Johnny Can't Write?

Newsweek magazine's cover story on December 8, 1975, was entitled "Why Johnny Can't Write." It opened with an alarming warning: "If your children are attending college, the chances are that when they graduate they will be unable to write ordinary, expository English with any real degree of structure and lucidity" (Sheils, p. 58).

In that early December, Elaine Maimon was completing her first semester as a full-time Assistant Professor of English and Writing Program Administrator (WPA) at the suburban Philadelphia private liberal arts college then called Beaver College (now Arcadia University). She had been appointed to the WPA position the previous year while she was still part-time, having begun working there as an adjunct in the fall of 1973.

Elaine recalls being surprised when the department secretary told her that the dean of the college wanted to see her. Her first thought was that the dean wanted to continue an unpleasant conversation that had unfolded a few weeks earlier. In those days before computer scheduling, students could choose composition sections for the second semester by placing their names on sign-up sheets, one for each section, scotch-taped to the counter outside the Dean's office. As the WPA, Elaine had made sure that each section had a red-line indicating a maximum of twenty students in each section. But the students cheerfully ignored the red-line and continued to add their names, with no limits at all, to the sections of the most popular instructors. Elaine's high-tech solution to this imbalance in section enrollment was to use scissors to cut the sign-up sheets away from their scotch tape when the number reached twenty.

Alerted by the snip-snip—and the protests from students literally cut off from their section of choice—the dean had emerged from his office to demand, "What are you doing with my sign-up sheets!?!"

Elaine responded that she was protecting the reputation of Beaver College as an institution that kept sections of English composition at a manageable size.

But the December summons was not—at least not directly—connected with the scissors adventure. As soon as Elaine walked into the Dean's office, something came flying at her. She safely caught the missile, which turned out to be the "Why Johnny Can't Write" issue of Newsweek. Elaine momentarily considered a career in baseball, although that was another area like university life where women did not compete on an even playing field. But before she could take full satisfaction in her skills as an outfielder, the dean demanded to know what she was going to do about the article.

Ever bold, Elaine replied, "At Beaver College or nationally?"

It turned out that this encounter actually did lead to both local and national change. It was the beginning of writing across the curriculum at Beaver College—an initiative that would lead to a fully integrated institutional WAC program that would become a laboratory and model for other institutions.

As fate would have it, Elaine already had plane reservations later that month to fly to the Modern Language Association (MLA) Conference in San Francisco. For the flight from Philadelphia to San Francisco and the hotel costs, Beaver College had granted her a munificent $50. But she was determined to go. Elaine observed:

Would a male professor have been granted a larger travel allowance? Probably. Since major presentations on the teaching of writing—one by Mina Shaughnessy entitled, 'Diving In'—were on the program, should a dean who wanted something done about writing have sprung for a little more travel support? Undoubtedly. But in that era many WPA's and emergent WAC scholars were women in contingent positions. In my own case, after two years as an adjunct working to make myself indispensable, I was finally in my first year of a tenure-track position. But many other WPA's had even less job security. (personal communication, January 3, 2020)

At the San Francisco MLA meeting, Shaughnessy's "Diving In" changed the course of Elaine's career. After the presentation, on a cable car headed to Fisherman's Wharf, Harriet Sheridan, then Acting President of Carleton College, overheard her enthusiastic praise. She invited Elaine for a glass of wine and a conversation about what they were doing at Carleton. Elaine returned to Beaver College with a specific answer to the dean's challenge about what she was going to do about "Why Johnny Can't Write." It was the Carleton Plan, emulating the Carleton "rhetoric seminars" and "student rhetoric consultants" (writing fellows). In January 1977, Harriet Sheridan travelled to Beaver College to be the first leader of a faculty workshop that provided the imprimatur for the National Endowment for the Humanities grant awarded to Beaver College in July 1977.