Writing about writing-my infatuation

I’ll admit it—I’m infatuated with Writing About Writing. Oh yes, as we often do when a friend is trying to set us up on a blind date, I came up with all kinds of reasons that this would never work out—WAW seemed entirely too academic, too self-important (Getting rid of FYC?? What?), not engaging enough for students.

But that was before I actually met Writing About Writing. I’d based my ideas on snippets gleaned from other articles and on comments made in passing by professors. I hadn’t taken time to really get to know Writing About Writing.

I took the time to more seriously consider the concept of WAW last quarter when I was researching my paper about transfer for my Theory of Composition course. I read Anne Beaufort’s book College Writing and Beyond and started to consider that WAW might be a serious contender for an effective pedagogical approach to the transfer of writing skills. And really, if students can’t transfer the skills they learn in FYC to other disciplinary situations (or workplace settings), why do we bother? In short, Beaufort proposes teaching specific disciplinary subject matter about writing, i.e., knowledge about the writing process, the subject of writing itself, rhetoric, genre, and discourse community. By explicitly teaching these topics, in essence cuing the learner of future uses for knowledge, the possibility of transfer is increased.

The importance of teaching disciplinary content became apparent to me after reading Linda Bergmann and Janet Zepernick’s “Disciplinarity and Transfer: Students’ Perceptions of Learning to Write.” These researchers found that students didn’t transfer what they learned in FYC in part because they perceived that writing was not “really” a discipline. Their major courses taught definitive content, and writing in their disciplines was seen as expository, objective, and authoritative. Contrast that with perceptions of FYC: students discerned no disciplinary content (otherwise how could different sections of the same course have the vastly different approaches that they do?) and the writing assignments were seen as expressive, subjective, and creative. How could any skill from FYC transfer to a course in the student’s major?

So, by this roundabout path my inclination was to be favorably disposed to Downs and Wardle’s conception of “ Introduction to Writing Studies,” and now having read the article I find that their version of WAW has many strengths, most of them related to transfer:

• Rather than implying by our actions that writing studies is a “trivial, skill-teaching non-discipline” (553), teaching disciplinary content in “Introduction to Writing Studies” encourages students to take FYC seriously.

• Students learn how to learn to write in other discourse communities: “ They learn that within each new disciplinary course they will need to pay close attention to what counts as appropriate for that discourse community” (559).

• Reflective assignments (such as Downs and Wardle use) encourage transfer by having students reflect on their experiences in the past and abstract principles to can be applied to future writing situations (what Perkins and Salomon call “far transfer”). The course encourages “self-reflection and mindfulness, thereby improving the possibility that students will maintain a stance of inquiry toward writing as they write in other disciplinary systems” (577).

• Writing instructors are allowed to teach in their area of expertise, rather than trying to address a multitude of topics (stem cell research! the death penalty! intelligent design! as the authors list) that instructors are not extremely well-informed on.

• Rhetoric is addressed (553), and in relation to transfer, it seems that rhetorical skills are the ones that transfer. (See Doug Brent, “ Crossing Borders: Co-op Students Relearning to Write.”)

I read the articles by Miles, et al., and Kutney trying to pull me away from WAW by showing that my object of infatuation was not as perfect as I was beginning to think. But honestly I wasn’t swayed (and unfortunately this post is getting long and I’m running out of time, so since others have thoroughly covered those articles, I’m going to skip that for now…)

So, will this infatuation with WAW develop into a deeper committed relationship? At this point I’m not sure, but I’m willing to give it a try!