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New book explores future of college writing (Released: 3/12/96)

by Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu, Office of University Communications.

STORRS, Conn. -- The future of composition, the only subject required of nearly all college students, is the topic of a new book, Composition in the Twenty-First Century: Crisis and Change.

The book, a collection of 16 papers first presented at a national writing conference in 1993, examines the relationship between college composition and contemporary academic, social and political forces.

"We're trying to answer how students can be prepared to function and make contributions in a rapidly changing social and technological world," says co-editor Lynn Z. Bloom, Aetna Chair of Writing and a professor of English at the University of Connecticut.

"Writing is seen in part as an instrumental tool," Bloom says . "If people can write, they're considered better able to think critically and express themselves in other areas of academics they'll be moving into.

"The field of composition studies is both very old and very new. This book explores a series of questions that are critical to the field. Some are common to any era, such as what is composition and why teach it, but the answers are very different," Bloom says.

The collection of essays also includes a number of responses, indicating that the authors regard the status of composition as an ongoing dialogue.

Looking ahead to the next century, co-editor Donald A. Daiker predicts the "landscape" of college literacy instruction will change rapidly. Daiker, a professor of English at Miami (Ohio) University, says the book seeks to map the new geography of that landscape.

One key to that new landscape is a college population that has become more inclusive over the past 25 years. "The student population is much more heterogeneous. It's not just a middle and upper class educated white population as it was before World War II," Bloom says. "That means what was taken for granted in the middle of the century is all up for consideration."

As colleges draw their students from a broader segment of the population, the obligation to make it possible for entering students to graduate has expanded the scope of undergraduate instruction in writing, she says. "It's a big commitment, but it is also, as I see it, a commitment to democracy."

The future of composition described by the contributors moves away from the concept of writing as a specialized body of knowledge that is the preserve of an elite corps of experts toward a broadly defined discipline with a focus on writing as an ongoing process, a redefined role for teachers as mentors and facilitators, and a new emphasis on practical uses of literacy.

"Our discipline is about the encounter of ordinary people with different ways of reading and writing; our discipline exists in acts of instruction and discussion, not as a bounded field of knowledge expanded by research," says James F. Slevin, a professor of English at Georgetown University, writing about "Whom Should Composition Teach and What Should They Know?"

While the make-up of the student body is changing, so also are the arenas in which those students use their reading and writing skills. College composition in the next century will need to be more closely tied to vocational, personal and community-building goals, says Shirley Brice Heath, a professor of English and linguistics at Stanford University, in a paper titled "Work, Class and Categories."

In addition to issues specific to writing programs, the book explores matters such as intellectual property, the use of computers, and relationships between work and class.

The conference at which the papers were presented was sponsored by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, with support from the University of Connecticut and Miami University. The book is published by Southern Illinois University Press.

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