“Recomposing WID/WAC: Teaching and Researching College Composition in France”
École Supérieure d'Ingénieurs de Poitiers, France
Center for Writing Studies
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA
This short paper or “thought piece” is meant to open a conversation about research
methodology by way of a reflection on my challenging time as an English teacher in France and
my observations about overlaps and dissonances between approaches to college-level writing
instruction in the French and American systems.
International researchers of writing (e.g. Donahue, 2008; Andrews, 2009; Carter, Lillis & Parkin,
2009) have targeted what is surely the key challenge of this developing field: College-level
writing instruction does not exist in the same incarnations in the university systems of all
countries. Unfortunately for those interested in cross-cultural, cross-institutional research, but not
surprisingly, the United States’ semi-formalized amalgam of scholarship and research
concerning college writing is not internationally ubiquitous (though I don’t think this
undisciplinarity is necessarily a weakness). The French system, which is a primary interest of
the paper, has no academic writing programs or writer’s workshops, and because disciplines
there are so highly segregated (spatially as well as ideologically), it also has no all-college
requirements, let alone a required course in First-Year Composition (FYC). There no French
analogue for what we in the United States variously call “Rhetoric and Composition,”
“Rhet/Comp,” and “Writing Studies.”
Without this common ground of FYC, without an explicit international community of
teachers and researchers of college composition, it can be quite difficult to establish cross-
institutional studies and comparisons. Differences in methodological tradition and intellectual
trends (rigor, elitism, expressivism, interdisciplinarity, etc.) also prove to be major obstacles to
research. Writing researchers in the United States have access to a large body of
interdisciplinary scholarship, as well as (sometimes) the institutional sanction to blend disparate
intellectual traditions. And while these hybrids often include methodological elements from the
social sciences, the sole platform in France for writing research for now, are the traditionally
rigid fields of linguistics and literary studies (which some of us in the States may have begun
thinking of as relics of the old university).
The key philosophical correspondence between research in France and the United
States, as Donahue (2008) points out, is the Bakhtinian perspective. This common ancestor will
likely offer the most fruitful, coherent lens for the purpose of establishing a new tradition of
cross-cultural writing research between France and the United States. Because the Bakhtinian
frame has been recruited into many different methodological pursuits in other contexts, there are
several methodologies from which to choose, three of which I have come to believe deserve
particular attention, namely writing in the disciplines or writing across the curriculum (WID and
WAC), socio-historiography, and activity theory. My long-term intention for putting these
methodologies into conversation is to engineer contextualized, workable, and playful
methodological hybrids to be used in future research. The scope of this piece, however, limits me
to revisiting my observations of the network of students, instructors, and administrators of the
compulsory English-language courses at the École Supérieure d'Ingénieurs de Poitiers or “ESIP”
As you—international scholars and researchers of writing—read my reflections about
these young French engineers-in-training, their administrators, and their teachers, I hope you will
consider they way your experiences come to bear on my investigation. What is your experience
with sociocultural and activity theoretic methodologies, and how can they be adopted or adapted
to the international study of writing? Do you find what I am calling the “hybridized
methodological approach” compelling? What challenges should I anticipate?
Primary and Secondary Research Questions
Primary Questions: What are the main differences between the French and United States
contexts? What are some of the ways in which French and American institutions have
approached writing instruction? What are the primary tools of writing research at work in the
United States? Which are most “successful” and why (and what do we mean by “success”)? As
we find answers to the preceding questions, how best can American scholars approach cross-
cultural writing research with French institutions?
Secondary Questions: What are the consequences of cultural and institutional differences in each
context and how might gaining an understanding of this foreign context come to bear on issues in
local (United States) and global writing research communities? What are the implications for
current issues in American universities (e.g. the creation/abolition/maintenance of academic
writing, FYC, and WID/WAC programs, the teaching of English as a foreign language, language
proficiency testing for international students and TAs, and the concept of disciplinary identity)?
Le bac—“baccalauréat,” required exit exam for French high school students, which determines
in large part who will be eligible to attend university; because of the French system of tracking,
several versions of le bac exist, some of which test more heavily in areas of, for instance, math
and science or literature.
Classes Prépas—“Classes Préparatoires,” the two years (or sometimes three, for a pitiable few)
of intensive preparatory classes required for admission in the Grandes Écoles school system in
France; followed by written and oral exams, which establish a hierarchy among the students;
those with the highest rankings get their first choice of Grande École, while the lowest scoring
students are eliminated from the running.
ESIP—“École Supérieure d'Ingénieurs de Poitiers,” which roughly translates to College of
Engineering at the University of Poitiers, France; the University is on the southeastern corner of
a small, historic town of about 100,000-150,000 residents, about a sixth of which are university
students, and only about 250 of whom belong to the prestigious school of Engineering.
FYC—“First-Year Composition,” a writing-intensive course required of most US students in
their first year of university and college.
Grandes Écoles—Very rough equivalent of the Ivy League school system in the US.
Interdisciplinarity—Seemingly an alternately growing and ebbing fad in US higher education;
institutional sanctions of interdisciplinary scholarship have more often than not been strategic
and self-aggrandizing, nonetheless, many significant contributions to contemporary American
thoughts have come from collaborations between specialists from disparate academic domains;
Although the term is sometimes used as a lazy synonym for “innovation,” the notion of
interdisciplinarity has forced US scholars to reconsider “discipline,” which, we have found, is
much less cohesive than it originally appears.
Les oraux—Oral English exams, in part prepared and in part improvised, required of ESIP
students at the end of every school year.
Rhet/Comp—“Rhetoric and Composition,” also known as “Writing Studies,” a field of
practitioners of writing-related scholarship, teaching, and research in the US.
Soutien—Optional, supplementary English classes available to all ESIP students, but encouraged
for weaker students; soutiens typically take the form of additional TOEIC test prep and drills.
TOEIC—“Test of English for International Communication,” a test of English proficiency,
which leans more heavily toward professional communication; the multiple-choice test, which
measures listening and reading comprehension (but not speaking), making it cheaper to
administer and grade, is required of all ESIP students. Students who fail the first time must
continue to take the test until they get a passing mark.
WID/WAC—“writing in the disciplines” and “writing across the curriculum,” an amalgam of
research and scholarship on the efficacies, challenges, and best practices of teaching writing
geared toward students’ fields of study.
Digest of Theoretical Foundations
from Bakhtin—Bakhtinians look at literate activity in relation to lived experiences and work to
consider the high degree to which language is dialogic and heteroglossic.
from CHAT—also known as “cultural historic activity theory,” “sociohistoric theory,” and
“sociocultural theory,” endeavors to understand systems of human activity in terms of objectives,
expectations, outcomes, and tool mediation; is founded in theories about childhood development
and learning; tends to target breakdowns and ruptures in productivity (see Engestrom, Vygotsky,
from ANT— also known as “actor-network theory” or “actant-rhizome theory,” dedicated to
understanding activity in terms of a complex network or web of human and non-human actors,
all of whom are afforded equal agency; also is concerned with mediation, breakdown, and
rupture (see Latour, Callon, Law, Suchman, Irvine)
from Prior (2008)—flat CHAT, a hybrid of sociohistoric theory and actor-network theory
Institutional Background, Part 1: Grandes Écoles
Unlike in the American context, where tracking is limited and often disguised, academic tracking
in France is ubiquitous and unabashed. In both contexts, students in the lower-track classes more
often come from low-income families and are linguistic, racial, ethnic, and/or religious
minorities. However, while the American system at least presumes to counterbalance racist
tracking practices with affirmative action admissions policies (though we should certainly be
skeptical about their efficacy given recent events at the University of Illinois) and scholarship
opportunities for underrepresented groups. While the numbers of minority students are probably
comparable in the two contexts, the key differences in the French system are, first, academic
tracking, secondly, le bac, the high school exit exam, and finally, the cost of a college education,
which is essentially negligible in France.
Because French high school students are competing for a limited number of spaces in
the universities, spaces for which they will not have to pay, there is a tense atmosphere of
competition amongst the higher-tracked students. The most prestigious opportunity available to
these students are the Grandes Écoles, the highest tier of an already highly selective University
system, which might be the rough equivalent of an Ivy League school in the US. Within the
system of Grandes Écoles, Colleges of Engineering (usually known as Écoles supérieures
d'ingénieurs) comprise some of the most elite degree-granting programs.
As part of this prestigious system, French engineers must take five years of college-
level English (in other words, English is part of the mandatory, fixed curriculum for each of the
five years of college-level training). This is after having had seven years of grade school English
and passing the written English portion of le bac. The undergraduate Engineering curriculum is
divided into two parts; first two to three years of classes prépas (intensive preparatory classes in
Mathematics, Science, and English), followed by an exam, and then three years at a College of
Engineering. Aside from being technically strenuous, classes prépas are reading and speaking-
intensive (in French) and even include some explicit writing instruction (also in French); in
theory, thus students finish their classes prépas with superior technical competence, strong
communicational skills, and fair English comprehension.
Finally, after three year of classes prépas, followed by three years at a College of
Engineering, students must pass a test of English proficiency in order to officially graduate, most
commonly the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC), which is the cheapest
and easiest to administer and grade. An engineer who has been successful in all of his or her
discipline-specific courses, but who is unable to pass this test with a score of at least 75% will
not receive his or her degree in Engineering. At schools that wish to distinguish themselves, such
as the École Polytechnique in Paris, this cut-off percentage can be much higher.In requiring this
mandate of all Colleges of Engineering, the striking implication is that all French engineers
should be able to understand written and spoken English, that in order to be a successful
engineer, one must be proficient in English. As a direct result, the required English classes,
which have always been part of the Grandes Écoles system, have been transformed into TOEIC
Needless to say, the question of whether or not engineers are able to communicate
effectively (some WID/WAC scholarship has tackled this question; see Herrington, 1985 or
Winsor, 1996) is made somewhat more complicated when the engineers in question are being
asked to communicate outside of their native language. Winsor (1996) writes that "the activity
system known as engineering is itself always changing, meaning that what counts as expertise
changes too" (p. 106); to be sure, this particular mutation, the integration of foreign language
instruction and general composition—and especially, the configuration of the English/EFL
classroom as the sole source of instruction in writing and communication—is a fascinating
phenomena, and one I hope to explore further in future work.
Institutional Background, Part 2: ESIP, Quelle catastrophe
Before leaving for France, before even submitting my teacher visa paperwork, I corresponded
with several members of the English Department at ESIP. Most of this correspondence centered
on (1) explanations of the nature of my post and my role within the department. The woman I
would soon be replacing wrote:
“As far as work goes, I work much less here and get paid more than at UIUC. The
exchange program takes into account some time for "research" so you would have
some time to continue your studies or to continue your research while you are
here. I teach 1 2hr class on Tues, 2 on Wednesday, and 1 on Thursday, with 2
hours of small English conversation classes for remedial English students.”
More frequently, the topic was (2) the TOEIC Exam; I was told:
“You'll probably want to do one or two mock TOEICs with your first years so
they can try it, but the school doesn't give the official TOEIC until the end of first
semester for the second year students. This official test is the one that “counts,”
and if a student doesn't get a 750 on that one, he/she has 3 more semesters before
graduation to keep taking it at his/her own expense. No 750 on the TOEIC = no
engineering diploma (national law for all Engineering schools)”
I was frustrated by these correspondences, perhaps due to a pre-existing distaste for
institutional exams and abstract discussions of titles and roles. Nonetheless, these initial
interactions with my colleagues felt impractical and irrelevant. As a Writing Studies scholar,
I was particularly interested in how my future colleagues were using writing in and out of
class to foster language learning. When I finally succeeded in conveying this interest (which
proved to be difficult outside of the comfort of my “native” language, by which I mean both
English and the vocabulary of Writing Studies), I was told only that:
“Students usually admit that writing homework is necessary, (though not always
Writing did not seem to be a priority; on the contrary, it was an afterthought.
Arriving in France and to the University of Poitiers did little to resolve my
questions about the kinds of writing students were doing inside and outside of class, what
kind of writing and communicative work they had to do for their Engineering coursework,
their English trajectories were, and their literacy histories. No matter how much I worked to
divert attention to other parts of the course, the TOEIC always seemed to be in the way. I
asked them questions, started debates, and struggled to get them to trust me. I assigned lots
of reading and writing in English—the readings were very short and were done both in and
out of class, and I asked students to write reflections based on their readings and their
feelings about subjects that seemed to matter to them (green technology, politics, the history
of engineering, etc). For the class that was tracked as the “top English students,” I required a
research-based, multi-stage, multi-draft final paper, much as I would have for a typical FYC
class at the University of Illinois (in fact, I am considering applying for IRB approval to use
these essays in future research). I graded harshly, maybe more harshly than I would normally
do, because my French colleagues explained that this was what they expected of me. I
ignored the drills traditional to soutiens trying instead to teach the “remedial” students to
reverse-engineer grammatical rules and TOEIC test question conventions. During les oraux,
I worked to subvert tendencies toward rote memorization and recitation by asking questions
designed to get students impassioned and critically engaged.
I was not as successful as I would have liked, and I am sure that this is due, in part
to differences in cultural and institutional expectations. Students’ reactions were lukewarm
when I expected incredulity. Students turned assignments in on time (for the most part), and
accepted their grades less grudgingly than their American counterparts. When I encountered
two minor instances and one more major case of plagiarism, my concern was met by an
unfazed and frankly uninterested administrator. Was it the devaluation of English class? As I
was cleaning out the atelier one afternoon, I discovered a stack of Thanksgiving-themed
crossword puzzle, clearly aimed at language learners still in primary school. Were my
colleagues distributing this material to their students? Could it have been that my methods
violated my students’ and colleagues’ expectations to such an extent as to inspire disbelief?
Was it that students and faculty were so unused to an English teacher taking her job so
seriously (in other words, it was not my function within the department to worry about such
things, as long as I could speak English fluently). Or was the problem that I was
unknowingly doing exactly what was expected of me, and thus raising no eyebrows at all?
Explicit discussion of writing and communicative instruction often felt stifled.
One of my most discouraging moments came as I was lesson-planning my soutiens, which I
had intended to be a decisive movement away from teaching m ethods that might devalue
students’ intelligence merely because they perform poorly on a standardized test or in a
certain course. And occasionally, there would be moments in soutiens when the students
seemed to be genuinely engaged. But my original lesson plans for these tutorials, which
included playing clips from podcasts of American radio programs and explorations of the
idiosyncracies of American cultural practice, were rejected out-of-hand by the resident
remedial English specialist. It was never clear whether she deemed these ideas too difficult or
it that I was employing genres too far beyond what was considered instructional or
educational. The only administrative feedback I ever received was after the TOEIC exam,
when the head of the school came by the English office to congratulate us on having had so
many students pass. I felt that it was unlikely that I could have had very much to do with
their success; I had only been teaching for five months, and I had deliberately avoided
teaching TOEIC material.
The bizarre cultural disconnects and misfires frequently extended beyond the
classroom. Not only did I not receive explicit training or instruction about how and what to
teach, I was often at a loss as to how to interact with the support staff. Tech support consisted
of one single employee for entire school; a painfully shy man who only seemed to come to
campus two or three times a week. The newly-installed technologically-enhanced
classrooms, which had been extremely costly, seemed to malfunction on a daily basis, from
problems with computer viruses, to disconnected projectors, to a basic inability to find a
working electrical outlet. When teaching with technology was not an option, I resorted to
paper handouts, which should have been optimal, given that France is a paper-reliant society.
And yet, oddly enough, as with the tech guy, there was only one employee in the entire
school whose right it was to touch the copy machine; as Madame la photocopyist also spent
half of her day supplementing the janitorial service, she was frequently unavailable.
Methodology—Do we have to choose?
Chris Anson, in his paper for the 2009 CCCC workshop on international writing
research, wrote that the methodologies he and team tended towards were the more
humanistically-inclined social scientific “surveys, interviews, and focus groups for our
preliminary data collection and analysis [as well as some] text and discourse analysis” (p. 1).
Although current methodology in France tends toward the more empirical, I feel strongly
aligned with Anson’s humanistic approach, even to the extent of believing that we might
push things even further. It would be beneficial to return to my former students at Poitiers to
conduct interviews, and perhaps arrange focus groups with some of the faculty and
administrators. And yet, I’m not convinced that this alone would be methodologically
satisfying, considering the enormous gaps in mutual knowledge (described in the previous
section) between French and American educators. For instance, considering the weight that
les oraux hold in the grading schema at ESIP, shouldn’t I also consider traditions of orality
and classical rhetoric in both French and American school systems? Such a contribution to
research might tell us very much. Might we not also approach this sort of research with a
study of how institutional and classroom genres operate (à la David Russell), asking, for
instance, how the TOEIC functions differently or similarly as a genre in each country?
A socio-historiography (perhaps something reminiscent of Bazerman’s Languages
of Edison’s Light) would be equally productive; for instance, a twin examination of the
evolutions of systems of higher education in France and the United States—seeking out
common ancestors or mysterious correspondences. For instance, the introduction of FYC to
United States universities in the 1870s in response to a desire to “cure” illiteracy in the
American university represents a significant aberration, one which could not have happened
in France and which exercised a definitive impact on the evolution of writing instruction and
research, in addition to university economies in America. Historically, FYC has sustained
(or come close to sustaining) graduate students and faculty in literary and writing studies.
Nearly a hundred years later, the cultural revolution and the passage of open admissions
policies gave rise to new fears of undergraduate illiteracy, contributing to the establishment
of remedial writing courses as well as the introduction of WID/WAC (Connors, 1997;
Bazerman, 2005). Key scholars at the forefront of this field (e.g. Donahue, Skillen, Gannett,
Brereton, Mullin, Deane) suggest that precedent studies of WID/WAC are the best place to
start. For instance, English language teachers in French institutions often have many of the
same pedagogical goals as WID/WAC instructors.
Bazerman’s methodological perspective seems to blend historiography with socio-
historic theory (see Vygotsky 1987; Voloshinov 1973; Cole 1996; Engestrom 1987, 1993;
Wertsch 1991; Bruner 1986), an option that has proved productive for many researchers of
writing in the American context (see also Bazerman 1988; Berkenkotter & Huckin 1995; Myers
1990; Knorr-Cetina 1999). Uptakes of socio-historic theory engage a matrix of histories,
trajectories, affordances, artifacts, and tool mediation as a means for understanding behavior,
development, and internalization, and as such, it would appear socio-historic theory could be
good a method for understanding the literate practices with respect to some of the other
mediators and participants (such as the photocopy lady or les oraux).
Alternatively, actor-network, which has its roots in French scholarship, might prove
to be an even better methodological stance, while also accounting for the multitude of agents. In
comparison to CHAT, ANT theorists (Latour, Callon, Law, Suchman, Irvine) have been
pursuing many of the same practices and practitioners, sometimes with similar conceptual tools;
for instance, artifacts (or non-human actors) and distributed activity have important places in
both CHAT and ANT. Both are also concerned with mediation: while CHAT considers the ways
in which tools mediate actions and operations, ANT endeavors to distinguish intermediaries
(components that do not mediate activity) from mediators (components that do mediate activity).
Though different, these two approaches have in practice shared an appreciation for seeing
activity as complex, contextual, and dialogic. Indeed, CHAT and ANT seem so compatible that
they are sometimes conflated and/or concatenated (see for example the definition of CHAT in
Prior et al 2007). These conflations are intriguing though, to my mind, somewhat injudicious,
because they obscure several important incongruities. Engeström and Escalante (1996) were
among the first to consider what ANT might be able to contribute to CHAT, but do not yet seem
convinced of the efficacy of such a pairing (see also Engeström 1999). Russell (1997) has also
considered the potential value to genre studies of “activity networks,” a spin-off of current
notions of activity systems that “emphasize [the] loose, messy, dynamic qualities” of Latour’s
rhizomatic approach. Prior (2008) has recently proposed a kind of synthesis of (hierarchic)
cultural-historic activity approaches and (rhizomatic) actor-network perspectives, which he has
referred to as “flat CHAT,” and Spinuzzi (2008) is pursuing alternative ways of blending ANT
Hybridization, Interdisciplinarity, and Play
Based on these preliminary efforts, my conclusion is that the major contribution we stand to
make to the fledgling field of French writing research is not to conceptual or methodological
canons, but to disciplinary practice: to a movement toward organic hybridizations of theory and
other endeavors to play with disciplinarity. I can see no way of doing this without combining and
laminating different methodological perspectives, even if it means embracing points of
contradiction (such as the degree to which we should afford agency to non-human actors like a
test of English proficiency or a photocopy machine). As Bakhtin (1986) explains, “Even past
meanings, that is, those born in the dialogue of past centuries, can never be stable (finalized,
ended once and for all) - they will always change (be renewed) in the process of subsequent,
future development of the dialogue” (p. 170). The theoretical and methodological frameworks
and disciplinary pasts that lead up to the present study are simultaneously indispensable,
irreconcilable, and unfixed. And so, with Bakhtin in mind, I will continue to try to position my
study in relation to what I see as a heteroglossic and laminated past and necessarily contradictory
set of methodological possibilities.
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