Basic Writing and the Legacy of Open Admissions

deadline for submissions: 
January 10, 2020
full name / name of organization: 
Journal of Basic Writing

Call for Proposals

Special Issue of Journal of Basic Writing  

 Basic Writing and the Legacy of Open Admissions

Guest Editors: Jack N. Morales and Lynn Reid

No public policy has garnered as much attention in rhetoric and composition over the last fifty years as open admissions. By the fall of 1970, the question of whether or not public institutions were doing enough to stave off the effects of de facto segregation was taken up by The City University of New York under intense public pressure. In Basic Writing, this has provided the foundation for a social history of the field that connects public discontent and political activism with the emergence of professional interest in the formal study of literacy (see Shor 1980, 1992; Soliday 2002; Otte 2008; Otte and Mlynarczyk 2010). These histories rightly position a critical inquiry of remediation within the context of the social movements driving educational reform in New York. They chronicle the transition of literacy from a set of discrete, abstract, and apolitical skills to what Deborah Brant has characterized as skills that function as “an engine of profit and competitive advantage in the twentieth century...raw material[s] in the mass production of information” (Brandt). They, in effect, render literacy a public good -- and therefore a resource -- subject to state intervention and regulation. That this transition was codified in the shift from selective admissions to open admissions offers a chance to evaluate the historical, empirical, and theoretical trajectory of Basic Writing in the 21st century.

Complicating this transition, of course, is the maturity of BW from an exercise in gatekeeping to one of formal academic study. Mina Shaughnessy’s well known developmental stages for teachers of basic writing characterize this transition aptly -- “guarding the tower”; “converting the natives”; “sounding the depths”; and “diving in” (Shaughnessy). To understand the legacy of open admissions, then, is to unpack the competing versions of what open admissions means to the public and what it means to an ever-increasing cadre of specialists in BW. Bruce Horner began this conversation in 1996 by considering the ways in which the institutionalization of BW courses has played into the public discourses of open admissions and higher education. For Horner, these seemingly competitive discourses worked together to naturalize the omission of the “concrete material, political, institutional, and social historical” inequalities that frame the lived experiences of students and teachers of Basic Writing. Because its social history narrates a hard fought battle for the legitimization of BW’s “institutional place”, these inequalities remain obscured.

Similarly, Steve Lamos shows how the field’s origins at CUNY can be understood as a poetics of entrenched racial difference, or “racialization”, where Basic Writing bears an almost metonymic relationship to race. For Lamos, this process renders remediation an exclusively minority enterprise in the popular and scholarly imagination (Lamos 26). In addition, George Otte and Rebecca Mylnarczyk’s historical overview of the field in their Basic Writing (2010), reminds scholars that open admissions as a “movement” is affirmed in the stories of the social and political “volatility” of the 1960s. These social histories of Basic Writing reveal an emerging tension at the end of the twentieth century, one that ushers in the transition of literacy as a good to be subsidized and regulated by the state to a practice and/or competency duly regulated by a profession.

This transition is important in helping the field at large to understand where Basic Writing is today and how open admissions is practiced at the local level while being (mis?)understood on a national scale. One crucial element missing from most conventional social histories of open admissions is the increasing privatization of the university. At the beginning of the 1970s, the public university became a site of civic contest over its relationship to both the state and industry. As Christopher Newfield has pointed out, however, a “devolutionary cycle” now characterizes what he calls the “American Funding Model” of higher education, where private investment in the public university goes where the returns are high, most notably institutions with high graduation rates (Newfield  9). What does it mean, then, to invoke a phrase like open admissions in the context of contemporary BW theory, research, and pedagogies, discourses arguably shaped by the contradictions of public policy and academic inquiry? How do these contradictions play out in the economic and political transformation of the university, especially in contexts such as community colleges, small liberal arts colleges, and public four-year colleges? For this special issue of JBW, we invite 750 word proposals that consider the legacy of open admissions relative to its current iterations or to the status of the profession of BW more broadly. Relatedly, we suggest additional starting points and/or questions:

●  How has the transition of open admissions from a public policy to an academic policy influenced the history of basic writing at your campus?

●What might it mean for rhetoric and composition to study the production, circulation, and regulation of literacy as a competency increasingly sponsored by private interests?

●To what extent does writing instruction support democratic ends when the means to do so are increasingly privatized?

●How do writing program administrators negotiate the contradictions found in articulating “public” policies regulating literacy, especially in academic spaces that are presumably governed by research and theory.

●How do the stated missions of today’s open admissions institutions reflect the values that were foundational to the open admissions movement of the 1970s?

●What kind of expertise or experience is necessary for teaching in or administering a program in an open admissions institution?

We invite potential authors to consider how the legacy of open admissions informs the theory, research, pedagogy, and education of basic writers and their teachers fifty years after entering the field’s professional discourse. As with any call, the above questions are merely suggestive of possible approaches to the topic rather than a set of exclusive interests or inquiries. Please submit your proposals to by January 10th, 2020. We hope to communicate decisions to authors by late February and will expect full drafts of submissions by the end of June 2020.

Please also feel free to contact us at with any questions about a proposal!

Works Cited

Brandt, Deborah. “Sponsors of Literacy”. CCC, vol. 49, no. 2, 1998, pp. 165-185.

Lamos, Steve. “Basic Writing, CUNY, and “Mainstreaming”: (De)Racialization Reconsidered”. Journal of Basic Writing, vol. 19, no. 2, 2000, pp. 22-43. 

Otte, George. “Sunrsise, Sunset: Basic Writing at CUNY’s City College”. Basic Writing in  America, edited by Nicole Greene and Pat McAlexander, Hampton Press, 2007, pp.              21-47.

Otte, George and Rebecca Williams Mlynarczyk. Basic Writing, Parlor Press, 2010.

Shaughnessy, Mina. “Diving In: An Introduction to Basic Writing”. CCC, vol. 27, no. 3, 1976, pp. 234-239.

Shor, Ira. Critical Teaching and Everyday Life. University of Chicago P, 1980.

--- Empowering Education: Critical Teaching for Social Change. University of Chicago P, 1992.

Soliday, Mary. The Politics of Remediation: Institutional and Student Needs in Higher Education. University of Pittsburgh P, 2002.