The work we do

Adrienne Rich, teaching writing

Adrienne Rich
Image Credit: Neal Boenzi / New York Times

Lately I’ve been particularly interested in researching and reading about the history of CUNY and the role of poets and writers within that history. By this, I mean the history of Basic Writing and SEEK (at CCNY) and the poet-activists that taught in the early days of these programs.  As Adrienne Rich writes in “Teaching Language in Open Admissions,” “At that time [the late 1960’s] a number of writers, including Toni Cade Bambara, the late Paul Blackburn, Robert Cumming, David Henderson, June Jordan, were being hired to teach writing in the SEEK Program…” (55). The SEEK Program (Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge) was chaired by Mina Shaughnessy in this time period, an administrator and teacher known for her work in Basic Writing and her support of Open Admissions at CUNY. Rich describes Shaughnessy as knowing "that education was not only a means of access to power, but a form of power in itself: the power of expression, of language."

This link between language and power is perhaps nothing new, but what really strikes me here is context — the context that this conversation is happening in a “remedial” class and the body at the front of the room is authoring texts that might not conform to the myriad of “rules” one assumes are part and parcel of this particular classroom. Rich continues (in “Teaching Language in Open Admissions”), “I think of myself as a teacher of language: that is, as someone for whom language has implied freedom, who is trying to aid others to free themselves through the written word, and above all through learning to write it for themselves” (63).

I'm not aiming to idealize Rich’s description of teaching in CCNY in the late-1960’s/early 1970’s. What I am interested in is the age-old question of “what does it matter who is speaking,” or in this scenario, what does this array of professor/poet/writers all housed under the legendary SEEK program tell us about pedagogy? How often do we, writers who often scrape by adjuncting and teaching as many composition courses as possible, talk to each other about what we do in these classrooms? How does language function for us as poets, adjuncts, critics in the contexts we inhabit?


Maher, Jane. Mina P. Shaughnessy: Her Life and Work. Urbana, IL: National Council of the Teachers of English, 1997.

Rich, Adrienne. "Teaching Language in Open Admissions" in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1979. 51-68.

Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors and Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.