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Composition Forum 21, Spring 2010

Lerner, Neal. The Idea of a Writing Laboratory. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2009. Print.

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Joleen Hanson

Despite the nod in the title to Stephen North’s influential article “The Idea of a Writing Center,” Neal Lerner’s The Idea of a Writing Laboratory is not aimed primarily at an audience of writing center scholars. Neither is it focused exclusively on writing in science laboratories. Instead, Lerner’s new book seeks to engage composition scholars and teachers in the idea of teaching writing via laboratory methods, which he describes as “a continuous experiment towards what really works, towards the best of past practices and the search for new practices not yet imagined” (33). The book is both a hopeful call for reform and a demonstration of how broadening the scope of composition research can enrich the field’s teaching and scholarship.

Lerner contends for and illustrates the advantages of interdisciplinary research in the teaching of writing, masterfully situating his argument within the scholarship of both composition and science education. He claims that “educational reform can grow from interdisciplinary understanding” (14), and he demonstrates an interdisciplinary approach in his book by connecting chapters focused on archival research into writing instruction in science labs with chapters devoted to significant events in the history of composition. This juxtaposition allows him to highlight commonalities between composition and science. He notes that both are “laboratory subjects” that can be explored most fruitfully through inductive, individualized, hands-on learning. In fact, he shows that science and composition share parallel histories in terms of efforts to introduce laboratory teaching methods, which he characterizes as “learning by doing—as opposed to learning by listening to lectures and regurgitating content on multiple choice exams” (3). Likewise, he observes that both disciplines face similar challenges to such innovation, including staffing practices, rising enrollments, and a long tradition of teaching strategies focused mastery of form (composition) or mastery of content (science). In addition, he points out that the recent move in composition to prepare students not only to analyze visual texts, but also to create them is similar to a longer tradition of drawing to learn in science (127).

Lerner’s focus on writing and science grows from his own professional experiences, yet he acknowledges that “the spirit of experimentation” expressed in laboratory methods need not be limited to writing and science. He urges other scholars to join him in mining the rich vein of research material he has discovered in the pedagogical history of writing in science, in writing center history, and in other interdisciplinary opportunities (13).

The main argument of The Idea of a Writing Laboratory is that though laboratory methods of teaching writing have been tried and abandoned in the past, such reform should still be pursued. He contends that failures of earlier reforms were not rooted in the method itself. Instead, external pressures and the lack of an adequate theoretical foundation frustrated reform efforts. Pressures opposed to laboratory methods include “burgeoning enrollments, a lack of student preparation, and the stranglehold of the lecture as a preferred form of instruction” (33). Lerner adds that “obsession with testing and assessment, and lack of vision” also work to subvert reform (76). In addition, he explains that laboratory methods have been hampered by the structure of higher education, with its need to rank and grade, and with the inevitable artificiality of writing assignments, even those designed to enact real purposes for authentic audiences (195). He notes that a further impediment to instituting laboratory methods is that instructors may not be comfortable with them. “The teacher’s role in a class based on inductive learning is frightening territory for many educators” (144). Most teachers have not learned or observed this approach as students or in their teacher preparation. Finally, in chapters four and eight Lerner shows that even when structural conditions are favorable for laboratory methods, student expectations can contribute to disappointing results.

Nevertheless, Lerner remains undaunted by these potential pitfalls, convinced that they can be overcome and that the promise of laboratory methods makes them worth the effort it might take to attain them, particularly when the attempt is based on a solid theoretical foundation. He notes that previous reforms had been hampered by an inadequate theoretical rationale, namely an entrenched belief in “mental discipline” as a goal of student learning (146). Lerner asserts that laboratory methods find firm support in theories of situated learning, which have gained increasing influence among composition scholars and teachers as well as among science teachers.

The histories of writing instruction in composition and in science that Lerner constructs in The Idea of a Writing Laboratory shed new light on why previous reform efforts have failed, and point the way out of the familiar cycle of crisis and reform in composition pedagogy. This fresh analysis speaks directly to current challenges faced by writing teachers and program directors: pressure for more and more quantitative assessment, dwindling financial resources, rapidly changing communication media, increasing class sizes, and increasing student diversity. As Lerner makes clear, these challenges that seem unprecedented have been faced before; today’s crisis is not entirely new. Lerner’s book provides bracing evidence of how a broader understanding of our past can guide us in solving contemporary problems. His persistent idealism paired with thorough and unflinching discussion of rich historical data make The Idea of a Writing Laboratory a heartening and timely, if challenging, read.

The challenge comes from the multi-faceted nature of the book and the audacity of his objective. Lerner serves up a main course of archival history, and accompanies it with generous side portions of theory and classroom-based case study research. The historical investigations range from the origins of writing centers, to the history of laboratory teaching, to the roots of the failure of Project English, to the pedagogical history of drawing to learn in science. A quick skim of the table of contents might leave a reader perplexed about the focus of the book. Though Lerner frames each chapter with a lucid explanation of its purpose and its contribution to his arguments about laboratory methods of teaching writing, each chapter weaves together so many threads—often moving back and forth in time—that a reader can become disoriented. However, it is the broad scope and complexity of Lerner’s research that provides its persuasive power.

A small part of the book’s scientific content might prove challenging for some readers. Three of the four chapters centered on writing in the sciences are readily accessible to non-specialists. The final chapter, a case-study of a sophomore-level biological engineering course at MIT, is a different story. To appreciate the argument Lerner is making about student writers’ uneven progress in acquiring the discourse of biological engineering, a reader needs to be able to comprehend the examples of that discourse provided in the chapter. Even with Lerner’s guidance, gaining that comprehension is difficult. Typical of Lerner’s method throughout the book, he provides ample excerpts from the data he collected so that readers can see for themselves where his conclusions come from. In this chapter, most compositionists will need to rely on Lerner’s explanations of what the data indicate.

Lerner’s engaging prose and robust idealism cast laboratory methods in a positive light, yet he does not overlook the dark side of “experimentation towards what works” (12). At the end of chapter eight, he acknowledges that experimentation entails failure. “What I am urging here is for reformers … to have the courage to fail—but then learn from those failures and mount a new experiment rather than revert to the status quo” (187). Lerner makes this bold call, though he is well aware that the structure of higher education is not conducive to it. Failure is an anathema in higher education, particularly in tight budgetary times. After observing that literacy activities in the early grades often illustrate laboratory methods of learning, he remarks, “The challenge, certainly, is how to retain the play that marks these early efforts at language learning in a system that often does not believe in playing around” (196). The call to pursue laboratory methods may be less appealing when it is understood as a call to embrace failure, even if only in the short-term.

In The Idea of a Writing Laboratory, Lerner boldly advocates re-envisioning composition teaching as an experiment, as a laboratory subject. Rooted in a deep and interdisciplinary understanding of the history of writing instruction, he argues for an expanded notion of teaching writing, one that bridges disciplinary borders, overcomes structural barriers, and even breaks free of classroom boundaries when needed. Lerner recognizes the need for a solid theoretical foundation for this kind of reform and asserts that situated learning provides it. Lerner is convinced that the value of laboratory methods of teaching writing justify the risks and effort required to enact them. He never implies that reform will be easy, only that it is tantalizingly possible.

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