As a writing teacher I have continually struggled with the content of my writing classes. I am a skilled and experienced writer, but what do I need to teach my students so they can become skilled writers? What experiences do I need to give my students so they can learn the skills necessary to skilled writers? I read and re-read the theory and research of my field and no where could I find a clear answer to this key question: Just what should I (we?) teach in first-year composition classes?
This issue became even more complicated when I began to think beyond the boundaries of my classroom. I could definitely create a class where students could master the assignments I set for them and experience success, but could I create a class where students could take those skills into new writing situations and experience success. Could I really fulfill the essential mission of FYC to prepare students to enter academic writing? Could I foster transfer?
I created carefully scaffolded assignment sequences based on the research and theory of my field and built in more reflection and more collaboration. I introduced my students to the concepts of discourse community and genre. I strove to make them aware of the writing that would be expected of them in other classes as well as the professional world and how they would need these ideas (discourse community, genre, collaboration, reflection) to find their way.
All these changes also marked important changes in my teaching style. I became more of a hands-off teacher and more coach or facilitator. The more I read of social cognitive theory and understood of human adaptation and change the more I realized that I could not teach transfer. I could not teach specific skills that students could immediately apply to the work in other classes. Sure sometimes we both might get lucky and it might happen but those occurrences seemed to be more by serendipity than design.
But all was not lost and there was no need to choose between the two evils of quitting my job or living a lie. I found my answer in personal agency and self efficacy.
People are agentic operators who regulate their own motivation and the activities they pursue. We make causal contributions to our own success through mechanisms of personal agency – acts we intentionally perform to achieve a desired outcome or prevent an undesired one. One of the most influential mechanisms is that of personal efficacy. If we do not believe we can produce the desired result then there is no incentive to act.
We guide our lives by our belief of personal efficacy. We analyze a situation, consider alternative courses of action, judge our ability to carry those actions out successfully and estimate the results of our actions.
I have now come to believe that the only way to effect transfer is through personal agency, personal efficacy, which makes fostering writing self-efficacy the central mission of my writing classes.
How do we foster writing self-efficacy? Well there is a lot we don’t know yet about the sources of writing self-efficacy (and that is the focus of my dissertation) but we do know that human adaptation and change are rooted in social systems. As a result it is not surprising that social forces play an important part in writing self-efficacy and are a key source of writing self-efficacy. This has meant I spend even more time in class on collaboration and building a writing community as well as making writing workshop an integral part of coursework.
Successful outcomes also play an important part in fostering writing self-efficacy. Again collaboration and writing workshop support this, but it is also important to not just build writing self-efficacy for the short-term (this class) but also the long-term, to which end I’ve focused on developing my students knowledge of writing studies (read my post about FYC as Writing Studies) so they do not simply acquire a set of tools they do not know how to adapt – transfer – to a new writing situation but hopefully learn how a discourse community works and the key role it plays in genre so they can better make the necessary moves to enter a new discourse community and understand its genres.
So now my graduate work as well as my teaching has come full circle – a fact I hadn’t realized until just this week. I’m still struggling to answer that question – what should we teach in FYC – and while I think I may have found an answer I’m not confident it is the answer. Stay tuned!