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WAW as Survival Guide to College

posted: 3.3.11 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

Downs pic for BitsDoug

In our last post, Laura Martinez considered transfer within WAW courses and how students interpret their assignments there. Her post, along with a workshop I recently conducted for peer tutors in our writing center at Montana State, have me thinking again about how WAW prepares students to be, in Lucille McCarthy’s terms, “Strangers in Strange Lands.”

Imagine a course where a student encounters an assignment like this (loosely paraphrased from real life):

First Term Paper. You must have a title page, abstract, essay including intro, body, and conclusion, and a reference page. Your paper must cite at least three references, in-text, in APA style, at least one of which must be from a scholarly journal, and none of which may be more than 10 years old. The paper should be 3–5 pages, not more than 10, using a 12-point regular font like Arial or TNR. The title, abstract, and reference pages are separate and do not count in the actual page count. Do not use “we,” “our,” “you,” and similar words in the paper—second person writing as to a friend is not appropriate. You must submit the paper in .doc, .docx, .rtf, or .pdf formats, as my computer won’t read any others. Make sure you proofread the paper and read the grading rubric so you know how I’ll assess the paper.

The paper should describe how people’s decision-making can be explained by one of the three approaches to game theory we’ve studied over the past several weeks. You are to select three popular movies from the list of ten provided and apply one theoretical approach to each movie….

So how will a student get this paper produced?  Everything in the assignment suggests that form comes first and content is nearly incidental, and there are so many rules that it would be a challenge to follow them all while coming up with what to say. When the grading rubric gives more credit for form than for ideas, what should a student focus on in order to submit a successful paper?

As WAW helps students reconceive writing, it can also serve up practical strategies for dealing with these moments.  We can consciously teach, for instance, about interpreting other instructor’s assignment sheets and avoiding “rule paralysis” on the occasional over-the-top assignment.

Take a principle that students might encounter in a WAW class: that coming up with what to say and producing the actual document that says it are two different activities, and that writers who try to do the two simultaneously often experience cognitive overload—too much for the brain to think about at once—and become frustrated or blocked.

We can teach students the science behind this phenomenon, and ways of decoupling the two activities—for instance, writing about the ideas in a separate document that’s not the actual piece, so that they’re momentarily free to think only about the ideas, rather than the rules of the document they ultimately need to produce.

We need to think creatively with students, though, about how they might (in Elizabeth Wardle’s terms) make those apples into apple pie in another course.

If we can use our WAW courses to consider such challenges, we can teach our students:

  • How to rhetorically read assignment sheets
  • How to recognize (if not understand) instructor values and how they shape assignments
  • How to apply principles learned in one situation (reducing writer’s block by breaking apart the various tasks in writing) to an apparently different situation (coping with an overwhelming assignment)

What principles and corresponding “transfer scenarios” would you suggest WAW teachers build into their courses explicitly?  I’d love to see what kind of list we could all build!

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2 Responses to “WAW as Survival Guide to College”

  1. Jack Solomon, CSUN Says:

    “Take a principle that students might encounter in a WAW class: that coming up with what to say and producing the actual document that says it are two different activities, and that writers who try to do the two simultaneously often experience cognitive overload—too much for the brain to think about at once—and become frustrated or blocked.”

    This passage sounds like the basic composition principle of “pre-writing,” for which there are a number of strategies, including “brainstorming” and the writing of “rough drafts.”

    At the same time, it is a fundamental principle of composition instruction that one hones and develops one’s ideas (content) in the course of writing itself, so that it is important to write in multiple drafts rather than trying to put everything together at once in a single effort.

    And I always advise my students, if they find anything at all to be ambiguous or unclear in the writing assignment sheets I give to them, to ask me to clarify what the assignment calls for. I am not confident of good results should my students attempt to “rhetorically read” my assignment sheets. Deconstruction, for example, is a form of rhetoric. If my students happened to choose to deconstruct my assignment sheets the results would be chaotic (literally: they would be compelled to conclude that the meaning of the assignment sheet is undecidable).

  2. S. M. Gillespie, Southeast Missouri State University Says:

    Instructors who set such firm boundaries within their prompts and rubrics do so in an attempt to establish the audience for the paper. In a way, this gesture actually eases the burden placed on the student; it’s one less thing they have to determine on their own.

    Once this is recognized by the student, the challenge becomes how to create an effective product within those limitations. It does not have to be a grueling task. They can be made aware of the truths behind the rules and the advantages that come with this awareness. As a result, the students gain power and confidence as they enter the writing process.