Writing with Authority: Students' Roles as Writers in Cross-National Perspective

By Mack, Katherine | Composition Studies, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Writing with Authority: Students' Roles as Writers in Cross-National Perspective


Mack, Katherine, Composition Studies


Writing with Authority: Students' Roles as Writers in Cross-National Perspective by David Foster. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2006.

David Foster's Writing with Authority: Students 'Roles as Writers in Cross-National Perspective speaks to two concerns that writing teachers and administrators share: first, how to foster autonomous, independent, and recursive thinking and writing practices in students, and, second, how to initiate them into a scholarly conversation based on the intersubjective, relational nature of knowledge-making. Foster offers the term "transformative writing" to describe this pedagogical process and goal, arguing that it "enable[s] students to write in the role of knowledge-makers in specific knowledge contexts"(115). Using the insights that he gained from his comparative study of German and American university students and the systems within which they write, he offers specific suggestions about the ways in which instructors and writing administrators can promote transformative writing in the American context. The most compelling and actionable of these suggestions addresses the temporality of both students' writing habits and of the curriculum, a suggestion encapsulated in the book's concluding pedagogical appeal: "American teachers should expect more from their students as self-directed, long-term planners and writers and should construct tasks based on those expectations" (181).

Activity theory and the methods of the "New Literacy Studies" provide the theoretical framework for Foster's comparative study, which seeks to situate the German and American student writers within their disciplinary, institutional, and socio-cultural contexts. Foster compares five pairs of German and American students whose discipline and level of study are roughly parallel, and whose universities, Rhineland and Midwestern, differ mainly in size. His data consists of students' descriptions of their writing practices, which he gathered through multiple, semi-structured interviews and students' writers' memos. Foster also observed the students' writing practices in and outside of the classroom, interviewed instructors about their pedagogical and writing goals for the class, and reviewed the two institutions' planning documents and policies. Foster is careful to note that his case studies are suggestive, not representative, of the socio-cultural dynamics that shape students' writing practices and identities. His multi-faceted approach results in richly-detailed case studies that respect the uniqueness of the students' experiences, and yet also explore the ways in which they reflect the instructor's pedagogy and the broader university system.

The "Introduction" and chapter 2, "Studying Student Writers in CrossNational Contexts," explore the different roles that German and American student's writing plays in their secondary schooling, their access to university, and their intellectual development while at the university. "Early selectivity and differentiated goal-orientation" (29) characterize the German education system in which students decide as early as age eleven whether they will pursue a vocational or university education. Switching tracks is possible, but not easy, as students on the university track (gymnasium) begin preparing for the arbiter, the major exit exam, several years before they take it. Successful completion of the arbiter gains them entrance to any German university that offers their field of specialization.

German students, unlike their American counterparts, begin their discipline-specific course of study and take seminar courses that require research papers in their first year. They also determine whether they will take a course for credit or audit, and whether they would like to retake a course for a new grade. Though German universities do publish expected time-to-degree-completion schedules, they do not enforce them rigorously. From the outset, then, German students enjoy a particular type of autonomy, which Foster describes as "self-direction and self-management in learning, signifying self-direction, freedom, and responsibility in knowledge-building"(26). …

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