National Writing Project

Book Review: Rehearsing New Roles: How College Students Develop as Writers

By: David Pulling
Date: February 10, 2010

Summary: David Pulling, a teacher-consultant with the National Writing Project of Acadiana (LA), explains how Rehearsing New Roles changed his view of freshman composition from seeing it as the foundation for becoming a college writer to understanding it as a "point along the way."


For years, I introduced my second-semester freshman composition course to my students with a drab speech like this: "This second semester composition course will complement the first course to provide you with the foundation you need to succeed in the different writing tasks you'll encounter throughout your college experience."

Over the summer, I read Rehearsing New Roles: How College Students Develop as Writers by Lee Ann Carroll, a teacher of writing at Pepperdine University and Chair of the State Advisory Board of the California Writing Project.

As a consequence, my first-day-of-class speech this semester sounded like this: "Your freshman composition courses have value, because you become more fluent as writers and the skills you bring from high school continue to develop. But as you go forward in college, you will see that freshman comp is just a point along the way. You will continue to grow and develop as a reader and a writer from year to year throughout college."

As a reviewer, what higher compliment could I pay Carroll than to claim her research and writing informed and altered my practice?

Ill-founded Pedagogical Assumptions

Carroll's work describes the methodology and analyzes the results from a longitudinal study she and co-researchers conducted with a cohort of twenty undergraduates at Pepperdine University in the 1990s.

During their four years of study, the students compiled portfolios of their academic writing from all classes and reflected at the end of each year in written responses to comprehensive portfolio assessment questionnaires and to oral interviews with the researchers. Carroll's analysis is particularly effective in its confrontation of so many ill-founded and errant pedagogical assumptions that beset all of us, even when we mean to do well.

One of these misguided assumptions is addressed in Carroll's preface: "Students in college do not necessarily learn to write 'better,' but . . . they learn to write differently—to produce new, more complicated forms addressing challenging topics with greater depth, complexity, and rhetorical sophistication."

As a composition teacher schooled in the discipline of the English department, my shift toward helping students write "differently" rather than "better" has caused me to apply a new and refreshing lens through which to consider my craft.

The greatest contribution I can make to the writers in freshman comp is to inspire their confidence.

At the very least, I am relieved of a former self-imposed stress—the belief that my students' success as writers beyond the freshman year somehow depended mightily on me. Carroll has also reinforced my conviction that the greatest contribution I can make to the writers in freshman comp is to inspire their confidence, to assure them that it's OK to take a risk.

I've come to understand that I do not need to take myself so seriously as a "teacher," that students often learn well in spite of us rather than because of us!

Bridging the Chasm of Misunderstanding

Extensive anecdotal data drawn from the study make the book not only interesting to read, but also compelling. Excerpts from student papers, excerpts from student responses to questionnaires and interviews, and even excerpts of professors' comments and feedback on graded papers provide revealing insight into the different perspectives on these assignments, which Carroll labels "complex literacy tasks" (as opposed to "writing assignments").

As a teacher, I recognized the voices of my own students in the thoughts, reflections, and sometimes frustrations the Pepperdine students expressed. At the same time, I recognized voices of my teaching colleagues in the voices of the Pepperdine faculty who marked their students' papers, often unsympathetically and often with a lack of clarity equal to the lack of clarity they assigned to the students' writing.

These contrasting voices resounded from the prevalent chasm of misunderstanding that we know separates teachers from students, where neither one side nor the other fully grasps "what the other wants" or "why the other doesn't 'get it.'" Carroll is particularly effective in writing about this chasm because she maintains a moderate, even tone that fairly represents what both sides—students as well as faculty—could hear from one another if they knew how to listen.

The scholarship and theory in this book is impressive, particularly in chapter 1, "A Preview of Writing Development." That opening chapter reviews the work and ideas of theorists I hadn't thought of since I was in graduate school and introduced me to the work and ideas of theorists who have come on the scene since.

As a result, and owing again to Carroll's influence, I'm a more confident practitioner as I apply theory to fine-tune my syllabus and rethink some of the "literacy tasks" (as opposed to "writing assignments") that I impose on my students.

I also appreciated Carroll's clear writing. Her expression shows that scholarly writing does not have to be heavy, complicated, and esoteric. The book's tone is appropriately formal and unquestionably learned, but the text is also readable and digestible. Carroll composes with the stylistic gifts of clarity and good sense, gifts that all of us who have waded up to our necks in ponderous scholarly prose wish more theorists would cultivate.

The voices of the students and faculty contribute to the book's readability, for the voices are primarily the "data" of the research (human voices do sound better than numbers). The objective, truth-seeking tone of her analysis also avoids axe-grinding and dogmatic assertions.

I recommend this text not only for composition faculty and curriculum designers, but for faculty across disciplines that require students to write. I also believe high school composition teachers would appreciate this book because Carroll often discusses the role of high school in preparing student writers.

Indeed, I would suggest Rehearsing New Roles: How College Students Develop as Writers as a valuable reading group study or advanced institute topic at many of our NWP sites, especially for the secondary and postsecondary teachers and administrators among our circles of site leaders and teacher-consultants. The book provides rich fodder for discussion and interaction.

A final observation: Just as Carroll's book shows that college students continue to develop as writers throughout college, reading this book has reminded me that teachers develop as teachers over the course of their careers.

I'm eight years from the pasture, twenty-two years vested in the retirement system, and saddled more with administrative chores than teaching chores. But this book showed that an old (er, let's say middle-aged?) teaching dog can learn some new tricks, or at least rethink the way he performs some of the old ones. I am a better teacher this semester than I was last semester because of reading this book.

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