Brent Faber, in Community Action and Organizational Change, attempts to convince his readers that specific stories, narratives, and histories are the driving forces behind individual and organizational change, individual and organizational identity, and the dynamics that comprise the broad academic institution, as well as the small academic classroom. The book is constructed as a series of “personal” research vignettes, in which Faber intervenes in the inner-workings of banks, brokerage firms, massage schools, Canadian election campaigns, cemeteries, and neighborhoods, in order to define himself as, “a more engaged and community-minded academic,” and to prove that “every organizational story was written to achieve an end, every tale told to persuade its audience to think or behave in a specific way (6, 42).” Drenched with good-hearted, community-outreach intentions, this book is replete with interesting philanthropic ideals, personally-unique and supportive examples, and brilliance at stylistic and linguistic cross-relating (between teachers, students, the academy, businesses, scholars, and Regular Joes).
Faber, after establishing his conversational tone and summarizing his impending theses in the first two chapters, arrives at the meat of his proclamations in Chapter Three as he recounts his adventures as a consultant for Access Bank, rewriting their organizational agenda as the bank made the move toward being investment-based. This chapter initiates the specifics of Faber’s community-service based pedagogy, recalling such theorists as Laura Julier and her declaration that, “first-hand experience would at best subvert and at the very least complicate the often pat constructions and commonplaces upon which so many first year college students relied as they composed writing for the academy (Guide, 132).” Faber teaches by example that accurate research can not exist within a scholarly vacuum, and that, (implicitly) writing, including student writing, can move beyond the five-paragraph essays, replete with those three-point theses so beloved by the most unimaginative of our high school educators.
As Faber attempts to provide a smooth transition for the veteran bankers from traditional “small town” banking to the more “cut-throat” style of investment banking, he cites that these bankers’ “language was tightly restricted as they were allowed only to repeat the phrases on their flash cards or the sentences provided by their trainer (58).” Here, Faber adequately equates organizational “language” with identity within a discourse community. Faber also seems to be inviting critique from those familiar with teaching. Sure, “By disrupting these [old] habits and introducing new ones, the bank hoped to change [its] everyday business culture,” but in his lack of commentary on the bank’s methods, Faber implicitly wants the reader to ask themselves: As a teacher, is this methodology the best way to impart new information to my students? (58) Faber, continuing to be implicit, seems to stress that flexibility, as opposed to rigidity, is a doctrine that benevolently attempts to address the myriad specifics of individual classroom culture.
Further, Faber is also successful at drawing parallels between his “community action” and the academy. He states, “change projects...talk about empowered workers, information sharing, critical (outside-of-the-box) thinking, and creative expression, [but] employees cannot actually engage in such behavior if the consequences are to the detriment of the organization (65).” Many teachers can sympathize with this sentiment within the institutional construct. Faber’s quote recalls probable teacher-led struggles to introduce their own texts, a revolutionary grading system (much like Lynn Z. Bloom encountered in “Why I (Used To) Hate to Give Grades”), etc. Faber, while not explicitly, transfers the teacher’s eternal struggle to induce classroom creativity within the bounds of institutional requirements. This “struggle” conjures thoughts of the discrepancies between creativity and rebellion and how, sadly, in the university atmosphere, the line between these two ideals is often blurred. Faber successfully stirs these seemingly universal sentiments, burying them beneath his varying organizational narratives. Here, his subtlety is to be applauded.
Faber begins to lose a bit of credibility when, referring to his Access Bank experience, he states, “This is the story of power and of who benefits and who loses from Access’s story of change...from my own reporting of this story as a stand-alone observer (63).” Following this declaration, I believe the reader might become perplexed as to Faber’s role in “organizational change,” as he, himself seems to be perplexed. While his declared fallibility might prove endearing, the inconsistencies of his self-portrayal may make him want to consider re-titling his book, “...Disorganizational Change.” He earlier defines himself as a thorough researcher due to his “stake” in the “outcomes” of each “organizational situation.” But here, he refers to himself as a “stand-alone observer.” Which is he? How do these drastically different roles color the legitimacy of his research?
The questions concerning Faber’s self-definition tend to dissipate a bit when he turns the spotlight away from himself and invokes the theses of theorists such as Michel Foucault and Anthony Giddens. In Chapter Four, a meditation on how Faber re-wrote the handbook for MacKenzie Massage School, Faber ties the students’ resistance into a lack of institutional structure. Using Foucault as a springboard, Faber approached this task seeking, “to identify naturalized structures that categorize and define people. Thus, psychiatry institutionalized madness...law institutionalized deviant behavior...pedagogical authority...” and with a solemn tone, discovered that, “[people] allowed themselves to be defined according to these structures (79).” While this proclamation certainly provides Faber with a basis for completing his task for MacKenzie, as a reader and teacher, I was left hoping that he had spun out the implications of this proclamation, thus unearthing the very human reasons behind the origins of these “structures.” For instance, aren’t these institutionalizations merely a response to public desire; the very human need to reflect their identity from a set of rules, laws, order, structure? These same people who are now “defined according to these structures” initially defined the structures themselves. As Faber muses on Foucault’s sense of language (which is a structure in itself) as “an active, complex, and strategic system of privilege, responsibility, power, and tradition,” one can not help but recall the “externalists” and their declarations that a writer (student writers included) has “authority as an individual” but is “required to assume a strategic attitude within the ‘circulation of discourse in society’ (87, Ewald, 117).” This is a valuable musing for us teachers as we are constantly reflecting on our abilities to juggle these nuances of language and how to impart these nuances, in turn, to our students. I am also reminded of Kenneth Bruffee’s discovery that students, while working and writing collaboratively, created a glossary of terms on their own in order to relate to one another. Faber’s practical success (slow-going as it was) with MacKenzie lies in his ability to institute structure and guidance based on the resisting students’ “glossary of terms.” Once again, this seems a valuable fusing of theory and practice.
Faber, in Chapter Five, about his writing of a campaign plan for Margaret Burke, invokes Giddens’ theory that, “power is generated by agents ‘in and through the reproduction of structures of domination’ (120).” Giddens helps prove Faber’s point that “relevant to political campaigns” and to the academic institution as well, I believe, the oft perpetuated “stories of power” are responsible for spawning a set of hierarchal identities within a specific organization. This seems an especially valuable declaration for teachers who are beginning to question the “status quo” of university education in its current manifestation. If a teacher, for instance, wants to upend mandatory grammar instruction, traditional paper construction, an institutionalized grading system, etc., this teacher is facing a hierarchal set of organizational “power-that-be” (not to mention a plethora of paperwork), that have no interest in disrupting the standard form of “teaching for the tests.” Faber then, in a rare occurrence, adopts the voice of a theoretical critic, chastising Giddens’ claim, “that if we simply work hard enough, we can become what we desire,” as being insufficient as “one cannot build an effective theory of social action on an illusion (121).” I’d agree.
Faber is at his most successful in synthesizing his version of “story” and “research” with pre-existing theory in Chapter Six, in which he attempts to re-write the business plan for Pleasant View Cemetery in order to avoid a corporate take-over. His emphasis on accessing “the numerous voices from the past and present that make up Pleasant View Cemetery” via “language” whether in “speech or writing” draws on the theoretical proclamations of Richard E. Vatz, in that Faber is asking the public to respond to a rhetorical situation, but also to re-interpret it (160).” Vatz also trickles into Faber’s research via his attempt to “create a different story with a different conclusion...by developing a new story... (163).” Keeping Vatz in mind, I was left wondering: Is Faber really creating a new “story” for Pleasant View, or is he merely publicizing the already-existing stories? Regardless of interpretation, Faber, via example, transfers the fact that “practice-based research is about action, about choices, and about consequences (163).”
This reviewer, Dear Reader, believes that teaching a composition class is, indeed, a strain of “practice-based research” in that it provides the teacher with a smorgasbord of students from differing cultures, each armed with their own individual ways of learning. As the open-minded reflective teachers I know us all to be, this level of classroom diversity must teach us to take risks, adapt to the specifics of each classroom, and to divorce ourselves from the fear of “consequences.” Faber, indeed, practices what he preaches when it comes to “violat[ing] boundaries and intentionally break[ing] with routine practices (172).” His ideals remain both faithful to existing pedagogy, and revolutionary in their attempts to subvert the all-too-prevalent plague of theorizing without the connection to practicing. For these reasons, Community Action and Organizational Change is a valuable and daring addition to the world of teaching pedagogy, not only for us teachers, but as a book to pass on to our non-academic friends as well.
Arizona State University
Top of Review
Community Literacy Programs and the Politics of Change by Jeffrey T. Grabill. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.
From a broad perspective, Jeffrey T. Grabill positions his study of Community Literacy Programs as a study of the institutions that create them. In this book, Grabill takes as a case study one particular community literacy program—the Western District Adult Basic Education program in Indiana—and, through on-site research, interviews, and study of the program’s mission statement, cultivates a consideration of institutional power in the context of current theoretical thinking.
In Grabill’s opinion, literacy (and especially adult literacy) is oppositional to the institution that creates it for several reasons. Initially, the institution appears to be serving its community purposes by providing education and resources to usually-underprivileged communities and populations. By looking intimately at one particular program, Grabill uncovers a disconnect between theory and practice. In theory, the institution should be providing literacy that applies to its students lives and jobs—practical literacy. In practice, what the government-subsidized programs offer is regulated educational programs with standardized tests as their benchmark. Grabill intuits that this sort of structure actually inhibits both the program’s success and its influence in the community it purports to be helping. This split provides an interesting mode of deconstruction of American institutions. As a result, Grabill exposes a further drifting of influence between a community and its guiding institutions, placing such organized rule even further from the people who are seen to need it most.
Grabill structures his study by locating his work in the Western District Adult Basic Education program in Chapter 1 and progresses outwardly in his focus. Subsequent chapters take the theory and practice of Western District and apply it to a greater understanding of literacy beyond the program, toward a discussion of power in defining literacy, the democratizing/stratifying presence of technology in basic education, and finally closes with an oppositional study of community literacies versus institutional design. These chapters are written to flow, and for the most part, they do, beginning with a broad overview chapter and then moving into discussions of the meaning of literacy, access to education, notions of community literacy, and finally to participatory design and strategies for change. Grabill is able to refer back to previous discussions and elucidate points further as he goes, elaborating on discussions from previous chapters. Each chapter also begins with a critical discussion of current theory, ranging from feminist literacy theory to theories of power, and Grabill carefully discusses each theorist’s ideas, positioning himself on an agree-disagree dichotomy (or samples from this theoretical buffet) before moving on to his object of study (in most cases, Western District). These initial theoretical explorations serve two purposes for Grabill: to expose and align him with current theoretical notions, allowing the reader to feel comfortable reading the chapter without looking to expose his own biases; and to offer a critical opposition to the practice of literacy education. Whether or not Grabill should be allowed to proceed without inquiry on the part of the reader will be explored further in this review.
Grabill’s book reflects the research he gathered while visiting the Western District site over the course of approximately six months. He clearly documents his sources (which instructors and administrators are interviewed, which and how many classes he attended, etc.). In working with students, Grabill sat in on their classes and noted both how instructional methods factored in to the education as well as student response. Although his findings aren’t necessarily shocking, they are interesting and do seem to strengthen his point regarding a widening gap between theory and practice: that institutions by their very nature cannot serve the specific needs of a specific population. Furthermore, Grabill theorizes that “participatory design” of instutions—that is, including participation in the creation of the institution by the people who will come to use the institution—is the most beneficial form of institutional design available.
Grabill’s mission in constructing this study focuses more on the institution than on the literacy program itself. Although occasional critiques of practice are offered and he certainly tries expose a wide disconnect between what these programs purport to do and what they actually do, Grabill always comes back to discuss the notion of “institution” and its relevance/success in fostering literacy among specific communities. “This book is an extended argument for how to make institutional systems visible, how to locate spaces for change, and how to enact an alternative institutional design.” (p. xi) Grabill claims never to demonstrate a need for change in these institutions but instead chooses to expose methods of creating change within an existing institution. I find here, in my own reading of Grabill’s text, something of an ideological conflict at work. After the broad strokes painted in the introduction, in the closing chapter, Grabill states: “The study of Western District that forms the core of this book was never designed as an institutional critique...my goal...was never to change Western District as an institution... I certainly wanted to leave Western District a better place than I found it.” This last statement comes a mere sixteen words after his claim that he never wanted to change Western District, just make it better.
In the last chapter, Grabill exposes his intent in writing this book: supporting service learning programs at college campuses. After six chapters discussing the failures of government organizations to foster community literacy and several examples of how community-based programs do work, Grabill asserts, “The purpose, therefore, is not to teach the benefits of charity over self-sacrifice but rather to ‘work alongside those in need, recognizing our common purpose, and enabling those being served to become more empowered in the process.’” (p. 150) Citing Ellen Cushman’s study of service learning in composition as “a good example,” Grabill comments that Cushman’s students “approach community contexts as researchers.” (p. 151) What is interesting here is that Grabill’s exuberance over service learning in general and its methods in particular seem to echo his own methodology in writing this book: a student goes into a community to gather research and process the experience as relevant not only to one’s own education, but to the benefit of the community as a greater good. Grabill’s presence at Western District was certainly as a scholar-observer, as someone seeking to have an impact on the people he was working with, and to empower the students of Western District to participate more directly in their own education.
Although Grabill crafts an intriguing discussion of the Western District dilemma, his book, overall, disappoints. The lengthy discussions of theory don’t serve the non-indoctrinated reader and add confusion by coming before discussions of the object of study. It seems more logical to place these theories closer in the text to the actual practices they describe/oppose. The sections discussing the method and results of the Western District study glow with possibility, interest, and clarity as Grabill recounts not only his on-site interviews, but his personal observations of teachers and students and the subtle nuances of the program. Additionally, Grabill on occasion diverts from the Western District example to explore several other examples. One of these, regarding an on-site education program for an industrial publisher, relates to Western District and strengthens his idea that institutions can botch educational attempts, while the rest are absolutely unrelated and do little to work with his overall ideas. The most distant of these examples is an HIV/AIDS funding organization in urban Atlanta, which Grabill uses as a way to discuss institutional change in action. More of an impact would have resulted from using a single example throughout the book, giving the object of study an in-depth examination. The fragmented examples result in a fragmented approach to investigating community literacy institutions.
To allegedly strengthen his argument and make his ideas more clear to the reader, Grabill engages a system of “postmodern mapping” to visually illustrate his own theoretical stances. These postmodern maps consist almost exclusively of two continua (one horizontal, one vertical) of binary oppositions. Grabill then plots on the charts the locations of whatever terms he’s discussion, some of which seem to have nothing to do with each other. The first of these maps, “Mapping Georgia State English Students”, features a horizontal axis of “majors - non-majors” and a vertical axis of “traditional (no work or part time) - non-traditional (full-time work)”. Placed on the map are circles and ovals with “technical writing”, “10% of business writing students”, “50% of business students”, among others. In fact, “technical writing” appears in three different circles in three different places. Discussion of these maps is minimal and negligent and their purpose in the text serves only to mathemetize his non-mathematical research, not provide clarity of any sort for his discussion.
Additionally, Grabill’s struggle between objective research and participating in methods of change are clearly evidenced by the end of the book. Even he himself cannot seem to decide if his purpose at Western District was to observe or to intervene. At several points he claims the teachers at Western District were as creative and imaginative as he’d ever seen, but later implies that they are nothing more than institutional automatons, working to increase standardized test scores. This opposition is symptomatic of Grabill’s greater need to further his own agenda while paying minimal lip service to the people who brought him this education: Western District.
While Grabill’s exploration of the impact of institutional supervision over adult education is interesting and rich with possibility, his own study fails its potential by diverting from its most interesting (and relevant) object: Western District. Although it is clear Western District cannot possibly represent every institution of its kind, it does provide a useful way to discuss issues connected with “institutional rule” and the design of that rule. While I agree with Grabill’s notion of participatory design, on several occasions he contradicts the spirit of this idea by implying that service learning provides people with the empowerment to foster change in their environment. This is not a theory of participatory design. This is a theory of emancipatory design and seems to indicate that the people engaged in adult education do not possess the skills and resources they need to create change. Grabill’s book, while alternately incisive and bland, is ultimately an uneven and unfocused discussion of institutions, deficient in cultivating justification for its own supported yet oppositional theories of participatory design and service learning strategies.
Arizona State University
Top of Review
Doing School: How We are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic and Miseducated Students by Denise Clark Pope. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001. ISBN: 0-300-09013-7. 212 pages
Attempting to hear the youths’ perspectives seems vital if we are to achieve a sense of community in our schools and if we aspire to create conditions conducive to student growth. – Denise Clark Pope, Doing SchoolDenise Clark Pope, a veteran teacher and curriculum expert at Stanford University School of Education, responds to her reading of the National Commission on Excellence in Education’s A Nation at Risk and its antithesis, David Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle’s The Manufactured Crisis, by carrying out a study of her own – set in a local California high school, Faircrest High. Pope plays the ethnographic role of active observer and collects data that focuses on the adolescents’ perspective instead of the adults’. What’s extraordinary about this? Pope’s unique focus yields a fresh, new element to the study of the effects of public school curriculum, by far the strength of this fascinating book – exclusively student voices.
This is the story of an entire year of public school in the lives of five high achieving students of varied ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, Kevin, Eve, Teresa, Michelle and Roberto. Pope gleans the quality of information John Dewey valued, not based on test scores or GPA, but instead on an intimate knowledge of the person, his or her thoughts, feelings, frustrations and joys. She takes “the time to get to know the students, to seek their opinions and interests, and to listen to their stories” (xiii), not the stories told by teachers, administrators or parents, but the students themselves, brutally honest, frighteningly real and sadly true. These stories comprise the bulk of Pope’s book. Readers won’t find graphs, or charts, or other elements frequently found in a book about curriculum; instead readers hear the voices of the students themselves, voices heard during taped class discussions and interviews, voices heard in students’ journals, and voices recorded in Pope’s field notes.
Pope introduces her study by describing Faircrest, a public high school with an excellent reputation for high achieving students. Faircrest High is set “in a wealthy California suburb, has one of the lowest dropout rates in the state, small class sizes, and a ‘long standing tradition of hiring the best teachers to provide the highest quality instruction’” (2). This school boasts more than one third of the student body enrolled in honors and advanced placement course, and a rate of 95% who go on to attend college. The school is, as Pope describes it, “the pride of the public education system and the hope for the future” (3).
What these five students say they have to do to compete in a high achieving environment like Faircrest provides the book’s most disturbing element, however. In one chapter devoted to each student Pope describes “a different side of success” – students who can only sleep two or three hours nightly because of work, homework and extracurricular activity requisites; students who experience ulcers and other health problems because of the intensity and demands of their lives; students who cheat, lie and steal, “drastic actions” they participate in to “maintain the grades they need for future careers” (3). As Pope points out, “All of them admit to doing things that they’re not proud of in order to succeed in school” (3).
Kevin, the student featured in the first chapter, is “bright, funny, polite, and charming. And he knows it,” Pope tells the reader. Kevin is the class cheerleader, a 3.8 student, and a people pleaser. This aspect of Kevin’s personality dominates his activities, and he feels the pressure from his parents, both highly educated professionals (his father, an aeronautic engineer, holds several degrees from Stanford, Berkeley, and the U of California at San Diego: his mother works as an executive assistant to the CEO of one of the largest consulting firms in the area). His father tells him “’pressure turns coal into diamonds … college leads to success’” (10). Kevin feels obliged to become the diamond his father and mother expect, so he engages in activities that prove to them and himself he is not a “slacker.” He obsesses about his grades, calculating “his grade point average several times a day”; he considers C a “’practically failing grade.’”
Kevin and the other four participants do not believe school is “for our own edification and enjoyment.” For the most part, the other students agree with Kevin, in that “people don’t go to school to learn. They go to get good grades, which brings them to college, which brings them the high-paying jobs, which brings them to happiness” (11). Kevin says that in every high school in every place across America, period, grades are “where it’s at,” the be-all and the end-all. This is so much the case that, Eve Lin, Pope’s second participant, calls herself a “high school machine” churning out good grades and little else.
Eve adopted her high stress, super multi-tasking lifestyle so that she can “get into an Ivy. That’s all I can think about … to get in and become a successful $500,000-a-year doctor or engineer or whatever it is I want to be” (32). Each of the five participants in Pope’s study expresses similar goals of going to college, getting a good job, earning six figures and then, and only then, achieving happiness. Eve feels particularly caught in the school conundrum; she drives herself at a furious pace, but longs for the opportunity to live a different lifestyle – that of a student who can just go home, watch TV and loll around the house on a weekend. Reading Eve’s chapter reveals a sad irony – she’s an intelligent, hard working student who is the source of her own undoing, taking on much more than any person, adult or adolescent, could handle, but forcing herself to do it because she feels the need to build up her tolerance for stress, so she can survive college stress, so she can survive real world stress, etc., etc.. What seems abundantly apparent to the reader (and Pope) is impenetrable to the active participant – Eve.
The reader is privy to similar irony throughout the chapters of this enlightening narrative. Pope summarizes Eve and the other four students’ situation in the final chapter, “The Predicament of ‘Doing School’” She claims that, based on these students’ honest assessment of their school experience, Faircrest High actually impedes what it hopes to achieve – fostering traits such as honesty, integrity, cooperation and respect. Instead, Pope claims, the school promotes deception, hostility and anxiety, teaching a hidden curriculum that contradicts the stated curriculum.
She summarizes what students actually learn by describing four strategies she calls “establishing allies and treaties”, “multi-tasking”, “cheating” and “squeaky wheels”, all strategies Pope describes as being equally valid in the adult workplace. So, ironically, she claims they do learn how to deal with the adult world, but at a very high cost. This is the point Pope makes throughout the book – the cost of survival in the adolescent world (as in the adult world) is often a personal cost. She says, “The students … complain about a system that appeared to show little support for intellectual engagement and passion. They studied … not because they wanted to or because the subjects genuinely interested them” but because the system demands they “learn” set subjects. The system also demands that students “learn” at a set rate, so even if they want to spend more time on a subject (Michelle in drama and Kevin in chemistry), the system pressures them to move to the next skill level.
The bottom line in Pope’s book is not that public education in America fails to adequately educate students in the basics of reading, writing and calculation, as the authors of A Nation at Risk declare, but that a much more serious “miseducation” is occurring – adolescents graduate from high schools thinking that the purpose of education is to make them wealthy, and that will in turn make them happy. They are wealth-actualized rather than self-actualized.
Readers will find Doing School an accessible narrative, easily understandable by layman and professional alike. A plethora of books have been written expounding on a variety of curricular platforms and their implementation, but few present curricula from the students’ perspective (the receiver’s end). Many teachers and administrators (and I count myself in this number) hear what students have to say, but all too often discount their voices as having no validity. The playing field dangerously tilts toward the adults’ goal line, and students slip and slide helplessly into our goals, not their own. They leave school knowing they are playing a foreign game, one they can only hope to survive, never win.
Denise Pope creates a movie of this game on the page as she ambles beside the reader down the halls of Faircrest High. We see and hear real students talking about their lives and their frustrations just as if we were there. That she drew me in, vividly reminding me of students who have passed through my classroom, testifies to her strength as a story teller and narrative researcher.
The book’s weakness, however, lies in its strength – this is a narrative, pure and simple, students’ voices crying out from the wilderness of their high school experience. It is not a true ethnographic analysis, noting and addressing connections between race and gender, class and power structure, and other cultural elements. Pope mentions in passing that Kevin’s mother is Japanese-American, but does not make any cultural connections between Kevin and the push for academic achievement. She mentions the fact that Kevin’s older sister quit college and his younger sister is underachieving; she does not address the gender issue – Kevin is the only son, his parent’s only hope for generational success. Roberto and Teresa’s struggles with the English language, their lower socio-economic level, and their time constraints (both must work 30-40 hours weekly to supplement family income) all play a factor in their handling of school. Pope makes no connections between these ethnographic elements and school success or failure.
In short, the author abdicates her position as authority in this book by not addressing many of the obvious questions most readers would have. Whether that is her intent, one can only speculate. She clearly articulates her research question in the preface to the book, saying she wanted to hear what the adolescents “think about the place”, the place being the school system. She claims the reason we do not have a large selection of literature on what adolescents think is that few take the time to ask. So, that is what she set out to do: ask what they thought. This book, then, is a record of what they said, unadulterated, uncensored. Perhaps that in itself is the value of the book, not the ethnographic analysis so many educators and parents and administrators are looking for. Pope has something new to say, or rather, these students do, in terms of the effect of competitive individualism not only on schools, but on society as a whole.
I look inward as I read a book like this, asking myself uncomfortable questions about my own classroom, and my own students. I also ask myself questions about myself as a student. Am I caught in the same conundrum as the adolescents described in Pope’s book? Have I sacrificed self-actualization for wealth-actualization? Even worse, have I forced my students to make this same sacrifice to the god of materialism? Readers at every level of education will find themselves asking hard questions from the outset as they read this book, questions that need to be asked … and answered.
Several other titles along this same vein include Meredith Maran’s Class Dismissed: A Year in the life of an American High School, Tony Wagner’s Making the Grade: Reinventing America’s Schools, Katherine G. Simon’s Moral Questions in the Classroom: How to Get Kids to Think Deeply, and Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
Arizona State University
Top of Review
In From Dylan to Donne, Brock Dethier offers music as a viable and even desirable method of teaching English classes. His lengthy introduction provides a thorough background to the field of teaching with music, skillfully and concisely evaluating the pros and cons of the issue, defining his theoretical foundation, providing information on his own background and training, and, of course, laying out his hopes for the book. Designed for the novice and the seasoned teacher alike, each chapter introduces a series of theoretically supported classroom anecdotes and activities that Dethier has pulled from his own experience. This narrative technique is one of Dethier's strengths, enticing the reader to continue through the pages because he/she feels engaged in a kind of casual teaching conversation made more effective because Dethier includes his e-mail address, an honest invitation to the reader to continue this dialog. In a field saturated with dense theoretical teaching approaches, it is refreshing to fall upon a book that embraces teaching and the teaching process as a personalized and individual effort that facilitates and even begs this kind of conversation.
Dethier employs a ten-part chapter sequence that begins with a discussion of music as a form of self-evaluation. This chapter serves as a kind of extension to the introduction, further explaining Dethier's own motivation and construction as a musically informed and musically influenced being. The second chapter, titled “Understanding Ourselves,” begins to interweave theory with the idea of music, a point neglected in the earliest chapter. He notes, “Gender studies courses might ask questions [. . .] creating classes in which the personal stakes and tensions could be high. Asking them about my musical selections for the class means that the stakes are low, the chance for insult small, and that we all share the same concrete information to refer to” (25). Theory is important to Dethier, but it is only important when it is accessible. Given that every person has some opinion on music, Dethier skillfully contends that music is the access point to these more in-depth understandings of our own personalities.
Here, however, we see the first of Dethier's numerous meanderings. While the chapter supposes to focus on self-exploration, Dethier gets lost in a brief and ill-placed discussion near the end of the chapter on Winston Weathers's nonstandard Grammar B as a kind of musical/improvisational mistake: “The existence of Grammar B and of musical “mistakes” on record does not mean that in either music or writing, anything goes, any time. Instead, it should lead to a valuable discussion of how purpose, audience, genre, form, and format determine appropriateness” (28). Though this material is valuable, it would be better served in the eighth chapter where Dethier delves into a discussion of process. Currently, this theoretical exploration is buried beneath more interesting conversations about personal tastes and music as a form of self-analysis, and, as a result, Dethier misses the opportunity to concretely relate process and error to grammar, a discussion that arises all too frequently in many English classes.
Despite a failed attempt to connect process and grammar, Dethier seamlessly and effectively connects the ideas of context and interpretation in the third and fourth chapters. He not only defines context in terms of the students' personal experiences with and visceral reactions to a piece, but Dethier also explores how the artist or author creates these contexts in order to elicit different interpretations: “We've demonstrated that inarticulate, seemingly irrational and perhaps even irrelevant reactions” things that many teachers would call wrong “can be articulated, their logic revealed, their legitimacy supported” (47). Dethier explores his own classroom practice, recounting how his students are asked to write about an experience connected with music. Many of the resulting essays revolve around a song, though other essays do not seem directly related to music: the latter are kinds of compositional “mistakes” that begin to deviate from the original assignment. A specific song may reminds the writer of an experience that in turn reminds the author of a person, and so on. However, Dethier embraces these “mistakes” as learning opportunities for both him and the student because these explorations makes the “window pane visible” (68).
Dethier is clearly subject to his own views on writing, as his “window pane” is overtly visible throughout his text: each chapter begins with brief quotations from both scholars and musicians that have inspired and helped to shape his writings, and these are then followed by a succinct summary of Dethier's goal for his book and, more importantly, that chapter. These summaries are a further testament to his effort at conversation: “Throughout this book, I draw many of the insights about teaching writing from analogies with music. [. . .] [C]omparisons to music illuminate some of the most subtle but important elements of writing” (76). This kind of conversational style makes the reader privy to Dethier's thought and writing processes and, most importantly, exposes these processes as similar if not equal to those of his students.
His self-conscious approach to this method is unfortunately subdued in chapter six, ”Understanding Voice and Tone.” Rather than critiquing his own work or showcasing student examples, he focuses almost entirely on music, providing dry, abrupt explanations of technique. For instance, he notes “one of the easiest ways to start talking about tones is to play two different versions of the same song. [. . .] What in Nirvana's hands was loud, abrasive, and caustic becomes quiet, beautiful, and almost pleading” (82). The example, unlike other textual reference used elsewhere, does not heighten the readers' understanding; Dethier does not delve into colorful examples, but instead creates categories that may or may not be relevant to music and writing. As a result, the chapter feels undernourished and, ultimately, misplaced. Once again, Dethier misses an opportunity to draw connections--here between tone and attitude (the subject of chapter 10).
Similarly, though chapter seven, “Constructing Genres,” once again uses vivid and engaging examples to illustrate genre, the discussion feels misplaced. Throughout the work, Dethier has been moving progressively toward the finer points of writing, first discussing music as a method of teaching, a tool for brainstorming, and finally a model for the writing process. But genre is a larger level issue more fit for a broad justification of music in the classroom; after all, it is in the classroom that music faces rejection as “popular” culture unfit for the canonical university. Such discussions titled “Genre Boundaries and Their Value” or “Scorned Genres” unnecessarily disengage the reader from the teaching process and throw him/her into a genre debate that ends in a broad explanation of genre as a form of personal exploration--a topic already broached and concluded in Dethier's introduction.
Despite these rocky interludes, the final three chapters (8, 9, 10) are well-founded and emphasize Dethier's strengths as a writer. He skillfully concludes the discussion of process explaining it as a three-prong exploration: rehearsals, beginnings, and revision. This transitions into a discussion on relationships (or audience) that effectively suggests that the written product born from process is only strong if it connects with an audience. Using himself as an example, Dethier recounts how he structures an assignment with an audience in mind, realizing that the wrong audience can elicit the wrong response: “I feared these guys with the battery-acid holes in their denim jackets would revolt against the sappy, touchy-feely nature of the assignment. I certainly wasn't prepared for the response I got the next day” (113). His assignment is better received than he anticipated, but he gambled, Dethier contends that connecting is the primary role of the writer/musician, a point he makes by playing the role himself. He notes that music anticipates and transcends these audience and author boundaries, creating a scenario that appeals to many audiences because it does not always gambles, but calculates for a receptive audience, whether it be based on politics, age, or gender.
Overall, Dethier's work presents an enticing and dynamic approach to teaching English using popular culture. The author eagerly creates a dialogic argument that anticipates scholarly and lay readers alike, carefully persuading them to consider music as more than simply popular culture. Music becomes Dethier's prompt to begin writing and metaphor for the writing process, a process which blends theory with a unique approach to personalized and conversational teaching. Though Dethier’s argument struggles in places, it offers teachers reassurances that may help them to truly bridge the world between the often pedantic world of English pedagogy and the rising interest in popular culture.
Arizona State University
Top of Review
In Genre and the Invention of the Writer, author Anis Bawarshi responds to the composition pedagogy that assumes invention originates in the writer, a problematic approach that he claims is derived from the process movement. His goal is to show how genre theory can inform invention in such a way that writing becomes rhetorical, which Bawarhsi claims enables writers to respond effectively to writing exigencies far beyond the college composition requirement. In Chapter One, he follows Karen Burke Lefevre’s work on invention in composition, which draws on linguistics, creativity theory, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and psychology. Using ideas from these various disciplines and from Lefevre, Bawarshi looks at genre as an ecological system, or a habitat, a site of action that affects writing, and which writing affects. He sees the relationship between writing and genre as a reciprocal one; writers act within genres, act upon genres, and are acted upon by genres, which perpetuates the existence of genres. By showing how writing is really the positioning of oneself within genres, assuming and enacting certain desires, subjectivities, identities, relations, and practices, Bawarshi provides a method for students to learn to situate themselves within genres in order to write—which, according to Bawarshi, is invention.
Invention has a long history in the discipline of Rhetoric, one that goes back about 2500 years. Genre and the Invention of the Writer, surveys it succinctly and briefly in a manner that is accessible, even to people who are not scholars of Rhetoric. Additionally, genre theory has been developing for a few years, at least since Kohrs-Campbell and Jamieson’s article, “Form and Genre: Shaping Rhetorical Action,” was published in 1978. Bawarshi surveys this history of genre theory in a manner that is inviting and understandable to anyone interested in teaching writing.
A thorough explanation of genre theory is helpful to understanding how genres work as sites of invention, and the chapter of the text that addresses this, Chapter Two, explicates genre theory, which is at the intersection of Literature and Rhetoric. Bawarshi begins the second chapter with Michel Foucault’s theory of the “author-function” and broadens it to incorporate the “genre-function.” Bawarshi says that “the same principles at work in literary activity . . . are at work in a wider range of socio-discursive activities” (19). In the same way that knowing the author can clue a reader in to what a written text is about, knowing a genre can inform a writer about what to expect from a genre. This kind of insight into the expectations of a genre can help writers situate themselves in a position to begin writing, to invent.
Bawarshi distinguishes his notion of invention from the invention of the process movement, and of other movements that have taken place within Rhetoric since the 19th century neo-Platonist ideas pervaded English language studies in America. These movements, which he discusses in Chapter Three, have, like Plato, interpreted invention as something that occurs within the mental structures of the writer. Conversely, Bawarshi draws on the Aristotelian ideas of rhetoric from which the canons of rhetoric were derived, which include the canon of invention. He notes that Aristotle defined rhetoric as the “art of discovering the available means of persuasion in any given situation” (56), and, to assist rhetors, designed the topoi, which, according to Bawarshi, were lines of reasoning within which they could locate themselves and the means for writing in any given situation. It is to the Aristotelian ideas of topoi that Bawarhshi, and many classical views, attribute a meaning of invention. This view of invention as a social method of inquiry that works as a site or location for inquiry, fits with the theory of genres as dynamic locations within which writers position themselves to write.
In addition to the historical account of invention in Chapter Three, Genre and the Invention of the Writer provides an historical account of Rhetoric as a discipline in Chapter Six, which is interesting, lucid, and brief. According to the text, newly created universities emerged in America to accommodate a large number of students in the late nineteenth century and were modeled after the German universities, which did not offer advanced degrees in Rhetoric (151). Instead, their research focused on social science, psychology, chemistry, and mathematics, and was detailed oriented and empirical in nature. In the American universities, Rhetoric was displaced by philology in English studies, which concentrated on the formal qualities of language. Bawarshi claims, research became centered on the text, rather than on how the text came about, and years of study in Rhetoric were replaced with one year of First Year Writing (FYW). The interest in composition became an interest in style and presentation—focused on the text. The study of writing went from “writing as rhetoric to writing as composition” (153). Process theory then shifted the focus from the text to the writer, still ignoring the rhetoric, the ontological and epistemological nature of writing.
Bawarhsi’s historical overview of rhetoric and composition, like the history of invention and the background information on genre theory, is extremely useful to a specialist or student of Rhetoric. The explanations provide an extensive amount of information in a concise and accessible manner. However, for readers who are primarily interested in finding new ways to teach invention to FYW students, and who are not particularly interested in genre theory or Rhetoric, much of Chapters Two and Three, and some of Chapter Six would prove to be tedious and, in part, unnecessary. Genre and the Invention of the Writer is not just a work that addresses the process of invention in order to aid FYW instructors, though it does accomplish that. It is also an ideological position that Bawarshi wants to make clear to readers; it is an attempt to supplant Composition (and the underlying ideologies that have positioned it) with Rhetoric.
However, Bawarshi’s text not only shows how Rhetoric and Composition have different goals. It demonstrates how the Classical view of invention and genre theory can come together to inform the teaching of writing. Bawarshi lays out a complicated theory about helping writers situate themselves within activity sites where multiple genres are located. In Chapter Four, he provides many examples to reveal how desires, relations, and subjectivities are constructed by genres. One such example, taken from taken from Anthony Parè’s research of the socialization process of social workers, is the social worker’s assessment report.
This assessment report is a particular way of using language to frame relations, desires, and subjectivities within this generic location. Social workers re-generate who they are when they write these reports, in which they leave out the use of their own names and personal pronouns, but rather refer to themselves by their role as social workers. They use “such self-effacing constructions as ‘the undersigned believers’ and ‘the worker recommends,’ as well as completely self-erasing phrases, such as ‘it is believed,” ‘the assessment is based on,’ and ‘recommendations include the following’ ” (Parè 101). There are no handbooks or other written guidelines telling them to do this when they write, but the desire to be objective social scientists places each writer in the subject position of the “social worker.” This example clearly demonstrates the way in which the genre of the assessment report invents the writer as social worker each time a report is written.
The text of Genre and the Invention of the Writer moves from demonstrating how exigencies are constructed and regenerated within genres to discussing genres as sites of invention in Chapter Five, and, again, Bawarshi uses many examples to explicate the complex theories he is laying out. He talks about how activity sites are the place where invention happens stressing the point that writing does not come from within the writer, but rather is invented by genres and the writer’s place within them. He uses the writing produced within the FYW classroom to demonstrate this idea. Chapter Five draws from language philosopher J.L. Austin’s ideas about uptake to show how successful writing meets the needs and desires of a genre, or secures uptake, while less successful writing fails to accomplish or sustain the uptake (138).
Bawarshi claims that the FYW syllabus, writing assignment, and essay are all pieces of writing that generate and organize the first year classroom. As students and instructor move through the semester in this activity site, each of these genres are likely to be acted upon by participants and by other genres. An instructor often changes syllabi and assignments to adapt them to (unanticipated) desires, relations, and subjectivities in the activity sites. Bawarshi demonstrates how students also effect changes in writing prompts they are given with several examples of student responses to a specific prompt. The most successful students are the ones that re-appropriate the writing prompt and make it their own thereby creating their own subject position within the genre. The least successful students are writers who allow the prompt to shape their answers and their subject positions, which usually results in writing that explicitly repeats the wording of the prompt or that refers directly to the prompt. Bawarshi’s purpose for presenting these examples in Chapter Five is to reiterate the importance of fostering student awareness of genres and invention.
An understanding from Chapter Five of how genres invent writers, and how writers effect changes in genres, leads to the explication of exactly how these concepts play out in the teaching of writing in Chapter Six, which is the final chapter in Genre and the Invention of the Writer. In the last chapter, Bawarshi ties everything together, ideologically and pedagogically, and reveals what the practical application of genre theory and invention looks like. He provides an excellent and detailed “Guide to Analyzing Genres” (159-160), which could be used for critically analyzing sites of activity such as literary, visual, social, and commercial texts, to name only a few.
Additionally, in Chapter Six Bawarshi discusses specific ways that he uses these theories of invention and genre to improve his teaching of FYW, in which his students take active roles in socially positioning themselves within a variety of genres, and in developing a meta-awareness of what they are learning. Specific examples include group activities in which his students study specific academic disciplines, such as psychology or social science, and then develop an understanding of the generic expectations of the writing of the discipline. They do this by reading the writing of the discipline, and talking with and interviewing professionals in the field to find out what functions the discipline’s writing serves. They then analyze the information they gather and formulate a claim about what the genre reveals. Finally, they write an argument that develops their claim with supporting evidence from their research.
Bawarshi claims that using genre to teach students invention will help them learn how desires and practices are rhetorically constituted within genres. Once they have meta-awareness about learning this skill, it will transfer to other writing tasks beyond the FYW classroom. Some would argue that teaching students about genres outside of the place where they exist is artificial and, therefore, could not be an effective method of teaching writing. However, Bawarshi’s goal is not teach specific genres, but instead is to help students become “rhetorically astute and agile, in other words, to use genre analysis as a way of becoming more effective and critical ‘readers’ of actions within which writing takes place” (165).
I believe that Bawarshi presents a compelling case for his method of teaching writing. Teaching students these kinds of rhetorical skills can lead to long lasting and effective writing abilities. Genre and the Invention of the Writer actually shows how we, as instructors, can help students learn to position and invent themselves in order to write, which can lead to their acquiring skills in writing that they can take with them into other writing situations far beyond first year English. Though Bawarshi’s text is rich in examples of each facet of his genre theory of invention, and it provides some specific assignments implementing this theory, more examples of the practical applications would have made the text more helpful to a broader range of writing instructors. This could easily have been done with less discussion of background information.
Admittedly, Bawarshi uses this text to parade his ideological position regarding the place of Rhetoric in English studies. However, if, as Bawarshi’s book demonstrates, giving rhetorical skills to student writers through the use of a genre theory of invention facilitates the teaching and learning of writing more effectively than many of the current Composition theories, then English studies should welcome Bawarshi’s ideological claims and embrace his theory for teaching Genre and the Invention of the Writer. It presents a pedagogical view, and practical applications and explications from which FYW instructors and students can certainly benefit.
Regina Clemens Fox
Arizona State University
Top of Review
In Praise of Pedagogy: Poetry, Flash Fiction, and Essays on Composing by Wendy Bishop and David Starkey, eds. Portland, Maine: Calendar Islands Publishers, 2000. 230 pp. $25.50 (paper). ISBN: 1893056082
In Praise of Pedagogy: Poetry, Flash Fiction, and Essays on Composing is a collection of creative writing by teachers about teaching, learning, language, and the constant redefining of “teacher” and “student”. Assembled with students and teachers of all walks in mind—chiefly, although not exclusively, those in the composition, literature, and creative writing classrooms—this refreshing collection’s primary purpose, as David Starkey’s Afterword suggests, is to break down the taboo of metafiction and poetry and bridge the gap between “ars poetica” and “ars rhetorica.” This is not a collection of articles on rhetoric or pedagogical theory but a collection of creative work that focuses on the very human aspect of the academy, a playground for each teacher-writer to explore, through their art, their failures, hopes, successes, and frustrations on incredibly personal and emotional terms. That is not to say that these writers do not bring to the table their own theories of teaching, but that perhaps the greatest importance of this collection lies in the fact of its actual creation.
As Ken Autrey states in his Foreword: “Writing creatively about teaching matters as much as teaching creatively about writing” (xii). Editors Wendy Bishop and David Starkey, in the Introduction and Afterword respectively, use their own poetry to illustrate their motivations behind assembling such a collection—most specifically, that writing in this vein is invaluable to teachers as a way to solve problems, share observations and critiques, theorize their own positions through art, investigate, argue, and become better readers, writers, and teachers. The table of contents implies the wide range of experience involved with the teaching and learning process; it groups the poems according to six different areas of subject matter, from poems that share classroom anecdotes, the difficulties and glories of language, and the experience of being taught to poems that give advice to other teachers and students, commemorate the learning that goes on in families, and pay homage to teachers past.
The authors of the pieces in this collection come from and teach within diverse situations. Anthologized here are high school teachers, graduate students, college composition, creative writing, and literature professors, writing program directors, tenured and adjunct professors. Many of these poems describe the surprising relationships between teachers and students that are illuminated in the classroom, where knowledge is constantly being exchanged and redefined. For example, in “Open Letter to My Students”, Kathleen Kirk describes the significance of learning about the details that create the lives of her students when attempting to discover what a “hackey sack” is: “Only you can tell me the names/ of the things in your world./ ‘We don’t really care,’ you say,/ ‘about your world.’/ Well, I do. I care/ what it’s made of,/ whether it’s glued or sewn…/ I care about the letter you sent/ and the day your mother moved away…” (36). Likewise, Stephen Corey describes a moment when he reads the final paper of a lonely, awkward, silent student who hauls “himself toward me every week/ from the wood lathe of his job/ in a low-grade furniture shop” (31). After a semester of feeling unable to reach this student, the teacher discovers that it is The Iliad that has managed to have an affect on him—and that, through this student’s paper, the teacher has rediscovered the text that he’s been teaching:
Six years later, I can still paintPerhaps Kelly Cherry says it most plainly and honestly in her essay “Teaching Poetry: A Way to Grace the World?” while struggling to “figure out how I might put the idea of grace together with the idea of academia” (27). She discovers, through the writings she receives in class “that practically ooze an enviable sensuality and playfulness” or contain “shaped language that lifts me out of my frowning or scowling or, anyway, insufficiently caffeinated self” that “it is the students, each of them, whose presence alchemizes pedagogy into grace, so that the hapless professor, meaning me, you understand, can see a poem or the world in a new, lighted way, receive a vision of the possible” (27-28).
the slants and tones of sunlight
mapped across my desk, or sing
the fossils deep below me
in those final moments when I read
his final thesis of our course:
That the truest choice by Homer
was the crippling of Hephaestus,
for only the damaged could understand
the shield scrolled with gentle iron lace,
the aura that holds around the perfect forging. (31)
An entire section is, appropriately, dedicated to “Language and the World”, and contained within are poems that are written in reverence of language—the very currency with which these writers teach, the defining mechanism that brings together the lives of these teachers and their students. Kara Provost describes through lyrical metaphor the great power of words to create visions, even for those who are visionless. In “Reading for the Blind”, her admiration for the power of the written word is clear: “You can tell by how she reads/ she loves language./ When she speaks, words take substance:/ howling throbbing caressing, words pour/ out of her mouth as pebbles, silk, wounds, bread…/ She sends her voice out into the dark/ carefully,/ holding words like babies/ with still soft necks…/ words become eyes/ letting us see ourselves/ as the angels see us” (74-75). Yet perhaps the most memorable of these poems about language—and possibly the most reverent of its capacity to shape human experience—are those that, in some ways, criticize the very academy in which these teachers are positioned. Darrell Fike’s very brief poem “The Death of Reading” laments to both teachers and students about the dangers of attempting to reduce meaning to its barest bones as is often done in a classroom:
Damn the inventor of the highlighter penSimilarly, Katherine M. Fischer and Robert Parham critique the scrupulous academic study of language and champion, instead, a more holistic approach. Fischer’s “Windshield Vipers (Keeping Time)” is unambiguous about its stance on literary criticism as it describes two colleagues in a car on their way to a conference: “…he/ drones on dripping/ syllables of ‘poststructural-/ positionedness’/ and ‘monolithic religiosity’ in/ vampire literature. he bites/ text in two, sinking fangs/ of academe into/ passion’s neck” (65). Parham expresses a similar frustration with the paring down of words into their literal parts to find meaning in “Ignoring the Linguist”:
that smug tool that effaces without eradicating
that shreds a text without leaving a scar,
a pastel weapon of destruction
suspended above the page like a tiny guillotine blade. (64)
When the professor explained thatPerhaps the most noticeable drawback of In Praise of Pedagogy is that its audience within this field might be limited to teachers who write creatively and who can share the experience of approaching pedagogy through a creative writing lens. Although the art contained within may certainly appeal aesthetically and recreationally to any number of people, its pedagogical stance for the importance of creative writing within the classroom is undeniable. Ironically, however, this may also be one of its strengths; in an ocean of writing about pedagogy and composition theory that is very firmly positioned in the field of Rhetoric & Composition (and that speaks almost exclusively through that experience), this collection is perhaps a beacon of hope to the creative writer teaching composition. It is an assembly of writing on teaching and pedagogy that speaks to and through the experience of the creative writer. Likewise, and perhaps more importantly, it explores theories of creative writing in much the same way theories of other forms of writing are explored—while written through its own genre—and illustrates that this “demystification” of the creative writing process is not as detrimental to the art of it as the creative writing community has so often believed it to be. It is a needed call to unify writing, teaching, academics, creativity, imagination—to break down the barriers between fields and genres. As David Starkey states in the Afterword, “The poems and stories and essays in In Praise of Pedagogy make me want to put down the book and write” (197). This is certainly an exciting addition to existent writing on teaching pedagogy in a voice not ordinarily associated with this genre.
the raspberry was, in part, lost,
that is, meaning… oh, as he put it:
“The morpheme of ‘rasp’ is in one sense full,
but we have lost its meaning… berry,
however, we understand…”
I think of red
raspberries, fresh in late spring, cream
their tiny sea, as the veranda fills
with the gift of mockingbirds… (73)
Elaine C. Farrugia
Arizona State University, Tempe
Top of Review
In Praise of Pedagogyby Wendy Bishop and David Starkey, eds. Portland, Maine: Calendar Islands Publishers, 2000. 214 pp. $25.50 (paper). ISBN 1893056082.
As publications about rhetoric and composition go, In Praise of Pedagogy is certainly an unorthodox book. Wendy Bishop and David Starkey have put together a collection of one-hundred-and-two pieces of poetry and flash fiction that, as Ken Autrey notes in the book’s foreword, “offer tributes, capture poignant moments, and recount anecdotes, but they also develop arguments, defend positions, and explain theories” (xiii). The book is not a typical collection of texts about composition pedagogy, but then it is not specifically about pedagogy either. Throughout the collection, authors of varying backgrounds, experiences, and apparent pedagogical stances all come together to grant insights into the lives of teachers, students, and teacher-students in a variety of ways as they use creative writing to illustrate the different ways in which teachers and students relate to composition theory.
In the foreword, Autrey introduces Bishop and Starkey as teachers of writing who have each “ardently advocated in print and in person the value of bringing together composition and creative writing pedagogy” (xii). This is what In Praise of Pedagogy attempts to do as the collection brings together poetry, flash fiction and short essays about teaching, being taught, and the many life experiences that stem from, or can be associated with, teaching writing. In her introduction, Bishop expresses her belief in the use of creative writing to help teachers:
to solve problems; to share understandings; to deal with teaching conditions; to observe more clearly; to note, commemorate, and savor; to critique; to poke fun productively, to highlight contradictions; to become better readers, writers, and teachers; to investigate and discover; to theorize and work out new positions; and to argue and persuade (4).For the most part, these issues seem to be the very goals that pervade the many collections of essays about composition pedagogy existent in the field, such as A Guide to Composition Pedagogies (Oxford 2001) and Composition in Four Keys (Mayfield 1996). Yet while these tomes are populated by essays that directly challenge, question, and reinforce ideas and practices that exist in competing pedagogies, Bishop and Starkey’s anthology of poetry and flash fiction serves to provide a critical reader with a similar experience, but through intuition and aesthetic experience rather than through direct argument and explication.
Bishop’s introduction is meant to serve as a springboard from which a reader can vault into the body of the book and use the readings to inspect, critique, and identify with classroom practice and pedagogy. Strangely, the introduction is so concentrated on Bishop’s own poetry that it feels as though Bishop places her explication and highlighting of her own work ahead of the fusion of creative writing and composition pedagogy. After listing the ways in which she believes creative writing can shed light upon pedagogy and classroom practice, she goes on to use her poems as examples of how poetry can expose the strengths and frailties of classroom practice. While the eleven poems she presents exemplify an undeniable relationship between creative writing and composition pedagogy, her near-exclusive use of her own work makes the section sound a tad self-laudatory. The one poem that isn’t hers, however, offers an insight into the way that creative writing is fused to composition theory in the classroom. Jo’al Hill’s “When I was Black” is a beautiful student-written poem of self-appreciation in terms of ethnicity and individuality. In the context of being written in Bishop’s classroom, and in light of the student’s inability to separate the “rules” of composition from the freedom of expression in writing poetry, the poem itself demonstrates the ways in which creative writing aids and complements a student’s budding ability to write. One puzzling thing is the fact that she isn’t credited in the Contributors’ Notes at the book’s conclusion, in spite of the piece’s grace and beauty, and its importance to the book’s theme as a student-piece in relation to the contributions by teachers in the rest of the book.
The book itself is split into six parts, not including the foreword, introduction, and afterword, each part dealing with a particular aspect of the teaching life with which teachers of writing should find familiar regardless of whether one teaches creative writing, expository writing, or anything in between. The first section, “From or For Classrooms,” revolves around reflections on and celebrations of classrooms. “Language and the World,” involves the different ways that we think about knowledge and its value to us as teachers and as students. “Reading Writing, Teaching, and Being Taught,” the third section, blurs the distinction between teacher and student, exploring the relationships that teachers have with students in terms of learning through personal interactions inside and outside of the classroom.
These first three sections overlap somewhat as some of the poems found in each section celebrate the learning process, while others express regret or even outright condemnation of teaching practices. One significant moment is in William Snyder, Jr.’s “Nervouswork,” in which the speaker, a writing teacher, watches his sleepy classroom spark to life as they take turns reading from their in-class writings about love. When it comes time for the teacher to read, however, he decides to abstain: “And they all felt good, buoyed / by share, control. By love. But I am professor, and so / I suggested omission—they were, it seemed, thinking ideal, / ignoring the real love in the day-to-day, / Silence then, and shoulders sagged, eyes fell, Silence” (45). The speaker decides not to participate and retain his role as teacher, separate from the class, and this causes the class to return to lifelessness as the teacher is unable to join the class. As the poem closes, he regrets his decision, and this is representative of arguably the most remarkable thing about the first half of the book. Plentiful are the moments of disjunction between teachers and students as each side attempts to connect with the other, only to find themselves unable to overcome the different forces that keep one another at bay. Joseph H. Ball’s “tuesday 8:45” demonstrates the tug of war between a teacher’s administrative duties and classroom devotions that inhibit a student-teacher connection (25). The futility of teaching seemingly apathetic students is made palpable in Grace Bauer’s “The English Teacher’s Bad Day,” in which a teacher identifies with Willie Loman in his inability to inspire his students (26). A remarkable piece of flash fiction, Larry Strauss’s “The Big-Up” shows how sociocultural differences between an instructor and two of his students, and how students’ real world dilemmas can hamper their academic lives (50). Pieces like these are notable in that they express an important value in the use of creative writing pegagogy to teach composition: the need to allow students the right to take control of their own writing by teacher connection with students on a level beyond that of the traditional classroom relationship in which the student simply learns what the teacher has to teach. This is not to imply that lamenting student-teacher disconnection is all that the first half of the book has to offer; Laura Apol and Ken Autrey both write about the excitement of magic of teaching, as if a teacher and his or her class can travel to the stars or perform alchemy, turning lead into gold (23-4). The circular form of Allison Joseph’s “Workshop Pantoum” highlights the ways in which student frustrations with writing extends to a teacher’s frustration with poetry workshops, and the ways in which that frustration is repeated over the course of an academic term or a teaching career; meanwhile, Shannon Marquez McGuire’s “Introduction to Poetry” illustrates the exhilaration a teacher feels while collecting poems for her students to study in class (35, 71). Yet while these celebratory moments are plentiful throughout the book, the isolation and seclusion that many of the poems exude exhibits a desire for the ability to transcend the role of instructor, and to teach through deeper social connections with students.
The fourth section, entitled “Advice and Observations,” warns teachers to be aware of their own limitations, and offers advice as to how one might keep one’s desire to complete tasks such as grading from interfering with social and biological needs. Jacqueline Brice-Finch’s “Flat Out” illustrates the mind-weariness that teachers suffer while grading too many papers at one time (122). Lynna Williams, in “Scenes from the ‘Teaching Moment’ Lounge,” pokes fun at the enigmatic nature of teacher comments when a student, reacting to an instructor’s demand for a more narrowly focused thesis, revises “Technology is destroying man” into “Technology is destroying man in Ohio” (142-4). Insofar as connecting creative writing pedagogy to that of composition, Kelly Cherry illustrates this link in “Advice to a Young Poet,” in which she gives a student advice on writing poetry: “The poem, / when trapped, / must be treated tenderly. / It may be observed and tagged. / Then release it / into freedom, / let it live / on its own terms” (124). While the advice she gives is applicable to poetry, it is also applicable to composition in terms of teaching a student to form a dialogue with his own text, and in terms of teaching a teacher to respect the student as a thinking, self-directed individual.
And while teachers of writing will certainly recognize themselves or their colleagues in various pieces, readers outside the academy may discover or rediscover their own connections with fellow students and instructors of their past. Moments like this occur particularly in the fifth section, “Memories of Our Children and Families Learning,” and the last section, “Remembering Those Who Taught Us.” In this way, the book answers the earlier laments about student-teacher connection with celebrations and remembrances of teachers and of being taught. The poems and stories that acknowledge fond memories of teachers toward the end of the book force an acknowledgement of how teachers may make connections, if not lasting impressions, upon students regardless of how students appear to react in the classroom. In “A Note About Allen Tate,” Cherry’s narrator remembers how a former professor used to take roll at the beginning of class, which sparks a recognition of not just his awareness of her identity, but of his respect for her as a person as well (169). Marvin Diogenes’s “Mystery and Manners” tells of Gordo, a hospital intern who meets a former creative writing professor who not only remembers Gordo, but also teaches him a new lesson about writing, and about living (175). Many strong examples of the lasting impressions that teachers make on their students populate the end of the book, and reinforce the value of the student-teacher relationship beyond that of writing instruction.
In the afterword, Starkey writes about his own views of the fusion of creative writing and composition pedagogies. Echoing Bishop, he claims that the importance of In Praise of Pedagogy is its function as “a bridge between composition and creative writing and literature, three subdivisions in English studies that, whatever their rival allegiances, are all concerned with literature-making” (200). In this respect, the book lives up to its own hype. Each of the sections serves to breach the boundaries of the disciplines, presenting creative essays alongside poetry and flash fiction, and demonstrating the impracticality of completely isolating any of these disciplines from one another without robbing the student of the full range of what English as a discipline has to offer. Yet, Starkey also makes an admission that seems to sum up the strengths and the weaknesses of the book overall:
Because poetry relies so heavily on metaphor, poems on composing—in comparison with expository prose on the same subject—are both richer in their evocations and more prone to the inaccuracies inherent in figurative language. The elision and compression that poetry and flash fictions and essays demand leads to implication rather than statement, aphorism rather than exposition. Frankly, many of the pieces in this collection allow the writer to circumvent a good deal of leg work; instead, they make you, the reader, “span the breach” yourself. (192-3)Indeed, at times, the circuitous nature of metaphor in its relationship to meaning can interfere with the presentation of a concrete dispute or disagreement with composition theory. Many of the pieces revolve around the connection between students and teachers, or the lack thereof depending on the piece. The question of power and displacement of power interfering with a teacher’s ability to connect with students is a major theme throughout the book, but the imagery and figurative language, at times, hinder an explanation of the pedagogical basis for the lack of connection; the emotional and physical empathy for the teacher or student in certain poems overpowers pedagogical identification. The emotional needs of the narrators for connection with those they write about are so tangible that any relationship to theory and pedagogy seems oblique, absent, or as in many of the pieces, somewhat beside the point.
Still, the palpable emotional and physical experiences that these poems, essays, and flash fictions offer give the book its appeal to an audience outside the academy, expanding its scope from an interrogation of classroom theory and practice to an examination of how our lives in the classrooms affect the real world, at times reflecting and demonstrating the direct relationship between classroom pedagogy in general and the real world. In this respect, while the portrayal of this relationship is somewhat oblique, the significance of creative writing’s application to the classroom proves to be noteworthy and relevant. Whether In Praise of Pedagogy is consumed as a relief from the orthodox scholarly papers peppering the field of composition pedagogy or studied as a fusion of creative writing and composition pedagogy, this book is an important and striking complement to the field of composition studies and to the larger academic community.
W. Todd Kaneko
Arizona State University, Tempe
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In Praise of Pedagogy consists of a foreword by Ken Autrey, an introduction by Wendy Bishop, a collection of poems, essays, and flash fictions, and an afterword by David Starkey. The collection was edited by Bishop and Starkey and resulted from the following call for submissions: “In Praise of Pedagogy will include poems and flash fictions on writing, teaching, reading, classroom environments, students, literacy, and related topics.”(p. 3)
In her introduction, Bishop sets out to convince us that poetry (and by extension flash fictions and essays) can be a useful pedagogical tool. She believes a poem, if given the chance can “argue; it can commemorate; it can explore, critique, and complicate our thinking.”(p. 2) Bishop writes, “I continue to marvel at the way creative writing about our teaching lives can lend insight and depth to that work….” It is her belief that writing creatively on the topics related to teaching or writing can help one sort out a pedagogy and can assist teachers in the following ways: “1.solve problems 2.share understandings 3.deal with teaching conditions 4.observe: see better, more clearly, and more deeply 5.note, commemorate, save, and savor 6.critique 7.celebrate 8.poke fun, often at oneself, in productive ways 9.highlight contradictions 10. become better readers, writers, teachers 11. investigate and shed new light on issues 12.theorize and work out positions 13.argue and persuade” Bishop goes on in more detail about each of these numbered headings by giving us a poem she herself has written, and discussing why she feels the poem fits under that particular category. For example, for the heading “Writing to Deal with Teaching Conditions (and Sometimes Institutional Absurdity)”(p. 5) Bishop shares a poem that talks about the old room in the English Department where every student paper used to be stored to prevent and investigate plagiarism in the days before process in writing was emphasized.
While Bishop makes a good case for the legitimacy of creative writing, specifically poetry, as a way of navigating through the world of pedagogy and teaching, a way of sussing things out for oneself, I believe it is the collection itself that truly lends credence to her cause. She herself acknowledges this when she writes, at the very end of her foreword, that she does not have to make the arguments (though she has just finished making them for 20 pages) because “The work gathered here makes my arguments for me, showing us how we should and can celebrate our lives in literacy.”(p. 20)
The collection of poems, essays, and flash fictions is divided into six parts, each with a subject heading. While I laud the author’s attempt to separate the works into various categories, the categories at times struck me as artificial constructions that were more or less interchangeable. The topic heading for Part III: Of Reading, Writing, Teaching, Being Taught could easily contain any piece in the entire collection as could Part IV: Advice and Observations. This does not detract much from the collection though, as the beginning of each new “Part” has no commentary from the authors, it is merely the subject heading itself followed by more poems, essays, and flash fictions. Also, I felt that sometimes the selections included had nothing to do with the “Part” subject heading they fell under. For example, the poem Teaching in My Sleep, a poem about a teacher unable to stop reflecting on the days occurrences in the classroom, appears on page 69 in PartII: Language and the World. Why is it not in the From and For Classrooms section? Why not the Of Reading, Writing, Teaching, Being Taught section? To me the poem had much more to do with the classroom and teaching than it did the language and the world, although the interchangeability of all the part headings again becomes apparent to me as I wonder how the authors decided what selections went where.
While the collection does indeed have essays, flash fiction, and poetry, the overwhelming majority of the selections are poems. This leaning no doubt owes somewhat to the fact that both of the authors/editors are poets as well as teachers. Also, many of the poems deal specifically with the poetry workshop or with teaching poetry, such as Teaching Poetry: A Way to Grace the World? on page 27. I wondered sometimes how much use these creative pieces would be to a teacher of composition. That being said, I found many of the selections to be amusing, uplifting, encouraging and inspiring, all of which are “ings” I feel teachers of writing could always use.
In the afterword, David Starkey talks about the difficulties he has had over the years justifying writing about writing, or meta-writing. He talks about experiences with editors that absolutely wanted nothing to do with meta-writing or meta-poetry. It was taboo. He has hopes that this collection will help legitimize the genre.
Starkey also admits to possible shortcomings of creative pieces about writing. He talks about how he used a combination of words in one of his own poems about writing more to “emphasize their alliteration” than to make his meaning clear. He admits that at times, specifically in poetry (again it is a tad aggravating that both authors discussions of writing about writing begins and ends with poetry, with nothing else mentioned except in the collection itself) that “The imperatives of prosody, in other words, may supersede those of explanation, and that does, indeed, happen again and again in the many fine pieces in this book.”(p. 192) Starkey cautions that the creative pieces in In Praise of Pedagogy cannot be read the same fashion as an article in a journal of Rhetoric. “Our poems and flash fictions and essays are overnight bags rather than steamer trunks.” He writes. “We pack them more cautiously, excluding everything but the absolute essentials.”(p. 192) I cannot help wondering why these comments come after the collection. Doesn’t advice on how to read a collection belong before the collection? In fact, I felt that much of what Starkey had to say belonged in the beginning of the book. His is not so much an afterword as a continuation of the introduction. Comments like “Frankly, many of the pieces in this collection allow the writer to circumvent a good deal of leg work; instead, they make you, the reader, ‘span the breach’ yourself,” belonged at the beginning of the book. I know that I will have to “span the breach” because I have just finished reading the collection myself, but it would have been nice to have been given the heads-up prior to having done so.
At the end of Starkey’s afterword, he points out what he feels is the importance of In Praise of Pedagogy, he writes “…I’d like to brag, just a little, about the importance of In Praise of Pedagogy as a bridge between composition and creative writing and literature, three sub-disciplines in English studies that, whatever their rival allegiances, are all concerned with literature-making.” I am not as sure as Starkey that this goal has been achieved. Both author’s have shown how creative pieces on writing, meta-writings, have helped them teach poetry workshops, and the collection does indeed show numerous authors in various states as they deal with teaching, students, learning, and writing, but I do not see how this “bridges” the pedagogies (after all the title is In Praise of Pedagogy) of composition, creative writing and literature. I do not see how the mere act of writing creatively about composition and literature bridges the pedagogies between these disciplines. For starters, there is not one single pedagogy for any of these three disciplines, there are many, and I would assert that they are not mutually exclusive, meaning that I believe teachers of creative writing, composition, and literature can already have the same pedagogy. What bridge is created between a teacher of composition and the leader of a creative writing workshop when they both have already adopted an expressivist pedagogy? No, this book’s strength lies not in its ability to bridge the pedagogies of different disciplines, its strength lies in its ability to show us that we are already in the same boat to begin with.
In her introduction Bishop writes: “David and I believe that reading these works will make you want to explore pedagogical themes yourself, that proof of a useful collection of writing is that it makes us want . . . to write.”(p. 2) The collection of writing in In Praise of Pedagogy did make me want to write and it did, at times, make me feel that I myself could explore pedagogical themes in my own creative writing. In this regard the book is a resounding success, and if for nothing else, the collection itself is worth the price of the book.
Arizona State University
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Insurrections: Approaches to Resistance in Composition Studies is made up of ten essays separated into four parts that thematically encapsulate definitions of resistance and the writing classroom while exploring how these resistances play out. The Foreword is written by Gary A. Olson, and the Afterword by Dale Bauer. The Introduction is written by Andrea Greenbaum, the Editor of the collection.
As can be expected, any collection of work that converges on one specific term will naturally spend considerable amount of time in the management of the term itself. Part 1, for example, entitled “Theorizing Resistance” incorporates the first two essays of the book, which deal rather extensively with defining the term. "Resistance as a Tragic Trope" by John Trimbur, and "Strategic, Counter-Strategic, and Reactive Resistance in the Feminist Classroom" by Elizabeth Flynn both do a good job of illustrating the difficulties of definition, although as evidenced by their titles, both are involved in quite dissimilar tasks. Trimbur explores the term “resistance” in an historical and political context, inside and outside of the academy. He asserts that resistance is a charged term symbolizing radical social upheaval. Its coming to the English Department, then, is no small matter, and one that Trimbur sees as a positive move. He is careful to demonstrate how both teachers of writing as well as their students are participants in numerous resistance strategies in academia.
Elizabeth Flynn's essay is no less theoretical than Trimbur's, but her theoretical discussion of resistance is specific to the very real experience in the feminist classroom. Rather than spend time attempting to pin down one comprehensive definition, Flynn chooses to categorize resistance(s) into three types: strategic, counter-strategic, and reactive. From sullen silence to spirited outbursts, each category is exemplified by classroom behavior familiar to the feminist pedagogue. Regardless of the resistance strategy, each category is given a positive rating from Flynn, who believes that the space of resistance in the feminist classroom, a space that many believe is uniformly destructive, can also be useful.
Part 2, entitled “Race and the Politics of Literacy” is a collection of three essays that specifically discuss the learning of writing by African American and native Alaskan students. In the first essay, “Students' Right to Possibility: Basic Writing and African American Rhetoric,” Keith Gilyard and Elaine Richardson use the 1974 resolution of “Students' Right to Their Own Language” as a jumping off point to demonstrate the positive experiences of empirical research done in certain Basic Writing courses at two universities between 1996 and 1998. The idea was to assemble African American students in a writing course that was “afrocentric” in subject matter and privileged discourse (the privileged discourse being African American Vernacular English [AAVE]). Gilyard and Richardson's findings are that because these students were empowered to use their own rhetorical tradition and experiences, in the future they would be less inclined to resist writing and more apt to become “careful, competent, critical practitioners of the written word.”
The second essay of this section, “Orphans of Oppression: The Passive Resistance of Bicultural Alienation,” by Stephen Brown, is a theoretical piece based on the author's experience teaching indigenous peoples in Alaska . Drawing from Post-Colonial theorists and essays, Brown discusses solutions to the difficulties of teaching bi-cultural students marginalized by two cultures, their traditional one (Athabascan) and the one in power (Anglo). He ultimately argues that placing marginalized native students in contact with their own words and their own native landscapes will help these students recover their “lost, uncolonized realms of the indigenous Self.”
The final essay in Part 2, “Race and Collective Resistance” by Tom Fox explores resistance not as “isolated acts of refusal,” but as “alliances” in which African American students collaborate with educators and texts (more specifically, historical writers of resistant texts) to resist white supremacy. This essay is interesting in that it illustrates a group of highly successful marginal students who act out their resistance in subversive ways. This essay reiterates the fact that acting out resistance is not always easily perceived, thus the definition of resistance itself remains fluid.
In Part 3, two essays focus on “Technology Rhetoric.” Chapter 6 begins the section with Ellen Strenski's “Fa(c)ulty Wiring? Energy, Power, Work, and Resistance to Technology.” In this article Strenski argues that too many faculty in composition studies resist the use of computer technology in their classroom and within their discipline. Strenski walks a fine line, attempting to sift out the “hype” from the “hope” of technology in academia. She argues against the view of technology as savior of the classroom, but warns that although perhaps we have discovered its weaknesses, if we refuse to take control of computer technology and shape it to help composition studies while it is still a fairly new tool, someone else will.
Janice Walker's “Resisting Resistance: Power and Control in the Technologized Classroom” is the last chapter in section 3. Walker debunks, in this chapter, the early assumptions about technology inherently revolutionizing the classroom. She argues that although new technological advances in communication in the writing classroom (like the online classroom) allows for a small swing in power relations between students and teachers, the classroom itself will never be a democratic space nor will there be a considerable shift in power from teacher to student, since, after all, teachers continue to control the grade book. However, she posits that online classrooms do allow instructors new ways of empowering students even though the best way to go about doing so is to thoughtfully constrain and shape the uses of said technology.
The final section in this collection is titled “Toward a Pedagogy of Resistance,” and three final essays are collected under this heading. “The Literalization of Metaphor and the Boundaries of Resistance” by Susan Wells is the first essay of this last section. In a complex argument, Wells explores the problematic tradition of literalizing the metaphor of the classroom. She is interested in how we as composition teachers can explain our inclination to literalize (to read classroom space in a specific way), and what that means about our own resistant practices. To propel her argument, Wells specifically uses the familiar metaphor of the classroom as the public sphere. In step with Habermas in his Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere , she argues that the public sphere has been “refeudalized” and that it is up to institutions such as universities to “reconstruct” it and make it “accessible” again. The way in which composition instructors can do this, she suggests, is to at least concede that the public sphere of the classroom, no matter how democratic, is fraught with inequality and contradiction.
In “Bitch Pedagogy: Agonistic Discourse and the Politics of Resistance,” After presenting a brief history of how composition studies has become “feminized” and consequently devalued, Andrea Greenbaum illustrates how female writing instructors have been coerced by this feminization to teach composition in specifically “feminine” ways. In response to this feminization, she suggests that practicing agonistic discourse in the classroom will empower female writing instructors to resist “proscribed modes of female communication.” Although practicing this argumentative discourse has resulted in a “bitch” persona for many women, Greenbaum contends that because both sexes view agonistic discourse favorably overall, female instructors can only benefit themselves and their students by utilizing it.
In the final chapter of this book, “Resisting Academics,” Bruce Horner explains why compositionists retain a relationship with academic discourse laden with ambivalence. However, as much as he may agree that there is ample evidence to support this position, he warns that compositionists may be better served by resisting the “commodification” of academic work rather than the work itself. He maintains that the potential application of academic discourse for composition students and teachers has not been depleted; there are still “alternative literacies,” “resistance,” and “differential uses for reading and writing” that can be very useful.
Although heavy on theory, this book is heavy on pedagogy as well. Each essay ends with suggested practical solutions to highly controversial debates within the field. Whether or not the reader agrees with each essay's conclusions or solutions is not the point, however. The point is that the reader will be engaged in very real issues in composition on which she/he will most certainly have an opinion. This collection is provocative, accessible, and timely.
Arizona State University
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The Letter Book: Ideas for Teaching College English by Sue Dinitz and Toby Fulwiler, eds.
Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Pubs., 2000. 132 pp. $17.55 (paper). ISBN 0867094966.
In The Letter Book: Ideas for Teaching College English, ten chapters (plus an editorial Introduction and Afterword) assert the art and utility of letter writing as a powerful medium for activating student voices in a variety of writing situations and across a range of courses and student skill levels. The chapter contributors are all members of the University of Vermont’s English department, teaching in first-year composition, upper-division writing, literature and creative writing courses. Collectively, they explore the contribution of letter writing as a seminal classroom activity across the range of these classroom contexts and of the student populations represented in these settings. While the applications are in a sense multidisciplinary, the message is univocal: Letter writing is a powerful pedagogical tool, accomplishing a variety of goals. Volume editors Sue Dinitz and Toby Fulwiler argue that letter writing advances the following goals in particular: classroom community, content mastery, experimental writing and general literacy (vii).
This volume is consciously positioned as an extension of Fulwiler’s previous edition on journal writing (The Journal Book. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Pubs., 1987). While that volume is much broader in scope than the present volume, both are practitioner-oriented texts whose material derives from “real world” experiences and whose aims are to motivate others to incorporate the advocated writing practice (journaling and letter writing, respectively) into his/her courses, regardless of subject matter. The present volume argues the efficacy of letter writing as a core practice based on its ability to tap students’ familiarity with and facility in this genre. Each chapter writer variously posits this familiarity as an advantage for both teacher and students in advancing the larger goals of his/her course.
The overt arrangement of the chapters moves the reader across a spectrum of English courses – from first-year composition classes, to undergraduate creative writing and literature courses, to graduate seminars and peer tutoring workshops – wherein letter writing can function as an integral element of the course. Chapters by Sue Dinitz, Karen Stewart and Toby Fulwiler all address the use of letter writing in composition classes. Dinitz conceives of student-teacher letters as providing a side conversation to each student’s formal writing project that allows the teacher to facilitate the revision process without co-opting it. Stewart’s in-class pen pal system provides space for a diverse student population to create a community, one whose power spilled outside the classroom walls into elaborated cyberspace communities that enriched in-class interaction and engagement with the material. Fulwiler’s cyberspace epistolary conversations similarly created community while also tapping Dinitz’s notion of facilitative instruction.
Chapters by Ghita Orth, William Stephany and Philip Baruth represent the application of letter writing to non-composition classes, creative writing for the former and literature for the latter two. While Orth’s incorporation of letters into her creative writing class draws on the extant tradition of letter-poems, Stephany and Baruch open new ground in the application of letter writing to literary studies (to Dante and to the 18th Century novel, respectively). In describing the success through time of their epistolary projects, both Stephany and Baruch address the issue of an instructor-generated frame for the letters and the potential problems with enforcing a frame.
Traci Jersen, Lisa Schnell and Mary Jane Dickerson all apply letter-writing practices to graduate English courses. Jersen’s chapter presents a case study of three graduate students’ letters to their instructor in a composition theory seminar in which Jersen herself participated. Jersen articulates, in this after-the-course “study,” the ways in which letter writing provides graduate students a “safe” ground for thinking through a set of theoretical questions. This is the volume’s weakest chapter, asserting benefits of letter writing established more effectively elsewhere (for example, in the chapters by Dinitz and Fulwiler). The fact that she discusses this benefit in relation to graduate instead of undergraduate students does not adequately justify the inclusion of this chapter in the volume, particularly as Schnell and Dickerson address the efficacy of letter writing in a graduate student context.
While Schell very carefully orchestrated writing pairs for her graduate literature course, Dickerson allowed correspondences to develop organically within thematically organized small discussion groups. These different starting points produce similar results: The “rehearsal space” (91) created by the letter-writing situation allows students to explore and articulate alternate and ultimately complex readings of the course materials. In both situations, the instructors function as “participant-observers” (104).
In the final chapter, Jean Kiedaisch explores letter writing in the context of a peer tutor training course and, like Jersen, presents her ideas on the efficacy of student-instructor letter writing in a case study format, casting one student as exemplary. Rather than provide additional insight into letter writing’s pedagogical efficacy, Kiedaisch reinforces the ideas of providing exploratory space and of fostering the student-teacher relationship that are articulated in earlier chapters. Her essay simply provides another arena in which letter writing can be effective.
Letter writing as a fundamentally freeing, expansive activity is a premise that pervades all of the chapters in this volume. Antecedent to this assumption is a vision, expounded by each author, of the teacher as facilitator or participant-observer in the learning process. Fulwiler’s Afterword, which takes up practical issues in implementing some form of letter-writing practices into any course, articulates this construction nicely; his summary of the various goals advanced by some or all of the volume’s contributors touches on aspects of collaborative learning environments. Central to that environment is communication and, as this text constructs it, letter writing is a genre that “promote[s] more candid exchanges of ideas” (129).
While The Letter Book is not an overtly theoretical text, the implications for epistemological theories are profound. Dinitz and Fulwiler particularly foreground the student-teacher interaction through letters as the site of knowledge creation. Stephany’s chapter highlights the problems of teacher as knowledge transmitter when he discusses the failure of his frame for student letter writing and the resulting successes when he opened up the frame to students’ determinations. Stewart’s chapter raises the issue of knowledge(s) in the classroom, bounded not by content and product but very powerfully by group interaction in the classroom itself. Orth’s experiments with letter-poems navigate the boundary between expressivist and social constructionist epistemics. Finally, Schell, Dickerson and Kiedaisch all present knowledge as constructed in and through interaction, be it student-teacher or student-student.
Despite its brevity, this volume provides a comprehensive advocacy of letter writing practices as powerful pedagogical tools, in terms of the breadth of situations in which letter writing can be used and in terms of potential positive outcomes from adopting the practice. The many situational frames for letter writing presented throughout the volume afford amply opportunities for instructors to pick and choose, to adopt wholesale or translate some letter writing practice to fit their course. As valuable as the potential applications for letter writing in a variety of writing settings are the models for instructors’ letter writing activities many of the chapters provide. Letter writing is presented as truly collaborative, affording the instructor as many opportunities for growth as a reader and writer as it does the students. The Letter Book is a welcome addition to instructors developing a collaborative learning praxis, a text that will be appreciated by theorist-practitioners and practitioner-theorists alike.
Arizona State University
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Minding the Body: What Student Athletes Know About Learning by Julie Cheville. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2001. ISBN 0-86709-499-0. 166 pp.
Julie Cheville has done college instructors a great service by giving us Minding the Body: What Student Athletes Know About Learning. This focused look at the situation of college athletes, especially those athletes involved in popular team sports at highly ranked schools, offers an intimate look at the location of the student/athlete within the educational structure of the university, as well as an explication of how the training and instruction integral to team sports can be related to the academic learning environment. Cheville, who already had extensive experience tutoring male football and basketball players at the University of Iowa, undertook, as part of her graduate work, an extensive ethnographic study of Iowa’s women’s basketball team during their winning 1995-96 season. Her reporting of this season forms the backbone of her book, a work well fleshed out both front and back with such useful information as a succinct and compelling history of the game itself, the history of women’s basketball in the state of Iowa, an exploration and clear explanation of current psychosocial theories uniting the mind and body of her book’s title in the learning experience, as well as post-graduation follow-ups on her players, and useful appendices.
Combing masterful scholarship, a thorough understanding of the game, an empathetic personality, and an easy authorial hand, Julie Cheville succeeds in doing what the best books of sports reporting do best: taking us inside both the season and the lives of the participants so skillfully that we become involved in and excited by a story that is in many ways old news—these games have already been played, the players long gone from the Iowa campus. Because she makes us care so much for the players, and perhaps more importantly, makes us feel how intensely the players care, reading her account of her subjects’ lives on and off the basketball court will probably redefine any college instructor’s view of those members of high-profile sports teams in her or his classes. The grueling pre-dawn work-outs, travel schedules, and diverse public appearances these players must endure, the illnesses, injuries, and physical exhaustion they must overcome to both compete and study would overwhelm less focused and determined women. That all the players on the team Cheville studied, with the exception of transfers to other universities, went on to graduate from Iowa, seems as much a triumph of their iron wills as of their not inconsiderable intellects. As one of the Iowa players noted, they have two full-time jobs. Both are high-pressure and one is very public.
High-level college athletes find themselves dealing with conflicting and conflicted self-images. On the one hand they are heroes in the arena, admired for their physical prowess, but they carry the stigma associated with their athleticism, that of being the “dumb jock,” an intellectual imposter admitted to the groves of academe under false pretenses. Some academics have expressed this view overtly, blaming the student athletes for the emphasis on big-money sports that they claim has subverted the mission of the university. Covertly, it influences classroom the behavior of the instructor and colors the attitudes of many of the athletes’ fellow students. The situation is compounded for black athletes at predominantly white schools, and female athletes share the extra stigma of having their sexuality called into question by their participation in a sport. As Tangela, one of the team’s stars noted:
Some think most female athletes are gay. You just have to fight it. You have to show them you’re not. You’ve got to act all feminine…so you dress up all fancy and stuff. And it may not be what you want to do. If a boy up here [at the university] tries to talk to you and you don’t talk to them they automatically think you’re gay. But if you do talk to them, then everybody else thinks you’re a whore.However, Cheville isn’t primarily concerned with developing sympathy within the academy for her athletes, although she’s certainly in favor of greater understanding. Her primary concern, which she never loses sight of, concerns the way top athletes learn and internalize complex ways of functioning and how that reflexive learning can be applied to the classroom. Drawing on recent scholarship in “situated cognition,” she sees a “reason to expand the notion of ‘situativity’ to include the influence of the body upon the mind.” Concluding her introduction, she writes:
Challenging the assumption that language removes one from bodily constraints, I argue the need for academic instruction that minds the body by assisting students to draw on their situated experiences of being and knowing for the purposes of critical inquiry.In her dynamic evocation of the stresses, excitements, failures, wins, and heartbreaking injuries during the season, Cheville none the less manages to keep her scholarly intent before the reader. Drawing on the work of Donna Qualley, among many others, Cheville never neglects to explore the roles situated cognition and reflexive consciousness play in shaping both the on court interaction between players, especially when they are “in the zone” and playing well, and the individual player’s interaction with the world, including their classes. In a section of chapter four, entitled “The Absence of ‘Live Encounters,’” Cheville addresses “the problem of disembodiment in general education courses.” An articulate player named Jenny offers the following observation: “I cannot sit in a lecture hall and watch the teacher put notes up on the overhead…. Just going pretty much from what’s written up there. I can’t do it because there’s no interaction.” This gives example to Donna Qualley’s observation quoted earlier in the book that “[s]elf-reflection assumes that individuals can access the contents of their own minds independently of others. Reflexivity, on the other hand, does not originate in the self but always occurs in response to a person’s critical engagement with an ‘other.’”
Cheville, herself, is quick to point out that the supportive reflexive environment of the 1995-96 Hawkeyes women’s team did not exist for the male players she had previously tutored, and she fears that it may have disappeared or been diminished for the women’s team as well, as success and a steady fan base raised the financial stakes for the university. She notes that men’s basketball, like football, relies on a “schemata increasingly oriented towards force.” This leads to greater frequency of serious injuries, requiring a redundancy of players for each position. The injured player, already perceived as an academic outsider in the learning community, quickly loses his feeling of community with the team. For players recruited with marginal academic backgrounds, this loss of identity can be devastating and may result, as it did for one of Cheville’s tutees, in withdrawal from the university. The one gripe this reviewer has with Cheville’s book is that she is too ready to lay all the blame for the increased use of force in men’s college basketball on corporations who offer coaches lucrative endorsement contracts and expect them to develop star players in return. She neglects the effect the urban playground game (the pick-up nature of which privileges the individually aggressive player) has had upon college play, an inevitable influence given the wide recruiting efforts of competitive colleges and universities.
Not ignoring the highly publicized scandals associated with college sports, Cheville addresses NCAA reforms and finds them lacking. Her own recommendations should please most academics who deal with student athletes in their classrooms. They include, in addition to minimal academic standards for players, the elimination of special course sections for athletes, the removal of academic support services from within athletic departments, the elimination of redundant support services, more experienced instructors in freshman courses, and the transfer of advisers and funding lines from athletic departments to offices located in the general college. She would offer grants for “faculty interested in designing entry-level composition and general education courses attuned to conceptual diversity.” Athletic scholarships would be afforded to athletic teams “based on the graduation rates of their respective student athletes.” One of her proposals, guaranteed to win hurrahs from underpaid and undersupplied instructors, would redirect the income coaches currently receive “from athletic shoe, clothing and equipment endorsements to the general college.”
Minding the Body: What Student Athletes Know About Learning is a useful and informative book. Moreover, the narrative Cheville imparts by following the team’s season makes this a rarity among academic texts, a scholarly book that is also a compelling story. We come to care about the basketball players Julie Cheville observed, the way we come to care about the characters in a good novel. Her writing is that strong. However, her purpose is didactic, and should we want to engage on the teaching journey she has charted for us, she has included a thorough plan for an undergraduate ethnographic field study as an appendix.
Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ
Top of Review
Minding The Body: What Student Athletes Know About Learning by Julie Cheville. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Boynton/Cook Publishers, Inc., 2001. 166 pp. $24.00 (paper). ISBN # 0-86709-499-0.
The plight of student athletes is often overlooked. People dismiss their difficult lifestyle with a wave of the hand, muttering something along the lines of “They’re getting a free education” or “They’re treated like kings.” Julie Cheville takes no such stance in her book, Minding The Body: What Student Athletes Know About Learning, treating student athletes with compassion while investigating modes of being and knowing which lead to the difficult dichotomy athletics and education bear on learning. She has written a clear and precise book that succeeds on the levels of theory, ethnography, and pedagogy. Theoretically, Cheville looks to break down the long-standing divide between mind and body that the athlete has had to climb across but keeps the reader from getting lost in her theory with detailed and fascinating ethnography. For two years she traveled with the University of Iowa’s Women’s Basketball team, using her astute observations on and off the court to support her theory of a partnership between the mind and body and the importance of relational knowing and reflexive consciousness. In conclusion, Cheville illustrates problems facing the athletes in the microcosm of the classroom and the macrocosm of a University setting, suggesting possible revisions of policies that hinder the student athlete’s ability to learn. As a former student athlete, writing instructor, academic tutor, and basketball coach, Cheville is the perfect author for such a book.
Cheville argues against theories which attempt to devalue the body, expanding the phrase embodied cognition to include not only the effect culture has on thought, but bodily activity as well. That is, embodied cognition not only recognizes the importance bodily activity has on learning, but also the important partnership between body and mind. Integral in this partnership is the notion of place: the partnership comes to fruition on the basketball court. Thus, Cheville provides a history of basketball starting with James Naismith’s rationale for the sport’s conception: while football and rugby were about force, “Naismith’s game required the constant negotiation of bodily activity from which reflexive consciousness emerged” (20). The bodily activity on the basketball court was based more on cognition than force, players having to pay attention to spatial constraints and balance. The notion of reflexivity (specifically, reflexive consciousness and reflexive knowing) is paramount in Cheville’s thought and a key element that allows individual members of a team to use bodily activity in moving towards systematic balance. Cheville calls on Donna Qualley to define the term: “Reflexivity . . . does not originate in the self, but always occurs in response to a person’s critical engagement with an ‘other.’ The encounter with an other results in new information or perspectives which we must hold up to our current concept of things” (20).
Bodily activity and interaction with “others” on the court allowed for a reflexive consciousness, a new form of knowledge not based on language per se but on the partnership between mind and body. However, the original rules of women’s basketball called for a two-court game in which players were restricted to certain areas and allowed only limited dribbling. These rules placed spatial constraints on women, preventing individuals from reflexive engagement and teams from working as a unit towards systematic balance. It would take Title IX to liberate women from the original constraints of the game allowing their bodily activity to move towards reflexive consciousness.
On their own, these theories may sound confusing, which summons the brilliance of Cheville’s ethnography. Her two years traveling with the women’s basketball team, observing practices, games, traveling with the team and tutoring the players, provide the data to illustrate these theories in a clear and readable fashion. With Cheville, we watch practice, take long bus rides, sit in on team meetings, revise papers and see players struggle with injuries, personal problems, and the rigors of academic life in a college setting. In short, we get to know the women athletes with Cheville, creating not only compassion for their plights, but also the desire to read further. We come to care about these players and want them to succeed.
To be a successful team, the women had to use their bodily activity on the court to work towards a collective mindset through relational knowing. That is, they had to learn to play as a team. The incoming freshman class, who had historically been stars and played as isolated selves, had to learn through the upper class players and coaches (that is, through various “others”) the systematic balance of offensive and defensive strategies. Jenny, a junior on the team, explained the process and goal as follows:
After you’ve been playing with the same people for a while, you almost start to get on the same brain waves. . . . I can lob a pass up to Tan and expect her to catch it. I know her timing on the jump and how high she is going to jump or if she is going to be up higher in the lane when she posts. I think that’s what makes a team really successful. If you know that a person is going to be there without even having to look at them. You can always depend on them being there. . . . Once you start playing with a person you understand their moves. You understand they’re thinking. (30-31)Here we have Cheville’s theories in the plainest of terms. Jenny explains not only the systematic balance and reflexive consciousness the team strives for, but also the bodily activity and relational knowing required before it can be achieved. The only way to achieve this is for them all to be on the court, practicing together and learning through each other. It is accomplished through repetition and ritual which take place on the court.
Cheville is quick to point out that many obstacles stand in the way of systematic balance. Injuries can interrupt the partnership of mind and body for not only individual players, but also the team as a whole. Simone, a starter at center and a team leader, is lost for the season to a knee injury, creating a month of chaos and confusion for the team. Players have to switch positions and fear injuries. In fearing injuries they begin to doubt their own bodies which begins to erode systematic balance. This, in turn, creates emotional problems that pose the threat of disrupting relational knowing. Further emotional problems can occur through break-ups and family problems, the beating a body takes over the entire season, having to spend hours on busses and planes, and sleeping in hotel rooms. These are all challenges the head coach and seniors face, countering with the reflexivity and rituals of practice as the season progresses.
In the end, Cheville has picked a good season as we see the women ride a winning streak to the Big 10 championship, achieving the systematic balance they have been working towards all season. Cheville explains:
They perform not as isolated selves but as part of a systematic whole. What Tangela does in the lane now compliments what Nadine performs on the perimeter and vice versa. While Tiffany, Karen, and Shannon may not match Tangela and Nadine in scoring, they sustain the ball rotation central to systematic balance. (73)As a team, they are “in the zone,” playing at such a high level language must find another place for them, another level of consciousness. The zone, a transcendent-like place of the partnership between body and mind. Cheville’s theories are illustrated as the team’s bodily movement allows them to perform as a cognitive whole, each player’s reflexive thought working together at this peak state of consciousness.
Which brings us to a problem: the reflexive consciousness these women achieve on the court is stymied in an academic setting. This type of knowledge – the partnership between body and mind – relies heavily on live encounters which are all but absent in lecture based classrooms. Cheville labels this schematic portability, which “is a way of identifying the conceptual disjunctures students face as they traverse multiples sites of learning within a single institution” (80). When sitting still and listening to a lecture – a type of language almost foreign to them – the student athlete has no means to call on the type of embodied cognition and reflexive consciousness which made them so successful on the court. This creates problems of confidence, causing the women Cheville tutored to not only doubt their intellectual abilities, but also fear their teachers. They did not want to be known as just athletes or “dumb jocks” and had problems summoning the partnership of mind and body, which they had come to rely on. Moreover, the learning offered no “other” for reflexivity, disallowing data to move from self to other and back to self.
Cheville believes narrative can be one way for students to “bridge thought and action, or, more specifically, the physical and the textual” (88). A writer is called to position herself in a geographical space in relation to other people, culture, and world, providing the student athlete with a type of reflexivity similar to what they experienced on the court. Writers must locate the body in place and often experience, relating that place through text; this, in essence, is the live encounter offering the movement of self to other and back to self which lecture based classrooms lack. As Cheville states: “[W]riters can rely on a narrative as a reflexive opportunity to negotiate the often dichotomized conditions of mind and body, self and other” (92). Narrative has reestablished the partnership of mind and body. Moreover, workshops and peer reviews are live encounters, providing the student athlete with further means of reflexivity and relational knowing.
Once again Cheville does not merely stop when presenting her theory, offering a field project which spans an entire semester and implements these theories. In the book’s appendix, Cheville lays out the entire project from rationale to description to assignments, always staying within the paradigm of her own philosophy: the partnership between body and mind. The project begins with a call for self-examination and continues with ethnographic research in entering a cultural field on campus and conducting interviews. Through the process students are asked to describe place, person, ritual, and language through narrative and must conclude with a reflexive analysis of how they relate to the “other” of their project. This field project allows her book to succeed on a pedagogical as well as theoretical level and makes it an invaluable tool for first year composition teachers and a resource for anyone in the academic field working with student athletes.
Cheville also calls for massive reform on the part of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and while she has done a fine job of illustrating the need for reform, her suggestions are at times idealistic and often unpractical. Again, this is not to say that changes are not necessary and her recommendations come without merit. Cheville has already convinced us of the student athlete’s plight and continues to confront issues of academic integrity and fraud. Her credible and established insight into the modes of being and knowledge of student athletes does provide for some insightful suggestions that would behoove both institution and individual. Specifically: further academic support, writing instruction in the classroom, and eliminating courses that fail to integrate student athletes with non-scholarship students (cf. 103). However, in reading the suggestions one is left to wonder what would bring the NCAA to adopt such changes given their history of poor decisions and apathetic policy (Cheville has already identified them quite accurately as an “economic cartel” (cf. 95-96)) and how such changes would be funded. Cheville’s answer to the funding is that “resources might come from the redirection of coaches’ income currently garnered from athletic shoe, clothing, and equipment endorsements to the general college” (103). While this idea looks good on the page and coaches certainly care about their players, it seems absurd to think they would forfeit what is considered to be part of their income.
Still, this hardly subtracts from the book’s insight into the student athlete and theoretical prowess regarding the partnership of body and mind, which coalesce into a creative lesson plan suitable for any first year composition class. In her introduction, Cheville claims, “[T]his book argues that for all learners, bodily activity gives rise to, and is subsequently mediated by, embodied mental structures. To the point, body matters for all learners” (11). In the pages that follow, Cheville delivers on her promise, proving her point with keen insight into these theories and clearly illustrating their truth with her passionate ethnographic research. This book is a must read for anyone working with student athletes at any level or teaching first year composition. Furthermore, its theories of relational knowing and reflexive consciousness would be engaging for anyone interested in social-epistemic rhetoric. Cheville has given us a passionate and engaging text with a vast scope that can hardly be reduced to one audience. It should be read by many.
Søren G. Palmer
Arizona State University, Tempe
Top of Review
Lee Ann Carroll’s Rehearsing New Roles charts the development and writing progress of twenty undergraduate students over four years and across disciplines at Pepperdine University. Rather than aligning herself with any one school of writing pedagogy, or addressing the process of teaching composition, Carroll uses this book to evaluate the role of first-year writing classes within the context of a whole college career. In so doing she sets out to disrupt commonly held faculty fantasies such as the notion that students can be taught to write “fluently and correctly on any topic, at any time, in any context” (Carroll xi). In a sense, this book downplays the role of first-year composition classes and highlights the specialized writing knowledge students learn in their individual disciplines.
Carroll’s prose is readable, if repetitive, throughout the book as she insists that college students develop new literacy skills as needed, and only to the extent that enables them to respond to the requirements of their individual professors and courses. She asserts their writing skills deepen in complexity rather than improve; that students will write differently, not necessarily better, as they take on new roles for writing. The volume addresses “composition specialists who design and teach first-year writing courses, faculty across the disciplines interested in improving student writing, and administrators engaged in revising general education and major programs” (xii). In Rehearsing New Roles, Carroll uses the work of several social psychologists (Bronfenbrenner, Vygotsky, Bruner) and twenty specific Pepperdine students to theorize as to how college students develop as writers (xii).
Before discussing Carroll’s conclusions, it’s necessary to discuss the flaws of her research. Carroll, a professor and composition director at Pepperdine University, chose Seaver College for the basis of her longitudinal student study, which is the undergraduate division of Pepperdine. In 1994, the college received a grant from the university to observe a small number of the incoming students in relation to many different aspects of literacy acquisition, mainly focusing on the general education curriculum in terms of “critical thinking, writing, and moral and ethical development, an especially important concern at a Christian university” (34). 46 students were randomly selected, producing an uneven percentage of women and men, ethnicities, standardized test scores, and projected undergraduate majors. These students were offered a stipend and credit in return for saving their college work in a portfolio and undergoing occasional interviews (32). Several dropped out of the study or of college altogether and at the end of the four years there were twenty students still participating including 16 women and 4 men scattered across the disciplines, and hailing from different backgrounds who entered Seaver variously prepared for the rigors of a college lifestyle (33).
All of this information casts Carroll’s resulting evidence in a rather dubious light and recalls the way in which the majority of Sigmund Freud’s research was carried out on a small number of women from the same economic and class strata. Seaver College is a wealthy place and is situated on a beautiful campus a stone’s throw from where the Pacific Ocean butts up to the Malibu coast. Carroll does not address the needs or experiences of all college students or teachers here, and instead bases her assumptions on a privileged few. To her credit, Carroll acknowledges this problem and refers to Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary when she says: “If our study students are representative at all, they are the students on the ‘inside’ of that boundary, though some come from families that have only recently and only narrowly crossed from the ‘margins’ to the ‘mainstream’” (39). Carroll admits self-consciously that the study students of Rehearsing New Roles represent the literacy acquisition attached to the “specific practices of a specific group of students in a particular time and place” (39).
Given the specificity of location and relative student homogeneity, how are Carroll’s findings to have any relevance for composition teachers at different institutions across the nation and the world? Are they simply irrelevant, dismissible? Or, perhaps, are the patterns and struggles she locates actually indicative of college students on the whole? The only way to answer this question would be to launch identical expensive and exhaustive studies at various other institutions that would still only turn up information about specific students attached to specific institutions. In that case, the best way to apply Carroll’s copious amounts of information seems to be to accept it as ultimately narrow and flawed (it doesn’t seem to account for gender/class/race/age differences), but to still consider her theories in a broad sense over individual writing programs. Her ideas are far-reaching and advocate a realistic view of first-year composition courses as one log in the cabin of literacy development, not the frame for the whole cabin, or even the foundation it’s built on, just one step that ultimately gets lost in the whole.
First-year composition has long been thought of as a “service course” that attempts to prepare students for the important work of writing in their own disciplines. In this book, Carroll rejects that idea and locates first-year writing as an endeavor that enables students to transition from high school into the more complex world of college writing, and then allows students to shift between professors and courses over varied disciplines. Within these shifts, Carroll says, learning occurs. The students in Carroll’s study often defined their major discourse conventions by using previous class requirements to decide what was not welcome in their major. For instance, “Although Andrea did say that English II improved her writing in general, she contrasted English composition with more ‘factual’ writing in her political science major” (76). In this way, Carroll asserts that first-year composition can be seen as a transition class from high school to the rigors of college writing, it can present certain skills (research, organization, critical thinking) that students will need to develop over the course of their studies, but she denies that first-year composition can, once and for all, fix or improve the basic level of a student’s writing ability.
Carroll suggests that the literacy tasks students are asked to master in first-year writing classes are often more complex than the teachers at first suspect. Any given first-year writing assignment, or literacy task as Carroll advocates calling them, will necessitate that the student negotiates within a variety of specialized skills including an ability to engage in critical literacy, research, reading complex texts from multiple perspectives, understanding disciplinary concepts, synthesizing information, analyzing to form conclusions and all within a limited time frame, page requirement and writing style (9). With such a variety of necessary skills it’s difficult for any study on writing ability to evolve to an objective conclusion. If Carroll’s study group of students contains too many variables to be truly scientific and presents an overlarge margin for error, so too does the task of writing itself as there is no real way to get into one individual student’s head and find the place where all those literacy tasks intersect to determine how each changes over time.
That said, Carroll’s study does not engage with each individual writing task, but rather with a portfolio of papers that each student gathered and maintained over four years. Here is the point where the information and analysis becomes suspect. It is necessary for a reader of this book to recall that the students involved in Carroll’s study have not only been given credit each semester for retaining their work, but they have been paid to do so. In a sense, Carroll is dealing from a rigged deck. This knowledge must necessarily color all the student interviews, their self-evaluations and, indeed, a good part of Carroll’s conclusions. Carroll, in effect, dismisses each student’s writing process and focuses her attention on their finished portfolio papers, comparing each product over the years to mark any growth in sophistication and ability. This sort of complicated comparative project is overly ambitious and yields results so sweeping as to be general. That combined with the students’ pocketing of funds in return for possibly glib and ingenuous interviews would seem to damn the whole study if not for Carroll’s skillful retelling of student perceptions, her presentation of student writing material, and her analysis of their objective development. The strength of this study relies on the fact that most teachers of first-year writers will see not only their own students between the pages of Carroll’s book, but their own teaching, grading, and commenting styles, their own requirements, their own frustrations, and their own feelings of helplessness as well.
Carroll points out some of the places where the desires of teachers simply don’t relate to the abilities or the desires of students and suggest this discontinuity is responsible for some of the frustration on both sides of the teacher’s desk. First of all, any professor may only have a given student in her class for one or two semesters and in that time may not observe prodigious student growth over the semester, nor will they have the opportunity to note change over a student’s whole college career. Carroll compares teachers to the “proverbial blind men examining an elephant”, referring to the tendency to describe students’ literacy acquisition simply in terms of their performance in one class because that’s all teachers have to go on (118). When students find their way into upper-division classrooms their professors often have no conception of what literacy skills that student has already gained, and may therefore be incapable of assessing the continuation of their growth and progression (10). In the study of the twenty students, Carroll noted that “Student writing over four years gets ‘better’ according to Scardamalia’s (1981) definition of cognitive development, which is ‘construed as taking progressively more variables into account during a single act of judgment’” and that these particular students were able to learn discipline concepts and conventions, develop evidence and synthesize the information into clear and thoughtful texts, but that students could rarely produce “perfect” texts in the light of “balancing all the demands of new ways of thinking and writing in addition to the complexity of their personal lives as maturing, young adults” (48).
In studying the development of writing in college students, it’s easy to forget the ways in which the students are engaged in juggling multiple classes, requirements, after school commitments, and volunteer activities, as well as simply learning to live on their own, working within a budget and often engaging in some kind of work life outside of school. Carroll suggests that in this large and multifaceted college world that first-year composition teachers might do well to follow the motto “think globally, act locally” (49). Though writing teachers may have far-reaching goals, they must remember that first-year comp is one part of a hugely diverse environment. While teachers can work within Vygotsky’s ideas of proximal development (transitioning students through different literacy tasks), the students are engaged in other areas of transition that increase their literacy skills almost without their knowledge (49-50).
One of the most powerful and relevant moments in the text occurred when Carroll put aside teacher goals to focus on what the study students themselves expected from a basic composition class, which included abilities “related to research, style, audience, organization and analysis” (74). By highlighting the importance of these basic skills, Carroll suggested that students want to learn what will help them continue to produce good work in the coming years. This belies faculty notions and frustrations surrounding students who “can’t write” in a way, since students really are seeking strategies for producing acceptable and insightful work. The problem is this, just because students learn how to pre-write or how to analyze or how to revise does not guarantee that the writing they do for one class will necessarily translate into another. In effect, students must play the game of giving the professor what he or she wants by applying learned composition skills and then adjusting them for each class and each professor.
Perhaps the most important message put forth by the author of Rehearsing New Roles concerns the role of first-year writing classes in terms of the whole college career and the wider world. Carroll says that the most useful and salient lesson students begin to learn in first-year composition is how to negotiate the demands of a new educational forum. First-year composition classes, Carroll says, may go a long way towards disrupting a world where the Five Paragraph Essay was king. They may suggest to the students that their writing is what they make of it, that writing can be geared to varied audiences, that there is not any one technique that will lead to successful writing (119). These are all necessary lessons that students begin learning in their first year, however, the very act of transitioning from class to class and professor to professor is what enables the student to tailor his writing to different standards and requirements; transitioning will help him begin to define his place in the university as a learner, a researcher, and a contributor, and these transitions will eventually allow the student to go out into the world and meet the professional expectations of actual businesses and organizations. First-year composition is unique in its transitioning abilities, Carroll suggests, simply because it focuses on writing and critical thinking rather than content, memorization, or any other activity associated with learning a new subject matter (78).
Students often value their first-year experiences simply because they are allowed to experiment with writing without having to learn a specific subject, they are often allowed to engage in hands-on methods of research and learning, and they consider their writing to be more creative and more fun than writing in other courses (77). For these reasons, and for the metacognitive awareness that develops regarding their own literacy practices, Carroll advocates keeping first-year writing programs in place across institutions (120). However, as useful as first-year writing courses are for “scaffolding” learning, Carroll ultimately advocates that teachers of first-year composition “take the work of teaching ‘writing’ seriously…[but don’t] take it too seriously” (27). What students learn in their first-year writing class often does provide a necessary transition into a new writing arena, it does disrupt some negative ideas about academic writing, but it will not necessarily transfer into other academic discourses, it won’t make students experts at writing in their individual fields of interests, and if the class goes wrong or off the mark, it can’t be overly harmful because it’s just one step on an arduous journey in which each student has to forge his or her own path. The percentage of study students who recalled specific lessons from first-year writing were very few and those impressions were generalized by time and colored by intermittent learning in other areas (27-28).
Carroll, in a limited but ultimately hopeful recounting of the literacy acquisition practices of college students asks teachers to recognize the complexity of what they ask their students to learn and produce. She calls for a greater attention to the complexity of college students’ lives and tasks, and leaves her study with the notion that those students that do put time and attention into their studies will emerge from college well-versed in the requirements and writing needs of their individual disciplines. Carroll asks her readers to acknowledge that students’ writing does develop and change in a positive manner over time and that there is, finally, no magic catch-all cure or procedure for the teaching of writing, or for that matter, the learning of it.
Arizona State University, Tempe
Top of Review
A Rhetoric of Pleasure: Prose Style and Today’s Composition Classroom by T.R. Johnson, Boynton/Cook Publishers, 2003.
In A Rhetoric of Pleasure: Prose Style and
Today’s Composition Classroom, T.R. Johnson lets readers in on a little
secret: students want their teachers to die, their schools to burn, and
their principals (or program directors) to swing from the gallows.
Organized around four chapters, the book traverses its way from pre-classical
rhapsodes to the modern day classrooms of academic discourse, making stops
at the sophists, the stoics, and Lacanian psychoanalysis along the way.
Perhaps by a curiosity for the morbid, or for the mere hope of self-preservation,
Johnson has set forth on a mission to discover the source of such apocalyptic
images—to examine where these “explosions of rage” emanate from.
He turns his focus to authorial pleasure and pleasure-based pedagogies,
hoping that teachers might find a way to make the pleasures of writing
more available to students, thereby increasing those instances where pens
wiggle faster and heads crouch lower and writing is more engaging (vii).
He seeks to answer the questions: What is authorial pleasure? What
role does it play in becoming a better writer? How does the move
towards professionalization (in the field of composition) affect the role
of pleasure in contemporary writing classrooms? And how does his
pedagogy of pleasure stand within that move? Johnson compares his
pedagogy with the dominant theories of the past thirty years, namely expressivism
and social constructionism, setting aside their respective terms of voice
and discourse in favor of what he coins the “transpersonal power of sound.”
He weighs his students’ responses alongside “renegade” rhetorics of authorial
pleasure, paying particular attention to how his incorporation of structured,
stylistic devices facilitates a “play” with words and a keener way of listening
to how language sounds. From these students’ responses, and from
the thinkers he cites, Johnson comes to the conclusion that stylized writing
isn’t merely fun, it can be therapeutic. The final chapter revisits
the conflict between pleasure and professionalism by discussing the role
of the teacher in pleasure-based pedagogies, and the problem of authority
in the classroom. I’ve disregarded Johnson’s warning that A Rhetoric
of Pleasure is not a book for newcomers to the field of composition
in the hope that its content will be worthy of the trip.
Johnson begins the first chapter by examining the transformative power in oralist discourse, deriving from it the ability of the rhetor not only to persuade, but also to heal. From Gorgias, Johnson develops a working definition of authorial pleasure: “it is the feeling that ensues during the composing process that is roughly analogous to the transformation of pain and alienation into knowledge and connection” (2). In this theory, Johnson recognizes and admits Gorgias’ adherence to a kind of “magic,” an occult motif that has dissuaded teachers from basing pedagogies around the theory. Johnson points out that, despite this dissuasion, the motif persists, citing as an example Peter Elbow’s “inner juice” and “gentle tug” of words. Elbow, claims Johnson, has often been “scapegoated” for his exclusion from the mainstream, for his immersion with the process-revolution, to the point that he has missed the “social turn” the field of composition has taken in recent years towards David Bartholomae’s “academic discourse”—a move that runs parallel with the shift towards professionalization. It is with this professionalization that Johnson finds his pedagogy of pleasure to be paradoxically situated against. According to him, it is the very origin of the field of composition (located by Johnson in the pre-classical and sophist era) that followers of academic discourse deem unprofessional. Since pleasure is unprofessional, and therefore unworthy of incorporation into the professionalized academy, success in the field has been linked to pleasure’s opposite: pain.
Johnson questions this marginalization of pleasure, examining whether teachers of writing have become so concerned with “inventing the university” and seeking the approval, and acceptance, of colleagues, that they have refused to empathize with students. Though he recognizes that pleasure’s position in the academy has the ability to form anti-institutional subcultures, Johnson stresses that his pedagogy isn’t a move against the university, it is merely a way of supplying students with the sort of structuring focus he assumes they crave, and which the current institutional focus of professionalism has failed to give. He feels that pleasure-based pedagogies are methods of moving classrooms away from the “masochist-making machine” that is the university—a way of de-prioritizing the fetishized ideal that has become the A+ (19).
Johnson makes clear in his second chapter that he, by no means, advocates a “free or open classroom” (25). Instead, he champions a pedagogy where multiple drafts are stressed, but revision is not an endless process; where the final product isn’t discounted, but also not over-valued; where “thinking and feeling are indistinguishable” (25), but not overly confessional. He situates his pedagogy on a “middle ground.” It is not expressivist or social constructionist, but something entirely different: where expressivism’s lack of critical reflection, and social constructionism’s disregard for the lived experience, is not reproduced; where “an immersion of fairly technical questions of prose style, in order to exploit the transpersonal power of sound,” (60) can take place. In order to do this, Johnson employs a set of stylistic devices in his classroom to help his students “listen to language more carefully” so they might address how a particular piece of writing sounds. He introduces these devices as a form of play, rather than exercise. He is cognizant of process pedagogy, aware that the facilitation of pleasure cannot “fall into rote method to be successful” (45). He claims that the reward of employing these stylistic devices in ways that create “clear and engaging text” produces an authorial pleasure that comes from a connection with one’s audience. On the one hand, he hopes the chance to engage with one’s audience will inspire students to enjoy writing, but on the other hand, he sees himself as familiarizing his students with conventions that may increase the effectiveness of their prose. Johnson returns to the dominant and persistent occult motif of magic, defining it as the experience of pleasure in composing, as “highly disciplined style.” He sees using the stylistic devices as a means of “generative magic,” where the employment of them will open up within his students the “felt sense”—the audience within. He likens this sense of audience to a second self, a “double” that is an Other within and “implicitly pleasurable.” In the pedagogies he criticizes—the pain-filled pedagogies—students strive so hard to find “what the teacher wants,” that they lose touch with their double. By constantly asking students to reflect on their prose style, Johnson feels they will stay in touch with their double, causing their writing to be more pleasurable.
Chapter three furthers Johnson’s discussion of professionalism by talking about how many students want to express their pleasure in a destructive manner—something that most teachers distrust because, as previously stated, pleasure seems opposed to their commitment to professionalism. Johnson claims that this reinforces his notion that professionalism implies a sense of pain. This pain signals “that one is an ‘insider’ in the … community as masochism cult” (59). From this, he returns to the idea that writing can heal, for it doesn’t merely erase pain, it transforms that pain into knowledge. Again, he stresses how the use of stylistic devices is meant to facilitate his students’ play with language, but clarifies his position, stating that “play” is not the sole purpose of these devices. They are also a means of critical personal reflection. Though he strongly supports the notion that writing has therapeutic value, Johnson doesn’t remotely suggest that classes should turn into “group therapy sessions.” He simply implies that teachers of writing should rethink the ways in which writing can be used for growth and healing. He goes on to criticize the academy for not valuing this sort of writing—the sort of writing that proves beneficial to the writer, rather than solely serving the academy. Johnson begins to refer to the personal reflections of his students, citing how one of these students, Jason, feels that writing helps him overcome a fear of rejection and alienation. In this, Johnson claims, is evidence of the therapeutic power of writing. Another student, Josh, asserts that style has furthered his ability for personal transformation. Johnson recognizes in these responses, and the reflections of other students, how writing gives them a sense of freedom, but a freedom “wholly bound to communication” (75). He invokes Longinus, relating this notion of freedom to what Longinus describes as the essential purpose of written discourse: “to duplicate the harmonies and rhythms that … organize the audience in a single, unified entity” (75). In essence, he cites the emergence of authorial pleasure—the writer making a connection with their audience.
The book’s final chapter explores the possible influence of a Romantic-therapeutic line of thought, as well as psychoanalysis, on this pedagogy of pleasure. Johnson focuses this inquiry on the Romantics’ encouragement to cultivate the imagination. He refers to Matthew Arnold and John Dewey, pointing out their similar claims that education must stimulate the imagination “by focusing on the pleasures of poetic language” (82). Johnson considers how a psychoanalytic pedagogy would encourage the expansion of a student’s stylistic options. He points to his use of stylistic devices as tools to not only cultivate the imagination, but to open up for the student new social options. From these pedagogies, he addresses the problem of teacher authority, and how, in pleasure-based pedagogies, that authority can be compromised. He hopes to soften these concerns by explaining the responsibilities he imagines for himself in a writing classroom. Johnson feels that his job as a teacher is “to foster an atmosphere that is not … directionless, but rigorously engaged” (87) with the stimulation and cultivation of desire and the imagination. He calls on Lacan and psychoanalysis, specifically the concept of “ego,” to explain student “resistance” to pedagogy, and perhaps finally deduce a reason for the explosions of rage that began the introduction: “When the ego is challenged, it responds with an obstinacy that repeats … a version of rage and terror that colored its initial formation” (91). The chapter ends on the notion that only by “loosening the structures of the ego” (92) are students able to find pleasure in writing, to immerse themselves in authorial pleasure.
Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give Mr. Johnson is that I do not wish to see him the victim of the very apocalyptic images he exposes in his introduction. I did not erupt in rage while reading through his book and through the appendix of stylistic devices he so claims can, and do, help to facilitate pleasure in the process of writing. The disclaimer he places in the introduction to ward of newcomers to the field is a well-justified, although unsuccessful, warning. Often times I found myself wanting to understand the method and motivation behind his madness, usually failing to follow the former, getting lost in the onslaught of pedagogy, theory, and psychoanalysis. In all fairness, the mere fact that I was willing to tackle a text seemingly beyond my grasp, is a testament not just to Johnson’s admirable goals regarding engaging with students, but also to the charm of his introductory prose. While the bulk of the text is riddled with invocations of numerous scholars and thinkers, there are times when Johnson’s employment of the very stylistic devices he teaches light up a passage that otherwise would have only seemed lively to the pedagogically-versed reader. And though he has a tendency to ramble on, those ramblings often serve as bridges between worthy goals and intentions, warranting A Rhetoric of Pleasure a thorough read.
Arizona State University
Top of Review
Signs of Struggle:
The Rhetorical Politics of Cultural Difference by Thomas R. West
New York: State University of New York Press, 2002. 149pp. $22.95 (paper). ISBN 0791452980.
Thomas West’s Signs of Struggle: The Rhetorical Politics of Cultural Difference bridges the fields of Cultural Studies and Rhetorical and Compositional Studies, simultaneously explicating and promoting a shift from the term diversity to that of difference. Grounding the connection between cultural studies and rhetorical studies in the notion that “[…] cultural differences are supremely rhetorical: they are defined in language and have real consequences,” West moves between widely practiced literary theories such as performance, race, and feminist theory and advocates the adoption of newer theories based in white and men’s studies (1). West supplements his ideas with work by authors dealing in theoretical work as well as those more concerned with cultural studies. From Homi Bhahba and Mary Louise Pratt to Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldúa, West’s book attempts to combine two worlds which often conflict with one another: theory and practice. While West uses some antidotal examples to illustrate the pragmatic pedagogical purposes of his essays, he also admits that some of the work “[he is] talking about is more[…] theoretical than practical” (106). This admission and his continual attempt to merge the two concepts often seen as opposite remains laudable.
West’s comfortable and unintimidating approach to theories of many varieties makes his book accessible to a wide audience. By using relatively casual language West explicates older and newer theories making them available to anyone who has not been exposed to or cannot get comfortable with a theoretical vocabulary. His book, as a mixture of pedagogical and literary theory, also appeals to both teachers and students. He begins by promoting the idea that:
[…] cultural differences are not things that exist independent of social contexts and power relations; they are, rather, signs of struggle, interpretations of human tendencies, practices, features, and customs defined in the relationships and struggles among groups of people in particular contexts for particular reasons (1).After making assertions in the introduction about the nature of cultural studies and cultural difference, West moves from theories of negotiation and hybridity to those of race, male and feminist rhetoric, the reassertion of emotion and anger in academic study, and finally to creating a safe space for the collusion of ideas, but does not allow these ideas to overlap in an overt enough manner. Instead, he moves from the position of informant, effectively re-writing well known theories, to that of visionary, adding to Pratt’s idea of the “safe house” in an attempt to create a new, more dynamic and conflicted space. By taking the reader down first familiar and then not so familiar paths, his lulls readers into an agreeable state, but create a book with a stronger first half than second.
West begins the book with an introduction that explicates the past and present moves involved in cultural studies as they relate to rhetoric. He debunks the notion of tolerance explaining that “the problem with tolerance is […] it seeks to merely endure or bear differences (for how long?), thereby discouraging the kind of ‘dialectic spark’ necessary for co-constituted social relations and real on-going change” (3). West draws from preceding theorists in advocating a socially active view of theory, one that creates change and necessary conflict rather than ignoring historical realities. He builds on the work of Linda Brodky, coming to the conclusion that “’[…] it is not difference but the systematic denials of these regimes of surveillance and regulation that divide us […]’ (195)” and asserting the need for a new definition of difference (10). Based on Homi Bhabha’s work, West insists on “a concept of cultural difference[…that] highlights the needs to interrogate precisely how differences have been defined as (mis)represented in order to influence and determine the circulation of representations, rights, and goods” (8). By clearly articulating the premise for the remainder of his book, West allows his reader a lens through which to view the promotion of newer, more radical literary, rhetorical, and cultural theories.
After building a foundation for his work, West moves toward not only a new understanding of difference, but a new understanding of negotiation. He rejects traditional notions of negotiation that do “not take into account the role and effect of emotion and affect during negotiation” beginning, even in chapter 1, to introduce his topic for chapter 4 (15). He continues to reconfigure negotiation as a way to “help us to rethink the connections between the public sphere and students’ writing, [explaining that…] negotiation can be a productive way to think of classroom interaction” (14). While West continually grounds his theories in definitions and redefinitions of language, like that of negotiation, he also uses this foundation as a means for acting in real world situations and conversations about volatile cultural issues emphasizing the need for historisizing the term negotiation itself. While he constantly uses language advocating the need for this historisizing, he does little of this himself in terms of signification. While much of his work appears to be based on Derrida’s notion of signification, he does not mention this theory at all. A brief return to Derrida would only help to bolster West’s use of terms to derive and change meaning.
After redefining negotiation, West turns to Gloria Anzaldúa as a means for encouraging hybridity and “resistance as creative action and not mere reaction” (19). West provides a context for the historical and absolute definitions of race and encourages the concept of “hybridity as a deliberate strategy that seeks to frustrate pristine racial categories represents a threat to that reproduction” (18). Based on these concepts, he delves further into the concept of race with his second chapter trying to address:
some of the more urgent guiding problems for scholars of rhetoric and culture [which] continue to concern how to teach, how to discuss, and how to represent cultural differences in ways that do not avoid issues of social, political, and material inequality (27).West emphasizes the need to create a dynamic and difference oriented model for
West continues to advocate a historical and critical
approach in the areas of white studies and men’s studies. He claims
that whiteness, like any racial category, is often “not regarded as a sociohistorical
or political concept but rather as describing a natural, singular racial
identity” and expresses the desire and need to unhinge this notion (39).
Returning to the need for historisizing racial and gender categories of
the past, West claims that without a historical backdrop, both whiteness
and men’s studies risk the affirmation of the privileged class that the
studies initially intends to expose. Therefore “race—and, thus, whiteness—is
a concept that cannot be dissolved completely but that must be rearticulated
or critically negotiated hegemonically within cultural and political fields”
(43). West’s arguments about whiteness studies, however, remain much
more convincing than those regarding men’s studies. West’s explication
of the past of race studies adds strength to his advocation of whiteness
studies, but leaves his segment on men’s studies feeling comparatively
empty. The separation of whiteness and men’s studies into to distinct
categories by chapter also acts to separate two concepts that are intimately
linked: performance and hybridity. While West discussed hybrity in
terms of race and performance in terms of gender, these categories interact
and overlap so intimately that separating them creates a gap in the book’s
logic. In the third chapter titled “Men’s Studies, Feminism(s), and
Rhetorics of Difference” West claims that “masculinity is constructed
differently by intersections of various other social axes—nationality,
class, race, age, for example—each of which modifies the others,”
but does little to emphasize and repeat this notion as a means of tying chapter 2 and 3 to one another (50). The repetition so effective in the initial stages of the book disappears.
From here West makes a valiant attempt to re-energize and problemitize notions of theoretic framing that often appear to be devoid of emotion. West encourages teachers and learners alike to “consider rhetoric not only as the marshalling of logos but as the strategic display and restraint of emotions for social and political ends” (72). Using the work of Neil Nehring, West endorses “ ‘knowledge […] accompanied by feeling, and vice-versa ’ (108)” (74). West uses this framework to promote a healthy understanding of anger as capable of social action and as distinct from hatred and violence. Harnessing this anger in a productive manner, however, remains more daunting and relatively unexplored by West himself. He attempts to find a place to encourage a dynamic form of anger explaining that “to counter the addictive violence of difference there is a need to rethink shelter and safety in the explicitly political and social terms and to connect the need for shelter in violent times to political and social issues” (90). However the connection between these ideas remains even more vague than the connections between previous chapters.
In chapter 5 “From the Safe House to a Praxis of Shelter” West continues to argue for the re-envisioning of anger explaining that “by de-emphasizing anger in analysis of conflict instructors may be insufficiently prepared to deal with he high emotions that often accompany talk of racism, sexism, and classism in the classroom” (95). While this statement rings of truth for teachers of in many fields, West’s attempts to assuage this discomfort come with the advice “to use imagination critically and creatively so as to think outside of ‘reason’ and approach issues and impasses in ways that may be occluded by more accepted, mainstream, or ‘reasonable’ approaches” (98). Pedagogically speaking West admits in this section that praxis of shelter remains easier to theorize than practice. He does, however, explain that “it is […] helpful when listening to others, to attempt to think emotion and not merely feel and react to it, to try to understand how anger can act as a dialectic of self and world” (102). Perhaps promoting this concept itself, and even using West’s concepts to educate students could lead to this “praxis of shelter” that, ideally, a classroom appears designed for.
For someone beginning to enter the fields of rhetoric, teaching, or cultural studies, West’s book provides a great foundation for an immersion and connection between these fields. He outlines key theories and theorists and allows for further movement toward immerging theories. As a teaching tool itself, West’s book meets its goals, creating the category of difference while struggling to connect complicated issues with which we continue to struggle. The book acts as a valuable resource and, while sometimes disconnected admirably attempts to link concepts that are often seen as incongruous.
Arizona State University, Tempe
Top of Review
Teaching Composition as a Social Process by Bruce McComiskey. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2000. 138 pp. $ 19.95 (paper). ISBN 0874212839.
In Teaching Composition as a Social Process, Bruce McComiskey introduces and details social-process rhetorical inquiry as a successful method for teaching composition to first-year students. The book is an extremely useful guide to both postmodern theory and classroom praxis because McComiskey gives detailed lesson plans that he has used in his classroom. The lesson plans and heuristics he provides are comprehensive, and as a first-year composition instructor, they were very helpful because I could engage the theory that he sets out, practically, through the examples he gives in the book. As he guides the reader through social-process rhetorical inquiry, he provides new insights on the postmodern classroom which allows the reader access to classroom practice and connects that back, successfully, to the theory that influences social-process rhetorical inquiry.
At the basis of social-process rhetorical inquiry is the idea that the social turn of composition studies attempts to moves away from the linear, traditional model of composition of studies to a model engaged in reflective practices. McComiskey argues that the recursive model is still ultimately linear because though it places more emphasis on process, it still ultimately culminates in the product that locates the writer on the page. However, the social-process composition model emphasizes not only cyclical composing strategies for students or groups of students, but it also places equal emphasis on the socio-discursive life of a text (20).
Students who internalize social-process methods for rhetorical inquiry are not only able to expose in various texts that values and identities that are detrimental to the social health of their own communities, but they are also able to compose productive documents that either subvert those detrimental values or construct values more consistent with the needs and goals of their communities. (134)McComiskey argues that for composition studies to engage fully in social and post-process pedagogies in the classroom, the instructor and the students must engage in deconstructing texts both socially and rhetorically analyzing and seeking out values and cultural biases. They must, then, compose a document that takes into consideration any values implicit in their own constructed subject position and text, while also constructing a text that take into consideration the values of their particular discourse community.
Teaching Composition as a Social Process is organized to lead the reader through an historical overview of composition studies which details the various discourses on composing and composition pedagogies, including Richard Fulkerson’s four philosophies of composition and James Berlin’s pedagogical theories. McComiskey rejects Fulkerson’s and Berlin’s pedagogies because they attempt to divide writing instructors into hierarchical and privileged categories. He instead provides an integrated theory of composing in the classroom that emphasizes three levels of composing by focusing equally on the textual, rhetorical and discursive so that both cultural studies and the writing process itself are connected and balanced.
Throughout each chapter in the text, McComiskey first reviews and analyzes current theory and practice in composition studies, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses therein. He then develops his own pedagogical position by providing the assignments and heuristics he uses in his composition classrooms, providing examples of student writing to illustrate the effectiveness of the social-process pedagogy. After discussing the three levels of composing, he moves into a comprehensive discussion of social-process rhetorical inquiry.
McComiskey begins by detailing postmodern paradigms of inquiry that critique and expand on Marxist notions of culture and ideologies. Then, applying postmodern theory to the writing classroom, he critiques the methodology of several scholars who employ a form of social-process inquiry that limits students to the analysis of single moments in “the cycle of cultural production, contextual distribution, and critical consumption” (22). McComiskey instead, after itemizing the various aspects of cultural production, contextual distribution, and critical consumption, calls for a classroom approach which extensively includes all three moments in the cycle as well as the rhetorical intervention into the cycle itself.
In order to fully explore the cycle of cultural production, contextual distribution, and critical consumption and the place of rhetorical invention therein, McComiskey provides appendices containing his assignments and heuristics that he uses in his classroom. By doing this, he gives teachers of composition his methodology and praxis, allowing instructors to access his practical classroom techniques as well as its theoretical roots. He moves in each chapter from deep theory or meta-language to the practical classroom application. His book at its most fundamental level is classroom praxis because of the intersection between the theory and the classroom practice. For the novice instructor or the seasoned professional he provides new and charged insight into social-process pedagogy.
The chapter on post-process pedagogy provides a detailed overview of the key players in the “foundational decades” of the movement in composition studies (47). He moves through the writing process movement, problematizing it by saying that though there is a great deal of discourse among scholars on the meaning of post-process, it is a term that remains unclear. He uses social-process rhetorical inquiry to front a more practical and inclusive idea of post-process pedagogy by combining it with notions of the social and the rhetorical. He gives value to the post-process movement because it avoids the imitative do-what-the-author-did pedagogical strategy. However, he finds it problematic that post-process avoids texts in general saying that though a piece of writing is never finished, a piece of writing is meant to be read, produced and distributed. Social-process pedagogy, according to McComiskey, provides a means for writers to account for the production, distribution and consumption of texts (54).
Social-process rhetorical inquiry, as I have described it, is a method of invention that usually manifests itself in composition classes as a set of heuristic questions based on the cycle of cultural production, contextual distribution, and critical consumption. While composition studies, I believe, has extensively explored the cognitive and social processes by which discourse is produced, the processes of distribution and consumption (and the entire cyclical process of production, distribution and consumption) have been largely neglected. The integration of rhetorical processes is the very function of social-process rhetorical inquiry. (54)He introduces the rhetorical processes innate to the cycle of production, distribution and consumption by detailing his students’ interpretation of his assignments and heuristics. The students analyze a cultural text in terms of the cycle of meaning and composing and then, drawing on their conclusions about the text, compose a letter in order to engage socially with the context of their artifact.
McComiskey’s final three chapters describe postmodern subjectivities and writing in context. He provides an in depth analysis of postmodern subjectivities and the interaction or conflation of identity and difference using Foucault’s The Order of Things and Derrida’s The Other Heading. He summarizes Foucault’s and Derrida’s theories on subjectivity and applies them to the composition classroom. McComiskey asks, “How can we teach students to avoid the binary logic of identity/difference oppositions in their critical writing about culture?” (75). This question begs two interpretations. First, how can we teach in a postmodern framework? And, how do students move through the analysis and critique of the identity/difference binary and settle both themselves and their writing in the postmodern context that identity is allied with difference? His answer: position statements.
Position statements are active reading strategies that ask students to critique a text by accommodating and explaining its “good” ideas, resisting and explaining its “bad” ideas, negotiating, revising, and explaining the revision of the ideas presented in the text by constantly referring back to the student’s own cultural experience. Students do this with two texts that approach the same subject in dramatically different ways and through the negotiation of the ideas in both texts and the self-reflective questioning of their own subject position in relations to the subject of the texts, the students come to understand that there are not only good/bad ideas, but a spectrum of possibilities concurrent with postmodern rejections of universal truth and foundation.
McComiskey’s chapter on critical discourse analysis literally provides any composition teacher with a lesson plan for a semester. He introduces his discussion on critical discourse analysis by rooting it in pedagogy and theory, again giving a brief overview of the scholarly dialogue about discourse analysis. He then moves introduces it as praxis in the composition classroom by discussing the various assignments he has given to his students. During a semester on school, he asks his students to access the materials universities offer and to critique what they privilege and value in terms of both ideal students, ideal citizens, and social values. Their projects result in a pamphlet or “viewbook” in which students construct their own cultural values, social values and ideal identities. In the act of first critiquing, and then constructing their own college viewbooks, students are able to assess dominant and privileged identities while analyzing what their own values are.
In the last chapter of his book, McComiskey brings his pedagogy together by describing the praxis of “writing in context.” He attempts to create a truly postmodern classroom through writing in context, which still takes into account his ideas of social-process rhetorical inquiry, position statements, and critical discourse analysis. He begins by saying that though many writing instructors agree that they should prepare their students for “life” in the “real world” they rarely even discuss what “life” and the “real world” are. Though I find this concept troubling, I like the way McComiskey approaches the argument. He defines “life” as activity, and “real world” as a context for that activity. By contextualizing life and the real world, McComiskey resists that idea that a writing instructor should prepare their students to go off into the world, and rather contextualizes activity so that students are prepared for many of the different situations they may encounter as writers and thinkers. Because his pedagogy is called social-process rhetorical inquiry, he is obviously invested in the idea that the act of writing is a social process and that by analyzing texts rhetorically and critically, the students become fully articulate in culturally constructed value.
Thus, in terms of writing instruction: 1) teachers ought to articulate the kinds of activities they want their students to perform outside the classroom, and they should design pedagogical techniques that develop skills in their students consistent with these future activities; 2) teachers ought to theorize the nature of the social context within which these activities will be performed, and they should design curricula based on the structures and processes that comprise this context; and 3) teachers ought to predict the positive and negative effects these activities in these future contexts might have on both students and society alike. (113)Therefore, writing in context, for McComiskey, becomes a contextualized process in which students read society as a text. In order to develop his postmodern classroom, McComiskey and his students discuss society and its institutions during the first week of class and they agree as a class on one institution to study. Because they are college students, they usually end up analyzing the university.
He says, “Once we had chosen the institution around which our classes would center, the next step was to design the specific writing assignments students would complete, assignments that would teach students to critique and compose representations, subjectivities, and modes of legitimation in ways that would foster their participation in postmodern communal democracies” (117). Over the semester then, for each assignment students critique their own lived experience in the institution of higher learning and then compose “rhetorical documents” which address the problems raised by their critiques. Throughout the process they foster critical awareness as a class and then create practical essays that address problems they see in the university.
McComiskey’s social-process rhetorical inquiry pedagogy is a useful resource for any composition teacher interested in the concept of the postmodern classroom: de-centering power, working together as a class to promote critical awareness and critique institutionally privileged ideologies. By approaching his material through the lens of theory and providing a meta-discourse on postmodernism and social-process pedagogy, he offers up his assignments and rationales as praxis, theories that have practical and functional use in the classroom and in the context of the “real world.”
Arizona State University
Top of Review
Teaching with Your Mouth Shut by Donald L. Finkel. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook Publishers, Inc. 2000. 180 pp. $23.50 (paper). ISBN0867094699.
In Teaching with Your Mouth Shut, Donald Finkel questions the commonly held notion of “teaching as telling” and reexamines the role of teachers, students, and teaching materials to introduce an alternative “teaching with one’s mouth shut” approach. Drawing on the ideas of great educators and philosophers such as Dewey, Piaget, and Rousseau, the author addresses major issues such as authority and power in classroom, the transmission and maintaining of knowledge, different forms of collaborative learning, and collegial teaching. Finkel illustrates different ways of teaching with one’s mouth shut through a detailed analysis of an in-class and out-of-class situation. The examples on teaching approaches in the book not only tackle specific classroom problems associated with “teachers as tellers” approach but also challenge readers’ notion of “great teachers.” The way Finkel lays out those examples is intriguing and thought provoking. Although the examples deal mainly with specific circumstance in literature and writing classes, the author outlines detailed instructional methods that could be applied to numerous disciplines.
The book was composed of nine chapters with each presenting “a set of ‘circumstances’ intended to produce significant learning in students” (10). Chapter 1, under the same title as the book, challenges common beliefs such as teaching as telling and the images of great teachers. The author argues that teaching should lead to significant learning, and teaching as telling approach such as lecturing and explaining is not the only way to achieve this goal. While situating his rationale for the argument, the author asks thought-provoking questions. At the beginning of the chapter, he states:
Most people have a set of ready-made assumptions about what a teacher does. A teacher talks, tells, explains, lectures, instructs, professes. Teaching is something you do with your mouth open, your voice intoning…After hearing their stirring lectures, we left their classrooms inspired, moved. But did we learn anything? What was left of this experience five years later? These questions usually don’t get asked. (1).By questioning commonly held assumptions of what “good teaching” is, the author raises an important point that teaching, unlike acting or performing, is to create an environment that promotes learning through critical thinking, active participation, and continuing self-reflection. By inviting readers to recall one of their significant learning experiences, Finkel raises readers’ awareness that some of those brilliant teachers that one thinks create a real learning moment might not always lecture and talk. Quite possibly, they listen and create activities that engage students to talk.
Chapter two, “Let the Books Do the Talking”, illustrates a teaching method of how to use literary pieces to “provide students with an education without a teacher’s explaining what they mean” (30). Beginning with three parables from different cultures, this chapter delineates three features of parables (i.e. situating human behaviors, holding “some crucial bit of wisdom or knowledge” (12), and embedding moral lessons) and why those make excellent teaching tools to ignite students’ curiosity and critical thinking. Apart from using parables, the author talks about how to teach through famous literary pieces and books by creating and structuring activities in which students learn about “[their] setting and language, actively respond to its perplexities, and draw on each other in making sense of the story” (17). Finkel uses Homer’s Iliad as an example to illustrate how the teacher can use it to provide prompts for discussion, assign papers to help students articulate their thinking, and relate it to other wars in history.
Chapter three, “Let the Students Do the Talking”, moves on to a discussion on how to organize classrooms as seminars to engage students in active inquiry. The author argues that seminars are a place in which students themselves lead the discussion with occasional help from the teacher who provides background information and “point[s] out digressions and gently steer[s] the group back to their task” (43). For teachers to create an environment in which students do most of the talking, Finkel suggests they conduct classes in the form of open-ended seminar by asking students to bring in their own questions for discussion. Although the author advocates the use of open-ended seminar, he offers candid warning about the challenging aspects of such a structure due to the unpredictable nature of student discussion. The chapter not only offers detailed procedures of conducting open-ended seminars but also points out caveats associated with the activity.
In Chapter four, “Let Us Inquire Together”, Finkel discusses inquiry-centered teaching. Drawing on Dewey’s idea on human interaction in the face of a problem, the author believes that it is “the frustration or disequilibrium” that the problem causes that motivates learning (53). Therefore, to apply inquiry-centered teaching, “the teacher must first have a problem—one that will interest students, and that also interests him.” (55). To illustrate what an inquiry-centered classroom looks like, Finkel uses his own course, titled In Search of Socrates, as an example. The description exemplifies how he organized the course through reading and writing assignments, class activities, and cumulative inquiry. Out of these, Finkel emphasizes using writing assignments as a way to complement “the fleeting and often disorganized speech of spontaneous discussions”; as he also stated, “only by writing will they [students] be able to push their thought as far as they can” (61). Although Finkel offered a good example on how to structure a class inquiry, some of his rationale for teaching was not laid out clearly. In a section on evaluating students’ work, Finkel mentioned “each student’s final grade derived [sic] primarily from her written work, with ‘class participation’ adding only a small amount on top.” (64). Since he insisted that an inquiry-centered class followed a format of student-centered discussion, it makes one wonder why class participation only takes up a small portion of students’ grade. It would have been useful if he also had presented his rationale on student evaluation in this chapter.
Chapter five, “Speaking with Your Mouth Shut: The Art of Writing”, is composed of two parts, focusing on how to “teach through writing” (70). Part I mainly centers on evaluating and responding to student writing through the use of personal letters. The author talks about his own experience in giving comments and feedback on students’ essays through teacher response letters, which always begins with “Dear So-and-so,” and ends with “Sincerely, Don”. Finkel argues that this kind of response letter differs dramatically from traditional in-text or marginal comments since it “[addresses] them [students] as writers…not ‘[to fix] up’ or ‘[deface]’ their written products with red ink” (74). Also, the nature of the comments, which are in the form of personal letters, shows students that their writing was taken seriously. Although Finkel’s arguments are fairly reasonable, the examples show that the content of the letters is pretty much the same as those comments that writing teachers would typically put at the end of a student essay. Regarding this, Finkel neglects that sometimes marginal comments might do better than lengthy summary kind of comments (although it’s in a form of personal letters) since they tells students exactly where the problem is in their paper. In addition, marginal comments might save teachers the hassle of having to keep referring back to the original student’s text. Part II introduces a way of building a writing community through the use of a “class notebook” in which students “dialogue” with one another through writing. At the end of the chapter, Finkel gives a detailed example of increasing student interaction through writing, which is especially useful for teachers who are conducting class in a traditional classroom without much technology support.
In Chapter 6, “Experiences That Teach: Creating Blueprints for Learning”, Finkel introduces another way of “teaching with one’s mouth shut” by using “conceptual workshops.” Different from in-class discussion, conceptual workshops require teachers to create questions that build on one another and could “continue the inquiry beyond the boundaries of one class day” (87). One important idea that Finkel suggests in his discussion on the purpose of such a workshop is that teachers “provide guidance in solving the problem without providing an answer.” (89). Chapter 7, “Refusing To “Teach”: Separating Power and Authority in the Classroom”, argues for attending to democracy in classroom by using authority to empower students. Drawing on a short anecdote, the author describes a classroom in which the teacher passes on his power to students by “withholding his words,… refusing to lead,…making himself a near-silent observer” (114). By so doing, the teacher “forces” students to take up the role of discussion leaders and to realize their responsibility in their own learning. This chapter not only invites readers to analyze the political nature of a classroom, but also shows how “refusing to teach” creates a context for the transfer of power.
Chapter 8, “Teaching with a Colleague”, details the consequences of “collegial teaching” or team teaching for students. Drawing on his own personal experience in which he conducted a class with a colleague at Evergreen State College, Finkel talks about how such an approach can stimulate student thinking by providing two different points of view on a topic. What is most influencial about the collegial teaching, according to the author, is that collegial teaching creates a context in which students “[participate] as an equal with [their] teachers” (141). The concluding chapter, “Providing Experience, Provoking Reflection”, draws on a story in Rousseau’s Emile, arguing for learning from experience and reflection. Teaching is to create an environment in which students can do both. Quoting Dewey’s philosophy of education, Finkel notes that “people learn only by thinking for themselves; the teacher’s task is to set up conditions that provoke thinking.” (151).In his summary of the content of each chapter, the author makes clear how “teaching with one’s mouth shut” provides an effective means to bring out those conditions.
Overall, the book is easy to read due to the use of examples, short stories, and the author’s personal anecdotes. The content of each chapter meets the author’s intended purpose, which was to invite its reader to reflect on various ways of conducting classes. Even though the purpose was met fairly well, many approaches the author mentioned may not sound new to some, especially those who already co-taught with a colleague and organized classes in a form of student-centered seminars. In addition, the book seems to be geared to appealing to those who are teaching humanities subjects such as literature or composition instead of everyone who are involved with education (e.g. school administers and policy makers) as the author claimed. The reason for this is that most incidents the author mentioned happened in literature classes. Also, the fact that the entire chapter 8 focuses on teacher-to-student and student-to student dialogue through writing indicates the book is geared toward those who are teaching writing in particular.. Despite these, the book is still a good source for novice and experienced teachers and definitely deserves a read for teachers who are not familiar with such methods of conceptual workshops or collaborative teaching and would like to give them a try.
Arizona State University
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