June 1995 — Volume 1, Number 4
Listening to the World: Cultural Issues in Academic Writing
Helen Fox (1994)
Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English
Pp. xxi + 159
ISBN 0-8141-2953-6 (paper)
US $16.95 ($12.95 members)
I have always been uncomfortable with the concept of “critical thinking” in discussing academic writing. The lack of critical thinking skills is most commonly noted among particular groups of students–those from certain cultural groups or economic classes. The implication seems to be that critical thinking, the ability to assess ideas and situations, is available only to select groups and is not a general human cognitive ability.
For this reason, I am especially grateful for Helen Fox’s book, Listening to the World: Cultural Issues in Academic Writing. It is a clear, well-written, and touching treatise on the cultural issues that affect our students’ written texts and our reactions to them. It also gives a depth to our understanding of culture and writing that is seen too infrequently in academic writing.
Fox interviewed a number of students and faculty at the University of Michigan about the problems surrounding academic writing and culture. Many of the students are successful writers in their home cultures but are doing poorly with written English discourse. The book presents pieces of those interviews in an engaging narrative style.
The first chapter, “Frustrations,” presents the backgrounds of the students she discusses in the book, as well as their expressions of frustration with not understanding the academic mandate to be “analytical.” This sets the stage for the second chapter, “Worldwide Strategies for Indirection,” which reviews some issues in contrastive rhetoric and writing styles from a variety of cultures, as well as the third, “‘In Solidarity’: The Voice of the Collectivity.” The third chapter reveals some truly useful insights about the “overuse” of rhetorical questions in student writing. It also brings up the thorny issue of having to change one’s world view to write successfully in a second language.
Chapter 4, “What is Ancient is Also Original,” deals with learning styles and strategies, and especially picks apart the cultural baggage inherent in the notion of “creativity” in academic writing. It also debunks some myths about rote learning and memorization, and the types of school systems that depend on those instructional techniques.
Chapters 5, “Something Inside is Saying No,” and 6, “Stigma and Resistance,” are especially important for understanding the [-1-] mindsets of students. Chapter 5 explores, through the students’ own words, their resistance to academic writing in the U.S. One student, Carla, put it very clearly:
Learning to write in an American style, it is much more than learning a new technique. It is a way this culture “normalizes” you to the system, shaping on you new values and new ways of looking at the world. Therefore, the writing style is not value free; it has ethical consequences depending on if it is empowering or dis-empowering for you in this new culture or in your home culture. (p. 77)
Chapter 6 deals primarily with a culture within U.S. culture– that of African Americans in the U.S. school system. It draws insightful and important parallels with the Koreans and Burakumin in Japan, illustrating the effect of social stigma on educational performance.
Chapter 7, the final chapter, adds the critical piece of information to this body of work. Entitled “Helping World Majority Students Make Sense of University Expectations,” this chapter presents practical suggestions for addressing some of the issues brought up by the students throughout the book. It also tackles the difficult question of who needs to change–the universities or the students coming to them. There is also an appendix which lists an extensive bibliography of resources on related topics.
I have one criticism of the book, however: some of the early chapters tend to slip into the type of thinking that Fox herself is arguing against: e.g., she uses value-laden vocabulary to refer to the communication styles of other cultures–“sophisticated” “roundabout” (p. 18), etc. Similarly, she refers to American written prose as “logical” (p. 19). Although this happens only briefly, and the message of the remainder of the book negates these earlier “slips,” it seems someone as perceptive as Fox would have caught these culturally determined ideas.
In the introduction, Fox mentions that the professors she interviewed had a difficult time defining exactly what they meant by “analytical writing” (p. xvii). After reading this book, it is apparent to me that ideas we cannot define but which are part of our everyday vocabulary may be a part of an interior landscape so inextricably bound to culture that we can’t give them voice clearly. In my own program, we attempt somewhat in vain, semester after semester, to come to a consensus on a definition of analytical writing. I believe Listening to the World may supply the reason why our search is so difficult, and why our students, from a variety of cultural backgrounds, may be having such a hard time producing what we can’t define.[-2-]
University of California, Berkeley
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