Review of Writing with Authority: Students' Roles as Writers in Cross-National Perspective
by David Foster 2006; Southern Illinois University Press's Studies in Writing and Rhetoric Series
Jill Parrott, Eastern Kentucky University
(Published: October 3, 2011)
Writing with Authority, a qualitative study of college students undertaking writing tasks in America and in Germany, examines the ways that writing at the college level is approached in differing contexts. The book argues that the students' attitudes toward writing tasks and themselves as authors are affected by these differences. Author David Foster's background teaching in American and German colleges positions him to comment on both systems. His research is set up to compare apples to apples (as best he can) American and German students in various disciplines at different stages of their academic careers. For example, Foster compares two lower level history students: Kirsten in her 3rd semester at Rhineland University (his generic name for the German university) and Sarah in her 3rd semester at Midwestern University (in America). From these pairings (with a total of five throughout the text), Foster explores the timeline of each University's semesters, task deadlines, and the students' writing processes through interviews and final written products for the purpose of making suggestions about aspects of writing instruction that could be improved. Although the number of participants in the study is relatively small, his thorough and insightful interpretation of the data convinces the reader that, in some ways, American composition pedagogy can learn from German writing instruction. He separates himself from those (such as Peter Elbow, whom the author mentions) who argue that an introduction in academic writing is sufficient and aligns himself with those who argue that students' transitions from generalists to specialists in their disciplines can strand them on the fringes of their knowledge-making communities (Foster specifically places Sharon Crowley, David Russell, and Marilyn Sternglass in the latter camp). Much like Sternglass's Time to Know Them: A Longitudinal Study of Writing and Learning at the College Level, Foster challenges readers to view the college writing experience as a gradual one where students build an understanding of themselves as authors through their syncretic courses as well as in “response to specific knowledge-community participation” (115). His placement in this conversation with Sternglass and others benefits both compositionists, who are encouraged to extend thinking about writing beyond our classes and departments, as well as instructors in other disciplines who have students complete writing assignments.
Foster's research involves a clear methodology: He has 10 case study participants (five from America and five from Germany) from whom he gathers information through interviews and observations. He also has gathered “materials evidencing students' and teachers' goals and practices, institutional materials, and ministry and system documentation,” such as course documents or program policies (xviii). Using this information, he compares the structure and expectation of courses, students' attitudes and writing processes, and cultural and demographic data to draw conclusions about these cross-national differences. Like Katherine Kelleher Sohn's Whisltin' and Crowin' Women of Appalachia: Literacy Practices since College (also a publication of the Studies in Writing and Rhetoric series from Southern Illinois University Press), Foster focuses on a qualitative and close look at the ways a particular group of students approach their writing tasks, giving us insight into how students see themselves as authors in relationship to the academy.
The clarity of his methodology, study objectives, and accomplishment of those objectives leaves the reader comfortable engaging with the study's pertinent, revealing results that are relevant to composition studies. Although the beginning is necessarily intricate as Foster lays out his background and theoretical framework focused on “establish[ing] connections among factors affecting students' agency and autonomy as learners/writers” in both contexts (7), this section somewhat fades in the end as he provides his suggestions for improving writing pedagogy based on interpretations of his data. The central section, which provides the details of American and German students' interactions with writing in their courses, is the strength of the text. These case studies and Foster's commentary challenge the reader to re-evaluate American writing pedagogy in a way similar to David Bartholomae's “Inventing the University” by exploring students' negotiations with disciplinary agency. Further, like Charles Bazerman's Constructing Experience, Foster sees undergraduate students as fully capable of entering into the ongoing conversations of disciplinary communities and being able to write intelligently within them if a structure is provided to allow them to do so.
The biggest difference between American and German collegiate writing pedagogy described in Writing with Authority is the greater freedom German students are given to be self-directed, which Foster is careful to show has positive and negative aspects. For example, because German students have greater self-direction in their assignments, they share impressions of having more agency in their chosen topics even though American students are generally more encouraged than German students to assert their individual insights. Foster theorizes that this difference occurs partially because German students are encouraged to place themselves within the knowledge-making community in which they write. This self-direction also results from a German semester system that focuses on lecture time and classroom interaction in the earlier part of the semester and then encourages students to complete seminar writing tasks between semesters. In this break time, students can focus solely on completing their writing tasks without the distractions of the American semester system, which emphasizes frequent deadlines. Conversely, German students do not have the benefit of having regular interaction with their professors when accomplishing their writing tasks, while American students improve through the feedback they receive from their professors. American assignments are also often shorter and more frequent than the German seminar requirements, leaving many students believing that they can, in fact, complete their written assignments quickly and with little revision. Foster emphasizes that American students see this short-burst writing as a successful means of achieving goals, but students also clearly recognize that these practices are the opposite of what they had been encouraged to do in foundational composition classes, suggesting that they see themselves as having very little self-directed agency in their writing.
Foster's introduction sets up his claim for action: “Undergraduates should learn how to write as knowledge-makers, developing the capacities for self-direction, long-term goal setting, and cumulative, recursive task development and writing” (27). Chapter 2, "Studying Student Writers in Cross-National Contexts," provides background concerning the German educational system for those who may not be familiar with it and contrasts it with the American system. He explains how his background as an instructor in America and in Germany led him to this topic for study and describes his method for choosing participants and comparing/contrasting them. The questions he used in interviews with his student subjects, high school teachers, and university instructors to gather data are available in the appendices to the book.
Chapter 3, entitled "The Work of Writing: Student Authorship Roles in Cross-National Perspective," lays out the student writing acts examined in the study and is, as aforementioned, the high point of the book because Foster's examples demonstrate the differences in attitudes and experiences between the American and German students. For example, German student Anja (in an upper-level religion course) experiences a semester heavy with classroom discussions wherein her instructor encourages the students to develop their own interpretations of the texts (in this case, Bible verses about John the Evangelist). There is no set deadline, because German seminars provide students the option of taking a final exam or writing a final paper only if the student wants to receive credit for the course. In the end, Anja writes a 27-page paper over 23 weeks involving extensive task periods for planning, researching, and drafting and receives a mediocre grade because the instructor found her individual exegetical interpretations “unfortunately mistaken” (82). Foster highlights that this interaction shows both the German student's ability to create her own authority as a writer with the freedom to do what he calls transformative writing and the pitfall of German instruction that instructors are often unavailable when students are writing, leaving little opportunity for feedback.
Anja's American equivalent, Mike, writes a much shorter paper (at 10 pages) that he worked on sporadically for 15 weeks; he receives a good grade for the work but finds himself stressed in the final days leading up to turning it in because the instructor expected a longer work than the one for which Mike had initially planned. This illuminates one of the main points Foster makes about American writing: there exists a “systemic uncertainty about writing expectations in American undergraduate contexts” that is perpetuated by the “fundamental trope” of students wondering how long the paper has to be rather than what autonomous authorship goals need to be accomplished in the work (87, 86). Most of the Americans Foster follows focus heavily on deadlines and length requirements for their writing assignments and produce shorter works in short timeframes after much less research, planning, and drafting than the German students. And, they continue to write in this manner because they have found moderate success with this strategy. From this behavior comes the feeling in the American students that they are “still on the edge of the discursive field” in which they have chosen to complete their studies; this leads to uncertainty and a perceived lack of authority (107).
After this representation of the positives and negatives of the two systems, Chapter 4, "Shaping Transformative Writers: Priorities for Change," identifies insights readers should take from the author's findings, mainly that the short-burst activity of the American students “ran counter to what they had been taught” in their high school and foundational college composition classes (112). Foster proposes transformative writing, which refers to those processes that allow writers to participate in various knowledge-making contexts by fundamentally changing the way writers view their authorship roles. Foster makes a clear and effective argument that, although composition teachers may emphasize recursive tactics, many students are not systematically taking those tactics into other classes with them; in other words, they see process pedagogy as localized to their composition classes rather than as necessary to help them function in their chosen disciplinary communities.
Foster's text could be improved by a deeper exploration of the evolution of American recursive pedagogy. Although he discusses the ubiquity of process pedagogy in American collegiate composition pedagogy and briefly mentions the development of foundational composition courses via James Berlin, H. W. Davis (1930), and Warren Taylor (1938) in the introduction, he discusses process pedagogy in this section as “traditional” and assumed. He says, “Indisputably, recursiveness and revision have been traditional elements of composition instruction in American education. They have been taught as key practices by generations of American writing teachers” (113). In this, he ignores the impetus for product-based pedagogy in the mid-twentieth century and the earlier development of composition programs in American universities as a tool for learning why American universities use recursiveness as they do, which is, his own research shows, less than completely successful. Perhaps this oversight is caused by an assumption that readers of composition research will already be familiar with the tale of current-traditional tactics, but he is remiss to ignore the possible insight that could come from analyzing the historical reasons for the undertaking of “process,” which has not always been assumed. Readers may wonder whether this history could provide insight as to why—even though process is emphasized in almost every writing classroom in America—students are still not translating recursiveness into their disciplinary writing tasks.
Despite leaving the potential historical relevance unexplored, Foster does look toward goals for making student writing more self-directed, recursive, and transformative. These priorities include facilitating extended writing projects where “opportunities for feedback and interaction should be maximized, and grading should be kept to a minimum during the semester” (127); expecting students to not only write their own opinions but to interact and engage with the views of others; and emphasizing the importance of recursive practice even though “such practices do not take shape easily in the American semester environment” (129). Chapters 5 and 6 then take these priorities and apply them to classroom and institutional practices, respectively. Foster's suggestions emphasize that students receive the positive aspects from both the American and German systems. Instructors should focus on planning courses that require more self-direction for the students with built in “opportunities for choice and change” while simultaneously leaving more time for students to receive feedback from their instructor and to interact in their knowledge communities in ways that lead to intersubjective knowledge-making (134). Foster provides model course outlines based on courses he has taught and provides further qualitative analysis from student interactions he has had in such courses. He also suggests changes in American educational infrastructure—such as supporting more seminar-like courses with built-in self-direction—that would be necessary for fostering transformative writing.
Foster's Writing with Authority is an insightful and practical study in addition to being well-written and interesting to read. For someone (like me) who had no previous knowledge of the German educational system, Foster provides the appropriate amount of background information required to easily follow his methodology and findings. His arguments are presented so that one cannot help but agree that “the deadline orientation of the American semester carries a cost” (107). Indeed, this work gently illuminates the basic flaw of pedagogy: we often think the way we do it is the best/only way to do it. The author's research clearly reveals those particularly aspects of German collegiate writing that could improve our American-centric writing instruction. His research shows that although we emphasize process, many students' processes end after their composition grade is posted and that a fresh view focusing on the development of the writer's authority through transformative writing is a viable option for pedagogical and institutional improvement of writing practices.
Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” When a Writer Can't Write: Studies in Writer's Block and Other Composing Problems. Ed. Mike Rose. New York: Guilford, 1985. 134-65. Print.
Bazerman, Charles. Constructing Experience. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1994. Print.
Berlin, James. Writing Instruction in Nineteenth-Century American Colleges. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1984. Print.
Crowley, Sharon. Composition in the University. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1998. Print.
Davis, H. W. “Mastering Principles of Composition.” The English Journal 19.10 (1930): 795-803. Print.
Elbow, Peter. “Being a Writer vs. Being an Academic: A Conflict in Goals.” College Composition and Communication 46 (1995): 72-83. Print.
Russell, David R. Writing in the Academic Disciplines. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1991. Print.
Sternglass, Marilyn. Time to Know Them A Longitudinal Study of Writing and Learning at the College Level. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 1997. Print.
Taylor, Warren. “Rhetoric in a Democracy.” English Journal 27.10 (1938): 851-58. Print.