Sabbatical Notes From Underground: Mina P. Shaughnessy: Her Life and Work

mina1Jane Maher’s biography of Shaughnessy is my second sabbatical read (one academic book of the month club), and I finished it right on schedule yesterday (thank heavens for leap day!). Back when I was planning my sabbatical over a year ago, I wanted to reconnect with the passion of my graduate school experience, and while I remember Shaughnessy as being one of the giants of Comp and Rhetoric, I didn’t remember much more than that. Now I know a lot more about her, and I don’t think I could have selected a better text for recharging my commitment to empowering open enrollment students to become writers. High minded drivel, yes, but I like it.

What I like best about Maher’s book is that, while it’s a biography, the “work” part of her title is more than apt. She concentrates as much on Shaughnessy’s work and ideas as she does Shaughnessy’s life. Both are powerful. Both renew my faith in the nobility of what writing instructors – particularly developmental writing instructors – are trying to do. After reading Paulo Friere, I don’t think I could have done better than Shaughnessy. I plan to read her 1977 classic Errors and Expectati0ns when I can squeeze it in, probably this summer.

The book is primarily the story of Shaughnessy’s leadership in CUNY’s Open Admissions program in the early 1970s. In 1970, CUNY granted tuition-free admission to any graduate of the New York City Public School system. The move was unprecedented and controversial, and was essentially abandoned after five years, though pieces of it remain everywhere, especially where I teach – in an open enrollment community college. A writing instructor, Shaughnessy fervently believed in the ability of under prepared students to be successful in academia when almost no one else would.

One of her battles was with the established English faculty, whose belief was that Open Admission dragged down the entire institution – the lofty Ivory Tower. In her 1975 address to the the MLA in San Francisco entitled “Diving In,” she focuses on the development of writing instructors as follows:

Developmental scale of Basic Writing teachers (pp. 162-63)


  1. Guarding the Tower: protecting the academy from”�those who do not seem to belong in the community of learners.
  2. Converting the Natives: learning is thought of”�as a steady flow of truth into a void. “�it does not occur to [the teacher] to consider the competing logics and values and habits that may be influencing students, often in ways that they themselves are unaware of.
  3. Sounding the Depths: it finally occurs to the teacher that the things he or she is trying to teach the students”�only appear simple to those who already know them”�that sense and nonsense of written English must often collide with spoken English that has been serving students in their negotiations with the world for many years.
  4. Diving In: the teacher”�must now make a decision that demands professional courage — the decision to remediate himself, to become a student of new disciplines and of his students themselves in order to perceive both their difficulties and their incipient excellence.

I like to think that at some point soon I’ll be diving in.

Shaughnessy grew up a Lutheran from western South Dakota, where I have similar roots, so it was also easy to connect with her spiritual struggles and family commitments, too. Tall, beautiful, and a self described “clothes horse,” Maher notes often how everyone around Shaughnessy was in love with her. I’m in love with her, too.

Do you think there’s something wrong with being in love with a dead woman at least half a century my senior? I’ll ask Sherry. She’ll know.

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2 Responses to Sabbatical Notes From Underground: Mina P. Shaughnessy: Her Life and Work

  1. Jocelyn says:

    I can’t believe you make me want to read this stuff. I didn’t even want to read it in grad school!

    There better not be something wrong with being in love with a woman that much older and deader, or my crush on Virginia Woolf is very, very bad.

  2. sarah says:

    I love the idea that the teacher must remediate herself. But perhaps that, too, is too harsh. There may be a middle ground there somewhere, the space between, where we all meet.

    I have an imaginary conversation in my mind where one of my friends who loves to speak pidgin asks me, “Where you stay?” and I reply confused, “Oh, you mean where am I right now?” She would just snap back, “English your second language?”

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