Metawriting posts from the new blog location

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Writing About Writing

I'm not talking about Metawriting now but rather the strategy Doug Downs and Elizabeth Wardle propose for first-year composition (FYC) which focuses on improving students' understanding of writing, rhetoric, language, and literacy (see Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning "First-Year Composition" as "Introduction to Writing Studies"). The focus of this post is to explain what led me to experiment with this approach for my own FYC classes in the Spring 2010 semester.

The issue of transfer has increasingly bothered me as I planned my writing classes in recent years. This nagging concern has caused me to rebuild my classes based on the inquiry and genre work of David Jolliffe as well as the research of Anne Beaufort and work of David Smit. There are many others who influenced my recent efforts to refocus and restructure my FYC classes.

As a result of these influences I have been heading in the direction of writing studies pedagogy with each new semester's evolution of FYC and the Downs-Wardle model seemed to be the next logical step. This was confirmed as I began to study the syllabi, reading lists, and assignment sheets of others working on this approach.

The longer I teach writing and the more I study the research of this field, then the more I think that traditional goals and methods are not working. Downs and Wardle make this very point as they argue that more than 20 years of "research and theory" have "repeatedly demonstrated" that not only does "a unified academic discourse" not exist but that research and theory have also "seriously questioned what students can and do transfer from one context to another" (p. 552). In essence, FYC is making a promise it cannot deliver.

However, I remain committed to teaching writing and communication skills because I believe they are so important, essential in fact, to success in life. So how do we help our students improve if we cannot teach them how to write? Perhaps the answer, as Downs and Wardle posit, is to teach them about writing.

The Council of Writing Program Administrators (WPA) has adopted an Outcomes Statement for FYC that focuses on four major goals for writing instruction: rhetorical knowledge; critical thinking, reading, and writing; processes; and knowledge of conventions. Downs and Wardle argue that students write for so many different communities in college and beyond it is an impossible task to prepare students, in one or two classes, for all the specialized rhetorical and convention knowledge necessary for each community -- especially when the student and instructor cannot know which communities the student will join in the future. The main crux of the Downs and Wardle argument is that "far transfer" is difficult and most FYC courses are not up to the task. My own teaching experience certainly seems to bear this out.

They instead argue we can make students "better writers by teaching about writing. "Instead of teaching situational skills often incorrectly imagined to be generalizable, FYC could teach about the ways writing works in the world and how the 'tool' of writing is used to mediate various activities" (p. 558). Downs and Wardle reimagine FYC as "Introduction to Writing Studies--a course about how to understand and think about writing in school and society".

While consisting of the same activities as the more traditional FYC classes -- reading, writing, research, and argument -- the focus is on understanding writing rather than other topics which typically vary widely and offer students no context. "In this course, students are taught that writing is conventional and context-specific rather than governed by universal rules--thus they learn that within each new disciplinary course they will need to pay close attention to what counts as appropriate for that discourse community" (p. 559). Through the reading, writing, and research students conduct in this course, both Downs and Wardle discovered in their pilot offerings of the class that students developed increased self-awareness about writing. I agree with Downs and Wardle that increased self-awareness about writing may be the best path to improving student writing.

Clearly there are challenges for this new pedagogy including the facts that it is intellectually demanding of students; as a new pedagogy there is not a solid infrastructure in place, such as a corpus of textbooks and assignments; students are more likely to generate imperfect work; and instructors must be knowledgeable about writing studies.

Critics have also argued that teaching about writing may not improve writing. Downs and Wardle respond that "writing studies pedagogy is also consonant with current understanding of transfer. Proven means of facilitating transfer include self-reflection, explicit abstraction of principles, and alertness to one's context" (p. 576).

I have used self-reflection et al in my FYC courses in the past and feel that strategy has been somewhat effective, but I have still felt something was lacking and that my students did not fully grasp how the abstract principles we discussed could be applied to future writing contexts. That is why I found the writing studies pedagogy to be such an interesting and challenging idea and why I was so eager to implement it this semester -- even if redesigning a course over Christmas break is not an ideal situation.

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