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.

Bonsai professors

I have been mulling over writing in the disciplines, and much of our reading and discussion has been centered around writing in the technical and scientific disciplines. Now that I have gotten a little more familiar with the type of writing done in these formerly mysterious disciplines, I have started to think how maybe rather than being more difficult (my previous assumption), the teaching of writing in the technical disciplines may have an advantage over teaching writing in the humanities because there is a fairly defined trajectory for its students from university course work to career.  For example, a student who is an engineering major becomes…an engineer. A student who is a chemistry major becomes…a chemist. I know I am simplifying the issue, but my point is that while there can a variety of careers for these majors, the type of writing taught in the discipline correlates closely with the type of writing the student will do in the workplace.

But now let’s consider the situation in the humanities. These are majors in which the career paths of its majors are not as clear cut. How do you complete these sentences? A history major becomes___________. A philosophy major becomes____________. And finally, the fill-in-the-blank question we are all hoping to answer—an English major becomes______________. This is not to imply that these disciplines are less valuable because they are less vocationally oriented (perhaps that is actually a strength), just to acknowledge the situation. With less of a one-to-one correspondence between major and career, writing in the disciplines of the humanities has many challenges to address. One that I’ve noticed is the tendency of faculty in these disciplines to conceive writing in the disciplines to consist of primarily academic genres. Carter in “Ways of Knowing, Doing, and Writing in the Disciplines” relates that faculty in “Research from Sources” metagenres (mainly humanities) identify “the historical narrative from sources, literary criticism, paper, research paper and research project” as the typical genres, and he continues to observe that “the first two are clearly disciplinary genres, but the last three terms, which were used most often, best capture the ambiguous nature of the genres that comprise this metagenre, particularly their lack of correspondence to disciplinary or professional genres in a field…These may be understood as quintessential academic genres, writing that is used to promote certain ways of knowing and doing without much pretense to practical application beyond the classroom” (224). Do instructors only envision their students writing in academic genres? Do they not foresee them in careers outside of academia? Or is the problem that there are SO MANY options for careers following undergraduate studies in humanities? Or that instructors believe that the ways of knowing, doing, and writing taught in the humanities disciplines will easily transfer to the workplace?

Here is where my phrase of the week comes in. Mary Fainsod Katzenstein, in “Writing Political Science,” admits that perhaps professors fail to envision the breadth of career options available to political science majors and that “unwittingly perhaps, we set about cultivating our students to be bonsai…professors (diminutive replicas of ourselves)” (172). That phrase—“bonsai professors”—sums up all that I was thinking about writing in the disciplines of the humanities and writing in the workplace. It seems viewing the humanities through the lens of its disciplinary writing points to few career options outside of academia. “Writing in the disciplines” of the humanities translates to “writing in the academy.” Yet the writing in the other metagenres clearly points to a defined professional practice.

Daniel Ding, in “A Study of Four Engineering Documents,” observes that in contrast to scientists, who frequently produce reports on research that are published in scientific journals, “engineers do not usually publish as a career objective.” (298). This is a simple but profound observation. If publishing is not a career objective for most engineers, it follows that it should not receive focused attention in the education of engineers (and what we have read about the discipline of engineering suggests that it does not.) Similarly, unless a career in academia is the goal of students in the humanities, why should the primary genres humanities students write be such narrowly academic ones—unless the goal is to produce bonsai professors?

I realize that the value of writing in the humanities is to acculturate students into “a distinctive way of knowing that characterizes the discipline” (Carter 224), not just to teach students to write for a particular career. However Severino and Trachsel’s research, quoted in Rebecca Nowacek’s article “Why Is Being Interdisciplinary So Very Hard to Do?” questions whether this actually happens. They report that in a college of liberal arts and sciences, they “did not see disciplinary genres acculturating students to distinct patterns of thought” (388). The differences were found among individual teachers irrespective of disciplinary training. Consequently, I question why we should focus so intently on teaching disciplinary discourse—on producing “bonsai professors”—when this may not produce a distinctive way of thinking.

Transfer vs. transition

[Response to Ann M. Blakeslee, “Bridging the Workplace and the Academy: Teaching Professional Genres through Classroom-Workplace Collaborations”]

I found all the articles we read in Teaching Technical Communication this week to be rich in pedagogical implications. I have notes galore, but I have decided to focus my post on one word—transition.

Seeing everything through the lens of “transfer” as I have this quarter, I found myself almost reading right over Ann Blakeslee’s four organizing issues surrounding classroom-workplace collaborations—exposure, authenticity, transfer, and response (349). Wait—she didn’t say “transfer,” she said “transition.” This transition is defined as “how students move from the contexts of schooling to those of the workplace” (349-50). So the idea is much like, if not synonymous to, transfer. But I think I like the connotations of transition better than transfer. Here are my thoughts:

Transfer implies that knowledge can merely be picked up and carried to a new context. Based on their Latin roots, the words transfer and transport are virtually synonymous; they both mean “to carry/bear across.” When one transfers or transports something, it is carried to a new place unchanged. So when we speak of transfer of knowledge, the implication is that the knowledge stays the same; it’s just used in a new context. Writing skills from school transfer/transport unchanged to the workplace. The problem is that that’s not how it happens. The five paragraph essay doesn’t transfer to writing in the disciplines. The knowledge or skill must be adapted or transformed for use in a new context.

Rather than think of this transformation of knowledge for a new context as “transfer,” I think “transition” better captures what happens. This previous sentence transitions from the subject of the preceding paragraph (transfer) to the subject of this paragraph (transition). It links the old knowledge to a new context. Thinking of knowledge as transitioning (instead of transferring) implies change, conversion, transformation, development, evolution, growth, progress. These ideas are more in line with what situated learning tells us about the transition of knowledge from one context (writing in the university) to another (writing in the workplace). The two contexts are not the same and so writing in each context will not be the same; it cannot transfer unchanged. Students can build on what they have learned, but skills and knowledge that are not transitioned for the new context will be inadequate. That seemed to be the gist of the articles this week—students should realize, and teachers should teach, that moving from writing for school to writing for the workplace involves a transition, and they will be more successful if put their minds to learning how to learn in the new situation.

I doubt that we will adopt this new terminology, but it was a least helpful for me in thinking through what we expect when we talk of transferring genre knowledge from school to the workplace. Transition helps me to better conceptualize the idea.

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!