We have an institutional imperative to teach for transfer and I believe a moral obligation as well. Most of our students want to become better writers because they know it will help them in future classes and in their career. However, we must pay attention to what our own experience and the research of our field tells us – teaching and requiring the “mutt genres” of academic writing do not transfer. What does transfer? Understanding of how writing works, what shapes genres, and how to understand what drives a particular discourse community. We can teach those things in our classrooms, but until our students really begin to think and reflect on how those elements affect their writing then they won’t transfer either.
That is why we must spend more time treating our students as writers and focus their attention on their own writing rather than reading and writing about topics separate from the focus of a writing class. Reading in other subject areas is a needless distraction and certainly writing about other subjects should not be the focus of a writing classroom. I do not mean that all the reading and writing that takes place in a writing classroom should be a close inspection of their own navels. There is so much worthwhile and compelling research in our field, and most of it is extremely accessible for college students, it begs the question why so many writing students are forced to look outside the field of writing studies for the subject of their reading, writing, and research. If we want them to learn how to be writers then why are they not studying writing?
In the June 2007 issue of College Composition and Communication, Douglas Downs and Elizabeth Wardle made a compelling argument for teaching first-year composition as an introduction to writing studies. They argue that there is no such thing as a “unified academic discourse” and that writing is not a set of basic, fundamental skills which can be learned once and then applied forever after. Writing is a complex activity dependent on context and until we teach our students this fact and introduce them to ways of making sense of these complexities in their infinite variety of contexts then we are not adequately preparing our students to write outside our classrooms.
Every community, both inside and outside academia, uses writing in specialized ways. Even if you restrict your focus to academic writing Downs and Wardle point out that using such an umbrella term as “academic writing” is “dangerously misleading.” Downs and Wardle argue that while transfer may happen (by good luck more often than not) far transfer is extremely difficult and not likely to be fostered by current incarnations of FYC. They then go on to argue for a very specific and new incarnation of FYC which focuses on writing as the subject of student reading, writing, and research in order to teach student writers how writing works and how it is used.
While many within the field have viewed the proposal of writing about writing as some radical form of pedagogy created from whole cloth by Downs and Wardle, in fact their proposal is the most recent in a line of other respected theorists and writing researchers and is well supported by commonly-accepted and research-supported theories of how people learn to write. David Russell’s (1995) “Activity Theory and Its Implications for Writing Instruction”; Anne Beaufort’s (2007) College Writing and Beyond; and David Smit’s (2004) The End of Composition Studies all make arguments for teaching FYC as a course for learning how to understand and think about writing. While details vary I believe the theory and spirit are the same.
I have joined the Writing-About-Writing movement instigated by Downs and Wardle because of the many benefits I see for my students. As Barbara Bird points out in her 2008 CCC Interchanges response. Reading academic articles rather than the typical FYC reader not only demands more of the FYC student but also provides ready examples of how research and theory are shared and debated among scholars. We are not only telling them that writing and research are a conversation in academia but we are showing them – and by fostering the type of writing and research suggested by Downs and Wardle we are helping them find a way to enter that conversation.