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WAW, Ecological Models of Writing Development, and Writing Centers

posted: 4.14.11 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs


I’ve been spending a lot of time recently talking to Kevin Roozen about “ecological” models of writing development (see Syverson, 1999; Fleckenstein, Spinuzzi, Rickly, and Papper, 2008). These ecological understandings consider not only how people develop as expert writers in one discourse community but also at their rhetorical practices across communities. They also consider how “literate learners” bring a variety of literate experiences to bear on all their literate practices.  Ecological models look not just at how literate learners develop vertically (say, from comp to gen ed to the major) but also horizontally (bringing, say, writing tutoring session experience to bear when writing in biology classes) and across seemingly disparate discourse communities (one of Roozen’s example is bringing experience with prayer journals and home storytelling to bear in journalism classes).

Why have I become so interested in ecological models? Because writing about writing as a curriculum seems to be, at least partly, a response to the belief that composition classes can’t train students to be expert writers in specialized disciplinary communities, but that they can help students learn how to learn (as Anne Beaufort says) in those specialized communities if they know something about writing. Further, though, writing about writing seems to recognize the range of literate experiences that students can leverage as they write in and across and even outside of the university. In WAW classes we ask our students, for example, to think about their literacy sponsors and the various kinds of writing they do in a day or week, and imagine what this means for what they know and can do, and who they are as writers.

WAW proponents have long said that no version of composition, this or any other one, is a holy grail. A WAW curriculum might have some long-term benefits if it can promote rhetorical awareness, metacognition, and use of heuristics rather than algorithms, for example. But the research is pretty clear that transfer in school settings is hard if the subsequent contexts don’t afford transferability. Activity theorists Tuomi-Grohn and Engestrom have explained that affordances need to be in place for a chair to seem “sit-on-able,” and the same is true for new writing tasks. We know that some of the burden for transfer is on literate learners themselves, but some is also on teachers and curricula—and on programs and structures.

If we continue to believe (as I very strongly do), that any composition course, WAW included, is only the entry point to what should be a comprehensive, vertical, horizontal, ecological writing education and experience, then we’re responsible for creating structures that will build on and with our composition courses. Building strong WAW composition courses takes time and energy, of course, but that effort is only the beginning of our task. How do we broaden our focus to ensure that composition is working with writing centers, gen ed programs, and writing intensive courses across the university to give students some sorts of comprehensive and recognizably integrated writing experiences? This is a hard task, but one we must take on.

Dan Frazier’s recent call in the WPA Journal to teach transferable writing-related knowledge in “third spaces” like writing centers has stuck with me. It seems to me, and to Doug, too, that writing centers seem to be a natural place to build on the declarative and procedural knowledge about writing taught in WAW composition courses. Since writing center tutors see students across their time in college and across many kinds of courses, they are the natural “boundary brokers” Etienne Wenger describes, with the ability to help students continue to theorize about writing and leverage and repurpose what they know about writing across their writing tasks.

Doug and I recently revised a chapter for a book that Kelly Ritter and Paul Kei Matsuda are editing. We ended with this conclusion, which I think bears repeating here:

Most reasonably, the research that informs writing-about-writing approaches suggests that one course (based on any pedagogy) is insufficient to teach students to write and about writing. Rather, what we advocate is that WAW approaches serve as a more solid foundation to vertical writing experiences (whether in writing-across-the-curriculum programs, writing majors, or extended writing experiences within and outside the university) than traditional composition courses. Integrating writing-about-writing composition classes with rigorous cross-curricular writing experiences and supportive writing centers seems to us to be most likely to result in college graduates who can demonstrate Shannon Carter’s desired “rhetorical dexterity.”

Luckily, there are many excellent current and former writing center administrators in the WAW community (Shannon Carter and Barb Bird come immediately to mind). We have a lot to gain from the knowledge their research and innovation have brought and will bring us.

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Categories: Writing about Writing
You might also like: My Take on WAW: Training Students to Be Lifelong Researchers of Writing
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2 Responses to “WAW, Ecological Models of Writing Development, and Writing Centers”

  1. Jennifer Wells, Mercy High School Says:

    Like I commented on Doug’s previous post about WAW and WCs= YES!

    I think WCs are uniquely positioned to support both the curricular aspects of WAW (that in turn supports transfer) AND to work with students’ attitudes, beliefs, and motivations, all of which affect an individual’s ability and desire to look for and activate transfer.

    We know that both the learning context and the individual have roles to play in the activity system, but sometimes the role of the individual’s own psychology, which is often influenced by previous learning experiences and contexts, is considered too messy and complex to really deal with inside the classroom. We control what we can, and try to design assignments that will provide external motivation for students to transfer, but ultimately, if the student isn’t internally motivated to transfer, to be metacognitive, then even the best assignments may not succeed.

    In my experience with high school students in writing centers, so much of the work we do there is with developing our students’ self-efficacy; once a student discovers they can do things which can earn them grades or whatever it is they want, they feel better about themselves as writers and are more willing and motivated to do some of the higher level thinking that helps them tap into transferable knowledge. This takes time and it also takes tutors who understand that they aren’t working with a paper, they are working with a student with a long history of writing experiences and those experiences may have more to do with whatever is happening in the session than is what is on the page.

    So, if the WAW curriculum can provide the transfer-encouraging classroom and assignment context, the WC can pick up there and then work with the students’ beliefs, attitudes, and motivations, and combined I think you’d get even more abundant transfer than you would with either the WAW classroom or WC alone.

  2. Becca Block, Daytona State Says:

    Another area relating to transferability, WAW, and WCs seems, to me, to be scaffolding. Granted, I may be focused on this because I’m a director of a writing center at a primarily two-year college (with some four-year programs), and we serve everyone from students in certificate programs and Adult Basic Ed courses to people earning bachelor’s degrees in education. The intro comp courses here see a similarly drastic range in backgrounds and interests, and thus figuring out how to teach your course such that it has potential interest to the most prepared students while not scaring off the unprepared is a perpetual concern.

    I’m hoping to manage this tricky balancing act with a WAW course this fall, and one of the ways that I’m hoping to make this feasible is by promoting the WC as a place students can go to not only get feedback on larger writing projects but on decoding the expectations of the day-to-day responding-to-the-reading style writing they will be doing. This, hopefully, will give my students an additional level of individualized scaffolding (for those who choose to use it) beyond the classroom-based scaffolding activities that I’m planning. I’m also consulting with the tutors myself as I build my assignment sequence to get their feedback and ideas about what will work best for our students, which I’ve found invaluable so far (incidentally, we make that available to any faculty here–I’m not just giving myself extra perks because I’m the director). In other words, I can’t imagine how I could possibly teach a WAW course without the WC being an integral part of the process.