National Writing Project

Book Review: An Open Language: Selected Writing on Literacy, Learning, and Opportunity

By: Sondra Perl
Date: January 2007

Summary: Perl reviews this collection of Mike Rose's writings, which addresses such topics as writing, teaching, research methods, social justice, and the purposes of education within a democracy.


Bedford/St. Martin's, 2006. $33.95. 512 pages.

Mike Rose is good company. I thought so more than twenty-five years ago when I first read "Rigid Rules, Inflexible Plans, and The Stifling of Language" in the December 1980 issue of College Composition and Communication (CCC); and having just completed An Open Language: Selected Writing on Literacy, Learning, and Opportunity, I still think so today. In this, his latest book, we accompany Rose as he revisits his work and talks about its evolution over the past 30 years. The book, organized in chronological sections, each opening with a frame commenting on the excerpts he has chosen, collects pieces dating from his early work on writer's block to his most recent on the everyday lives of skilled workers. Among the journal articles, book chapters, and newspaper and magazine articles Rose presents, several, I think—such as the chapters from Lives on the Boundary and Possible Lives—will be familiar to readers; others, I suspect, including his op-ed pieces in the Los Angeles Times or a piece posted on, may be new to most of us. Either way, I'd say, if you want to think about writing, teaching, research methods, social justice, and the purposes of education within a democracy, take Rose's book, put up your feet, and settle down for a good read.

An Open Language is divided into six sections: The Cognition of Discovery; Teaching Academic Writing; Integrating the Cognitive and the Social; School and Society; The Mind at Work; and Public Writing. Each section contains from three to eight chapters taken from previously published work. For the sake of this review, I will focus on three themes in this comprehensive text that appear and reappear in different ways in most of the sections: research concerns, pedagogical issues, and underlying values.

On Researching

From the early eighties, when Rose began publishing his research on composing processes, he had two compelling interests: the students in front of him and the lenses he was using to study them. This dual concern—who is being studied and how—accompanies him still, whether he is studying writers, teachers, classrooms, or adults in the workplace.

More often than not, Rose begins his research by focusing on individuals. In these case studies, we come to know Stephanie, Liz, Glen, and Ruth, students who do or do not experience varying degrees of writer's block; we meet Robert, whose reading of a poem differs from Mike's and yet has something to teach him and all of us interested in how students interpret written texts. Later, we meet a teacher named June whose limiting view of a student limits what she can do with her. By contrast there is Stephanie Perry, a first grade teacher in Baltimore whose pedagogy and care for students show us what is possible in classrooms; later Jody and Martina, graduates students from California enrolled in a masters degree program in physical therapy provide us with a glimpse of the way knowledge is constructed and realized in our bodies; and finally, toward the end of the book, we come to understand something of Rose Emily Rose, Mike's mother, whose work as a waitress gives meaning and purpose to her life.

Like many researchers who conduct case studies, Mike spends considerable amounts of time with his subjects, observing them, interviewing them, and often discussing with them what he is discovering—the sense he is making of their lives and work. We come to know them through the telling anecdote and fine-grained detail.

Rose, however, is wary of closure, wary of making grand statements about his subjects. "Any theory," he writes, "is no more than a best guess at a given time, simultaneously evocative and flawed. Especially when it comes to judging cognition," he warns, "we need to be particularly aware of these flaws and limitations, for in our culture judgments about mind carry great weight" (232–33).

Mike is suspicious, as well, of "neat, bipolar characterizations"—the hand versus the brain, writing as a skill versus writing as a way of thinking—which often mask what he calls a more "complex interweaving" (229). Consistently throughout his career and in his published work, then, Rose cautions the reader not only to be wary of overarching theories but also to be mindful of the problem of reductionism. He bristles at the way researchers too often reduce human complexity to a series of labels or clear-cut categories as if human beings can be "placed along slots on a continuum . . . [or] split into mutually exclusive camps. . . . When this happens," he writes, "the complexity of cognition—its astounding glides and its blunderous missteps as well—is narrowed, and the rich variability that exists in any social setting is ignored or reduced" (231).

Rose attributes this narrowing of the field of inquiry to the researcher's need for rigor as well as to his or her common and understandable reliance on a single disciplinary perspective. "All research sets limits," he writes, "[b]ut there comes a point past which the limiting of the problem changes the problem" (59). Aware of these dangers, Rose explains how in his own work he tries "to explore . . . very real and thus very messy problem[s] without unduly sacrificing . . . complexity" (59). In fact, he asks, Might there be "another kind of rigor that wouldn't sacrifice complexity?" He then goes on to propose a concept similar to the triangulation commonly used in anthropological and sociological studies to bring several different perspectives to bear on our understanding of complex phenomena. "Multiple methods" he asserts might "reveal different dimensions of a problem," or what he poetically calls "a rigor of multiple sightings rather than a rigor of singular constraints" (60).

In fact, more than 20 years ago, Rose argued persuasively for combining naturalistic and quantitative methods in the same study: "Why must these two . . . [remain] pitted against each other?" he asks. "I would suggest that the most enlightening and comprehensive writing about writing would fuse these two approaches, would weave statistics and descriptions and provide interpretive human contexts for measurement. We in composing-process research need a way to write about our findings that blends the interpretive and metaphoric with the baldly referential and notational. How else will we render the richness of the writing act?" (81).

This blending of methodological approaches, he argues, should be important to those of us who study writing: "More than most other fields, ours—because of the complexity of the phenomena it studies and because of its many connections with both theoretical and applied concerns—demands the convergence of insight and method from multiple disciplines. This convergence . . . can be enlightening and generative, can lead to the creation of new investigative procedures" (78).

On Teaching

While methodology raises a thicket of concerns, pedagogy, in Rose's world, seems far more clear-cut. In a 1991 article coauthored with Karen McClafferty, Rose lays out one of the clearest arguments I have ever read for the power and usefulness of the writing workshop. In this article, Rose and McClafferty propose a rationale for and a description of a graduate seminar on writing designed to help students write scholarly articles in their disciplines. Based on the practices of effective writing workshops—small groups, reading work aloud, developing and honing the capacity to respond usefully—the pedagogy advocated here and the rationale for it will not be surprising to teachers connected to the National Writing Project. Let me provide a few examples:

  • "It is not uncommon to hear poetry read out loud, or fiction, but fairly uncommon to hear scholarly prose. Yet reading one's prose out loud animates what too often is a dry, unengaged production and use of text. You hear your writing. And others hear, as well as read, it too" (167).
  • " . . . as students continue to listen to and read writing out loud and talk in specific ways about how to make it better, their sense of agency toward it seems to change. They come to understand that writing is something you can work on" (168).
  • "By presenting their work to each other on a regular basis, students are faced with an audience that sits across the table, ready to respond, question, and advise immediately. . . . The physical presence of an audience plays out in two ways. First, students read their writing directly to their audience and receive immediate feedback. Second, students may recall or imagine interactions with their peers as they compose—whether for this course or for other purposes—a practice that seems to encourage them to explain, define, and be more precise" (169–70).
  • "If the dynamics work right, the writing workshop becomes a small community maintained by students' face-to-face responses to each other's writing. This encourages both a seriousness as well as a certain consideration of one's peers" (170).
  • "A focus on writing provides a place in the curriculum where students can slow down a bit, reflect on what they're doing and why, and think about the language they're using to represent it" (175).

What is remarkable to me about this argument is that it needed to be made in 1991 and still often needs to be made today. In the early '90s, Rose was looking to explain to faculty and administrators at UCLA the value of a writing workshop for graduate students: why it would be useful and important for those entering a discipline to have sustained practice in disciplinary writing as well as ongoing feedback on how their writing is improving or not improving. Such courses, he tell us, have far too often been viewed as "remedial," the teaching of nonfiction writing, then and now, seeming to "violate the academic mission" of colleges and universities" (162).

The understanding or misunderstanding of the place of writing within the college curriculum connects to Rose's oft-cited 1985 article "The Language of Exclusion." Unpacking the institutional view of writing, Rose explains the convergence of a number of factors: how writing ability comes to be defined in terms of the presence or absence of error; how, based on this view, writing is simply reduced to a skill or a tool rather than a discipline; how it is then commonly assumed that students who lack proficiency in this skill need to be placed in remedial writing courses; how some large number of these students, it seems to follow, are then defined as illiterate.

Rose argues against all of these misguided ideas and explains convincingly, I think, how the notion of remediation is itself based on a behaviorist, reductionist model of language acquisition. In the end, he calls for a re-visioning of the place of writing in both the graduate and undergraduate curriculum. Not unlike current efforts in institutions of higher learning to develop Writing across the Curriculum or Writing in the Disciplines programs, Rose challenges us to move writing from the periphery of academic life to its center. What would happen, he asks, "if the university embraced . . . the teaching of writing: if we gave it full status, championed its rich relationship with inquiry, insisted on the importance of craft and grace, incorporated it into the heart of our curriculum?" (200)

Rose knows what would happen—as do writing project teachers. We understand how writing helps us see both what we do and do not know; how it leads us more deeply into inquiry; how classroom conversation and learning are aided by the time given over to writing and thinking. Rose's final point in his rationale for developing a writing seminar for graduate students extends beyond graduate programs and even beyond undergraduate institutions:

  • "Writing, really thinking about writing and practicing its craft, demands a slowing down, a deliberation, and students need—we all need—a place in our professional lives for that" (175).

I have saved this point for last because it seems to me that what Rose provides here is a rationale for the development of any writing course, for any student, at any level. No student—especially those we label remedial or basic or unskilled—should be deprived of the benefits of writing workshops: the attention to detail, the rich array of responses, the learning that comes from reading one's work aloud and listening to others'. All of us, novices and professionals, students and teachers, in grade school, middle school, high school or college, would thrive, as Rose says, from having a place to slow down, by making a real place for writing in our lives.

On Values

In Notebooks of the Mind, Vera John-Steiner writes about "a continuity of concern," (1997) or what we might think of as the recurring themes that sustain and weave in and out of a life's work. To me, the concern that Rose returns to again and again, the concern that both underlies his research and infuses his writing, is the power of democracy: what it means to provide access and opportunity to those who have been denied it, what it would look like in practice to affirm the learning potential of all human beings, how educators can open universes rather than close down worlds.

Mike Rose, in other words, places the greatest value on the potential of individuals and on the value of individual experience. In his research, for example, over and over again, he challenges himself to test theoretical notions against the quotidian, against the ways we live every day whether in the schoolroom or the workplace. He never loses sight that he is talking about "real people," that what he—and other researchers—claim "about people's minds and words has significant consequences" (204).

And it is the consequences of judgments made about human beings, particularly judgments made about intelligence or the ways people think, that worry him most. Rose and his coauthors Glynda Hull, Kay Losey Fraser, and Marisa Castellano, in their award-winning CCC article "Remediation as Social Construct," comment on the insidious way the focus on deficits undermines low-achieving students: "For almost two centuries the dominant way to think about underachieving students has been to focus on defects in intellect or character or differences in culture or situation that lead to failure, and to locate the causes within the mind and language of the individual. . . . [Such] deficit assumptions have been part of educational thought for a long time" (269).

Rose and his coauthors challenge all of us—teachers, researchers, administrators—"to examine our assumptions about remediation and remedial writing and remedial students." Not to do so is to give sway to what they call "unexamined cultural biases about difference, our national habits of mind for sorting and labeling individuals who perform poorly, our legacy of racism and class bias . . . " (269–270). Their goal, as they make clear, is to guard against reductive thinking, to make sure perceived differences among students do not contribute to damaging and belittling assumptions about deficits. What they want us to remember above all is that despite large differences, "we all possess the means to use language to make meaning."

In 1995, Rose published Possible Lives, in which he widens his view from individual students and teachers to the larger institution of schooling itself. His goal in this wor—which took him across the country to visit schools from California to Kentucky, from Mississippi to Montana—is, he states, "to learn about America through its classrooms" and "to fashion an argument . . . that [is] simultaneously critical and hopeful" (303). Eloquent about the devastating effects of the language of failure on public perceptions of school, Rose writes that such language

blinds us to the complex lives lived out in classrooms. It pre-empts careful analysis of one of the nation's most significant democratic projects. And it engenders a mood of cynicism and retrenchment, preparing the public mind for extreme responses: increased layers of testing and control, denial of new resources—even the assertion that money doesn't affect a school's performance. . . . What has been seen historically as a grand republican venture is beginning to be characterized as a failed social experiment, noble in intention but moribund now, perhaps headed toward extinction. (304)

Rose continues, a few paragraphs later, describing the cost of such damaging perceptions:

[A] despairing vision will keep us from fully understanding the tragedies in our schools, will reduce their complexity, their human intricacy. We will miss the courage that sometimes accompanies failure, the new directions that can emerge from burn-out, the desire that pulses in even the most depressed schools and communities. (305)

Rose is anything but naïve; he is not asking us to dismiss the dismal conditions of the schools or the dismal prospects of students who either do time there or drop out. Instead, Rose would like us to fashion a new language, "an expanded vocabulary adequate to both the daily joy and daily sorrow of our public schools. . . . We need a different kind of critique," he argues, "one that does not minimize the inadequacies of curriculum and instruction, the rigidity of school structure, or the `savage inequalities' of funding but that simultaneously opens discursive space for inspired teaching, for courage, for achievement against odds, for successful struggle, for the insight and connection that occur continually in public school classrooms around the country" (306).

Rose, then, seeks out alternative views, preferring to look for what is often obscured, whether the obscuring occurs through misguided theories, reductive assumptions, or the effects of a history of deficit thinking. Instead, he puts his sights on a vision of possibility grounded in democratic culture and mores. "To affirm our capacity as a people is not to deny the obvious variability among us. . . . To acknowledge our collective capacity is to take the concept of variability seriously. Not as slots along a simplified cognitive continuum or as a neat high-low distribution, but as a bountiful and layered field, where many processes and domains of knowledge interact" (397).

To Mike, as his latest work attests, this knowledge makes itself felt in all walks of life. His most recent studies, described in The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker, have been with those who use their bodies along with their brains, their hands along with minds; those for whom, in fact, learning and knowing are embodied. Using the insights gained from case studies of workers—carpenters and plumbers as well as physical therapists and waitresses like his mother—Mike argues for a wider and richer view of literacy, this time in the workplace. Such a view, he states, should not be based on deficits or on what workers can't do but rather on the rich array of symbolic behavior and interaction they do exhibit, often easily, competently, and more often than not, invisibly:

To affirm this conception of mind and work is to be vigilant for the intelligence not only in the boardroom but on the shop floor; in the laboratory and alongside the house frame; in the classroom, the garage, the busy restaurant, vibrant with desire and strategic movement. This is a model of mind that befits the democratic imagination. (398)

Rose's vision of the world is a capacious one, where different talents and different voices contribute to a varied and exciting richness. Within this universe, others contribute in useful and surprising ways. It should come as no surprise, then, that throughout his writing, Rose acknowledges those whose voices and visions have helped him extend his own. Almost every one of his articles includes mention of collaborators and teachers, mentors and friends; his footnotes consistently and generously thank those who have read his work, contributed to an idea, helped him reshape his thinking. Surrounded by such a rich and varied world himself, by, one might say, such good people, it is no wonder Mike Rose is such good company.


John-Steiner, V. 1985, 1997. Notebooks of the Mind: Explorations of Thinking. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press; reissued, NY: Oxford University Press.

Rose, Mike. 2004. The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker. New York: Viking.

About the Author Sondra Perl is professor of English and urban education at Lehman College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where she directs the Holocaust Educators Network and the Ph.D. program in Composition Theory and Rhetoric. A cofounder, with Richard Sterling, of the New York City Writing Project, Perl has been a researcher and teacher of writing teachers for more than 30 years. Her most recent publications include Felt Sense: Writing with the Body; Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction (with Mimi Schwartz); and her teaching memoir, On Austrian Soil: Teaching Those I Was Taught to Hate. Sondra will be the keynote speaker on March 3 at the Northern California Writing Centers Association 2007 Conference in Sacramento.

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