Book Review, Composition as Conversation: Seven Virtues for Effective Writing

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Book Reviewed: Hoover, Heather M. Composition as Conversation: Seven Virtues for Effective Writing (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2023)

Reviewed by: Jeffrey M. Ringer, PhD

Journal of Christian Teaching Practice Volume 11, (January – December 2024)

Reviewer Affiliation: University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Total Pages: 161

ISBN-13: 978-1-54096603-2


True to its title, Composition as Conversation: Seven Virtues for Effective Writing forwards a method for teaching writing grounded in the metaphor of conversation, which experienced writing instructor Heather M. Hoover advances as a practical and ethical solution to the persistent problems that continue to plague writing instruction. Hoover’s approach, grounded as it is in the communicative act of conversation, would be well-suited to a range of communication courses that require students to produce research writing.

For Hoover, the metaphor of conversation holds the key to transforming the way that her primary audience—teachers and students in college-level first-year writing courses—perceive academic writing, in no small part because of its familiarity. The practical problem that Hoover seeks to address through her approach is one that writing teachers would recognize. Students perceive academic writing as a code that cannot be cracked or a mystery that refuses to be solved. Frustrated by the apparent lack of any perceived rhetorical purpose for academic writing, students produced impenetrable or incoherent prose that opens with “a random definition, a banal dictionary definition, or some variation of ‘throughout history’” (Hoover 3). Yet as an experienced writing instructor, Hoover knows that students are no strangers to negotiating daily rhetorical interactions. Students adeptly “introduce themselves in many different contexts” and know how to “assess the situation and offer the most relevant information” suitable for the moment (3). It is this everyday expertise that Hoover hopes to leverage through grounding the unfamiliar (academic writing) in the familiar (conversation), with the goal of helping students “participate thoughtfully and responsibly in a conversation where their voices should and do matter” (4).

But Hoover seeks to go beyond helping students write academic discourse effectively, as important as that goal is. She also wants to provide her students with ethical tools to transcend the “vitriolic discourse” that pervades our current political moment (4). And while she is not heavy-handed on this point, she does view the writing classroom as a space where students can learn to engage in civil discourse—to listen attentively to others, to empathize, to reason effectively, even to change one’s mind. Hoover works towards this goal by immersing students in an impressively scaffolded writing course that explicitly emulates the real-world setting of an academic conference. Before the semester, Hoover and her colleagues at Milligan University craft a call for papers that serves as a common yet flexible exigence for student research and writing. (The sample CFP offered in the appendices announces the theme of “Sustainability: Building Webs of Interdependence.”) Students then devote their semesters to developing research projects reflective of the theme and grounded in their “fields of study or interests” (125). Throughout the semester, students engage in a variety of research and writing practices: inventing ideas, crafting research questions and proposals, writing and revising drafts, giving and receiving feedback, and so on. The goal is to give students the experience of what it feels like to produce research writing for a real audience, which is realized most fully during the end-of-semester conference that replaces the final exam. Faculty effectually serve as conference organizers, gathering students into panels, building a conference program, and even—laudably—preparing students to ask effective questions during the Q&A sessions. Although Hoover invokes an audience of first-year writing students and instructors, this approach also could find purchase in communication courses that require students to conduct original research.

Every component of the course links to the metaphor of conversation. To bring this metaphor to life, Hoover forwards seven virtues, inviting students to be curious, attentive, relatable, on topic, engaging, open-minded, and generous. In keeping with her conversational approach, Hoover crowd-sourced these virtues from her writing students rather than coming up with them on her own. She unpacks those virtues by drawing on a diverse collection of writers, including critical theorists like bell hooks, Paulo Freire, and Martin Heidegger and poets/essayists/literary scholars such as George Orwell, T.S. Eliot, Mary Oliver, and Jane Hirshfield. In organizing the book by these virtues (one chapter each) rather than stages of the research process, Hoover effectively recasts quotidian practices as intrinsically ethical. For example, in chapters 3-5 (“Be Relatable,” “Be on Topic,” and “Be Engaging,” respectively), Hoover discusses introductions, thesis statements, peer review, note taking, outlining, conclusions, titles, clarity, and syntax. Riveting topics they are not, but Hoover’s recasting of them as virtues pertaining to conversation give them new life. Being on topic, for instance, means “navigat[ing] the ebb and flow of a conversation, introducing, analyzing, and extending ideas.” Hoover explains:

Such work means sometimes listening, sometimes responding, but always working to move the conversation forward by synthesizing multiple viewpoints and voices into a clear argument, a decidedly difficult task. Each new voice can distract from the original intent if not carefully placed in conversation. (58)

The act of placing those components in conversation, Hoover suggests, entails processes of note taking, of visually arranging multiple viewpoints with each other, and of building those ideas into an outline. It’s challenging work, as any experienced academic writer knows, and doubly challenging for novices who may not be primed to care about the unfamiliar set of discourses generally called “academic writing.” Hoover’s approach may not make those practices any easier for students, but it does ground them in the familiar, which can go a long way towards their demystification. Of course, that statement is true for students who perceive conversation as familiar and welcome. I do wonder whether the composition-as-conversation approach might be less productive for some neurodivergent students, especially those with a form of autism in which conversation might be anxiety-inducing. Given the recent scholarly attention towards various forms of neurodivergence in writing studies (Gerstle and Walsh; Smilges; Wood, et al.), this question strikes me as one worth asking.

When it comes to its religious motives, Composition as Conversation is not heavy-handed. The most overt references to the book’s Christian orientation come largely via Hoover’s citations, which range ecumenically from evangelical or exvangelical writers like climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe and the late Rachel Held Evans to more broadly spiritual writers such as Krista Tippett and Thich Nhat Hanh. Wendell Berry and Benedictine monk Joan Chittister make appearances, as do references to theological texts by Norman Wirzba and Ellen Ott Marshall. At the base of Hoover’s ethical approach to composition rests the biblical Golden Rule, which by my count appears only once in the book but ripples throughout all seven virtues and the metaphor of conversation itself. Late in the book, for instance, in a chapter titled “Be Generous,” Hoover outlines the components of the end-of-semester conference and details the impressive steps she and her colleagues take to prepare students to be good conference attendees. Much of this preparation entails helping students think about how to ask generous questions and avoid those that tend to be self-serving, such as “The Show-Off Question” and the “Incomprehensible Question”—question types that, unfortunately, arise all-too-frequently during Q&A sessions at academic conferences. Hoover asks students to write responses to two prompts: “What one question would I like to be asked about my project and why?” and “What one question would I hate to be asked about my project and why?” (112). Not a complicated prompt at all, but one that invites students as attendees to put themselves in the place of student-as-presenter. As Hoover explains, “Inviting all writers, regardless of whether they are presenting, to reflect in this way generates empathy and, ultimately, more compelling discussion during the conference” (113).

It should be noted that Hoover’s approach to teaching writing is not new. At base, her method features many of the practices championed by the writing process movement of the late twentieth century (Fulkerson; Hairston; Murray). Additionally, her ethical approach finds ample company in the field of writing studies—for instance, John Duffy’s Provocations of Virtue: Rhetoric, Ethics, and the Teaching of Writing forwards an ethics-based composition pedagogy grounded in virtues such as open-mindedness and intellectual courage. And the virtues she names parallel those defined in a 2011 white paper called Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing Instruction. Jointly published by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project, the Framework defined several habits of mind, including curiosity, openness, and engagement, that align with student success as writers in college and beyond. Finally, the metaphor of conversation itself appears frequently in composition textbooks. Many explicitly reference rhetorician Kenneth Burke’s parlor metaphor as a way of thinking about academic writing as conversation, and in the 2000s Gerald Graff and Kathy Birkenstein’s popular textbook, They Say/I Say, explicitly sought to frame academic writing as dialogical (though in much more formulaic ways than Hoover advocates).

That said, the way that Hoover defines and links the components that comprise composition as conversation constitute a fresh take. Retrofitting an existing writing curriculum with one or more of the components she defines would be possible. But in this case, the whole certainly appears to be greater than the sum of its parts. For students comfortable with conversation, immersion within the totality of Hoover’s curriculum—learning about composition as conversation and enacting that learning in a close-to-real-world context—is what leads to the practical and ethical transformation Hoover seeks.  And while there is no guarantee that Communication Studies students would be predisposed toward conversation, the likelihood of such a possibility renders Hoover’s ideas worth considering by faculty teaching communication courses.


Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. 3rd ed., University of California Press, 1974.

Council of Writing Program Administrators, National Council of Teachers of English, and National Writing Project. Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing. NCTE, 2011. 30 Dec. 2023.

Duffy, John. Provocations of Virtue: Rhetoric, Ethics, and the Teaching of Writing. Utah State University Press, 2019.

Gerstle, Val, and Lynda Walsh, eds. Autism Spectrum Disorders in the College Composition Classroom: Making Writing Instruction More Accessible For All Students, Marquette University Press, 2011.

Graff, Gerald, and Cathy Birkenstein. “They Say/I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. 1st ed., W.W. Norton, 2006.

Fulkerson, Richard. “Composition at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 56, no. 4, 2005, pp. 654–87.

Hairston, Maxine. “The Winds of Change: Thomas Kuhn and the Revolution in the Teaching of Writing.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 33, no. 1, 1982, pp. 76–88.

Murray, Donald M. “Teach Writing as a Process Not Product.” The Leaflet, vol. 71, no. 4, 1972, pp. 11-14.

Smilges, J. Logan. “Neuroqueer Literacies; or, Against Able-Reading.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 73, no. 1, 2021, pp. 103–25.

Wood, Tara, Jay Dolmage, Margaret Price, and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson. “Where We Are: Disability and Accessibility, Moving Beyond Disability 2.0 in Composition Studies.” Composition Studies, vol. 42, no. 2, 2014, pp. 147-150.

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