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Citation:

Donahue, Tiane.  “Cross-Cultural Analysis of Student Writing: Beyond Discourses of Difference.” Written Communication 25.3 (2008): 319-352.  Print.

Abstract:

Text analysis traditions in France and the United States include discourse analysis, critical linguistics, French functional linguistics, Bakhtinian dialogics, and “generous reading.” These frames have not been used, however, in crosscultural analysis of university student writing. The author presents a study of 250 student texts from French and U.S. introductory university courses, using a methodology for cross-cultural analysis that draws on other French and U.S. methodologies, particularly those using the dialogic utterance as a unit of analysis, but extended by the tools of reprise-modification and textual movement. The results provide a complex picture of university students’ writing as a site of social-textual dynamics, resisting more traditional contrastive approaches while reintroducing a focus on the text. The interpretive analysis brought out more commonality than difference; the author hypothesizes that students entering the university share a discourse of learning and negotiation across

cultural contexts. The methodology supports cross-cultural analysis beyond “discourses of difference.”

Summary:

  • D. begins by noting that much comparative, cross-cultural work on student writing has emphasized “difference and ‘othering’” objects analyzed (319).  D. also notes that while particular methods are, at least to some degree, bound by their nation-state borders. . . methods don’t necessarily transfer internationally.  D. notes that the French research on student writing often ignores or fails to invoke “social” perspectives on composition while the U.S. research fails to conduct sustained “linguistic-discursive analysis” of student compositions (320).
  • D. argues for a Bakhtinian approach to writing research that utilizes the utterance as the unit of analysis; in addition, she also “shapens” that research methodology by using the French linguistic tools of “reprise-modification” and “textual movement” (320).  The results of D.’s study suggested that students in her cross-cultural analysis between the U.S. and France were actually fairly similar in that they shared a “discourse of academic learning” (320).  It is this point that she explores in this article.
  • D. reviews the French writing research tradition by drawing attention to the ways that enunciative linguistics and Bakhtinian dialogism/polyphony have yielded valuable studies into the ways that students compose.  This has resulted in various observations; however, I find the notion that “research in writing has supported the idea that writing difficulties cannot be considered simple technical difficulties but are tightly linked to writers’ representations, to the expected text genres, and to the frames these genres propose for written production, in particular with respect to discourse content and types of knowledge, and finally to the forms of support and evaluation that accompany the learners’ writing, forms that are themselves based on university teachers’ representations of writing and learning” to be the most valuable (322).
  • D. notes that US writing studies have been markedly less empirical and concentrate more on the social and expressivist nature of language use.  She also recognizes that the postprocess movement and genre/AT systems studies have yielded interesting results on the study of writing in organizational and educational settings.  D. also draws attention to the ways that Bakhtin has been taken up in US scholarship through the work of folks like Bazerman, Prior, and Shipka.  Finally, she also describes the method of “generous reading” [2. This is a pedagogical stance that approaches student work as writing – legitmate, logical (or has a logic), and important.] in the U.S. context.  (323)
  • D.’s method draws from a huge corpus of texts: in the US – dialogic approaches a la Bakhtin seen in Bazerman and Prior, ‘generous reading’ methods sponsored by folks like Bartholomae (1986), Slevin and Wall, and discourse analysis via Barton (2004).  From the French tradition, D. borrows Bakhtinian dialogic discourse analysis, French linguistics, and literary criticism in the tradition of Gerard Genette and Jean Starobinski (324).
  • Frederic Francois’ discourse theory: discourse is a “written or spoken utterance addressed to others or oneself in a situation”; text is a “discourse in action” being read outside of its initial context (texts are reconfronted at various times and as such exists differently everytime); a corpus is a set of texts selected at a particular point in time; data is, much like a text, frozen in time and never appears the same on any successive reading (here we see some of the Bakhtinian elements) (324-5).  This taking up of a text at a particular time and interpreting it is the process of “reprise-modifiction” or “literally, re-taking-up-modifying as one interdependent event that is the essence of all discursive function” (325).  Interestingly, the movement of reprise-modification is generative; however, it is also displacing – each new utterance replaces the already-said utterance.
  • How is any utterance a reprise-modification?  “A given utterance calls on the history of its uses but also its lateral intertextuality in the moment and its levels of appropriation by the user” (325).  Donahue’s method takes up the discursive analysis of texts and locates the movement of reprise-modification in the social context of student textual creation.  She asks the question, “What reprises-modifications manage the textual construction?” as a methodological question to consider the interplay of discourse construction and social context. . . or a methodological orientation that incorporates both the social nature of US composition research and French empirical discourse research (327) [2. While this seems like a perfect balance, D. argues for the sociality of texts even in the French tradition on 327 when she states: “As Salazar Orvig argues, the text is witness to its own production.  It is a constructed object, and its negotiating acts can be traced.  A focus on text is thus neither acontextual nor asocial” (327).  Yet, shortly afterward she recognizes Mary Louise Pratt’s “contact-zone” theory as another iteration of Orvig’s point].
  • D. notes that, following Johanek, the qualitative-quantitative binary is somewhat artificial. . . both methods need one another to function.  The “grounded qualitative” approach advocated by Huckin is an (incomplete) instantiation of this position: data is gathered in quantitative work and qualitative work provides the hermeneutical element of research (329).
  • Starobinski’s method of reading a text: a “critical path that builds itself out of the text, the context, and the reader” (330).
  • D. utilized “genre” or “kind” as a way to categorize/classify each text because the social nature of genre determines the argumentative/rhetorical trajectory of the text – in D.’s words, “genre can be posited as social activity, specifically as a dynamic relationship between the writer and the reader-reciever” (333).
  • Interestingly, D.’s research demonstrates that her cross-cultural comparison doesn’t reveal market differences between particular nation-state-centric compositions; rather, it does highlight how particular institutional and course-based contexts create a lot of commonalities in student compositions.  That being said, movement, or reprise-modification, is an extremely common element in all student compositions (and likely all language use).  Students aren’t mere reproducers – they are writers in the “generous reading” tradition (342).
  • Student compositions often utilized safe commonplaces or topoi from which to make their arguments (i.e, “Education is good.”).  So too were “paraphrastic appropriations” or spaces wherein the authors being written about were presented in the students own voice: By this, I mean + definition from original author (345).
  • The shared features that D. found in her study led her to conclude that a “discourse of negotiation” germane to new university writers was shared cross-culturally.  This was discovered through her tracing of reprises-modifications that complicate how Bartholomae described student bewilderment in “Inventing the University”; D. claims that students aren’t experts; however, their discourse isn’t non-valuable either. . . their writing has meaning and features of a discourse all its own (346).

Notes:

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