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Composition Forum 18, Summer 2008

Beaufort, Anne. College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instruction. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 2007. 242pp.

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Christopher Hazlett

Scholars and teachers in composition studies have an “occupational psychosis” about teaching and assessing writing. This obsession with pedagogy and assessment controls our discussions about student authority and their negotiations with discourse norms and conventions. Furthermore, we devote our scholarly ambition to theorizing and researching more efficient models for “teaching,” in a way that justifies our obsession. Teaching writing is the raison d’etre for theory, research and everything between.

Anne Beaufort’s recently published College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instruction examines the role and function of freshman writing classes within the academy where public writing and discourse are increasingly important. Beaufort raises several concerns about the efficacy of our current models for teaching writing, particularly in first-year writing classes, for producing successful student writers. However, the model that Beaufort proposes does not solve the concerns underlying general writing instruction, but instead reproduces them in a new form.

Beaufort’s argument is that freshman writing classes are not helping students become “expert at learning writing skills in multiple social contexts,” but rather are making students “expert writers in a single context,” (8) specifically the writing class itself. Freshman writing provides knowledge and skills that are only relevant for that classroom environment. Beaufort arrives at this conclusion by examining a single student, Tim, and his career as a writer in and beyond academic settings. She uses a longitudinal case study to explore Tim’s written assignments and self-reflective comments, his teacher’s grades and comments, seeking to explain how his knowledge from freshman writing did or did not help him in other settings. The collected material spans six years, from Tim’s freshman writing class to two years after graduating from college with a degree in Engineering.

Beaufort concludes that Tim’s growth as a writer was “limited,” (8) arguing that he failed to learn how to write in multiple contexts or different discourse settings because his freshmen writing class did not push him to identify and apply different conventions for different writing situations or academic disciplines (8). She explains that the context for first-year writing becomes “the institutional requirement of the course itself” (10) because its teachable material is disconnected from other disciplines and situations of writing in the academy. Freshman composition courses do not teach specific knowledge about analyzing and writing in styles and conventions in other classes and disciplines. Instead, freshman writing teaches “writing” in isolation by focusing on writing process skills. According to Beaufort, this insulated context misleads students into treating writing as a generic skill that, once learned, becomes a “one size fits all” intellectual garb. This in turn leads students to misapply conventions and styles taught in freshman writing in other contexts where different norms and conventions are appropriate. Beaufort draws on work by cognitive psychologists to explain this misapplication of knowledge, calling it a “negative transfer of learning” (10).

Negative transfer of learning in writing is apparent, explains Beaufort, when students misapply writing conventions from one situation to another. Beaufort cites an instance when Tim’s writing style and form were appropriate for first-year composition, but the assignment was for a history course. For example, Tim used rhetorical moves appropriate to genres common in humanities, such as personal narrative, in place of analytic moves more appropriate to writing in the history discipline (68). Tim used inappropriate rhetorical moves, Beaufort explains, because he “was not primed by teachers in either discourse community to understand different values and community purposes as they would affect writing goals, content, structure, language choice, rhetorical situation” (68). This negative transfer of learning occurred, and does occur, because first-year composition teaches writing process knowledge explicitly, but teaches knowledge about genre, rhetorical situation, subject matter, and discourse community either implicitly or not at all. Failing to teach these knowledges causes students to apply conventions from one setting and community to another. Beaufort claims that such negative transfer of learning is prevalent in American university and college writing programs, and evidence can be found in “almost any college writing text and the writing assignments” (14).

To address this problem, Beaufort proposes a model to revamp first-year writing classes which would focus on teaching students to adapt and write for different situations, by teaching writing through discourse theory. To implement this model as an applicable pedagogy, Beaufort proposes five specific knowledge domains that writing pedagogy ought to include: discourse community, subject matter, genre uses, rhetorical situation, and writing process knowledge (19). These five knowledge domains would provide students with conceptual tools for adapting to different writing across the disciplines. Writing classes would teach students to adapt their knowledge to multiple writing contexts by identifying and using appropriate discourse conventions to allow “positive” transfer of learning.

Beaufort claims that her conceptual model addresses criticisms of freshman composition that “because it is a compulsory course, taught in isolation from other disciplinary studies at the university as a basic skills course, this social context leads freshman writing to become a course in ‘writing to produce writing’” (9). Her model would provide new relevancy to freshman composition. Indeed, the debate surrounding writing pedagogy and the criticisms of post-process theories find fertile ground in Beaufort’s book. Many of Beaufort’s criticisms of freshman writing pedagogy are similar to criticisms made by post-process theorists who point out that “the writing act is public, thoroughly hermeneutic, and always situated and therefore cannot be reduced to a generalizable process” (Thomas Kent, Post-Process Theory 5). Rather than teaching a codified writing process meant to apply to all writing situations, students would be taught to assess individual writing situations and use appropriate conventions by using Beaufort’s conceptual model. There are problems with this conceptual model, however, which do not satisfy the criticisms of post-process theories.

Beaufort acknowledges that “research in composition studies and linguistic anthropology and literacy studies in the last 30 years has shown there is really no viable commodity called ‘general writing skills’” (10). Consequently, this questions the possibility of a universal way of teaching writing. However, Beaufort’s conceptual model of writing produces a paradox: if teaching the writing process as general writing skills does not help students learn, because there are no generalizable writing process or general writing skills behind that model of pedagogy, then cannot be a similar, generalizable model for discourse community knowledge, genre uses, or rhetorical situation without having the same problems. In other words, neither discourse knowledge nor writing process cannot be codified and taught to students as a universal process.

Beaufort’s conceptual model presented in this book trades one static object of knowledge for another by ignoring the underlying epistemological problems inherent in any claim to a universal system of knowledge. Beaufort attempts to maneuver out of this by stating that “it is possible to identify the common knowledge domains within which writers must develop context-specific knowledge” (17). However, this merely produces an expanded, and equally troublesome, theory of general writing skills, only this time applying it to discourse communities and conventions. While this is certainly feasible as a prescriptive method, or a heuristic device, it is still artificial in all the ways that “general writing skills” are artificial. No pedagogical framework that claims to teach correct ways of writing can be implemented without privileging specific historical norms and conventions. This is fine as long as we recognize and make apparent to our students that discourse convention are not neutral or natural, but are politically and historically determined.

However, Beaufort makes it clear that she sees this conceptual model as having “no particular political agenda,” and claims that “no one interest group is being catered to” (22). This claim ignores the politics of writing conventions, and naturalizes discourse conventions as values to which students must adhere if they are to be successful writers. Beaufort’s claim that this conceptual model and pedagogy will improve first-year writing classes by resulting in students who are better “products” is equally troubling. It reveals a commodified conception of writing as a vocational skill that is relevant only if it benefits the market. Composition becomes a service-course which prepares students to adapt to given writing situations and conventions whether at school or at work. The measure of first-year composition’s relevance and success becomes how well it prepares students for their future jobs (151).

Beaufort’s claims that Tim failed to grow as a writer was a result of “negative transfer of learning” are also troublesome. According to her, Tim failed as a writer in his history course because he used writing conventions not appropriate to that discourse setting. This use of differing writing convention could rather be viewed as a mixed discourse. This conception would mark Tim’s use of different discourse conventions as creative and productive rather producing failure. Labeling this as negative gives the impression that discourse community conventions are fixed and natural, which reinforces student’s feelings that success is only possible by correctly identifying and complying with them. This leaves little room for students to resist these conventions or to negotiate how their writing functions within academic discourse. Rather than seeing Tim’s use of “inappropriate” writing conventions being a “negative transfer of learning,” we could validate his writing as an alternative or mixed discourse, and let him claim value and agency as a writer. Conceived in this way, the failures that Beaufort describes are actually allowing mixed and alternative discourses to develop.

For composition teachers, Beaufort’s proposal is an interesting, and perhaps efficient method for “improving” the institutional relevance of writing classes, but which subjugates our disciplinary integrity to service-oriented demands. However, this proposal still serves our occupational psychosis by focusing on classroom applications, an obsession that we need to move beyond. Overall, Beaufort’s criticisms of first-year composition are engaging and compelling, yet her pedagogical model is a problematic solution. At the end, we are left with newer versions of the same old problems.

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