[index] [back] [next]


Martin Nystrand (USA)


Martin Nystrand[i] is director of the Wisconsin branch of the National Research Center on English Learning & Achievement (CELA)[ii] This project is run in collaboration with the University at Albany, State University of New York, and with additional sites at the University of Georgia and the University of Washington. Martin’s research interests range from the history of ideas about writing, text and meaning, discourse analysis, classroom discourse and learning, to ecological models of instruction and learning. He is co-editor of the research journal Written Communication. Recent books include Opening Dialogue: Understanding the Dynamics of Language and Learning in the English Classroom; The Structure of Written Communication: Studies in Reciprocity between Writers and Readers, and What Writers Know: The Language, Process, and Structure of Written Discourse.


His contribution Culture Supports For Empirical Research On Writing provides a thorough historical overview of the emergence of writing research in the United States in the1970’s as a field of empirical research. One key point that he makes is that great ideas and visions are not enough to wreak change on their own. There must also be nurturing contexts – cultural and disciplinary niches – that are receptive to these ideas and give them space and time to be tried out and developed. Taking as his point of departure the recent success of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao as an example of how a specific historical, social and cultural context played a vital role in the construction of the success of this monolithic project, positioning Gehry as “the right man with the right design in the right place at the right time”, Martin goes on to examine how a burgeoning intellectual movement at Harvard University in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s away from the then dominant pedagogical, prescriptive concern for text features in writing instruction and evaluation, and over to empirical research specifically tailored to describe cognitive writing processes, where text processes and the writing strategies of individuals were brought to the fore, paved the way for the development of modern writing research. In tune with the pragmatic thinking of John Dewey and William James a century before, the new writing research sought to construe writing as a dynamic, meaning-making process, within which individual thought and agency became transformed into text. This issued in a highly productive period of writing research in the 1970’s where a large number of case-studies were carried out in various (largely educational) settings, providing many new insights into how individual writers thought about and organised their own writing processes.


In the 1980’s yet another new focus was brought to the field, largely due to the influence of anthropological and ethnographical research methodologies and thinking, which stimulated an increased interest in the social and cultural context of writing, and their effects on individual writing processes and composition strategies. Researchers became more attentive to how individuals managed (or not) to tailor their writing to specific social situations and discourse communities at different times and places, positioning themselves intersubjectively and reciprocally in relation to various readers and response givers. Many of these impulses are present in writing research today, where there is still a strong focus on various kinds of identity work, especially in studies of young people’s writing (see for instance Lars Evensen, Kjell Lars Berge and Patrick Coppock’s chapters in this present volume). But, as will become clear on reading several of the other contributions in this volume (see for instance Carolyn Miller, Anna-Malin Karlsson and Finn Bostad’s chapters), the scope of the writing research field is now widening considerably in other directions in order to incorporate the specific characteristics of writing carried out, increasingly collaboratively, in and with new media. These media allow people to co-operate with one another at a distance far more easily and more quickly than before, and to incorporate multimodal forms of representation in the ‘texts’ they write, exchange and talk about, and there is a growing need to understand the strategies and competencies that they are developing in doing so.


Finally, bearing in mind that, as David Barton points out in his chapter, there is already a vast amount of writing being carried on outside of traditional institutional settings, much of which has been little studied in systematic ways, Martin has a vital point in his conclusion in when he notes that “Some but not all of the voices in the new discourse about writing were conventional and institutional, including the instructional voices of teaches and students, as well as studies, dissertations and published articles and books. And some of the voices were cultural and political with sources transcending the academy itself. Taken together these voices constitute the ‘textual space’ in which disciplinary voices have meaning and gain authority.”


[i] Martin Nystrand’s faculty homepage is at: http://www.wcer.wisc.edu/people/pi.asp?sid=564,

and he may be contacted by e-mail at: <nystrand@ssc.wisc.edu>

[ii] The Research Center website is at:




[index] [back] [next]