Fluffy things

“They should just say what it is and nothing else, not their feelings or their impressions or sentences that doesn’t actually bring anything into the paper and contribute anything to the understanding of the reader. That should be all removed. If they can get away from this course with one thing, that is, ‘Oh, I should be very clear in my purpose, very clear about how I did it, and why I did it, my results and my interpretations, and nothing else, just what it is.’ That will be very useful for them in their following courses and in their jobs. Nobody wants fluffy things, they just want to the point what it is, except maybe in entertainment, in movies, in novels, in fiction. There could be a lot of other places, but not in the job we are doing here.”

—Cal Poly Physics professor

“The terms students used to characterize the kind of writing they did in FYC and other courses in the English Department included ‘fluff,’ ‘b.s.,’ and ‘flowery,’ whereas in talking about the writing they did in other classes, students used descriptors such as ‘concise,’ ‘to the point,’ and ‘not a lot of flowery adjectives.’”

—Bergmann and Zepernick, “Disciplinarity and Transfer”

I read Bergmann and Zepernick’s article “Disciplinarity and Transfer” while researching my seminar paper about transfer last quarter, and it had a significant impact on my understanding of that subject. When I reread this article this quarter, this time after having read Downs and Wardel’s “Teaching about Writing…”, I viewed Bergmann and Zepernick’s research as providing ample empirical justification for reworking FYC. And our interview with one of our physics professors, quoted above, confirmed that “fluffy things” are just not valued outside of the English department, not by students and not by faculty.

(Now, mind you, I do not believe that fluffy things are all that the English department has to offer. But that is the perception, and it must be addressed.)

So, what about Bergmann and Zepernick’s article provided support for the argument for WAW for me? First and foremost, students rejected the possibility of transfer from FYC to writing in their disciplines primarily because the perceived that FYC lacked any disciplinary content. But WAW provides the disciplinary content that would lend legitimacy to FYC. Second, this content would emphasize the rhetorical approach to FYC, rather than an expressivist pedagogy, that better lends itself to transfer. While I think there is definitely a place in the curriculum for expressivist writing, it doesn’t seem to be appropriate for a course that transitions students into writing in the disciplines. And finally, because although the empirical support is on the side of an apprenticeship model of teaching writing by expert in the discipline, the fact is that most faculty don’t think they have the time or expertise to teach writing, and WAW at least attempts to close the gap by “teaching students how to learn to write” (142). It is this learning how to learn how to write that I think is a strength of WAW.

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