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Pedagogy 1.3 (2001) 574-583

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Ways of Reading as Signifying Regime of Signs

Tom Kerr

Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers. 5th ed. Ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999.

On arriving at Long Island University Brooklyn Campus (LIU-Brooklyn) in 1998 as director of writing in training, I found David Bartholomae, Anthony Petrosky, and Bedford/St. Martin's Ways of Reading established in the Writing Program as one of two readers from which first-year composition instructors could choose. Both the text and the theory and methodology underlying it had been the basis several years earlier of radical and much-needed reform in the English department's writing program. Battles had been fought and won, and Bartholomae and Petrosky's pedagogical remedies to the asymmetrical relationship between basic and/or first-year writers and academic discourse helped usher in a more enlightened era. As a cultural war machine, the anthology is not without a distinct positive value, but its peacetime, long-term benefits as a first-year composition text are much less certain.

From discussions I have had with colleagues at various institutions, I gather that teachers' motives for adopting Ways of Reading are similar: it reflects current academic trends, has political dimensions, dovetails with their own intellectual interests, holds the promise of jolting some students out of their middle-class consumer or other brand of complacency, and seems, in general, to be refreshing, a "smart and interesting" composition text, as I have often heard it described, that refuses--make no mistake about it--to underestimate anyone's intelligence. These and other reasons for using Ways of Reading in first-year composition classes are compelling, and one does not have to be an interdisciplinary scholar or fresh out of graduate school to appreciate, if not admire, the depth and breadth of Bartholomae and Petrosky's project. The fact remains, however, that something altogether different from the editors' (and unsuspecting teachers') intent often unfolds as the text is deployed in classrooms, where it is apt to yield more dutiful conformity than critical creativity and, as likely as not, leave the audience dumbfounded. Indeed, I have spoken to a number of former users for whom the glow wore off quickly. Offering Ways of Reading to first-year students as an entrée to academic discourse and culture, while perhaps exhilarating in theory, seems a bit like trying to teach student pilots how to fly a single-engine Cessna by having them log hours in a space-shuttle simulator, an environment far more complex than [End Page 574] the cockpit of the plane they need to fly. More time is spent studying the intricacies of the super-advanced instrument panel than actually piloting the craft. Instructors may appreciate the stimulating experience, the challenge, of teaching Cessna via space shuttle, especially if they would rather not be teaching Cessna at all, but students are likely to be overwhelmed.

The first edition of Ways of Reading appeared in 1987 as an oppositional alternative to methods that its editors considered either soft (i.e., developmental, overly reductive) or solipsistic (i.e., based on so-called romantic notions about the nature and power of the individual and individual expression). It presumed that students should and would learn the powerful and power-giving strategies and structures of academic discourse by reading, talking, and writing about "real" texts, especially longer works and sophisticated interdisciplinary essays such as Michel Foucault's "Panopticism" from Discipline and Punish, Susan Bordo's "Hunger as Ideology" from Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, and Mary Louise Pratt's "Arts of the Contact Zone," all of which still appear in the fifth edition (along with twenty-one other similarly challenging texts). Premised on a total-immersion model of literacy acquisition, described at length by Bartholomae and Petrosky (1986) in Facts, Artifacts, and Counterfacts: Theory and Method for a Reading and Writing Course, the text was and is designed as a virtual baptism into the order of academic discourse, which Bartholomae and Petrosky view as redemptive of...


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