Fairness and Rights: Basic Writing and the Oil Boom

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Michelle Stevier-Johanson photo.jpgToday’s guest blogger is Michelle Stevier-Johanson, who teaches Basic Writing and coordinates the Writing Center and other tutoring at Dickinson State University in Dickinson, North Dakota.  She has taught developmental writing and first-year composition, writing about the environment, and women's studies courses since receiving her master's degree in composition and literacy studies from Indiana University in 1996.  Her scholarly interests include writing as empowerment, civic literacy, and activism; writing course/writing tutor partnerships; and rhetorics of resistance.

Last fall, one of my Basic Writing students – I’ll call him Brandon – wrote about his experience with the Bakken oil boom.  Brandon supports North Dakota’s oil industry, but he’s dismayed by what he sees as an injustice inherent in mineral rights. In his third essay, Brandon was able to research and clarify his thoughts and concerns about this injustice.

This third essay, what I call the “explanation of opinion” paper, arises out of a pedagogical struggle of my own. In previous courses, I found that no amount of discussion of reader-oriented prose was enough to make sure that students used our final paper, a Toulmin-based argument, as an opportunity to persuade rather than preach. The “explanation of opinion” paper is designed to put a brake on the tendency to articulate our beliefs before we consider the beliefs and experiences of others. In Essay 3, students state their opinion as their thesis, but the task of the essay is to discuss how they came to this belief. How did family and friends’ beliefs influence them? What specific life experiences shaped this opinion?

For Brandon, Essay 3 offered a significant opportunity to learn more about the injustices he perceived in his community. Although Brandon knows farmers and ranchers who own the mineral rights to their land, Brandon’s family had to buy their land without these rights in place. In his essay, Brandon addressed the complex consequences of this difference:  His family’s livelihood is tied to their farmland, and yet that livelihood can be undermined at any moment by a mineral rights owner who wants access to “drill, baby, drill.” As a result, while the oil industry booms all around, landowners like Brandon’s family don’t experience the same economic growth. Instead, their rights are thrown into question.

As I worked with Brandon, I found myself struck not just by his eloquent depiction of his family’s situation, but by the way in which this story provides a metaphor for Basic Writing itself. Like many Basic Writing teachers, I spend a lot of time thinking about place, politics, and ownership. These things are central to Basic Writing whether we want them to be or not. Whenever I try to argue with the politics of administrators, colleagues, and others who characterize the work of Basic Writing as remedial and perceive our students to be outsiders to the academy, I realize the enormity of our marginalization and separation – our students’ and our own.

Worst of all, at least in my opinion, there is that seemingly inexorable belief that enables the perception of outsider status:  the idea that the “basic” in Basic Writing refers to grammar, vocabulary, punctuation, and formatting, not to the real writing students will do in first-year composition and elsewhere in their undergraduate careers and lives. My students and I are repeatedly turned into mere observers of changes to the land we thought was our own.

In just the last six years of my career, the “place” called Basic Writing has been radically altered without much input from me and without any input from the students whose lives are profoundly affected. For example, there’s the course credit we lost a few years ago when my university system decided that Basic Writing is “pre-college” material. There’s the course name change that took us out of the English Department and linked us to “academic success” rather than the discipline of writing.

As he worked on his essay about compromised land rights, Brandon kept coming back to a simple question: “Why can’t people understand that this is about rights and fairness?” It’s a question that plagues me with Basic Writing as well. How do we help outsiders to our field understand that, in the American academy, Basic Writers are not tenants without rights but landowners? Why must the power of certain stakeholders come at the expense of the power of others?

Indeed, any unthinking chant of “drill, baby, drill” is as irresponsible an approach to Basic Writing as it is to this nation’s energy problems. Marked by the always-already compromised turf of Basic Writing, my students are not simple observers of fences, gates, and rights-of-access issues:  they are, and they can remain, the fenced and the gated. Furthermore, unlike issues of land ownership in the Bakken – the agricultural and industrial prairie that once belonged to Native peoples – Basic Writing students’ access has no ugly consequences. No environmental damage can occur from Basic Writers’ full participation in American higher education.  Just like Brandon, these students have vital stories to tell and talents that need to be supported, even prized.  As a space for some of the academy’s best direct action, Basic Writing must be liberated from compromised status and assume its rightful place:  a guardian of students’ rights and a central location for academic and civic empowerment.

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About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.