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If This Is “Just Another English Class,” Then Why Aren’t We Speaking the Same Language?

posted: 2.17.11 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

MartinezpictureToday’s guest blogger is Laura Martinez, who is pursuing an MA in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Central Florida.  She is currently teaching Composition I and Composition II as a Graduate Teaching Associate, and is completing a thesis project that focuses on transfer within FYC.

When I was first introduced to the WAW curriculum in a graduate course, I thought I had been given the secret code to composition pedagogy. I left this course convinced that I was more than prepared to enter any FYC classroom and enlighten the future writers of the University.

Armed with my carefully annotated academic articles and two “thought-provoking” discussion questions that I was sure would spark enough conversation to cover a fifty-minute segment, I confidently entered my classroom. What I encountered, as you can probably predict, was a room filled with blank stares and confused faces, all too willing to tell me that they “didn’t get it.” My inspirational conversation had thus reached its end before it started, as I stared back at my students with the same confused look that they gave me: Why didn’t they “get it?”

Though this confusion has decreased significantly since that initial semester, the underlying question of my current pedagogical struggles remains somewhat the same. My students can identify concepts and define them easily enough, but applying them to a written discussion of our own writing processes seems like an entirely new challenge.

To me, such issues are rooted in transfer. Unlike much of the current discussion on transfer stemming from FYC, my focus, as I began my thesis work, was to explore the issues that we face when encouraging transfer within our own classrooms. Particularly in a WAW curriculum, where we are holding our students accountable for both the understanding and the application of writing-related concepts much different from those they have encountered before, encouraging transfer from the initial setting of the class discussion into the individually written products of our students seems particularly challenging.

To further explore this issue, I observed and recorded the interaction of one Comp I instructor and her students as they worked with a WAW curriculum, and came to understand that the answer to the “Why can’t they ‘get it’ question” is simply: they can.

Complications with transfer within composition are not necessarily a result of our students’ inability to understand the complex writing-related concepts presented to them. Instead, I argue that our students have less trouble understanding the concepts presented than understanding what it is we are asking them to do with these concepts. Here’s an example:

After assigning Grant-Davie’s “Rhetorical Situations and their Constituents,” the Comp I instructor began her introduction to rhetorical situations by asking her students to define each of Grant-Davie’s constituents. The discussion was vivid, as students raised their hands to define “exigence,” “rhetors,” “audience” and “constraints,” while the instructor wrote the terms and definitions on the board.

When asked to write a paper where they analyzed the rhetorical situation of a news article, however, students seemed to have lost their connection to Grant-Davie entirely. In her assignment sheet, the instructor asked that her students, “look at sources rhetorically” and “state what effect is created” by a particular author, making little direct references to Grant-Davie’s constituents. The instructor wanted her students to take what they had done in class (breaking down the constituents of a rhetorical situation) and apply it to a different source. To the students, however, this connection was unclear.

Some students proceeded to write an opinion-based critique of their chosen news articles. There was little mention of exigence and few references to audience, while the focus remained on the students’ personal interpretation of the articles.  Though they could discuss how Grant-Davie analyzed sources in his article, students failed to understand that their instructor wanted them to undergo a similar process when “breaking down” their own news articles. As a result, students did not transfer the knowledge presented to them in the classroom to the writing that they did outside of class, focusing instead on the other objectives (largely centered around formatting and stylistic requirements) that were clearly delivered to them in their assignment sheets.

The problem in this example was miscommunication between the students and the instructor. When she initially asked her students to “define Grant-Davie’s terms” in class, students were focused on getting the definitions “right.” The task, in this case, was simple: answer the questions. What I’ve discovered is that when approaching writing tasks outside the classroom, the students’ objective is still the same; they fight to answer the prompt in a way that will satisfy the expectations of the instructor. Perhaps we can encourage our students to transfer the lesson’s concepts by scaffolding and presenting our assignments with a structure that reflects our own objectives.

Rather than asking students to define constituents of a rhetorical situation and expecting these definitions to make their way into students’ papers, we need to consider what we expect students to do with these definitions in their writing assignments. If our objective is to have students use these constituents to analyze news articles, then we should guide students to this goal during their initial exposure to these concepts. In this way, students may at least be comfortable enough with the process of analysis to attempt its operalization when they are asked to utilize it, rather than approaching their papers by trying to figure out what the instructor “wants them to do.”

If we are expecting a meta-awareness of writing processes and analysis to transfer from our classrooms to writing our students will face in the future, then we should work to ensure that such awareness is transferring through the writing tasks we assign in our own classrooms.

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Categories: Writing about Writing
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