Edited by Charles Lowe and Pavel Zemliansky
Parlor Press, 2010
Reviewed by Meagan Rodgers, PhD
University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma
Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing (volume 1) creates a new category of first year composition textbooks. Editors Charles Lowe and Pavel Zemliansky offer a set of essays written by composition scholars for an audience of first year writers. The editors characterize this unique writer-reader relationship: by “drawing on their own experiences, these teachers-as-writers invite students join in the conversation about developing nearly every aspect of the craft of writing” (ii). In these essays, writers speak directly to students in their capacity as agents of their own writing development.
Writing Spaces is also unique because of its multiple modes of delivery. It is available in traditional book form from Parlor Press, but it is also available for free as an Adobe Acrobat .pdf file-- download the full book, or download only selected chapters. The first page of each chapter includes a footnote with information on the Creative Commons license under which the book is released. This Creative Commons (Attribution Noncommercial- Share Alike 3.0 United States) license means that as long as a user includes an attribution, does not use the text for commercial benefit, and freely shares the text with others, distribution is unfettered.
The text contains an introduction and sixteen separate essays on a range of composition concerns. The contents are not overtly organized under subheadings, though there is a logic behind the order in which the articles are presented. The first three essays address “getting started” concerns-- issues that a student might have at the beginning of a course or an assignment. The next two articles address getting specific with writing assignments. Following those pieces are three invention-themed essays. The remaining eight essays address a host of writing issues. I have organized this review under these inferred subheadings.
“What is ‘Academic’ Writing?” by L. Lennie Irvin is a practical introduction to the task of college essay writing. Irvin’s goal is to demystify the process of creating a piece of academic writing. “Your success with academic writing,” Irvin explains, “depends upon how well you understand what you are doing as you write and then how you approach the writing task” (3). In this article, Irvin addresses myths about writing, decoding writing assignments, types of argumentative tasks in writing, and characteristics generally found in successful academic writing. Relying on examples drawn mostly from history, literature, and cultural analysis, the advice seems best tailored to writing for the humanities and social sciences, though the tips Irvin provides would help students across the curriculum analyze and complete writing tasks.
Having first given readers some practical suggestions about how to conceive of academic writing, Writing Spaces next offers some tactics for students to try once they are faced with a specific writing assignment. In “So You’ve Got a Writing Assignment, Now What?”, Corrine E. Hinton recognizes that “fear, anxiety, avoidance, and even anger are typical responses” (19) to writing assignments. To combat these negative reactions, Hinton offers a systematic approach to “interpret writing assignments” and “encourage productive dialogue” with classmates and instructors (19). Hinton incorporates commentary from actual students on how they proceed through writing assignments, thus increasing the relatability of the piece for student readers. Another strength of Hinton’s essay is the breadth of relevance across disciplines. The essay includes actual writing assignments from philosophy, business, and biology, which show how her suggestions can be broadly applied.
The third “getting started” article addresses a common misconception about types of writers: “The Inspired Writer vs. The Real Writer.” The greatest strength of Sarah Allen’s contribution is the thorough, personal exploration of what it means to refute the myth of the “Inspired Writer.” Allen offers herself as a portrait of a “Real Writer’” one who struggles and succeeds. “[W]e often assume,” Allen explains, “that if writing does not come easily, then our writing is not good-- and in turn, that we cannot be good writers” (36). This contribution is heavily grounded in Allen’s background in English studies, full of references to compositionists including David Bartholomae, Peter Elbow, and Patricia Bizzell, as well as canonical authors like Shakespeare and Hemingway. For that reason, this article will likely resonate most clearly with students in the humanities.
After these three opening essays, the editors include two pieces that deal with more specific writing tasks. Laura Bolin Carroll offers “Backpacks vs. Briefcases: Steps Toward Rhetorical Analysis.” Carroll defines rhetorical analysis as examining “how discourse functions in the setting in which it is found” (56). This student-friendly definition is characteristic of Carroll’s approach throughout the article. “The more we know about how to analyze situations and draw informed conclusions,” Carroll explains, “the better we can become about making savvy judgments about the people, situations and media we encounter” (46). She draws on a variety of examples-- from sizing up a new teacher to watching television ads-- to first show students that they are already rhetorically analyzing situations, and second to show how to better use rhetorical analysis in an academic context.
The next three contributions to Writing Spaces are more clearly thematically related: each considers invention. The first of these is “Taking Flight: Connecting Inner and Outer Realities during Invention” by Susan E. Antlitz. This essay represents the most abstract of the collection. Antlitz presents several “avenues for generating ideas” (82) for writing topics. Her suggestions include a winged-bird brainstorming diagram that brings together the personal and the social to generate topics. Antlitz also provides a number of creativity exercises including reflective writing, painting, and even conversing via facebook with others. The invention strategies seem best suited for writing in less structured genres. In an uncommon move for scholars discussing assignments in academic settings, she also encourages students to explore practices of prayer, meditation, and play as other sources for writing topics. In appropriate contexts, I can see students welcoming this kind of opportunity.
The remaining eight essays in the collection span a variety of topics. The ninth piece “Why Visit Your Campus Writing Center?”, is written by Ben Rafoth. In this essay, Rafoth encourages readers to visit writing centers by clarifying the ways that tutors can help student writers. This essay is organized to highlight three primary benefits of a writing center visit: speaking with a tutor gives you a chance to converse about ideas, gain confidence in those ideas, and enhance the sense of audience for those ideas. Throughout, Rafoth includes comments from actual tutors at several different writing centers. One experienced staff member understands her role this way: “we are not so much tutors as we are a presence that encourages you to write, to question your own logic, to revise, to reconsider” (149). The inclusion of tutor commentary makes this a meaningful resource not only for student writers but also for tutors.
Next, Rebecca Jones asks a relevant question for many first year writers. In “Finding the Good Argument OR Why Bother With Logic?”, Jones presents several different strategies for enacting and analyzing argument. She reviews several heuristics that are familiar to anyone who teaches argumentation. She starts with classical rhetoric, devoting most attention to Aristotelian thought. After discussing deductive and inductive reasoning, Jones reviews the appeals (ethos, logos, pathos) and Toulmin’s model of argumentation. The remainder of the article details a lesser-known analytical tactic: pragma-dialectics, which she explains as “a study of argumentation that focuses on the ethics of one’s logical choices in creating an argument” (171). Pragma-dialectics offers a set of rules that, if followed, would lead to genuine discussion and exchange of ideas. Jones explains that pragma-dialectics “seems[s] to consider argument as a conversation that requires constant vigilance and interaction by participants” (178). Pragma-dialectics is a new term for me, and I found Jones’s introduction clear and informative.
In the introduction to Writing Spaces, Robert E. Cummings explains that Writing Spaces is distributed under an “open source publishing model” (xiv). While the term “open source” has roots in coding and programming, it has come to be broadly applied to instances in which content is freely shared, accessed, and (to varying degrees) altered. Writing Spaces is the first open source composition textbook. The writers have contributed their work for free; an editorial peer review board selected essays for free; the editors assembled, publicized, and made the work available for free. To the extent that a user can opt to download selected parts or the whole, Writing Spaces is readily altered by the user. This is not to suggest, however, that the editors invite piecemeal copying or plagiarizing. Instead, the Creative Commons license allows the editors to encourage distribution within the constraints they determine to be fair and reasonable.
Given the open source distribution, paired with the quality and breadth of selections, Writing Spaces is a welcome innovation in the composition textbook industry. Charles Lowe and Pavel Zemliansky have created a collection that is full of practical, insightful, and accessible advice for novice writers. It’s hard to think of a reason not to recommend this text; given that it is entirely customizable, an instructor can disregard any articles that are not relevant to her classroom. I can download one article this morning, make copies, and hand it out to my class this afternoon. I can select several articles at the beginning of the term and add them to a course packet. Or I can do away with printing altogether and give out the article link. This flexibility also allows instructors to be responsive to students’ financial concerns: every student with access to a campus computer lab can read the articles free of charge. Most writing instructors will find much to like in Writing Spaces; I certainly have.