Harvard Educational Review
  1. Composition as a Cultural Practice

    By Alan W. France

    Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, 1994. 171 pp. $12.95 (paper).

    Alan France's latest book, Composition as a Cultural Practice, raises some fundamentally important questions about both traditional and progressive writing processes and theories. The author's theories stem from his own practice on the university level, but he leaves other practitioners room to interpret his ideas in their particular situations, on whatever level their practice may fall. France, who is Assistant Professor of English and Director of Composition at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, presents a provocative and insightful critique that dissects the "instrumentalist approach" to the teaching of writing (that is, a mechanical conceptualization of writing as a basic skill), which, he argues, abstracts the idea of literacy from its cultural context, and thus from its inherently political and ideological nature. For France, "culture" represents

    the dominant process of identity formation that is reproduced by American institutions (especially the schools and the popular media) and that provides the basis for generalizing about contemporary social life in this country. (p. xv)

    Composition as a cultural practice, for France, is a process through which students free themselves from the dominant ideological stronghold that socializes them into maintaining or reproducing particular values, bodies of knowledge and meaning, and interests. For example, France describes "initiating students into a materialist rhetorical practice":

    I begin by asking students to describe the classroom we are occupying, looking in particular for signs of power. . . . A classroom I taught in recently was particularly rich in these signs. It had once been connected by a hallway to a suite of offices, and the locked door bore two signs: "KEEP OUT" and "Authorized Personnel Only". . . . While the material artifacts of the classroom and their arrangement can be "read" as part of a system of power relations, the university campus provides a much more elaborated code of hierarchical authority. . . . Once students have practiced the rhetorical analysis of the material world they inhabit, it is time to move on to written texts. (pp. 23–24)

    From an illustration of his approach to the analysis of written texts, France continues on to a discussion of the students' compositions. His emancipatory vision of writing consists of a process in which students develop a sociopolitical understanding of the realities that shape their everyday lives, and as they produce their own reading of the world and their own meaning, they realize and enact their ability to contest or "rewrite" any oppressive social practices and institutions.

    In the nine chapters that comprise Composition as Cultural Practice — with titles such as "Radical Pedagogy and Student Resistance: Can We Fight the Power?" "Teaching the Dialectics of `Objective' Discourse: A Progressive Approach to Business and Professional Writing," and "Composing a Post-Sexist Rhetoric: Introductory Writing Instruction as a Cultural Production" — France lays out the history of introductory writing instruction, explores the possibilities of feminist theoretical frameworks into the composition classroom, and engages ways that students can learn to challenge critically the messages of popular media. He also exposes some of the dominant processes through which students are rendered apathetic and passive towards the political nature of their own social reality, neutralizing their potential for social agency and transformative action. Most important, in addressing specific pedagogical problems that occur when infusing cultural criticism into writing practices, France shares his own personal trials and tribulations in the classroom. For example, in a research project where his students reviewed excerpts from a chemical company's operating manual, France describes a situation where his conclusions "did not seem `practical' or `realistic' to [his] students when the class discussed the outcome of the research project" (pp. 71–72). However, he does note that "the dialectical approach to business writing did teach the students some things that they wouldn't have learned in a more traditional class" (p. 72). For example, they learned that the so-called "real world" is far from being "above politics," once we understand that politics is about money and power and right and wrong.

    Composition as Cultural Practice convincingly argues that critical writing has to be linked to a process of democratization; that is, a process within which we become active participants both in the construction of meaning and in the articulation of our own goals and dreams. As this democratic dimension and call for political clarity is so lacking in the field of composition theory in the United States, Alan France's contribution is long overdue.

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