Monday, November 7, 2011

Book Review: Writing with Authority by David Foster

In Writing with Authority: Student’s Roles as Writers in Cross-National Perspective, David Foster centers the question of how students develop as writers within a cross-national context by comparing American and German student writing processes. American undergraduate student writers tend to operate under a semester-long deadline while German students often develop longer research agendas due to fewer writing timetables. American students operate in a highly regulated environment controlled by institutional administration while German students are given more freedom and forced to take a more active role in education—even to the point of being responsible for recording the amount of credits they earn each semester.

Foster’s goals in this book are (1) to identify crucial differences between German and American students’ development as academic writers, (2) to determine what this comparison suggests about American students’ roles and practices as academic writers, and (3) to propose how American undergraduate writing can be altered by integrating self-directed, goal-driven, knowledge-based writing into curriculum from the onset of college study. Ultimately, he argues that values of setting long-term goals, self-directed planning and writing, and interactive participation in knowledge communities be incorporated into student writing through changes in undergraduate American curriculum.

In order to better gauge the writing of American students, Foster compares the writing process of American students with that of German students. He conducted five case studies where he compares pairs of students, one from Germany and one from the United States, enrolled in similar programs and in a similar year of study. The participants represent four different disciplines: History, Religious Studies, Political Science, and English/Journalism. Foster clearly articulates his methods of research that include (1) interviews and student descriptions of educational backgrounds, literacy histories, and ongoing writing activities; (2) interviews with teachers to determine descriptions of pedagogical goals and practices towards writing; and (3) Foster’s personal observation of classroom and individual activities.

Foster describes himself as a participant/observer and strives for transparency by providing complete copies of interview questions administered to students and teachers in his research. Also he attempts to establish context for his research by divulging how he identified and analyzed specific sources of data including (1) his personal narrative as to how he became involved with both American and German students, (2) his analytic strategy for coding transcripts, and (3) descriptions of both universities and participant biographies.

The heart of Foster’s argument is that student writers should be challenged by academic institutions to write as transformative knowledge-makers through extended, goal-driven writing projects. This endeavor is woven throughout the book as he demonstrates how German students tend to write in this manner. In chapter 5, Foster offers a portfolio-based model course outline for a semester-long writing course as well as two models for project-based yearlong writing assignment. These models rely on establishing writing goals, peer critiques, recursive revision, and reflection—all valuable but hardly new.

The true innovation and difficulty of Foster’s pedagogical model is to establish writing projects across semesters and across disciplines. He argues for three goals of change: (1) to develop seminar-like courses at all levels of study that focuses on the student’s extended research goals, (2) to build extended writing expectations that support cumulative writing projects that incorporate courses across programs and disciplines, and (3) to encourage faculty to shape student roles as self-directed, long-term planners, researchers, and writers. These are all worthy goals but difficult to implement.

Writing with Authority constitutes a solid approach to analyzing student writing through case study. The book contributes to the field of Composition and Rhetoric by comparing the writing strategies of students from two different cultures and by providing some insight into how to research writing through case study as a participant/observer. Foster’s conclusions are hardly revolutionary or expeditious; this book may best serve as a text for an introductory Qualitative Field Research Methods class.

-Safari Bob

Foster, D. (2006). Writing with Authority: Student’s Roles as Writers in Cross-National Perspective. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 193 pp.