Brooke Neilson, Literature: San Diego

Assistant Professor

The death of Brooke Neilson on March 13, 1986, in San Diego, brought an end to a life devoted to analyzing the development of writing abilities and to teaching. Her students, especially her graduate students, found her to be an inspiring and friendly teacher, always there to lend a hand. Her friends, neighbors, family, and colleagues have lost an exceptional person whose life was full of intellectual curiosity and, though sometimes painful, was vital and committed to social justice.

Brooke was born September 19, 1949, in New York City. She attended Piedmont High School in Oakland and received her B.A. from UC Berkeley in 1970. Between 1970-72 she worked as a secondary school teacher in the San Diego County schools. In 1972 she began her graduate studies at UCSD in the Linguistics Department and obtained her M.A. in 1974. In the course of her graduate studies, she served as a T.A. in Phonetics, as a Research Assistant in Speech Perception, and as a Language Assistant in Spanish for the Language Program. During this period she also began working as an instructor of English as a Second Language at Mesa College and later was the coordinator of English as a Foreign Language in Warren College. In 1976 she began teaching in the Warren College Writing Program. In 1979 when she was already coordinator of the program, she completed her Ph.D. in the UCSD Linguistics Department.

Despite her short life, Brooke did many things. As coordinator of the Warren College Writing Program she trained and supervised the teaching assistants assigned to the program and developed as well a writing program for non-native students. Aside from her ground-breaking dissertation, Writing as a Second Language: Psycholinguistic Processes in Composition , Brooke also wrote a number of papers which were presented at annual meetings of the Conference on College Composition and Communication and collaborated in the writing of four other papers.

With C. Bergman, she worked on “Palatalization in Barrow Eskimo.” With T. Smith and A. Thistle she wrote “Asymmetries in Auditory Evoked”

“Potentials to Speech Stimuli” . With J. Rogers and A. Thistle she collaborated on “Language Processing: Parallels between Visual and Auditory Mechanisms” , and with M. Holzman she worked on “A Computer-Assisted Study of Student Compositions” .

Two of her last conference papers, “The Politics of Remediation” , presented in 1982 at the San Francisco Conference on College Composition and Communication, and “Register, Coherence and Presupposition” , which was to have been presented at a College Composition and Communication Conference in 1984, evidenced a new direction in compositional theory. In these two papers she attempted to deal with writing, not only as a separate register, but as a distinct code with its own constraints and pre-suppositions. This notion of “writing” as a separate grammar with its own archaeology or encyclopedic-knowledge foundation had numerous implications at the level of writing program implementation, for Brooke saw that “remediation” was often conceived in terms of surface problems of coherence and mechanics which did not address the underlying cognitive skills which students need to develop in order to frame an argument. Coherence, she said, needed to be seen as a function of register. Thus, incoherence could be seen to result from the absence of cognitive transitions and traces in the text. Had she lived longer, Brooke might have revolutionized the entire notion of “remedial teaching.”

Her approach to remediation was a further development of the theory she had proposed in her dissertation. There she had postulated that formal writing is not simply another function of language but a second dialect or register. Her proposals were based on research conducted with a group of college freshmen, who were middle class speakers of standard English. Yet Brooke found that their writing showed clear evidence of problems attributed to “remedial” writers. It was this finding that led her later to propose a cognitive approach to the study and teaching of writing.

Brooke was also very interested in creative writing. She served for several years as a consultant to the literary magazine Roadwork and wrote a few pieces herself which express the mood and fears of university students protesting the Vietnam War at UC Berkeley, which address her friend, the award-winning photographer John Hoagland, killed in El Salvador, and which recount a train trip from Albuquerque to Los Angeles. Brooke cared about a lot of things: McCarthyism, Vietnam, women's rights, Central America, the sanctuary movement, literacy and writing.

She was married to Richard Astle, a San Diego free-lance writer and computer programmer.

Hers was a brilliant mind which never quite had enough time to bloom as it might have. She would have been 37 last fall.

Charles Cooper Rosaura Sanchez Barbara Tomlinson