For models of policy and practice, British higher education commonly now looks to the US. Strikingly, however, there has been virtually no move towards anything like an American system of teaching writing in undergraduate programmes with names such as composition, basic English, freshman English or rhetoric. This is surprising because literacy levels are a pressure point throughout British education. Lecturers sometimes link dismay at standards of student writing to increased access to higher education and to the number of students for whom English is a second or foreign language.
In schools, meanwhile, more effective writing across a range of genres is anticipated as a result of the National Literacy Strategy, which, since the late 1990s, has been the major policy instrument for addressing the development of writing skills. Benefits should follow for future generations of UK undergraduates, though the strategy has yet to produce its first higher education cohort and, in this respect, remains untested.
Until the knock-on effects of such literacy education in schools are known, arguments about teaching writing in universities seem likely to remain parochial, bogged down in which staff should teach technical or business writing and how to make ever-expanding remedial essay clinics compulsory without awarding degree credit for them. In the US, by contrast, a substantial industry of composition teaching has evolved, with its own specialisms and orthodoxies, issues, organisations and personalities.
David Bartholomae's collection Writing on the Margins offers a comprehensive overview of this field, based on the author's prominent involvement in the field since its significant expansion in the 1970s. The essays that make up the book range across this period and come in a variety of forms, including conference presentations, course outlines, interviews, retrospective postscripts and even a preface reproduced from an influential textbook of which Bartholomae was co-author.
To structure this mixed collection, the essays are grouped in three sections. The first, "The study of error", traces the author's shift from conventional error analysis towards a view of intermediate systems of developing competence that can support insights into each writer's compositional strategies. The second section, "Teaching composition", discusses alternative pedagogies, including how to link the development of close reading skills to the practice of writing. This section also reports informal experiments involving students offering oral commentary on their own scripts. The final section, "The profession", considers dilemmas in a field that ironically seems able to enhance its status only by becoming more conventionally a discipline, even if in doing so it compromises its support to students who are genuinely "on the margins".
To each of these areas of debate, Bartholomae brings frequently emphasised ex officio authority. But he also brings refreshingly open consideration of underlying issues. He is thoughtfully critical, for instance, of what might be called "template" or "text grammar" approaches to writing. Teaching that focuses on crafting writing in specified formats, he suggests, limits scope for self-discovery and reduces the contribution writing programmes make to the development of personal identity and citizenship.
But Bartholomae never manages to explain how the processes of composition that he favours overcome a traditional damaging dichotomy: that between writing viewed as expressive and implicitly artistic, on the one hand, and writing viewed as more narrowly functional - sometimes necessarily formulaic - on the other. His separation of composition from narrower demands of functional writing is obscured by the sheer energy of his commitment to those he calls "unauthorised writers", students who are disenfranchised educationally by basic difficulties with written expression. There is nevertheless something symptomatic in his suggestions that programmes should aim "to produce writers" and in opinions he offers "as a writer". Such statements release writing from specific processes of composing and editing into vaguer perceptions of the creative potential of the self. Freed from formats to this extent, however, the teaching of student writing risks being turned into a problematic kind of therapy.
Writing on the Margins brings together a wealth of experience from a lifetime in student writing. The book will be widely read in the US, where it is also marketed as a course text. Interest in Britain, by contrast, where there is no ready-made subject readership, will focus on its capacity to prompt responses to student underachievement that go beyond firefighting.
Bartholomae's essays succeed in persuading that there is something to be learnt from the US experience, and some of the institutional learning that is needed may indeed take the form of looking to the US for models. More important, though, will be to engage actively and critically with fundamental issues Bartholomae identifies in the US experience, rather than simply turning away or tucking in behind.
Alan Durant is professor of English studies, Middlesex University.
Writing on the Margins: Essays on Composition and Teaching
Author - David Bartholomae
Publisher - Palgrave Macmillan
Pages - 386
Price - £29.99
ISBN - 1 4039 6803 9