Monday, April 18, 2011

Making Writing Matter by Ann M. Feldman

Composition in the Engaged University

Ann M. Feldman is an esteemed professor of English at the University of Illinois in Chicago.  This book is focused on the role of teaching essay writing in the primary levels of university, with the goal of creating meaningful and motivated writing rather than simply acquiring grammatical and argumentative skills.

The first difference I saw in her methods from the university that I attend is that she resists the use of such textbooks as Signs of Life in the USA or The Conscious Reader, which are compilations of essays and excerpts of excellent writing.  In many schools, these serve as a jumping off point for students to write response essays to the subjects addressed.  Her opinion is that in forming a response, the learning writer is too passive and is limited by the subject matter in the textbook.

Her response is to instead involve students directly in the community, writing about topics that are controversial and actively being debated;  thus, their writing is less passive and has a purpose to convince and relate to active social issues.  Feeling that this will both inspire the writer as well as sharpen their reasoning and logic skills, she gives many anecdotal findings that demonstrate more commitment on the part of students to be involved in their writing.  Upon completion of various essays in this regard, she encourages her students to present their work publicly, pushing them out into 'the real world' and establishing a conversation with experts and bureaucrats about the subjects they write about.  Then, at this point, she feels that then the feedback the students get is more valuable than simply a response to a textbook essay.

She calls this "engaging with...context".  One example she gives is the "emphasis on lived experience injects more energy into the participatory side" and creates a "community of practice".    She then goes on to explain her ideal: 

"Communities of practice thrive on the tension between participation and reification.  Even though participation is sometimes given insufficient attention in the educational process, it is easy to understand.  It includes the experiential side of negotiating meaning-living in the world, participating, acting and interacting, defining one's identity through membership in communities; and recognizing the mutual engagement of participants in any given situation."

Thus, she encourages students to address social issues that involve their community, everything from race to the propagation of food carts and unlicensed vendors.  Her evidence relies on many success stories of students transformed from merely reacting to a reading to actively participating in a cause through their writing.

Personally, I loved the Signs of Life in the USA series of textbooks and the readings on popular culture and current topics.  I saw a great deal of discussion in classrooms with students challenging each other's opinions and reactions, and I can't help but think dismissing these textbooks is not the answer. 

Her insight on the writing process is fascinating, but at times I noticed that she seemed to want to remind the reader of her success and her position, lest we forget that she is an expert in her field.  This became wearying, almost as if she was too eager to justify her assertions over what is more commonly taught.  And at times, her explanations of her schedule and her curriculum felt like she was proving to the reader just how busy she was-a subject that was never in doubt in the first place.

All in all, this text is more appropriate for academics in a university setting who may wish to experiment with the styles of composition that best engage the student.  There is no lack of references or cited evidence, and she builds a good case for her beliefs.

Special thanks to State University of New York Press (SUNY) for the Review Copy.


  1. Really good review. I passed this on to my daughter; univ. essays - she's in the middle of it all. -Erma

  2. I'm loving your reviews, Amy more and more every time I read one. They are eloquent, well written and yet easily understandable and approachable by just about anyone that has the slightest interest in reading. Have you ever taught in a college or uni? Because you easily could.