Born in 1924 to a father who didn’t finish high school and a mother with a two-year teaching certificate, Mina Shaughnessy earned her BA & MA from prestigious private universities: Northwestern and Columbia, respectively. For financial reasons, she did not pursue a Ph.D. Her modest rural roots, her reputable education, and her own frustration at not feeling free to attain the highest academic achievement provide context for the pioneering work she did at the end of her relatively short life in 1978, a year before Errors and Expectations was published.
To get us in the mood of the time period, here are some photos of NYC in the 1970s, from Death, Destruction, And Debt: 41 Photos Of Life In 1970s New York.
East Harlem school children Camilo José Vergara Photographs
In Harlem, Black girls playing with white Barbies. Camilo José Vergara Photographs
1973 Central Park “Quilting Bee” a couple of miles south of Harlem The Atlantic
“Muggers Express…the most dangerous in the world” Business Insider
And in Brooklyn, an apartment with a “revolutionary theme.” Camilo José Vergara Photographs
There was much I found illuminating and sensitive in the introduction and chapter we read. I liked that Shaughnessy refers to her subjects as “writers,” rather than “students,” identifying them as already being what they are learning to be–perhaps unskilled, but not by default without ability or talent. She draws attention to teachers as also potentially being “unprepared,” putting the emphasis on their need to work hard, as well as on the students. She references feelings when she brings up tone, writing disintegration that escalates with frustration or fear, and how fraught academic might be a to a student, a “trap,” positioning the teacher as an adversary.
From one middle-aged, well-meaning white lady to another, what I wish Shaughnessy had addressed (from the introduction it does not appear that she did so elsewhere in the book) is race and ethnicity as a major theme in the writers’ lives, meriting more than the page three reference to the “racial and ethnic enclaves” “most” of the students were from. On the same page she refers to the “rules and rituals of college life,” but does not explore how vastly different these may be from these teenagers’ home lives and the fact that they are likely putting vast energy into code switching when they have not been give the college code book.
I observed that in the writing samples students capitalized “Black” (and not “white”), leading me to infer a race-consciousness in a time period on the heels of the establishment of racial, ethnic, and women’s studies departments. The National Council for Black Studies was founded in 1975, which was in the time period that Shaughnessy gathered her data. I do not necessarily fault Shaughnessy for sharing a less holistic view of first generation college life than might be prevalent in education literature today, but it is provocative to pedagogy studies today.
Questions to explore (feel welcome to add your own):
- Might learning to speak and write “white” be fraught for CUNY students?
- What other aspects of students lives might Shaughnessy have addressed, e.g., age, status as earners, family lives, activism, etc.?
- How could composition teachers embrace students in their totality?
- Should a teacher’s only focus be how they empart and improve skills?
- Are there different methods for teaching people of different races, ethnicities, genders, classes, etc.? Or only learning styles, e.g. Visual, Aural, Read/Write, Kinesthetic aka VARK?
Refer back to the photos above before you respond.