THE CONVENTIONS OF
A number of composition researchers in the past few years
have come to the conclusion that students cannot think. Not the
day-to-day thinking of ordinary life-it is admitted our students
can get along there. But the abstract formulations and analytic
conceptualization required for academic discourse are said to be
As the basis for such assumptions, composition researchers have
turned to the cognitive theories of Piaget and Vygotsky, both of
whom developed schemes to describe the growth of concept
formation in young children. According to these schemes, children
move from sensory-motor operations to concrete operations to
higher and higher levels of abstracting and synthesizing, until,
at the age of puberty (ages 11 to 13), they reach the stage when
they can carry out sophisticated problem-solving operations.
The problem, as some see it, is that our students have never
attained the abilities that Piaget and Vygotsky predict will be
achieved by early adolescence. Thus, Annette Bradford questions
why "a large number of college freshmen have not acquired an
ability which theorists link with ages eleven through thirteen"
(19). Andrea Lunsford asserts that basic writers "have not attained
that level of cognitive development which would allow them to
form abstractions or conceptions" (38). Elaine 0. Lees finds in
Myra Kogen teaches writing and literature at Hofstra University, and has taught
basic writing at several colleges of The City University of New York. Her articles
have appeared in English in the Two-Year College , American Literary Realism,
and The Journal of Business Communication. She is currently working on a book
on writing in the professions.
©Journal of Basic Writing, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1986
student writing "an absence of generalization, an apparent inability to go beyond talk of specific incidents and experiences to
conclusions based on them" (145). And Marilyn Goldberg speaks
of "the emptiness of [student] generalizations and the poverty of
their supporting knowledge" (39).
I would like to take a step back from such categorical assumptions of inability and inadequacy. It is all too easy to conclude
that those who do not do, or who do not wish to do, what we
seem to be able to do are deficient and underdeveloped. But,
more important, such assumptions about reasoning and its role
in discourse are not borne out by experience. In this paper I wish
to challenge the notion that students, including basic writers,
cannot think abstractly. First, I will briefly question the underlying
assumptions behind the deficit model; second, I will look closely
at student writing samples to show that students are not inept
thinkers but simply insufficiently familiar with the conventions
of expository discourse; and, last, I will apply these insights to
a prominent piece of research which purports to demonstrate that
students are poor thinkers.
In concluding that students are cognitively undeveloped, composition researchers are assuming that the conventions of argumentation characteristic of expository discourse are absolute and
universal. They take for granted both that the analytic patterns
of academic discourse are equivalent to modes of thought and
that the chains of reasoning characteristic of expository writing
are the only forms of analytic thought. As the work of Walter
Ong and others have shown, however, in other cultures other
forms of argumentation can be viewed as persuasive (Interfaces
of the Word and Rhetoric, Romance and Technology). Ong has
found that primitive and nonliterate people are capable of developing intensely rich and complex forms of language based on
oral traditions (forms based on rhapsodic patterns which employ
ritualistic expressions, epithets, and proverbs).
Ong believes that modern society, enveloped as it is by the
mass media, often exhibits a kind of secondary orality. As an
illustration, Ong describes a teacher asking a class of Black innercity students what they think of Nixon's actions in Cambodia,
and being told by one student, "I wouldn't vote for that Turkey.
He raised his own salary" ("Literacy and Orality" 4). Ong points
out that, annoying as this comment may have been to the teacher,
it shows the ability of the student to think analytically in accordance with the conventions of an oral culture which places
primary emphasis on the deeper issues of life: "The highly oral
student handled the instructor's query as a rhetorical example,
as a concrete instance referring to something at a higher, more
generalized level of abstraction" (4).
What Ong's analysis is pointing to, I think, is that college
freshmen are not retarded at an early stage of thought development but that, in learning to write, they are falling back on other,
less academically oriented forms of reasoning. David Bartholomae
makes a similar point about the syntactic difficulties of basic
If we begin [by studying basic writing], we will recognize at
once that "basic" does not mean simple or childlike. These
are beginning writers, to be sure, but they are not writers
who need to learn to use language. They are writers who
need to learn to command a particular variety of languagethe language of a written, academic discourse-and a particular variety of language use-writing itself. The writing of
a basic writer can be shown to be an approximation of
conventional written discourse; it is a peculiar and idiosyncratic version of a highly conventional type, but the relation
between the approximate and the conventional forms is not
the same as the relation between the writing, say, of a 7th
grader and the writing of a college freshman . . . . [basic
writing] is a variety of writing, not writing with fewer parts
or more rudimentary constituents. It is not evidence of arrested cognitive development, or unruly or unpredictable
language use (254).
When basic writers try to argue, reason, develop ideas in academic
discourse, they have the same difficulties that Bartholomae notes
concerning syntactic fluency. Teachers reading the essays of these
writers find the ideas messy, undefined, undeveloped; the writing
seems overly general, or at the other extreme, too specific and
personal. The points seem foolish or immature or unrealized.
These difficulties are attributed to a lack of ability on the parts
of students to reason, to think analytically. However, the patterns
of reasoning we have come to expect in academic writing are
not inherent forms of thinking but conventional modes. These
forms are so familiar that we conceive of them as natural and
inevitable. Our students bringing other, more colloquial forms of
reasoning to their writing, are also convinced of the superiority
of academic argumentation. They struggle to employ it in their
essays but they have learned the systems imperfectly so their
attempts seem inadequate and immature.
It would help immeasurably if we could understand exactly
what the conventions of argument in academic discourse really
are. Unfortunately, such understanding is difficult to achieve
because conventions, by their very nature, are instinctual and
automatic. As Douglas Park has poi ted out, writers are usually
not aware of the conventions that go ern a piece of writing; more
often it is merely a matter of "being on sure ground," of feeling
comfortable with one's voice, and kn wing intuitively that a piece
is proceeding in accordance with ne's own and the readers'
Once we look at the patterns of rgumentation used by our
students, it becomes clear that what ver their backgrounds may
be, in school they are trying to e ploy the usual modes of
reasoning of academic discourse-tr ing but not totally succeeding. The writing is characterized b conventional patterns that
are imperfectly used and only margi ally realized. Interestingly,
the ideas themselves often seem rea onable enough but connections between ideas are often weak generalizations needed to
link minor and major ideas are ofte missing, supporting explanations may be only vaguely suggest d or even entirely omitted.
This lack of adherence to characterist' c patterns of argumentation
is evident not only in the developm nt of ideas but also in the
use of tone or voice.
For example, in an essay titled " y Strengths as a Student,"
a student in one of my basic writin classes wrote:
The only way I can accomplish hat I want to in life is to
have strength as a student. I want to do some kind of technical
work with my hand, and if I don' finish my degree, I'll never
accomplish what I set out to do.
With all the changes I went thr ugh with when I came to
Register, I feel showed some str ngth of determination. My
Job didn't help matters in fact t ey add to the confusion. I
was told I would get a transfer nd at the last minute they
couldn't do it. I was left running around trying to get all the
classes I needed to be a full-tim student.
Now I am in school and I feel I an finish once and fore all
if I keep my head in the books hich shouldn't be too hard.
Aside from errors in spelling and synt
as a result of these, the passages see
While paragraphs one and three can
paragraph two seems to have only
to the other two-something about r
a promised transfer (job transfer?) t
Readers might ask: How do the sent
to the topic? Why is the transfer me
x, or, more probably, partly
ed scattered and irrational.
e said to make some sense,
vague kind of connection
gistration, something about
at did not come through.
Actually, the sentences on registration are about the confusion
and difficulty of registering for the first time (a confusion experienced by many freshmen). For this student the difficulties of
registering were compounded by his not having received a promised job transfer that would have provided better working hours
and placed him closer to the college. The argument my student
is constructing, then, is that he has already shown great strength
as a student-first, because he successfully negotiated the difficulties of registration and, second, because he got through these
difficulties in spite of a hampering job situation.
As the ideas appear in the original passages, they seem run
together, connections are tenuous, a very important piece of
information (what the job transfer meant) is omitted. But the
passage is not lacking in sense. In fact, once translated it makes
fine sense and, once understood, forms a convincing argument.
The first sentence in paragraph two offers the proper generalization for the argument (what I have already gone through to be
a student shows that I have the "strength of determination" to
succeed). The examples that follow properly support this point.
This student simply lacks a sense of how arguments in expository
discourse are characteristically developed, how a chain of reasoning is joined and filled in.
One convention of expository writing is that the audience must
always be told more than it would need to be told in conversation.
Mina Shaughnessy, exploring this difference between speech and
writing, pointed out that speech, " looping back and forth between
speakers, offering chances for groping and backing up and even
hiding, leaving room for the language of hands and faces, of pitch
and pauses" is "generous" in comparison to writing which requires more formal supports in accordance with " the rules of
evidence" (238). Writers like my student, more attuned to the
conventions of speech than writing, often omit information which
a listener could supply from context, from tone or gesture, or
from other conversational clues. Basic writers need to be helped
to understand the limitations of the reading audience, the difficulties of making sense of text without contextual clues.
Even this analysis needs to be qualified, however, for it implies
that the amount of information supplied by the writer is determined by the reader's need to know. Actually, writers often supply
much more information than readers actually need and convention permits that they do so. Take, for example, any feature article
in the New York Times on the city's beleaguered subway system
which, as a matter of course, will describe in detail all the
unspeakable inconveniences that ew Yorkers suffer daily. The
newspaper's readers do not need his information; they know it
only too well. These anecdotes re used not to provide information, but to evoke common fee ings of anger and disgust. The
extent to which a writer of expo itory discourse must draw out
connections and provide backgro nd information, then, is not
necessarily determined by the re der's need for knowledge.
In class, topics are often discu ed at length by teachers and
students before students write o them. No matter how much
discussion takes place, however, c nvention requires that a writer
provide some amount of backgro nd explanation for the reader
even if it is unnecessary. Teacher familiar with the conventions
of academic writing often feel t at students are poor thinkers
when they do not supply such ba kground, forgetting that logic,
in this case, is actually on the tudents' side. For example, a
basic writing college class of min was once asked to argue for
or against a writing proficiency e amination that had been proposed for the next year. As backg ound, I described the plan for
the examination to my students ·n detail. Nevertheless, I was
very surprised when I received a whole set of essays that took
for granted that the reader would now all about the proficiency
test and its use. My students, as t e following introductory paragraph shows, did not realize that convention required that they
set the scene by giving known ba kground information:
In my opinion, we the students of Queens Community College
don't need this proposed requirement. We have already taken
enough exams from the beginning to determine our proficiency in writing. Those who failed the placements tests,
were penalized already by taken remedial courses. It would
unfairly penalize then again.
The lack of explanation in this paragraph interestingly contrasts
with the work of a second, more savvy freshman writer in another
college, who was asked to evaluate the effects of an exam already
There are many exams that students are given throughout
their lives in order to evaluate their abilities and weaknesses.
One such test is the proficiency exam in writing, which must
be passed in order to graduate from Hofstra University. Many
feel that this requirement should be done away with, but I
do not agree. While this test may have its faults , it does
measure a students ability to reason logically, put their ideas
on paper, and also shows their level of vocabulary.
The first writer was totally unaware that the proficiency examination had to be briefly described in her paper, that the context
had to be given. The second student is aware of the conventions
and does describe the examination, but, interestingly, he does so
with a certain degree of stiffness. He has not yet worked out
ways to include unneeded information gracefully.
Aside from logical connections and the use of background
information, academic writers also must be concerned with making clear the generalizations upon which their arguments hinge.
In less stringent circumstances, for example in conversation, a
point can be made swiftly in passing, without a detailed explanation of how it relates to the main theme. In expository writing,
however, explicit statements are needed to relate supports to
basic propositions. For example, in a passage taken from another
paper on the topic of the proposed proficiency examination, the
writer suggests a relevant well-reasoned point, but fails to offer
a generalization to show how her point relates to her claim that
proficiency examinations are an unfair measure of a person's
Another point that I will like to make is that what if a person
with an A average somehow does not do well on the essay
and a person with a D average happens to do the essay well,
it would be wrong not to give a degree to the A average
person who work so hard to achieve an A average and get
the degree and not get it and the D average to get the degree
and not even had work that hard with the rest of the work.
The syntax is somewhat difficult to unravel, but the implied
point is clear. Using an example, the student argues that the
grade on a proficiency examination reflects achievement on one
test whereas an overall grade point average reflects achievement
in many courses over several years. Therefore, overall GPA is a
fairer measure of writing ability and of a student's qualifications
to graduate than a proficiency test. The point makes sense, it
supports the writer's basic contention and it is neither unreasonable nor simplistic. The student, however, fails to express it
explicitly. Basic writers often need help with this important step.
They are not aware that convention requires that examples and
supports be tied to generalizations with statements that explicitly
explain the relationships between them. The student is aware of
this realtionship or she could not have come up with the example.
She needs merely to be told abqut and given practice with the
An opposite problem, generalization used without an appro30
priate elaboration, often appears as well. The following passage
in which a student suggests ways of improving registration procedures is an example of this type:
To improve registration procedures they should have all the
cards, computers, teachers, chairmen, etc. all in one room.
In doing this they will avoid having students running all over
The counselors are a great help but they really can't spend
much time with each student. They should also have many
more lines of teachers at each booth.
The suggestions for improving registration seem sensible. However, the student is not explaining or supporting his arguments.
He is merely stating his ideas without backing them up. Jeanne
Fahnestock and Marie Secor have pointed out that cause and
effect arguments are supported by the use of a ruling assumption
called "agency." Since members of a society are likely to share
a number of casual assumptions about human and physical nature,
the extent to which the writer must articulate and explain the
role of agency in argument is often a matter of judgment:
. . . whether or not we articulate agency in a casual argument
depends largely on audience. For example, if we argue that
a significant cause of teenage vandalism is violence on TV,
the agency between these two is imitation. Since most audiences will readily accept imitation as a human motive, we
would not have to stop and argue for it. But if we claimed
that wearing a mouth plate can improve athletic performance
(Sports Illu strated, 2 June 1980), we will certainly have to
explain agency (25).
One might say that to my student, the improvements he is
suggesting are so obvious that they represent the kinds of casual
connections that people in shared cultures can take for granted.
The student needs to be made aware that the conventions of
academic discourse require that he support or somehow detail
his assertions. The extent to which propositions must be explained
and supported, however, is a matter of judgment, since no argument can ever be said to be "proved" in this fashion, no matter
how many examples or supports are provided.
In addition to lacking facility with the conventional strategies
for reasoning and arguing, many students are also unsure about
voice and tone. Related to this inability, I think, is the common
perception of teachers that much student writing is too personal,
too highly confessional and emotional. This perception, while it
seems to be about the treatment of the topic, often turns out to
be about voice. Students are approaching topics in what is felt
to be an unacademic and overly emotional way. For example, a
student of ...
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