Vol. 6. No. 2 R-4 September 2002
Return to Table of Contents Return to Main Page

Writing Games: Multicultural Case Studies of Academic Literacy Practices in Higher Education

Christine Pearson Casanave (2002)
Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers
Pp. xx + 311
ISBN 0-8058-3531-8
US$32.50 (paper) US$69.95 (cloth)

In seeking to understand the development of academic writers, in particular, multicultural academic writers, Christine Pearson Casanave takes the reader through the struggles of novice writers to the challenges of accomplished writers. In recounting the steps writers take and the phases they go through to become academic writers, Casanave engages in two interwoven undertakings. Through the use of case studies, she portrays in-depth the struggles of developing voices and identities in learning to play the writing games of academia. Casanave employs case studies to explore the game that shapes and is shaped by the writers.

Endeavoring to understand and explain the transitions individuals go through, she employs the game metaphor to explain the social, academic, political, and personal adjustments writers make as they develop from novice student writers into adept academic writers who may still feel challenged to continue the transitions of voice, style, and content through much of their careers. At the same time, she invites the reader to share in her struggles with accomplishing a more personally transparent academic style of writing. Readers will find chapters that resonate with their experiences as well as providing insights into the challenges other writers face.

As she moves through the different steps in identity development, Casanave continually readjusts the picture adding layers of complexity to the difficulty of understanding the adjustments individuals make to play the writing games. This complexity provides readers with a deeper understanding of the social nature of the writing process, of the reinvention and reinterpretations individuals go through in their individual struggles to gain their place as an academic writer. As she reminds the reader, each case study represents an individual's experiences so any generalizations should be cautious and tentative.

In the first chapter, Casanave presents the theoretical basis of her book. The chapter's title, When Writing is More Than Writing, hints at the direction she wishes to take. Her qualitative exploration of academic writers and writing uses both multiple perspectives and longitudinal reporting of individuals constructing their identities as academic writers. The identities academic writers grow into are what she calls a game-like situated social practice. In seeking to understand how individuals adjust to, conform to, resist, and even rebel against these social practices, she relies on case studies for her data. Case studies enable readers to understand in some depth individual actions and thinking in social settings, at least as well as the individuals can express their feelings and thoughts. Furthermore, case studies provide multiple perspectives that enable a fuller understanding of the social forces at work. Through these studies, Casanave examines the transitions individuals go through in gaining admittance to the academy, participating in the academy, and in turn contributing to shaping the academy for present and future members. [-1-]

In chapter 2, The Beginnings of Change: Learning and Teaching Undergraduate Academic Literacy Games, Casanave looks at both participants in the classroom: students and teachers. She begins with the section titled "Clueless" to aptly describe the difficult transition into undergraduate writing. Published studies she reviews show that undergraduate or novice academic writers face daunting challenges in learning the rules of the writing games because the rules are seldom explicit. These case studies reveal that the game strategy students often relied upon was guessing what the teacher wanted and trying to write to that. Consequently, undergraduate writing often becomes a game of survival in an uncharted territory since the rules change from discipline to discipline and even teacher to teacher. Consequently, in attempting to develop voices, student writers often find the paths confusing. Survival belongs to the students who successfully and strategically adapt to these demands. Casanave's own case study comprises the last half of the chapter. This case study revolves around two writing classes taught in her university, a Japanese university, to prepare students for overseas graduate studies in English. She describes the classes of two teachers. They teach their writing classes based on their academic training leading to very different practices and expectations of the students. While the products were different, the students emerged with a sense of the multivocality (the many voices used through use of resources) of academic writing, an emerging authoritative voice, and the ability to make the papers look right.

With chapter three, Stepping into the Profession: Writing Games in Masters Programs, a professional identity starts to take shape. Students find their teachers expect them to take more responsibility for their writing. In the review of published studies, the writing games are revealed to be not only textual but also personal and political depending on the particular graduate programs the students are in. Casanave's case studies of five international masters students in the Monterey Institute of International Studies involves interviews with students, class observations, and assignments. Through examining these different perspectives on the graduate school experience, Casanave found students challenged with the amount and variety of writing required, and she observed the importance of the teachers' feedback in helping the students integrate into a discipline. Somewhat surprisingly, she reported that the international students she studied did not feel disadvantaged by the tasks because they often proved equally challenging for the mother-tongue students. The consequences of these experiences resulted in students aligning themselves more with their profession and developing discoursal identities.

The doctoral experience comes under scrutiny in chapter four, Redefining the Self: The Unsettling Doctoral Program Game. Doctoral students engage in the writing game more seriously in trying to establish their membership within a discipline as the writing games become more social and political. It is in this process of establishing new identities that they may struggle with fitting into the discipline because of the need to learn new ways of participating in literate conversations within their discipline. In her case study, Casanave describes a woman enrolled in a sociology doctoral program who found herself unable to make the adjustments needed for the program she enrolled in. Her analysis shows sensitivity to the person's difficulties while revealing a perceptive, intelligent student who recognized the games but could not play them.

Juggling and Balancing Games of Bilingual Faculty, chapter five, investigates the next step after the doctoral program, establishing a professional identity. Probing the situation of bilingual faculty, Casanave relates the stories of four Japanese academic writers' experiences after reviewing three published case studies. The case studies of bilingual academics include a scholar beginning his career in Hong Kong, and two bilingual academics now working in the United States. These studies point to the difficulty in developing a properly authoritative identity while dealing with the gatekeepers of journal editors and tenure committees. Next, she describes the situations and writing experiences of four Japanese bilingual academics who publish in English and Japanese. These writers ranging from two tenure seekers to tenured professors seek to balance the different demands of the two cultures. In this exploration, the reader gains insights into the sometimes conflicting loyalties these writers experience in attempting to play the games of the two academic writing cultures. [-2-]

In the penultimate chapter, she relates the struggles of writers trying to write in a more transparently personal style for academic audiences. Since she states that this is an important goal for her in her own writing, she portrays the adjustments and efforts needed by accomplished academic writers in the TESOL field to try to find a new voice in writing about personal issues as depictions not confessions. This chapter recreates the process of compiling an edited book of personal reflections by well-known ESL scholars in shaping new writing identities. In a sense, this chapter strays from the theme of the earlier chapters because it is less of a multicultural exploration. However, the portrayals extend the theme as the writers in a sense are moving into a different culture of writing.

The concluding chapter, The Paradoxical Effort After Coherence in Academic Writing Games, helps the reader clarify the preceding chapters. The writing games are discussed as an effort after coherence. The paradox comes from the shifting perspectives on experience and the social and political dynamics that make this an unfinished effort. Furthermore, the effort may result in the selection and disregarding of conflicting information such as life experiences or research data that disrupt the coherence. In working toward coherence, the writer needs to deal constantly with complexity and ambiguity in grappling with their writing goals.

The book does several things very well. It analyzes the pressures on and efforts of writers at different stages in their careers as they proceed in learning the rules of the games. As it carries out these tasks, it engages readers who will find it difficult not to reflect upon their personal experiences with academic writing. These reflections may lead to deeper self-understanding as well as a better pedagogical understanding of their students. It provides a solid qualitative study of academic writing. Respecting her own admonitions, the author generalizes cautiously in making her points about how the games that shape the individuals and conversely are shaped by the writers. Furthermore, she tackles the complexity in a straightforward manner and with candor so that the case studies meet demands of coherence with grace. This book makes an important contribution to the qualitative literature on academic writing.

This book is not a guide on how to play the writing games. Its audience among classroom practitioners may be limited because although the writing is clear, the ideas she grapples with will challenge the reader because the book builds on research from sociology and anthropology, genre studies, some feminist theory, and constructivism. By its nature, the book will take some reading to get to the insights. But the reading will provide many rewards in every chapter. It will reward the student trying to make better sense of their current or future studies, the teacher trying to make better sense of the students' difficulties, the writer trying to understand why the game is so difficult, and the researcher looking for models or questions to pursue. This is an important book for anyone interested in achieving a better understanding of the multiple learning tasks involved in becoming an academic writer.

John Graney
Santa Fe Community College

© Copyright rests with authors. Please cite TESL-EJ appropriately.

Editor's Note: Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page for purposes of citation..

Return to Table of Contents Return to Top Return to Main Page