Volume 22, Number 2, Summer 2005

Review: Conversations about writing: Eavesdropping, inkshedding, and joining in. (2005). Elizabeth Sargent and Cornelia Paraskevas. Toronto: Nelson Thomson

Tosh Tachino

Iowa State University


Since the late 80s, one of the trends in rhetoric and composition is to emphasize the performative aspect of writing and the context of writing that makes writing meaningful (Miller, 1986) or “real” (Hunt, 1993; Artemeva, Bauman, Dias, Faber, Garrett-Petts, Graves, et al., 2002). In response, composition scholars and classroom teachers have struggled to address the criticism that writing in a typical composition class does not seem to perform any social action (Freedman, 1994); furthermore, unlike writing in a content class where the content knowledge acquired in the class relates to another class in the same field, introductory composition, as it is offered as a “service course,” lacks “legitimate” content that is meaningful beyond the composition class (Russell, 1995; Freedman, 1995; Smit, 2004). While this criticism has been well-known among composition scholars, there have been few textbooks that directly respond to this gap in theory and practice. Conversations about writing: Eavesdropping, inkshedding, and joining in, by Sargent and Paraskevas (2005) is, to my knowledge, the first introductory textbook in composition that directly addresses this issue by insisting that “the subject in an introductory writing course is writing” (p. xv, emphasis in original) and that students in introductory writing courses should be introduced to recent research on writing process and pedagogy.

To incorporate writing theory and research into the core content of the composition class, Sargent and Paraskevas begin their textbook by asking students to eavesdrop, in other words, read about what composition scholars have been saying about writing, especially about student writing – something that matters to the student but something that nobody has bothered to explain (pp. 1-2). After reading scholarly conversations, students are invited to reflect on the conversations through inkshedding, which is used as a bootstrapping exercise to join in the conversation in those texts.

The textbook is successful in its stated aim, providing “legitimate” content, since composition theory and research are the areas of expertise writing teachers can claim. The use of composition theory and research simultaneously enables students to talk about writing beyond superficial discussions and enables them to explore and make sense of their own writing processes.

The textbook also bridges the gap between student writing and academic writing by asking students to consider their own experience in relating to the excerpts included in the textbook, thus legitimizing their experience in the process of learning academic writing. Through appeal to students’ prior knowledge as well as lucid explanations, Sargent and Paraskevas make composition theory and research accessible without shying away from difficult concepts and vocabulary, such as heuristic, contact zone, genre, T-unit, and discourse community. For example, the term heuristic is introduced in the context of process approach (with excerpts from Elbow [1973] and Calkins [1986]), and the term is defined as “just a word for anything that helps us make discoveries or learn, helps us solve a problem or figure something out” (p. 114). The definition is followed by several examples to which the students can personally relate through their own writing experience.

Legitimization of student experience in this textbook goes beyond simply facilitating learning. Inkshedding prompts often encourage students to question, and sometimes contradict or resist some of the ideas expressed in the readings. These moves to foster critical thinking and active questioning of epistemologies distinguish this textbook from most textbooks, which typically treat knowledge claims as unproblematic (Myers, 1992).

The topical focus on writing theory and research does not mean that students are never given the kind of strategies that are offered in most “writing” textbooks. Throughout the textbook, Sargent and Paraskevas suggest many practices that can help students in various academic tasks. These strategies include overcoming writer’s block, marking texts, using dictionaries and handbooks, and keeping a reading log.

Structurally, the book is divided into eight conversations or thematic units, each containing the background information, summaries of key issues, inkshed prompts, excerpts from scholarly and popular writing about writing, and essay prompts. While Sargent and Paraskevas emphasize that there is no right order to read these units, they have purposefully began the textbook with a broad theme of language in learning and thinking.

The first unit explores the role of language in determining what it means to be human and includes readings from writers like Helen Keller and Malcolm X, who, in some ways, experienced what it is like to live without some aspects of language (e.g. listening, speaking, reading, writing). The unit culminates in Pinker’s excerpt from The language instinct that expresses the Chomskian notion that our potential to manipulate language is innate.

The second unit, entitled “reflecting on the writing process,” presents reflections of accomplished creative writers, such as Natalie Goldberg and Donald Murray, who try to explicate their own writing processes. In response, students are asked to think about their own writing processes and to compare their writing experience with those of the authors represented in the readings and those of their classmates.

In the third unit, “exploratory writing and invention: freewriting, inkshedding, and writing-to-learn,” students start “eavesdropping” on the scholarly works in composition studies, especially works from the process period. The readings include Hunt’s work on inkshedding, Sargent’s work on invention strategies, and Perl’s work on the composing process. As the students read the scholarly writing, they are asked to inkshed about issues such as writing myths, citation practices, and paradigm shifts.

The fourth unit, “the academic writing debate: what is academic writing for?” Introduces the student to issues in academic writing, and it begins with the famous conversations between Bartholomae and Elbow. This chapter focuses on summarizing and on how summaries are incorporated into the intertextual webs of scholarly writing. For example, one of the inkshedding prompts asks students to imagine that Bartholomae and Elbow as well as other writers in the chapter ( Limerick, Metalene, and Fulwiler) are having a conversation at a coffee shop and asks the students to capture the tenor of the conversation.

The next unit, “the grammar-as-style debate: Does grammar instruction hurt or help student writing?” problematizes the notion of grammar by making distinctions among five different grammars, including prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar. Through the readings in this section, Sargent and Paraskevas argue that few approaches to grammar are helpful to writers. As they propose the idea that grammar is a property of style, and they introduce rhetorical rules in English, such as intra-sentential organization of given-new information, the principle of end weight, and the principle of end focus. Many of the inkshedding prompts in this unit ask students to reconsider their relationship with grammar and other handbook rules. These prompts are designed to foster critical awareness of these rules and the role of rhetorical grammar in writing.

The sixth unit, “organization and genre,” introduces students to a more recent view of writing as social in rhetoric and composition. However, the reading excerpts for this unit are not scholarly articles in rhetoric and composition, but reflections of authors who write in different genres. For example, Mairs discusses the literature of personal disaster and tries to understand the rhetorical demand of such a genre. On the other hand, Polanyi’s except presents two worldviews, that of the scientist and that of the artist and explains how they are, in fact, quite similar. Some of the inkshed prompts in this section ask students to think about the context as well as various generic features of readings presented in this unit and previous units. One inkshed prompt asks them to categorize these readings and elicit rationale for their categorization.

The focus of the penultimate unit, “audience, evaluation, and response,” is to encourage students to think of various ways in which to respond to other people’s writing. The students are encouraged to think about a range of responses that help or hinder the writing process, and the unit (especially the excerpt from Sargent) provides some practical worksheets for peer-review sessions. Inkshed prompts in this chapter ask students to consider the audience of various texts, including their own essays and to consider the kind of responses such texts might receive. One prompt in particular asks the students to compare the feedback they received from the instructor and their peers and to write about the differences they notice.

The last unit, “separating revision from proofreading,” makes distinctions among revision, proofreading, and copy-editing to encourage substantive revisions to students’ drafts. The excerpts in this unit show the revision processes professional writers go through as well as strategies for revising. Inkshed prompts in this unit often solicit students to relate their writing experience to the experience of other writers in the readings and to write their reactions to some of the revision strategies.

While Sargent and Paraskevas’ work is an excellent textbook for an introductory writing course in its ability to bring writing theory and research down to the level of the student, I feel that the textbook seems to over-emphasize the process paradigm. In one sense this emphasis is understandable since the process paradigm was the first serious paradigm in composition and the understanding of this paradigm is often a prerequisite for understanding other paradigms that followed. However, if the authors wanted to provide a more accurate picture of the current approaches in rhetoric and composition, then a greater emphasis on the social approach and its variants would have been more appropriate. I also wonder if the authors could have included excerpts from scholarly, but accessible, pieces in the section on organization and genre since there are plenty of recent scholarly endeavours in this area.

Less serious, albeit not unimportant, is the issue of document design of the textbook, as it took some time before I became familiar with the book’s format. In particular, I found myself somewhat confused on page twelve where I found a large heading “Linda Trichter Metcalf and Tobin Simon, from ‘The Sound of a Voice Thinking’ in Writing the Mind Alive” and expected an excerpt to follow immediately. Instead, there was a summary and background/contextualizing information that situated the excerpt. The actual excerpt was on page sixteen, after two major headings. My confusion might have been spared if the textbook explained how the information was organized within each unit and used more visuals and negative space to clearly demarcate boundaries and indicate how each section contributes to the overall text.

Overall, the textbook should be praised for its attempt to make composition research accessible for whom it matters most—students— and its ability to simultaneously address theoretical and practical problems in introductory writing courses. For us, inkshedders, the textbook provides us with many ways of incorporating inkshedding in our classroom to invite students into our scholarly conversations and empower them to speak back to us.


Artemeva, N., Bauman, M, Dias, P., Faber, B. D., Garrett-Petts, W., Graves, R., et al. (2002). What’s “real” in writing and reading situations? A collaborative exploration. Inkshed, 20(1), 5-29.

Calkins, L. M. (1986) The art of teaching writing. Portsmouth, NH: Elsevier.

Elbow, P. (1973). Writing without teachers. New York: Oxford University Press.

Freadman, A. (1994). Anyone for tennis? In A. Freedman and P. Medway. (Eds.), Genre and the new rhetoric (pp. 43-66). London and Bristol, PA: Taylor & Francis.

Freedman, A. (1995). The what, where, when, why, and how of classroom genres. In J. Petraglia (Ed.), Reconceiving writing, rethinking writing instruction (pp 121-144). Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum.

Hunt, R. A. (1993). Texts, textoids and utterances: Writing and reading for meaning, in and out of classroom. In S. B. Straw (Ed.), Teaching beyond communications (pp. 113-129). Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann-Boynton/Cook.

Myers, G. (1992). Textbooks and the sociology of scientific knowledge. English for Specific Purposes, 11(1), 3-17.

Smit, D. W. (2004). The end of composition studies. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.


Table of Contents Rebecca Carruthers Den Hoed , Review