NITE, the New Left, and the NCTE/CCCC Caucuses

In the first few weeks of Studies in Writing Pedagogy, Steve is trying to establish a context for the current problems in the field by having us dip back into the late 50s/early 60s to see what tensions were mounting composition studies. It’s an interesting an unexpected choice (for me, anyway) and led to a great discussion last week in class about how the field positions itself among its own members, to the academy, and to its students.

We started by reading “The National Interest and the Teaching of English” (NITE), a report from NCTE in 1961 that articulates a crisis in English pedagogy including:

  • a major shortage of English teachers (as much as a 27% deficit),
  • a lack of properly trained teachers (25% of elementary teachers were not college grads and 40-60% of English teachers didn’t major in the subject in college),
  • a lack of state or national standards necessary for an improvement in student writing

The paper argues that since high school students were in enrolled in English more than any other subject (92.9%, as compared to 55% in math), there was much at stake in the report’s findings.

As we discussed in class, the Cold War, specifically the launch of Sputnik in 1957, fueled much of the underlying anxiety in the report. Take statements like the following for example: “…simple literacy is not enough. Today industrial firms are spending millions of dollars each year for men, modern counterparts of the ancient scribes, who can rewrite the repots of research engineers into clear and grammatical English. Business are employing the graduates of liberal arts colleges in order to secure executives who can bing a sense of human values to the transactions of the marketplace.” In other words, literacy was a fundamental economic utility and we the field of English wasn’t taking that seriously enough (J. Elspeth Stuckey  provides an interesting counterpoint 30 years later).

Alongside the NITE document, Steve paired readings from first SDS president Al Haber, C Wright Mills‘s seminal letter to the New Left, a recently edited collection called Listening to Our Elders, which chronicles a (mostly) oral history of the caucuses in NCTE/CCC, as well as Marianna White Davis’s history of the Black Caucus, in order to show the kinds of responses the NITE document got from the radical left at the time — and ever since.

Haber and Haber’s piece is particularly interesting as it summarized the Radicals in the Professions Conference, held in 1967 in Ann Arbor, a conference that brought together leftist professionals who struggled with their ideals outside of their schooling, where they became increasingly isolated, alienated, and professionalized or conformed. The frustration became a “shared, articulated experience” at the Conference and identified two barriers living professional, radical lives: (1) the language of the movement and (2) the strategies of the movement. In a sense the conference asked “how do you be a professional and a radical?” In class this led us back into the caucus readings, but also into discussions of basic comp pedagogy. Should we teach ESWE or academic writing, for example, when it subverts and undermines some of the values that radicals/critical pedagogues espouse?

This week we’re continuing our explorations of the 50s/60s by reading David Fleming’s recent book From Form to Meaning, a history of composition in UW-Madison in that era. His case study connects the events at Madison to the larger national trends and problems in composition at the time. We’re also reading selections from The Black Panthers Speak and some primary sources from the New University Conference, a radical organization based in Chicago and mid-west.

Readings

Blackmon, Samantha, Cristina Kirklighter, and Steve Parks, eds. Listening to Our Elders: Working and Writing for Change. Utah State University Press, 2011. Print.

Davis, Marianna White. History of the Black Caucus. Urbana, Ill: NCTE, 1994. Print.

Haber, Barbara, and Alan Haber. “Getting By With a Little Help From Our Friends.” The New Left: A Collection of Essays. Ed. Priscilla Long. Porter Sargent Publishers, 1969. 289-309. Print.

Kampf, Louis. “Notes Toward a Radical Culture.” The New Left: A Collection of Essays. Ed. Priscilla Long. Porter Sargent Publishers, 1969. 420-434. Print.

Mills, C Wright. “Letter to the New Left.” The New Left: A Collection of Essays. Ed. Priscilla Long. Porter Sargent Publishers, 1969. 14-25. Print.

National Council of Teachers of English. The National Interest and the Teaching of English; a Report on the Status of the Profession. Campaign, Ill: National Council of Teachers of English, 1961. Print.

Stuckey, J. Elspeth. The Violence of Literacy. Boynton/Cook, 1990. Print.