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Interests and Opportunities: Race, Racism, and University Writing Instruction in the Post-Civil Rights Era

reviewed by Randall Westbrook - May 18, 2012

coverTitle: Interests and Opportunities: Race, Racism, and University Writing Instruction in the Post-Civil Rights Era
Author(s): Steve Lamos
Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA
ISBN: 0822961733, Pages: 224, Year: 2011
Search for book at Amazon.com

In his book, Interests and Opportunities: Race, Racism and University Writing Instruction in the Post Civil Rights Era, Steve Lamos provides a sober, compelling examination of the birth, life, and inevitable near-demise of literacy support programs—a key mechanism responsible for the movement among American universities to provide access to underrepresented minority college students.

Lamos, himself a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, had access to internal correspondence, chronicling development of the Basic Writing (BW) program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). What he shows is not simply a seemingly endless struggle among sitting and aspiring program directors, but also philosophical turmoil between administrators and faculty over the utility and direction of these and other access programs. As Lamos guides the reader meticulously through the travails at UIUC, he also follows similar (and similarly disturbing) trends occurring at other colleges and universities around the nation. It is this broader perspective that provides a sense as to just how thorny and complex these endeavors were for universities.

Programs such as the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) Rhetoric program and similar BW programs at City University of New York and other major colleges in or around major cities were established in the wake of the tumultuous events of the late 1960s. Prior to that, enrollment at “mainstream” universities was almost exclusively White. Calls for greater minority representation came with provisos that remediation programs be a part of any such efforts. Lamos’s focus is on shedding light on the internal struggles of UIUC and other colleges and universities as they tried to consider ways to right societal wrongs though education. Yet, throughout his fine work, Lamos notes that from the beginning, such expressions of concern were merely the tip of the iceberg; questions about access, opportunity, and education were soon overshadowed by budget, perception, and political posturing.

Lamos concludes each chapter with consideration of each time period through the lenses of “interest convergence” and “interest divergence.” The theory of interest convergence says in part that the needs of the lesser party cannot be considered unless the needs of the dominant party are met. When no mutual interest can be found, the interest divergence theory is at play. Lamos’s deftness at showing the complexities of this situation is a highlight of the book.

The first half of the book chronicles how colleges and universities used BW programs to confront issues of social inequity. Language in the memos from UIUC and other communication shows that in many of these places, even as they sought to redress the lack of access and opportunity for Blacks and other minorities, key players in staff, administration, and faculty often openly expressed doubt about the ability of students to succeed. These doubts were expressed in two ways: (1) as a budgetary issue—that support for programs of this type and those similar would ultimately prove too costly to maintain, especially as opposed to monies being allocated elsewhere, and (2) as an intellectual “integrity” issue—that such access programs are ultimately antithetical to institutional competitiveness and, as such, are at odds with the mission of engendering an atmosphere of excellence. Correspondence and articles were filled with euphemisms and code words as administrators and authors clumsily sought to communicate the political difficulties of being racially inclusive. By the mid-1970s, the calls for “back to basics” supplanted cries for social equity and access; the implication is that attempts to make universities more inclusive necessarily required moving away from quality instruction. To Lamos’s credit, he brings to the attention of his readers the precise choreography associated with an educational endeavor that degenerates into an increasingly hot-button political issue.

In the second half of the book, with the introduction of the 1978 Supreme Court Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decision, Lamos shows the steady move toward a retrenchment in the form of race-based literacy instruction programs. Phrases such as “back to basics” signaled a move toward limiting minority students’ access to mainstream universities. Later, in a way to provide a clearer metric, the phrase “student competence” was used to voice concerns over deficiencies in the use of standard written English. Again, as shown in memoranda, in the initial phases of the program, early correspondence showed some delicacy in broaching the subject of whether minority students possessed the requisite literacy skills. However, as the number of students (and the dollars supporting the programs) increased, the language characterizing the abilities of the students and the costs associated with the provided levels of support became less guarded.

The ongoing war of words and ideas raged among academics, theorists, and politicians over the purpose, propriety, and utility of basic writing programs as a means of ameliorating the effects of poor precollege education for poor and minority youth, with the forces against the development of such programs continuing to gain momentum throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The progression (or perhaps more appropriately, regression) from bridge programs such as the EOP Rhetoric program to the decline of such programs most notable in the aftermath of the Bakke decision will not be unfamiliar to students of these efforts. By the time Lamos cites Justice John Roberts’s conclusion that “the only way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race” (p. 152), the weight of the issue, and the inevitability of the decline, is not merely expected; it appears unavoidable.

Lamos provides historical analysis of the development of such programs in the hope of “imagin[ing] new ways to address this problematic contemporary situation” of such programs being antithetical to university needs and goals (p. 4). In the increasingly highly charged political atmosphere of education and in the wake of standards-based assessment, for which success is yet to be defined or proved, Lamos has gone a long way in achieving his goal. He can consider his efforts a success, if only for reminding his readers—many of whom are adherents to a belief in such programs—that even those friendly to these programs harbor doubts as to program relevance or success. He has done far more than that, producing a work of inestimable value to experts in the field of reading instruction and to those who see access to higher education as a cornerstone value.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 18, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16774, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 9:25:12 PM

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About the Author
  • Randall Westbrook
    Farleigh Dickinson University
    E-mail Author
    RANDALL WESTBROOK is an instructor at the Peter Sammartino School of Education of Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey. His scholarly work focuses on the educational thought of W.E.B. DuBois. He has contributed to publications such as the Lincoln Journal for Social and Political Thought, and the Journal for African American History, and the textbook The Black Experience in America (Kendall Hunt, 2011). He earned his baccalaureate from Livingstone College (Salisbury, NC) and his master’s and doctoral degrees from Rutgers University. Westbrook anticipates release of his first monograph, a book featuring works by DuBois, in fall 2012.
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