Review: Schroeder, Christopher L. (2001). ReInventing the University: Literacies and Legitimacy in the Postmodern Academy. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press. ISBN: 0-87421-409-2 (Paper).
Reviewed by Brad E. Lucas, July 30, 200
ReInventing the University conveys the highs and lows of one (self-acknowledged white, middle-class male) teacher developing a composition and literature pedagogy while trying to accommodate critical theory and the pragmatic exigencies of university life in postmodern America. After completing Christopher Schroeder's first book, readers may feel that they know Christopher Schroeder as intimately as an office mate. Like colleagues who see the day-to-day struggles of a fellow teacher, we witness (second-hand) his efforts to complete his dissertation, his frustration over student responses to his experimental pedagogy, the twists and turns of his academic career, and no less significantly, the influence of his personal life on the way he views the world of the academy and beyond.
Invoking a challenge to David Bartholomae's 1985 article, "Inventing the University," Schroeder calls for a new pedagogy, one that ostensibly improves upon the best of critical pedagogies and negotiates the dynamic interplay of learning, literacy, tradition, and institutional forces that influence contemporary composition practices. With a broad definition of literacy that encompasses composition (literacy production) and literature (literacy consumption), Schroeder deftly incorporates both major and lesser-known works on literacy, providing lucid synopses of critical works while subjecting them to rigorous scrutiny.
Schroeder's new model of literacy relies on context-specific, collaborative practice that is not only pedagogically sensible, but necessary to confront a "new literacy crisis" in America. In his estimation, the modern university has incorporated a "particular version of cultural capital" in its classrooms, naturalizing the socially illegitimate forms of literacy, otherwise known as traditional academic discourse (6). Moreover, the new crisis has institutionalized this repression -- a form of social control -- and has moved from marginalizing particular groups of students to affecting mainstream, middle-class students:
[It is a] condition in which learning to write, read, speak, think, value, etc. academically amounts to acceding to institutionally sanctioned discursive practices, subject positions, and versions of the world that maintain the current social relations and institutional formations and that alienate writers and readers from themselves and their experiences. [. . . It is a] marginalization of knowledge [. . .] in which the standards for literate performance in schools have ceased to hold meaning for a growing majority of people. (17, 175)
In short, Schroeder sees the crisis as one of legitimacy, not simply literacy, and his remedy for the crisis emerges in the form of "constructed literacies," a generative pedagogy that rises "from the conflicts of competing cultural practices" (27). In Schroeder's student-centered classroom, he encourages students "to appropriate, parody, and refashion traditional ways of writing and reading, to mix forms and strategies, to engage audiences explicitly, and to raise self-reflexive questions" (176). It is a pedagogy that begins with multiple student literacies and negotiates the processes of legitimizing those literacies in ways that can transform the university itself. While such aims could appear overly ambitious, the case he makes for the pedagogy is worth considering. If he is correct, then the implications of his approach are far-reaching, indeed.
The details of Schroeder's pedagogy are worth investigating, and he does a thorough job of situating his practices amidst varying literacy-based texts. In one chapter, he assesses a sampling of both literature and composition textbooks, looking at the ways literacy is defined, directed, and accepted. While others have commented on the influence and dynamics of textbooks (e.g., Berlin, Connors, Gale, Faigley), Schroeder fleshes out the specific problems perpetuated in textbook accounts of literacy. Moving from student texts to scholarly works, Schroeder places his pedagogy alongside the works of James Berlin, Ira Shor, and Patricia Bizzell -- but too often with a demanding critique that asks such writers to account for more than they intended. Or, as Victor Villanueva writes in an email to Schroeder, "I'm always troubled by those who criticize what I write and say by what I didn't write or say [. . .]" (229). Certainly, there are flaws in every theory and pedagogical treatise, but too often Schroeder overstates his case. For example, he places Berlin on one end of a spectrum of critical pedagogy, representing objectivism, conventional classrooms, imposed "neo-marxist" agendas, and "paternalistic practices" (102). On the opposing end, he places Shor, whose subjectivism is taken to task because his "classroom practices tacitly deny the politics of conventional academic literaci(es) even as they ultimately authorize them as the only legitimate literacies" and "enact artificial dialogues that leave the social structures of classrooms and academic institutions intact" (114). Schroeder sees his own pedagogy as reconciling both extremes through fostering constructive literacies that ultimately hold the potential for individual and institutional change. Even so, rather than serving as a radical departure from earlier works, ReInventing the University simply adjusts, re-aligns, and capitalizes on previous ideas -- a quiet strength that is often overshadowed by polemics.
To illustrate his teaching practices, Schroeder provides course outlines and schedules, as well as a variety of student writing. With a clear overview of his pedagogical approach, he relies extensively on student texts, largely in the form of email conversations, to carry the narrative line of his overall argument. However, a conspicuous absence in his (self-conscious, postmodern, narrative) methodology is any discussion of research ethics. After all, as one of his students shrewdly observes, "He uses his class as an experiment for his book" (125). Throughout ReInventing the University, Schroeder includes excerpts from student conversations and responses, and their estimation of his pedagogy is mixed. Of course, what complicates matters -- or should complicate his approach -- is the simple fact that he asks his students to evaluate his teaching while the class is still going on, before final grades have been recorded. His students know he is writing a book, and it appears obvious to the students that he is heavily invested in his new, experimental approach to constructed literacies. While there are grounds for this type of teacher-research methodology, the absence of any discussion (or disclaimer) about the power relationships that could bias student observations may leave readers wondering what some students would have said after the semester was over.
Readers may also find his honesty a bit unsettling, however, for he reveals numerous problems surrounding his teaching and its reception. For example, one student writes in a course evaluation, "Do you really even want to be here? It's like you don't even want to be a teacher -- as if you just settled for this profession" (21). Elsewhere, a department chair comments on his evaluations as a whole, noting that "yours are not particularly outstanding" (22). While this honesty is to be applauded, it also calls his motivations into question. Is ReInventing the University a lengthy apologia for a pedagogy that has prompted student revolt, administrative concern, and theoretical uncertainty? In between his four primary chapters, five "Interlude" chapters provide a similar array of intriguing textual artifacts from Schroeder's scholarly activity. Emails exchanged with colleagues, correspondence with (former) department chairs, and email discussions with Peter Elbow and Victor Villanueva illuminate Schroeder's long journey developing his pedagogy of constructed literacies. Perhaps the point of these complimentary and contradictory discourses is that readers should understand how a transformative pedagogy can be complex, far-reaching, and difficult to maneuver. The panoply of voices echoing throughout the book are sometimes more engaging than the author's own, but these appear to be part of his rhetorical approach. In one Interlude chapter, journal excerpts from his dissertation director offer unique insights into faculty concerns for graduate students. Schroeder's emails with a colleague also serve as an engaging dialogue with surprising results, as she reminds him that "skills have to be a part of courses like comp. and lit.," and she challenges the novelty of his problem-posing pedagogy, noting, "I'm not sure I find it any different from anything I've ever believed or ever done" (74). We get the sense that Schroeder wants us to gain something from these exchanges, but he chooses instead to leave the conflicts open-ended, contingent, and presumably inconclusive.
These multiple voices and self-inflicted challenges may rightly dissuade readers from taking Schroeder's word as gospel, but too often the appearance of these texts simply confuse -- not for their content, but for the lack of context surrounding them. Midway through the book, we get some sense of the schools he has worked for and a general idea of the student population he serves, but the various textual voices he brings into his discussion often go without proper contextual cues. So, both the praise and critique of his work seem to come out of nowhere at times -- and unfortunately, some emails come across as staged or scripted "dialogic" performances. While these oversights are not serious obstacles in following his argument, for they do support his claims, they do raise the possibility that Schroeder is simply taking whatever texts he can to serve his immediate rhetorical ends. Indeed, through his narrative methodology, readers may agree with Schroeder's students that he intentionally creates chaos as a means of learning and discovery.
By and large, the emails and other artifacts also position readers as pedagogical voyeurs who are allowed to eavesdrop on the academic life of Christopher Schroeder. And it appears that such readings are sanctioned by the author, although it's unclear if the stories are his own. For example, in one chapter he tells a story of a writing program director who dictates what a teaching assistant should "find" during an observation of a colleague's class (148). Another anecdote tells of a writing program director who (wrongly) assigns a man's class to another teacher, one apparently less deserving of the assignment. The same director intervenes later during an observation of his class, and concludes that the class was a failure (150). These anonymous, vague anecdotes risk appearing as mere gossip (or worse yet, vindictiveness), but taken with the other loosely connected textual exchanges, perhaps he hopes they add another form of literacy into this narrative collage. Toward the end of the book, however, readers may get the sense that Schroeder's sense of postmodern play has gotten the best of him: after all, he uses an excerpt of his own writing from earlier in the book as an epigraph for one of his later chapters (176). This, with the use of parallel texts and boldface terms throughout the book, may be irritating in their (intended) subversion of textual conventions, but no matter how readers work their way through ReInventing the University, anyone would be hard pressed to claim that Schroeder fails to practice what he preaches.
A critical and demanding audience may find that Schroeder's work represents a common tendency among graduate students who want to pass along their seminar discoveries to the undergraduate students they teach. It may be unsettling, even disturbing, for some readers to see struggling first-year students throw about the concept of "contact zones" as they read the works of Richard Ohmann, Robert Connors, and Geneva Smitherman. For others, however, the possibility of bridging critical pedagogies and composition theories may be as enticing and inspiring as Schroeder suggests. Getting a range of audiences to share a common vision for the future of literacy instruction is what lies at the heart of this book. Whether such consensus is possible in the postmodern academy remains to be seen, but ReInventing the University is a worthwhile foray in that direction.
Bartholomae, David. (1985). "Inventing the University." In M. Rose (Ed.), When a Writer Can't Write: Studies in Writer's Block and Other Composing Process Problems, pp. 134-65. New York: Guilford.
Berlin, James. (1996). Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures: Refiguring English Studies. Urbana, IL: NCTE.
Bizzell, Patricia. (1992). Academic Discourse and Critical Consciousness. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Connors, Robert J. (1986). "Textbooks and the Evolution of the Discipline." College Composition and Communication 37, 178-94.
Gale, Xin Liu. (1999). (Re)Visioning Composition Textbooks: Conflicts of Culture, Ideology, and Pedagogy. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Faigley, Lester. (1992). Fragments of Rationality: Postmodernity and the Subject of Composition. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Shor, Ira. (1996). When Students Have Power: Negotiating Authority in a Critical Pedagogy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Publication Information: Lucas, Brad. (2001). [Review of the book ReInventing the University: Literacies and Legitimacy in the Postmodern Academy]. Academic.Writing. https://doi.org/10.37514/AWR-J.2001.2.1.09
Publication Date: August 21, 2001
Brad Lucas' Email: email@example.com
Copyright © 2001 Brad E. Lucas. Used with permission.