Saturday, November 21, 2015

When Basic Writing is Not Basic Writing: Notes on FAL

Quick thoughts on something I'm trying to devote some mental energy to, in the hopes of eventually doing some serious work on it:

I teach in a course called Foundations of Academic Literacy. It's the type of course that would easily be considered "Basic Writing" in the US, but it's very divorced from the origins of "Basic Writing" as I understand them.

(It's very likely that many writing courses that are at a 'foundational' or 'basic' or 'remedial' or 'preparatory' level also don't come from the same historical stream that traditional basic writing courses did, which was the open enrollments of the 1960s and 70s, and universities scrambling to 'deal with' students of the type they hadn't enrolled many of before, i.e. students from non-elite backgrounds. This is an oversimplification but if we look at CUNY in the 1970s and the way Mina Shaughnessy conceptualized the idea of BW, this is it in a nutshell.)

So, here's where FAL differs from BW:

1. There is no such thing as "first-year composition" -- in the sense of a required beginning college writing course for all students -- at my institution, nor is this a very common practice in almost all Canadian institutions. There are several reasons for this that are interesting but that I don't have time to get into (they have to do with, as usual, politics and ideologies in English departments). BW in the US is often understood as a "pre-FYC" course, but we have no FYC.

That being said -- and maybe this is point (1a), FAL was created as a kind of "pre-W" course; in other words, it was created to serve the needs of students who are deemed (though we can talk more about why they are so deemed) to not be "ready" for W-courses. The W-initiative, that is, a pretty straightforward implementation of disciplinary, writing-across-the-curriculum-inspired, genre-aware, writing-to-learn-enhanced courses, was implemented around ten years ago pretty successfully by a series of units staffed by rhet/comp specialists that have since completely disappeared from the university (the specialists and the units). So FAL does have a status as being "pre" - something, but the thing it is "pre" is multifarious.

Despite this difference -- which may or may not be a big one, practically -- the perceived need for FAL probably comes from the same place the perceived need for BW does: some students "aren't ready" for university writing for some reason, and they need to be.

2. Related: a quick-and-dirty understanding of why the students "aren't ready" relates back to the unique context from which FAL emerges as distinct from BW. While BW was considered a reaction to the influx of urban, working-class, ethnic minority (etc) American students in the 70s, FAL can be said to be a "reaction" to the unique cultural context of 21st century British Columbia, which includes both a recent influx of immigration (which certainly has been steady for many years, but seems to have picked up in the last 20 years especially) and a huge increase in international students at both the K-12 and university level, a trend that is very likely to continue for a variety of reasons. This maybe isn't that different from CUNY in the 70s, but the unique national and local contexts of Canada, BC, and the Vancouver area make the "issues" different.

One of the "issues" -- and maybe this is point (2a), is an much bigger emphasis on ESL (or EAL as it's usually called at my institution) in the local educational culture. Perhaps because of the waves of immigration we see here, the question of how to support English learning is on everyone's minds, and my institution in particular has begun a major initiative (CELLTR) to in part reconceptualize EAL and multlingualism at the university and create new initiatives, programs, etc. to support English learning and learners and teachers across the university.

FAL then, because of its context,  has shades of both "basic writing" and "ESL" without being either; it was born as a result of an American-style WAC initiative, but is also run in many ways like a British-style EAP course (i.e. a course that gets interational students ready for English-medium university work). However, there is such a "Vancouvery" mix of students -- L1, L2, international, local, so-called 'gen 1.5,' students who went to Canadian or other international schools abroad, etc etc etc -- that it's hard to imagine any one-size-fits-all approach being appropriate for the course. The multicultural and transnational character of the student body to me suggests to me the need to look to British models that encourage all students regardless of background to become ethnographers of the language and culture of the university, and explicitly to work together in 'mixed' groups as they do this. Some of this happens naturally in FAL, but it could happen more*.

This is a larger issue that goes beyond FAL and probably extends at least to CELLTR. While FAL wasn't part of this initiative, which only began a few years ago, both can be seen as the result of an institution waking up to who its students are and the kind of university it wants to be.

[* Another very important issue I don't know enough about yet is what institutional pressures make FAL what it is, which is a rather rigid, high-stakes test-oriented course at the moment, though this wasn't always the case. I'm going to be looking into the history of FAL over the course of the next year to try to learn about where it's been, how it got to where it is, and where it's going.]

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