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Before Shaughnessy: Basic Writing at Yale and Harvard, 1920-1960 - Previous Revision

Before Shaughnessy: Basic Writing at Yale and Harvard, 1920-1960 by Kelly Ritter

Series: Studies in Writing and Rhetoric

Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press / CCCC & NCTE
xi, 171 p.
ISBN-13: 978-0-8093-2924-3 (Paperback); ISBN-10: 0-8093-2924-7 (Paperback)

Book Synopsis

In Before Shaughnessy: Basic Writing at Yale and Harvard, 1920-1960, Kelly Ritter uses materials from the archives at Harvard and Yale and contemporary theories of writing instruction to reconsider the definition of basic writing and basic writers within a socio-historical context. Ritter challenges the association of basic writing with only poorly funded institutions and poorly prepared students.

Using Yale and Harvard as two sample case studies, Ritter shows that basic writing courses were alive and well, even in the Ivy League, in the early twentieth century. She argues not only that basic writers exist across institutional types and diverse student populations, but that the prevalence of these writers has existed far more historically than we generally acknowledge.

Uncovering this forgotten history of basic writing at elite institutions, Ritter contends that the politics and problems of the identification and the definition of basic writers and basic writing began long before the work of Mina Shaughnessy in Errors and Expectations and the rise of open admissions.

Author Information

Kelly Ritter  is Associate Professor of English at the University of North Carolina—Greensboro, where she directs the first-year composition program and teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in composition studies.  Her essays and articles have appeared in College Composition and Communication, College English, Composition Studies, JAC, Pedagogy, Rhetoric Review, and WPA: Writing Program Administration.  She is also the coeditor (with Stephanie Vanderslice) of Can It Really Be Taught? Resisting Lore in Creative Writing Pedagogy.


Basic writing; basic writers; history of composition; ability testing; first-year writing; archival research; placement; literacy; remediation; Mina Shaughnessy; Yale University; Harvard University; Ivy League institutions


Reviewed by Gregory R. Glau in WPA: Writing Program Administration 33.1/2 (Fall/Winter 2009)

Review forthcoming in TETYC: Teaching English in the Two-Year College

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