Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking and Active Learning in the Classroom

By Doris Jones

John C. Bean

San Francisco, Jossey Bass: 2011. 360 pages

Reviewed by Doris Jones

Engaging Ideas

In this second edition of Engaging Ideas, John Bean showcases a growing body of scholarship that brings attention to how students’ writing in different disciplines has driven current research.  Broken down into 16 chapters, Engaging Ideas begs the question: how do students ‘transfer” or theorize what they have learned about writing from one context to another?  A significant finding in this book indicates that students entering various disciplines need a specialized literacy that requires them to use discipline-specific rhetorical and linguistic conventions to serve their purposes as writers.  To this end, Bean highlights Macalester College Quantitative Methods for Public Policy Program and Carelton College Quantitative Inquiry, Reasoning, and Knowledge Program (QUIRK).  Macalester College describes their Quantitative Thinking program in this manner:

Quantitative Literacy (QL) is not mathematics. It has almost nothing to do with mathematics as taught at the college level. It is about gaining the ability and habit to seek out quantitative information, to be able to analyze and critique it, and to use it in our public, personal, and professional lives. By its nature, QL is interdisciplinary. It appears in political debate and polling, in issues of health care, in understanding the choices we face with regard to the environment, in grappling with the complexities of poverty, education, and social action.

Carelton College Quantitative Inquiry program description reads:

Quantitative writing (QW) is the written explanation of a quantitative analysis. A good quantitative writing assignment engages students with an open-ended, ambiguous, data-rich problem requiring the thinker to understand principles and concepts rather than simply applying formulae. Assignments ask students to produce a claim with supporting reasons and evidence rather than "the answer." Such "ill-structured problems" thus differ from writing assignments that lack a quantitative dimension as well as from "story problems" in math courses. Quantitative writing assignments can take a variety of forms, genres, and complexities.

These programs have proven quite successful and issues calls for increased collaboration between faculty in Rhetoric and Composition and other disciplines to duplicate such efforts.  John Bean and David Bleich both agree that such collaborations, while challenging to construct and sustain, can help students become active participants in their own learning by entering “real world” conversations to remove them from the hypothetical process of writing.   Bleich’s Know and tell: A Writing pedagogy of disclosure, genre, and membership is an advocate for rethinking how writing and language cannot be taught within a finite period of time:

Writing and language use form a living subject requiring theory, teaching, and non-hypothetical practice to establish professional credentials.  Because of this fact, many who write well in one subject matter are misled into thinking that they write well, period; or more generally, writing well in one academic subject is assumed to be derived from a talent for good writing.  Among academics who pay some attention to students’ writing in their own subjects, there is an uncomprehending attitude toward professional teachers of writing, who have come to understand that people have a range of abilities for writing, that writing cannot be taught or learned in toto during one semester or one year, and that one’s confidence to write may disappear under many circumstances that call for different forms of writing and language use.

Another highlight found in Engaging Ideas, is Chapter 13, “Designing and Sequencing Assignments to Teach Undergraduate Research.”  Bean provides pedagogical guidelines to help faculty assist students acquire the subskills associated with the research paper assignment:

(1)   How to ask discipline appropriate research questions.

(2)   How to establish a rhetorical context (audience, genre, and purpose).

(3)   How to find sources.

(4)   Why to find sources.

(5)   How to integrate sources into the paper.

(6)   How to take thoughtful notes.

(7)   How to cite and document sources.

While each of these subskills may appear simplistic, they represent the greatest challenge students face in the research process. Synthesizing information from multiple sources in the research paper is one of the most cognitively demanding tasks for students to achieve.  Bean suggests that faculty should make these subskills a core part of their teaching to allow students to select information on the basis of its relevance to their research.  (See diagram below).


This diagram is adapted from Anne Beaufort in College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instruction. Logan UT: Utah State University Press, 2007, p. 19.

I am currently using this textbook in my research writing classes.  I find the textbook informative and a useful resource about the teaching of writing.  Bean’s emphasis on critical thinking and writing in the disciplines as a collaborative process is especially illuminating.  These processes, according to Bean, can construct and reinforce cooperative learning environments and writing as explicit instructional activities.


Works Cited

Beaufort, Anne.  College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instruction.  Logan: Utah State U P, 2007.

Bleich, David.  Know and tell: A Writing pedagogy of disclosure, genre, and membership.  Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1998.