Oh, How We Justify! Oh, How We Turn Away!

Yesterday, in partnership with Learning Specialist AE Dreyfuss, I presented a paper at “The CUNY Conference on Best Practices in Reading/Writing Instruction.”  We talked about a pilot project we are conducting using Fred Keller’s Personalized System of Instruction and the Peer-Led Team Learning concept.  The other papers on our panel were quite interesting–and I learned something from each.  The people at the conference all seemed genuinely caring and concerned for our CUNY students.

I should have known, when I saw who the Plenary Speaker was going to be, that many of the attendees were going to be in for a surprise.  The Conference centered on preparing students for the CUNY Assessment Test in Writing (CATW), the new entrance exam dividing students into those who can fully matriculate and enroll in First Year Composition (FYC) and those to be forced into remediation.  Ira Shor, described on the program as “Professor of Rhetoric and Composition, CUNY Graduate School, and distinguished Freirean scholar,” would not normally be seen as a natural fit in such a gathering.  After all, Shor, very much on the left himself, hasn’t just studied Paolo Freire, but actually worked and wrote with the Brazilian theorist and agitator for educational change.  To think that he would ignore the inequities of a test that is top-down in its execution, its formulation, and its mandate would have been naive, at best.

And, of course, he did not.  His talk, with the title “Forty Years of War on CUNY: Teaching and Learning in Dangerous Times,” started quite safely.  He spoke of history, of the founding of the Free Academy of the City of New York in 1847 (first students enrolled in 1849), the ancestor of City College and the entire system.  He spoke of his own history, of coming to CUNY in 1971 during the upheaval of open enrollment.  He spoke of change and its origins.

Only at the end did he hit us where we live, challenging our acceptance of entrance exams that were mandated for political, not pedagogical reasons.  He had talked about how, in his early days at CUNY, with five times as many students as the campus really had room for, he and his colleagues at the College of Staten Island still found time to talk to individual students about which composition course to register for, how the students, ultimately, had been able to choose, Basic Writing or FYC, and could do so wisely.  He challenged our acceptance of reliance on adjunct instructors and told us that our tests were keeping the students outsiders.  He belittled the belief that, in one or two semesters, we can prepare students of adequately utilize the language of academia.

As he talked, I looked around at the faces in the audience.  They were glum; few were nodding.  Fewer still leaned forward in their chairs, paying close attention.  Some were deliberately turning away.  Shor was challenging what many of them had spent the morning justifying… on my panel, one person had extolled the exam as providing a means for preparing students for many facets of learning.  Another had claimed that students “should” know how to write on any “prompt” (writing sample) they were given, no matter the topic–and that the preparation for the exam showed them how to do this.

As Shor stated outright or implied, exam prep (even in a semester- or year-long class) cannot prepare students for full participation in an academic environment–and preparing students to write on “anything” teaches them the precedence of form over content and leaves communication out of the mix completely.  The people making such claims (and many others) merely justify a system that, Shor made clear, cannot be justified.

So, it was not surprising that the reaction to Shor was a little less than completely positive.  When he ended, there was mild applause, kept up with enthusiasm by about a quarter of us while others turned to talk to each other or got up to make their ways to afternoon sessions.  I had expected that Shor (after all, he is an internationally known figure, author of a number of quite influential books) would be mobbed by fans like me afterwards.  He was not.  I was sitting in the back of the audience, yet I was the first to approach him.

Although I suspect Shor’s message was shut out by the majority of the audience, his comments were quite on target, especially in today’s environment of measurement mania.  Maybe, at some point, they will seep through the walls even of those so invested in the CATW that they were, yesterday, unwilling to hear him.

For hear him they should.

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