“The language represented in the headnotes of this essay reveals deeply held beliefs. It has a tradition and a style, and it plays off the fundamental tension between the general education and the research missions of the American university. The more I think about this language and recall the contexts in which I’ve heard it used, the more I realize how caught up we all are in a political-semantic web that restricts the way we think about the place of writing in the academy.”
–Mike Rose

Key Terms: Behaviorism

In his 1985 article, “The Language of Exclusion: Writing Instruction at the University,” Mike Rose addresses five fallacies that seem to plague composition instruction in higher education: “Writing ability is judged in terms of the presence of error and can thus be quantified. Writing is a skill or a tool rather than a discipline. A number of our students lack this skill and must be remediated. In fact, some percentage of our students are, for all intents and purposes, illiterate. Our remedial efforts, while currently necessary, can be phased out once the literacy crisis is solved in other segments of the educational system” (547). Rose is addressing the “deeply held beliefs” revealed in the language and thinking described above, and he asserts that “we all are in a political-semantic web that restricts the way we think about the place of writing in the academy”; given this, he warns, “Until we seriously rethink it, we will misrepresent the nature of writing, misjudge our students’ problems, and miss any chance to effect a true curricular change that will situate writing firmly in the undergraduate curriculum” (548).

“Behaviorism, Quantification, and Writing”

Addressing “behaviorist,” error-centered, “linguistically reductive” approaches to pedagogy, Rose warns of further assumptions:

“…that a writer has a relatively fixed repository of linguistic blunders that can be pinpointed and then corrected through drill, that repetitive drill on specific linguistic features represented in isolated sentences will result in mastery of linguistic (or stylistic or rhetorical) principles, that bits of discourse bereft of rhetorical or conceptual context can form the basis of curriculum and assessment, that good writing is correct writing, and that correctness has to do with pronoun choice, verb forms, and the like.” (Rose 552)

Rose further notes that, “When student writing is viewed in this particularistic, pseudo-scientific way, it gets defined in very limited terms as a narrow band of inadequate behavior separate from the vastly complex composing that faculty members engage in for a living and delve into for work and for play,” which strips from students the practice of “rich cognitive and rhetorical complexity” (553). This, he posits, is not appropriate to the university.

“English as a Skill”

Here Rose sets out to distinguish between “skill” and “an integrated body of knowledge” (554). The problem with treating writing as a skill, he writes, is that skills are discrete “fundamental tools, basic procedures” that can be mastered here and there along one’s course of study–and that, for writers, that is assumed to mean mastering such tools before entering the university (554). This prevents us from instead viewing writing as “a complex ability that is continually developing as one engages in new tasks with new materials for new audiences” (554). This process of reduction, treating writing as holding “second-class intellectual status,” prevents the development of composition as a complex and vital discipline, in the same manner as “history or philosophy, or economics” (555).


In this section, Rose discusses the difficulty of satisfactorily defining “remediation,” noting that the primary function of the term seems to be a political one–it indicates the separation between “secondary” work and the work of “higher education.” The effect of this is the association of “remedial” with “disease and mental defect,” of being less than one ought to (556). Indeed, he discusses the history of the term “remediation” and how treatment of this status has long been conflated with medical thinking, as if “deficiency” or error were diseases to be cured (558). In the end, the function of this model and attitude is to exclude those so labeled from the academy, treating them as ineligible to participate in the work of higher education (559).


Rose challenges the then-common (and, in my own observation, still fairly pervasive) attitude toward literacy as a largely oversimplified, demanding attitude by many educators (559). He discusses the varied forms of literacy, including the then-emergent concept of everyday computer literacy, and then moves to a perhaps broader (but certainly, to my thinking, more important) definition: a literacy of ideas. Perhaps, for one, students are more academically illiterate than they are unable to write “a simple declarative sentence” or to read effectively (560). Students often come to higher education with “incomplete and fragmented” knowledge, but this is no reason to treat them as if “their minds are cultural blank slates” (561). Rose emphasizes that he does not want to erase the problem of student under-preparedness or the various real challenges of literacy faced by many students. However, he does seek to broaden the thinking surrounding this issue–“illiteracy is a problematic term,” he writes, that is probably more used because it is rhetorically effective than because it accurately describes the challenges–of language, of ideas, of culture–faced by students in higher education (561).

“The Myth of Transience”

In challenging this final issue, Rose writes, “Each generation of academicians facing the characteristic American shifts in demographics and accessibility sees the problem anew, laments it in the terms of the era, and optimistically notes its impermanence.” He proceeds to cite that significant numbers of students have arrived at college not meeting some standard or other since at least the 1850s. So, despite the (perhaps misplaced) optimism of generations of academics, these problems seem to be more systemic than transient (563). The circumstances surrounding this myth are fraught with political tensions, from institutional concerns such as enrollment to tensions between higher education’s “general education” and “graduate, research” purposes. However, Rose asserts, the fundamental problem with allowing the myth to endure is that it it allows university educators to behave as if remedial concerns were not theirs, thus forfeiting responsibility (564).


“Remediation,” Rose writes, “It’s time to abandon this troublesome metaphor. To do so will not blind us to the fact that many entering students are not adequately prepared to take on the demands of university work”; rather, he argues, “it will help us perceive these young people and the work they do in ways that foster appropriate notions about language development and use, that establish a framework for more rigorous and comprehensive analysis of their difficulties, and that do not perpetuate the raree show of allowing them entrance to the academy while, in various symbolic ways, denying them full participation” (565). Rose makes a final argument as he comes to a close:

“Such reform will be difficult. True, there is growing interest in writing adjuncts and discipline-specific writing courses, and those involved in writing-across-the-curriculum are continually encouraging faculty members to evaluate the place of writing in their individual curricula. But wide-ranging change will occur only if the academy redefines writing for itself, changes the terms of the argument, sees instruction in writing as one of its central concerns” (567).


Rose, Mike. “The Language of Exclusion: Writing Instruction at the University.” 1985. Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. Ed. Victor Villanueva. 2nd ed. Urbana: NCTE, 2003. Print.