By: Lindsey Albracht
As hundreds of students waited for the Basic Writing sections to open so they could register for courses they had been told they must take, a fist fight broke out between two students, knocking a Basic Writing table over and pinning me under the table with their weight as they fought their way across the overturned table toward the blackboards. Prof. Norment grabbed one of the students, Prof. Keating the other. Prof. Norment has a split lip from a punch in the mouth. I have badly bruised thighs and am recuperating from symptoms of internal bleeding. Computer cards were strewn everywhere; it took an hour to put them back in order (“An Open Letter to Alice Chandler, Provost” City College of New York, 1977).
This is a passage from a letter that I found in the Mina P. Shaughnessy box at the City College library archive. It was an open letter, but it was addressed to Provost Alice Chandler from Kathy O. Roe, an Administrative Assistant, and it describes a remarkably tense scene from registration day in the fall of 1977 at City College. Although, Roe claims, the Dean of the college of Humanities had “informed [her] in writing of the projected shortage of sections in Basic Writing — twenty-six, to be exact,” Provost Chandler had neglected to open enough sections to accommodate all of the students who needed to take a Basic Writing course in order to advance. For these students, this would have meant that they would have needed to wait an entire year to enroll in any classes at City College.
For the seminar paper that I’m currently writing about classroom space, I’ve been doing a bit of research about the 1968 and 1969 protests by the Black and Puerto Rican student organizations that built on the national, city-wide, and campus activism throughout the 1960s and that led, ultimately, to the enactment of Open Admissions. For those of you who don’t already know, Open Admissions was a CUNY-wide policy that began in 1970 and ended in 1999, and it guaranteed all New York City high school graduates a place at one of the CUNY campuses (which was a tuition-free system until 1976). In this era at CUNY, remedial student services expanded dramatically. And Mina Shaughnessy, who is credited with significantly advancing the sub-field of basic (or remedial) writing, was the director of the pre-baccalaureate English program, SEEK, at this time. She also wrote an influential book called Errors and Expectations, which, while other scholars have since quite rightly critiqued it for its singular focus on surface-level error and for its lack of focus on the political nature of language, was still perhaps the first resource of its kind to “legitimize” basic writing as a serious subject that was “worthy” of academic inquiry. It was her personal letters, correspondence between various people involved with basic writing and the remedial program, and other random ephemera that I went to the City College archive to investigate.
I saw a lot of compelling artifacts — both in this box and in the box concerning the ESL program which I also explored. But the letter that I mentioned was particularly impactful. It made the struggle of Open Admissions completely vivid to me: much more so than reading about the protests, which I’ve mostly encountered through sanitized New York Times news coverage, Wikipedia entries, and brief paragraphs or footnotes in books about protests in New York City. I’m perhaps particularly attuned to the way that a mundane administrative choice to not open enough classes (despite knowledge of the necessity to do so) sends a clear, silent, political message to students about the priorities of a department, of a school, and of a system of education because I spent some time as a school administrator, and the trickiness of how and when to allocate our institutional resources were sometimes mine to make. But even from an administrator’s side of the desk, I’ve come to realize that these banal little details constitute an unbelievably resolute institutional epistemology that is so hard to dismantle. We can’t fix your problem because we don’t have the resources, and we don’t have the resources because we (probably) decided that your problem wasn’t really that important to us.
This letter also resonated because it was about violence, and because we’re engaged in national conversations about this topic in the wake of the Ferguson decision. So, I read this letter and thought about how some faculty, administrators, city officials, and students openly and vocally resented Open Admissions because of the worry that increasing educational access would “devalue” the worth of their own education (a theme that was continually revisited as justification to end Open Admissions in 1999). I read it and considered that, just the year before, for the first time in CUNY’s history, students had been asked to shoulder the burden of tuition. I read it with the knowledge from previous research that the strain on facilities and resources within the total CUNY system as a result of a lack of appropriate allocation of funding during Open Admissions was causing overcrowded classes to be held in hallways and cafeterias. I read it and thought about the students who were offered admission to CCNY through Open Admissions and who had fought their way through a public education system that had been ravaged by segregation, a lack of monetary support, and overcrowding. Those students graduated from high school anyway, and then they wanted to pursue an education badly enough to accept all of these unfavorable conditions, and then they showed up, and then they were told that they had to wait for another year. I’m not saying that any of this was solely CUNY’s fault, and I understand that the city was experiencing a financial crisis that had greatly impacted funding, and I’ve been that administrator who had to make a tough choice to cut a class. I’m also not saying that punching a professor in the mouth — a person who probably had nothing to do with the decision to close the class — was the right call. But we always find the funding for other things that we deem necessary, right? So, I read this letter, and I felt empathy for Kathy O. Roe and Alice Chandler, and I felt empathy for the students, and I felt utter and total and consuming frustration.
I’m glad to have had the opportunity to visit the archive since, before this project, I wasn’t sure how archival work might be a part of my own research and, now, I anticipate that it will. Finding these little fragments made a big difference in the way I understood this bit of institutional history.