Negotiating Academic Literacies: Teaching and Learning Across Languages and Cultures
Vivian Zamel and Ruth Spack, Eds. (1998)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pp. xviii + 329
ISBN 0-8058-2998-9 (paper)
In Negotiating Academic Literacies, Vivian Zamel and Ruth Spack "bring together different voices from a range of publications and fields and unite them in pursuit of an understanding of how academic ways of knowing are acquired" (p. ix). In so doing, the editors both document and demonstrate the development, over two decades, of the idea of multiple literacies, and the importance of this idea in American academic institutions, where white middle-class (males), who once dominated the uni-directional dissemination of information regarding how humans experience life and represent that experience, are now an ever-shrinking minority in undergraduate student populations.
Many of these 22 essays will be familiar to those who have taken an active interest in the literature on teaching writing any time in the past decade. Or if not these particular essays, then at least their themes. One such theme centers on the need for teaching the conventions of a second language, dialect, or discourse in ways which add to students' native skills rather than trying to replace their native knowledge with a different variety, and in the process having the "new" rhetorics students bring into the classroom transform the very conventions held by the academy. This theme is examined in depth by Robert Land and Catherine Whitley in terms of assessment and by Linda Blanton, who sets the argument against her own experience as a member of a rural mountain community, providing an engaging personal account of the negotiation between home discourse expectations and those of the academy.
Several essays explore the contention that there are no truly accepted standards of "academic discourse" across the board within American academia and that any writing instruction which relies on identifying and modeling standard rhetorical forms, and then requiring students to replicate them, is therefore inherently flawed. Most, like Vivan Zamel's "Questioning Academic Discourse," see attempts to teach such discourse limiting, silencing, and counter-productive, yet a few authors, such as Lisa Delpit, take the opposite position, suggesting that it is possible to teach surface features of academic discourse and that this process actually empowers students, allowing them to gain entry into a world to which they were once denied access.
The conclusion of many of the essays, whether the authors get there by arguing that we teach within the system or against it (the [-1-] majority taking the latter position), is that what truly characterizes academic discourse is not its language so much as its function as a tool of serious intellectual inquiry.
The strength of this agenda would be enough to recommend this book, particularly to new teachers in the field of ESL writing, who may have yet to grasp the magnitude of their task. However, even for seasoned teachers and researchers already familiar with the arguments as summarized so far, Zamel and Spack's volume offers something engaging and challenging.
First of all, the inclusion of materials from outside the fields of English/ESL composition, as well as from many writers consciously working to break down conventional expectations of "academic writing," results in a collection which truly shows the variety of rhetorical forms being practiced by professional academics in this country. Because the selections are arranged chronologically rather than categorically, the shifts in style and voice from one piece to the next are sometimes dramatic and even jarring.
For example, there are several first-person accounts of individuals' struggles to become multi-literate (the most striking one from Min- zhan Lu, who presents a fascinating twist on an old theme in describing her experience growing up during China's cultural revolution, during which she and her family were in grave danger of being persecuted because they were upper-class and could speak English), interspersed with the observations of composition teachers. There is a linguist's definition of "literacy" (James Paul Gee) and a New York Times editorial bashing the opaque writing produced by faculty members at leading universities (Patricia Nelson Limerick). One of the most profound statements about the unique insightful writing possible at the intersection of cultures (the "contact zone") grows out of Mary Louise Pratt's lengthy discussion of a 1200-page, bilingual letter written by a native South American to the king of Spain in the 17th century but ignored as incoherent nonsense for over three centuries. The fact that some of these texts feel alien to those who generally subsist on a diet of TESL publications goes a long way to persuade us that diversity in academic discourse is real.
A second factor recommending Zamel and Spack's anthology to teachers already comfortable with the existence of multiple literacies is the editors' take on what this multiplicity means to us as educators. Namely, while one could take the position that recognition of rhetorical variation is necessary only insofar as it enables us to recognize the legitimacy of students' ways of knowing while teaching new ways more widely accepted at universities, Zamel, Spack and their contributors have upped the ante, arguing that "one way to enable students to find their way in the academy . . . is for us to accept wider varieties of expression, to embrace multiple ways of communicating" (p. xi). [-2-] Sadly, the truth in the above statement pivots on one's interpretation of the pronoun "us." Who does it include? In fact, if "us" includes only teachers of ESL and English composition, such an approach is likely to widen the gap between the work that we do and the expectations of our work in the academy at large. Composition teachers are already marginalized and maligned, as part-time, untenured teachers of courses largely viewed as mere preparation for the "real" learning which will take place in other disciplines (Mike Rose's paper in the volume explores precisely this issue). As a result, faculty outside of our discipline are already wondering why we send them students who "still can't write" according to their standards--standards which grow ever more distant from ours as we begin to "embrace multiple ways of communicating." In other words, this wider acceptance will enable students only if it occurs pan- academically: the "us" in the above quotation would have to include the majority of instructors in every field.
Unfortunately, this majority does not appear to be the "us" Zamel and Spack intend, as evidenced by the separation implicit in the continuation of their preface: "This transformative work necessarily involves questioning what we do, what we are asking students to acquire, and what colleagues in our institution and in our discipline expect of us and of students" (p. xi). Now we see the dichotomy: "us" (composition teachers) and "them" (colleagues in our institution). This is the chasm which needs to be closed in order for the dream of a more inclusive definition of "academic discourse" to become a reality.
If it is only ESL and English teachers listening, then it is unclear exactly how the academy can be transformed. The one pitfall of Zamel and Spack's book, and perhaps the position taken by many of the contributors, is that the collection offers few suggestions as to how this unity can be achieved, and even fewer concrete examples of cases where it has proved possible. At the end of the preface, the editors present a nice set of questions, useful in teacher training and in ongoing reflection on one's teaching. But we in the field, or perhaps in the trenches, need personal accounts of the more inclusive and empowering teaching alluded to in these articles. Such practical accounts, coupled with this text focusing on the theory of multiple literacies and others presenting more mainstream positions, would constitute a more representative and useful set of materials for reflective and "transformative" teaching and teacher training.
Holy Names College, Oakland, CA
Margi L. Wald
University of California, Berkeley
© Copyright rests with authors. Please cite TESL-EJ appropriately.
Editor's Note: Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page in the paginated ASCII version of this article, which is the definitive edition. Please use these page numbers when citing this work.