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Writing and Rhetoric across Borders

posted: 2.27.14 by Andrea Lunsford

The Writing and Rhetoric across Borders conference (held at the University of Nanterre in Paris February 18-22, 2014) attracted some 1200 scholars/researchers on writing from all over the world—Brazil, Hong Kong, Russia, Sweden, Portugal, Mexico, to name only a few of the countries represented.  This was the third such triennial conference; the fourth will be held in Bogota, Columbia, in 2017.  This conference is the inspiration of Charles Bazerman (University of California, Santa Barbara), and it’s his vision of the singular importance of writing to every country and culture that has, I believe, made it so successful.  Hearing colleagues from around the globe share their research and talk about teaching is exciting:  across all our differences we are united in believing in the power of writing and the key role it plays in the lives of individuals, communities, institutions, and cultures.

In one session, I listened to two Russian researchers describe an assignment they  had designed, with the greatest of care, to give students an opportunity to respond to a text in ways that allowed them to push past the restrictions of traditional academic prose.  To their surprise and chagrin, the students resisted the assignment, preferring to stick to the tried and true formulas they had learned to produce. As they spoke, I thought of an essay written by Judy Segal (University of British Columbia) about the lecture as a mode of knowledge distribution in universities:  students have such ingrained expectations that they will be lectured to that they are critical of teachers who do not lecture.  The lecture, Segal concludes, is one of the strongest “undertows” of college life.  The Russian scholars had found something similar: their students’ expectations of what a “good” piece of writing should be, that they wanted to hold onto it at all cost.  In this case, the researchers resolved in their next iteration of this assignment to ask students to design the assignment with them—and to see if that change will encourage students to take more risks in their writing.  In another session, I heard a scholar from Taiwan present the results of research on the socio-cultural dimensions of peer response in the L12 setting of an exchange between students in Taiwan and Spain.  And in yet another, a Danish scholar reported on an experiment in providing video feedback to student writing, arguing that assessment should now be multimodal.

I came away from this conference encouraged by all the serious scholarship being undertaken about writing—and impressed with how many connections we were able to make, connections that are sure to lead to exciting and productive cross-cultural collaborations.

Of course, being in Paris was not a hardship, and in our free time conference participants scattered widely.  I had the brilliant good fortune to visit the Musée de Cluny to soak up the magic of those fabulous medieval tapestries and to hear a concert featuring medieval flutes and lap harp and a singer with an absolutely divine voice.  Sunlight flooded the small concert space so that it radiated with warmth as well as glorious sounds.  A perfect Paris afternoon.

I’ll write more about this conference in coming weeks.  In the meantime, why not start planning to attend the gathering in Bogota:  we have three years to prepare!

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