theory and practice of BW, we examined this conversation as part of our Teaching Basic Writing Practicum.

On the listserv, key theorists and practitioners from our field offer their insights. Peter Adams (whose co-authored article on ALP is included in Teaching Developmental Writing [TDW] 4e) and Gerald Nelms address the promise of studying student development as an essential part of BW teacher training. Michael Hill, new co-chair of CBW, inquires about the need for national policies on teacher training. Hill asks if policy work and best practices statements remain of concern to CBW members.

For my own perspective on this conversation, I turn again to Adrienne Rich’s “Teaching Language in Open Admissions,” and her recently published course notes and syllabi for teaching Basic Writing in the SEEK program at City University of New York. In “Teaching Language,” Rich offers what she sees as the most significant qualification for a teacher of BW courses: “a fundamental belief in the students is more important than anything else….This fundamental belief is not a sentimental matter: it is a very demanding matter of realistically conceiving the student where he or she is, and at the same time never losing sight of where he or she can be” (TDW 4e 25). In other words, the student is not a problem to be solved, but a human being learning to write as a socio-cultural subject, within and beyond the constructs of a BW course.


As Nelms suggests, students in BW do not arrive in our classrooms as “blank slates” (also see Shannon Carter’s work in TDW 4e).  However, for me, the issue of this issue moves in a somewhat different direction from Nelms’ concern that “prior knowledge can both help and hinder learning.” Instead, I want to turn the question back on our selves, as new and experienced teachers of BW:

What about our own multiple literacies? What stated or unstated assumptions and values—as expressed in syllabi, writing assignments, and course activities— may become barriers to our own students’ learning?  What can we do to recognize such barriers, and to begin to ameliorate them?

In the practicum class, we attempt to address these questions through activities such as

  • Reading what others have written about the roles of their own socio-cultural backgrounds as learners and as teachers of BW
  • Writing about and discussing our own socio-cultural backgrounds as learners and as teachers of BW
  • Addressing the diverse intersections of students’ socio-cultural backgrounds
  • Teaching model mini-lessons
  • Tutoring at an off-campus site that does not have a writing center.

As in other BW theory and practice courses across the US, we attempt to create a community of teacher/scholars who actively interrogate our own theories as we develop new practices. As individual teachers, even as all of us are apparently white, our socio-cultural backgrounds represent a diversity of life experiences, fields of study, and approaches to teaching and learning. Often we find that we need to agree to disagree. Perhaps just as often, I grapple with expanding my own comfort zone, so that I remain aware of the need to learn from students, as well as merely to teach.

Because of the intersecting needs to interrogate and innovate, I welcome a national discussion of qualifications for teaching BW. Yet even as we undertake such a discussion, we need to recognize the diverse roots of our field. Adrienne Rich, who had only a BA when she taught BW at City College, remains one of field’s foundational teacher/scholars. Her work offers a keen understanding of the role of critical awareness for teachers of BW and also helps us to address a key issue for aspiring teacher/scholars in BW: Not only what we need to know— but perhaps more significantly, why we need to know it.

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2 Responses to “Qualifications to Teach BW: Questions from the CBW Listserv”

  1. Barbara Gleason, City College of New York Says:

    Thank you for raising this issue for discussion, Susan. I would like to add my 2 cents.

    For a teacher to be well qualified to teach basic writing, it’s important to know about writing development, pedagogical strategies, linguistics, and literacy theories. But these areas of expertise are not sufficient. BW instructors also need to know about reading development, theories of adult learning, and the experiences of people who are learning second and third language literacies. But even this is not sufficient.

    Well qualified basic writing teachers need to know about the various reasons why some students happen to land in basic writing classes while other students do not. How does social class, income, and ethnicity and race factor in? We can’t take it for granted that some people are “just better prepared” while other people are “unprepared for college.” What’s behind those terms “prepared” and “unprepared”? And how do the answers to these questions connect to political and social realities here in the US and in other countries? The answers to these questions are vitally important for BW instructors to know about.

    Additionally, it would be good for BW instructors to know that “remediation” means different things to different people, that it takes different forms, and that it goes by different names, e.g., developmental education, learning assistance, supplemental education (even with we insist that those terms have different meanings). When we expand our knowledge, we can learn that we have many more colleagues to work with and journals to read and conferences to attend than just those that go by the name “composition” or “basic writing.”

  2. Susan Naomi Says:

    Significant points. Thanks so much for your response, Barbara!