Review – Rereading America: Cultural Contexts for Critical Thinking and Writing by Lisa Stahl
A lot has changed in the last 25 years. In 1976, Richard Ohmann reviewed 14 textbooks typical of those used for teaching freshman composition (as referenced in Lester Faigley’s Fragments of Rationality: Postmodernity and the Subject of Composition). Ohmann found these textbooks instructed students exclusively on writing skills and techniques to the exclusion of any analysis of culture. He wrote that “these textbooks teach writing in ways that reproduce the status quo…divorce writing from society, need and conflict, and break writing down into a series of routines” (132).
The textbooks produced in the last 10 years arise as a seeming backlash to Ohmann’s criticism. It appears we have swung to the other extreme with books that teach critical thinking without mentioning any writing strategies. An example of this extreme is Rereading America: Cultural Contexts for Critical Thinking and Writing. In its 5th edition, this “best selling thematic reader” is organized around 6 dominant myths of American society: family, education, the American Dream, gender, the melting pot, and the frontier. Its aim is to explode these myths and encourage students to interact with society’s assumptions and embrace the inherent conflict contained in questioning these assumptions. Each section offers a selection that represents the traditional myth being explored (for example, Horace Mann discussing education, Horatio Alger from Ragged Dick on success, Alexis de Tocqueville on gender equality issues). Then, by contrast, it offers powerful stories and essays that undermine these myths (for example, E.J. Graff, “What Makes a Family”, Susan Faludi, “Girls Have All the Power: What’s Troubling Troubled Boys”, and N. Scott Momaday, “The American West and the Burden of Belief”). This juxtaposition is useful because it grounds the student in the text that support the myth before offering alternative views.
In its preface for instructors, the authors indicate that the book contains issues that “speak directly to student’s experience and concerns. Every college student has had some brush with prejudice, and most have something to say about education, the family, or gender stereotypes they see in films and television.” While I’m not convinced every student has had
some brush with prejudice, after reading the selections these authors provide in this reader, I am confident that every student should read the selections it offers and ponder the questions it raises.
Another effective strategy of this textbook is its use of visual images that ask the students to “read” the visual texts and incorporate the messages represented into their thinking about each of the 6 myths. The authors effectively integrate comic strips, recent advertisements and even Norman Rockwell paintings.
In the introductory essay to the student entitled, “Thinking Critically, Challenging Cultural Myths: Becoming a College Student” the authors define a critical thinker as “an active learner, someone with the ability to shape, not merely absorb, knowledge” (2). This new definition sets the course apart from their high school experience where most students were simply asked to read and regurgitate content on exams. The essay suggests that the students pre-read and pre-write before each assignment because “writing about what you’ve read will give you a deeper understanding of your reading.” (11) This instruction about writing as a heuristic is a hopeful beginning, but alas, is not developed further. The authors also suggest the students mark the text and take notes as “the best readers read recursively” (15). Again, this is good advice, but the connection to writing recursively is not made. Finally, the authors suggest that the student keep a journal whether or not the teacher requires one, because a journal “is a place to free write without worrying about correctness.” These examples from the textbook illustrate the authors’ approach to reading but never draw the connection to writing for the students.
In fact, the main problem I have with this reader is the fundamental lack of writing instruction in its text. Although it purports to be “designed for first year writing and critical thinking
courses”, it only accomplishes the first half of that claim. The readings offered and the questions it asks the students to explore about American myths and cultural concepts are structured for in-depth critical thinking, an important part of a solid college education. It is the absence of actual writing strategies that is discouraging. In the backlash to rhetorical textbooks which focused on process, like The St. Martin’s Guide to Writing (second edition, 1988), composition readers have swung completely in the other direction. Even in the instructor’s guide contained within Rereading America, teachers are guided on topics such as building trust within the classroom and how to handle “hot topic” issues. There is no instruction on how to incorporate rhetorical writing skills, how to design titles, lead sentences, build cohesive paragraphs, utilize appropriate evidence, etc. If we are to teach our students both critical thinking and writing skills, we are left with two choices: writing a new textbook which incorporates writing skills instruction utilizing challenging reading material, or accept that whichever textbook we choose for our classrooms will have to be supplemented with other sources.