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The Rhetoric of Remediation

reviewed by Cheryl Hogue Smith - January 27, 2011

coverTitle: The Rhetoric of Remediation
Author(s): Jane Stanley
Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA
ISBN: 0822943867, Pages: 192, Year: 2009
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On the second-to-last page of The Rhetoric of Remediation: Negotiating Entitlement and Access to Higher Education, author Jane Stanley asks, “Can UC Berkeley’s story of remediation offer insights to compositionists at other universities?” (p. 141). The answer is a resounding, “Yes.”  

Stanley describes the history of remedial writing at the University of California, Berkeley, explaining that from the time of its founding, the University admitted students who were “technically qualified” as UC Berkeley students, but who failed to demonstrate competence in writing, as determined by what would become the “Subject A” placement exam. Stanley traces the evolution of the Subject A exam from those early days, while also describing the numerous changes over time in the content and status of the remedial Subject A course that was required of students who failed the Subject A exam.

In her book, Stanley presents a case study of how and why remedial students at UC Berkeley (and by extension at other universities across the country) are both “embraced and disgraced” by their inclusion and stigmatization by University policy and practices (p. 15). In the course of her study, she demonstrates how the early presidents of UC Berkeley, recognizing the budgetary advantages of enlarged enrollments, were happy to accept as many students as possible who met the entrance requirements of the university, even when those numbers included many students who failed the Subject A placement exam. Such a policy, however, invited critics of the university to claim paradoxically that on the one hand the University of California was not equal in its standards to the great universities of the east and mid-west, and on the other hand the UC was failing in its mission to serve the citizens of California because it set its standards too high for California youth to reach.

To answer these accusations, UC presidents typically worked their rhetorical magic by arguing that the high failure rate (roughly 50%) on the Subject A exam was proof of the high standards and elite status of a university that served its citizens especially well by admitting all intellectually qualified students and then providing remedial instruction as needed to compensate for the failure of the high schools to prepare students adequately in the art of writing. In 1883, for example, President Davis answered legislative inquiries about the high Subject A failure rate by claiming that “it wasn’t that UC’s standards were too high; it was that the high schools’ (“feeder schools”) standards were too low” (p. 31) and that it was UC’s job to “drag upward the intellectual level” of the youth of California (p. 9). Stanley’s account of the rhetoric of remediation traces 140 years of apologies offered by UC presidents and, later, chancellors, as the UC both “embraced” the underprepared students of California in order to demonstrate its interest in serving the youth of the state (and secure adequate funding), at the same time that it “disgraced” these students by placing them in a non-credit course generally referred to as “bonehead English” (p. 114).

Throughout the course of telling her tale, Stanley provides several colorful stories that are as interesting as they are informative. For example, she recounts the time J. Edgar Hoover accused the Subject A exam of being “un-American,” because it asked students to write on the following prompt: “What are the dangers to democracy of a national police organization like the FBI, which operates secretly and is unresponsive to public criticism?” (p. 98). Hoover went on to assert that the author of this prompt (whom he misidentified) must have “inherited leftist sympathies from his father, a Unitarian minister” and that the author and his wife were both “fanatical adherents to communism” (p. 98). Stanley also describes several instances when the Subject A requirement came under fire because the University was admitting sub-par students and many thought the Subject A exam should be used as an entrance exam (as opposed to a placement exam) to weed these students out. UC Berkeley never converted the placement exam to an entrance exam, in large part because throughout the history of the Subject A requirement, more female students passed the exam than male students. Hence, making the exam an entrance exam, would, as one Chair of the UC Educational Policy Committee warned, have serious demographic consequences, whereby “some majors would be starved for students, while others would be overwhelmed with females” (p. 107). As Stanley observes, the idea of having an overwhelming number of female students was frightening enough to UC professors (overwhelmingly male) to ensure that the Subject A exam remained a placement exam.  

While Stanley does an admirable job of examining the rhetoric of remediation over the course of UC Berkeley’s history, the narrow focus of her study necessarily yields an incomplete account of the history of the Subject A requirement in the University of California system. Thus she ignores such important positive developments as the founding and funding of the Bay Area Writing Project in 1974-75 specifically to improve high school instruction in the Bay Area in order to reduce the number of students who were failing the Subject A exam at UC Berkeley. And she makes no mention of the establishment in 1985 of a single university-wide Subject A exam administered across the state for entering students on all UC campuses and evaluated by a cadre of trained scorers representing writing instructors from all campuses plus a select number of high school and community college English teachers as well. The new exam format called for an explanatory and argumentative response to a college-level reading passage instead of a prompt like the kind in 1961 that merely asked students to explain why “The Age of Foam Rubber suits our time” (p. 99).  

Some readers may also find parts of Stanley’s book difficult to follow, if they are not intimately familiar with the system of higher education in California. For example, Stanley often mentions the “three-tiered” college system in California and lists some junior college conversions to four-year state colleges, like “Fresno School of Agriculture, San Luis Obispo Polytechnic School, and Pomona Polytechnic School” (p. 68). Yet she never mentions that these schools form what would later become the California State University system, nor does she clarify the differences between the two top systems. The book might also benefit from a table with a timeline of UC Berkeley presidents and chancellors so readers would have something to consult when they lose track of the different presidents mentioned in various chapters, without having to flip back several pages or chapters to be reminded of who was who and when.

But these minor difficulties for readers do not diminish the value of this book for any scholar or teacher interested in the dilemma of remedial writing as it is institutionalized in American colleges and universities. The story Stanley tells is a compelling one for the field of composition studies and for the study of American higher education more generally.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 27, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16315, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 7:24:37 PM

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About the Author
  • Cheryl Smith
    Kingsborough Community College, City University of New York
    E-mail Author
    CHERYL HOGUE SMITH is an Assistant Professor of English at Kingsborough Community College, City University of New York. She is a member of the Board of the California Association of Teachers of English, a Fellow of the National Writing Project, and Administrative Assistant of Camp Shakespeare's Utah Shakespeare Festival. She earned her Ph.D. in Language, Literacy, and Composition from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and focuses her research mainly on the teaching of basic writing. Recent publications include articles in What is "College-Level" Writing? v. 2 (NCTE), The Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, English Journal, California English, and Utah Shakespeare Festival's Insights Scholarly Articles on the Plays.
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