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Review of  Community Writing: Researching Social Issues Through Composition

Reviewer: Heather Conrad
Book Title: Community Writing: Researching Social Issues Through Composition
Book Author: Paul S. Collins
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 13.107

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Collins, Paul S. (2001) Community Writing: Researching
Social Issues Through Composition, Lawrence Erlbaum

Reviewed by Heather K. Conrad, Northwestern State University of

Paul Collins's Community Writing: Researching Social Issues
Through Composition is a textbook designed to facilitate
the teaching of socially responsive writing within a
traditional classroom. In it, Collins puts forth a writing
curriculum focused on the practical application of theories
of social constructionism and pluralism to conventionally
structured composition courses. His text represents an
effort to incorporate the increasingly social and cultural
bent of composition theory into a practical and fully
usable text for the composition classroom without
significantly disturbing classroom methods currently in use
in many universities. This is a formidable task, to be
certain, made no less so by Collins' ambitious goals, which
are not only to introduce pluralistic concepts and promote
social awareness, but to use these ideas to encourage
critical thinking and develop analytical skills. And while
the specific and directed approach Collins takes limits the
text's usefulness, its practicality and usability make it a
worthwhile addition to any composition teacher's library.

The text is presented in five chapters, with introductory
notes to both instructors and students that, together,
outline the approach to composition theory and instruction
that the text represents. In Collins' "Note to Students,"
he lays out the foundations of his course for students in
accessible language, addressing the notions of community
and explaining the importance of the tasks that his text
requires of them--attention to multiple perspectives and
participation in the "knowledge community" of college
(xvi). In his "Note to Instructors," Collins explains the
text's connections with social theory, describing the
"social-epistemic" basis of his rhetoric and the socially
constructed nature of knowledge and identity as he puts it
forth (xii). This section also provides an overview of the
five chapters of the text:

Chapter 1 introduces "social construction and pluralism"
(xiii) as students select a community and issue to write
about, Collins says, while

Chapter 2 focuses on media research and information-
gathering about the background of their chosen community

Chapter 3 focuses student research toward solutions,
emphasizing primary research such as interviews and
encouraging attention to multiple points of view.

Chapter 4 teaches students to use the information they have
amassed in the service of logical persuasion, asking them
to argue in turn for each several solutions to the problems
they address.

Chapter 5 draws on the assignments of chapters 1-4, asking
students to present their semester's work as a unified
paper on the community issues they have identified.

Collins's composition course thus takes shape as a series
of recursive lessons, assignments, and examples that
jointly lead up to a term paper built from previous
research and writing. All student work focuses on a single
issue, chosen by the student, which is faced by one of the
communities the student belongs to. Each of the first four
chapters contains four informal writing assignments and a
paper built from those assignments, all dealing with facets
of the student's issue. Chapter 5 contains an assignment
for a comprehensive term paper on the chosen issue built
from the previous four papers.

In this way, the structure of the text provides a
continuously connected manual for developing and
integrating writing skills. To illustrate the way the
assignments relate to each other and to show how they
function when applied to actual students, classrooms, and
issues, Collins provides the issue of campaign finance
reform as a running example throughout the text. He begins
with simple response essays on the importance of voting,
then builds on those responses with voter interviews and
small research assignments designed to illuminate differing
representations of the problem, and ultimately analyzes and
argues for workable reforms of campaign financing

Additional examples of writing on social issues come from
each chapter's "Focus On:" section, each addressing a
different community issue and some person who has taken
action on that issue. These sections seem to function both
as further examples of the kind of writing students should
seek to produce, and as portraits of role models who were
able to influence their communities through the kind of
awareness and participation that this textbook advocates.
As a whole, then, Collins' approach is at the same time a
manual for the creation of socially oriented writing, and
an example of that writing in evidence.

One possible criticism of the book would be its narrow
focus and exclusively practical outlook. But in spite of
the specific focus on socially aware "reporting" that
characterizes the text, more general principles of
composition are not ignored. Rather than address such
issues in the abstract, however, Collins prefers to rely on
a teaching-by-doing approach; the address of issues like
elements of the writing process, research techniques,
effective argumentation, and logical connection are all
addressed within the applied context he has created.
Example assignments demonstrate fundamentals like these,
and students see them in use rather than read them as
rules. For example, debate-oriented assignments in Chapter
4 require students to write counterarguments and rebuttals
to their own term papers. Work like this contributes to
the development of analytical skills and awareness of
multiple perspectives so valuable to this or any
composition classroom method. Further, practical sections
in each chapter usefully address writing process issues
like revision and peer editing, and other specific sections
address topics such as website building, text-writing for
websites, and designing text visually, all of which make
this text suitable for a 21st century classroom.

More fundamentally, the very nature of Collins' course
design, with its recursive assignments and papers, forces
students to continually reinvest in their writing process
by participating in revision and reevaluation of their own
papers, something we all recognize as one of the main
challenges of teaching writing. All in all, the text's
applied approach shows writing processes in action, and its
thorough treatment of a wide variety of issues that pertain
to creating written work encourage close and rigorous
attention to logical and factual detail, thus fostering
clear thinking in students.

The text's unusually strong emphasis on research,
especially as it relies so heavily on popular media sources
and interviewing, suits it best perhaps to a class with a
journalistic bent. However, the awareness of different
points of view, biases, and manipulative representation
that such an approach encourages results in a general
skepticism toward information that will serve any student

Some may object to the overt sociopolitical focus of the
text as fostering a potentially agenda-driven classroom
atmosphere. Indeed, one should always be careful, but
especially when taking the approach that this text takes,
of allowing specific social agendas to take precedence over
the general social awareness and skepticism that this text
and others like it are designed to encourage.

Teaching writing in a truly communal and interactive way is
an almost insurmountable challenge in the current
educational system. This book makes a useful attempt to
create a way to do exactly that. However, fitting communal
approaches to writing into the structure of typical college
writing curricula can often drain vitality from those
approaches, and this book does not quite escape its fate.

In trying to meld traditional rhetorical instruction with a
more interactive-communal approach, Collins is forced, to
some extent, to stuff burgeoning ideas into a restrictive
mold. Because his text needs to be usable and used, he
resorts to methodical treatment that, while accessible and
clear, can sap the vitality from pluralistic and constantly
shifting concepts like community and identity.
Nevertheless, from my point of view, the attempt he makes
is one that must be made if composition instruction is to
remain relevant, vital, and useful to the students who
receive it. The measure of success he achieves is an
important and exemplary first step in bringing new ideas
into the always-resistant composition curriculum. And
insofar as the focus of his approach encourages critical
thinking, analysis, and evaluation of ideas in students,
Collins' Community Writing: Researching Social Issues
Through Composition-for its few limitations-gets to the
very heart of what it is we seek to do in the composition

About the Reviewer:
Heather Conrad is a graduate of the College of William and
Mary in Virginia, where she earned her B.A. in
Interdisciplinary Linguistics in 1993. In 2001, she earned
an M.A. in English from Northwestern State University of
Louisiana. She is now an instructor in Northwestern's
Department of Language and Communication, where she teaches
courses in composition and literature and enjoys pursuing
diverse research interests, which include cognitive
semantics, cultural criticism, and world literatures.