Author Bio

The Student's Perspective: WAW for English Majors

posted: 1.19.12 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

Michael Michaud headshotToday we welcome guest blogger Michael Michaud. Michael teaches courses in composition and rhetoric at Rhode Island College, where he is an assistant professor of English. His current research investigates the role that professional or workplace identities play in adult students’ transition to academic writing. He has been experimenting with writing-about-writing pedagogies in first-year composition courses since the fall of 2008.

Hayden JamesMichael interviews Hayden James, a junior studying creative writing at Rhode Island College. Hayden hopes to write fiction and continue to grow his career as a photographer when he graduates.

During the fall 2011 semester, I taught a new course at Rhode Island College, called “Studies in Composition”–a course intended to introduce undergraduate English majors to the work of the field of composition or writing studies. I decided to use Writing About Writing as the text for this course. It was interesting to use the book to introduce the students to the discipline without the usual purpose of preparing students for academic writing (i.e. first-year composition). I don’t think the field has, yet, devised a textbook intended to introduce English majors to composition. I found Writing About Writing to be a good start in this direction.

1. Can you talk about the coursework you have taken within the English major at Rhode Island College (RIC)?

When I enrolled for classes at RIC, I declared myself an English major but then switched to creative writing. Of the courses I have taken, most have focused on close reading and analysis of texts and then writing papers. Every course has been pretty much the same; only the time period or the origin of the course content changes.

2. I used the writing-about-writing (WAW) approach this semester to introduce upper-level English majors like you to my own field, writing studies. Can you talk a bit about what you learned? Were someone to ask you “What is writing studies and what is this field interested in?” how would you respond?

After three years in college as an English major, I still hadn’t come to an understanding of what the English major was for or what purpose the field served. After using Wardle and Downs’s Writing about Writing for our reading and classwork, I started to form a new perspective of English, particularly after reading, discussing, and rereading James Paul Gee’s piece about discourses. At that point, I began to conceptualize what the field was about. Prior to reading Gee, I just did the work in my classes without understanding why we wrote one way or used a particular style.

Instead of looking at the meaning of a text and its background and critical reception, as literary scholars seem to do, writing studies professionals examine the way we write and convey our ideas and meaning. If asked, I’d explain that writing studies is a field that examines how we communicate and why we do it in a particular way.

3. The WAW approach focuses on teaching students about writing and how to write (in our case, how to write academic prose). Can you say a few words about what you learned about writing itself, but also about how to write purposefully and effectively for academic audiences?

Through our class discussions and my research project about simultaneous participation in multiple discourse communities, I gained an appreciation for the terms genre, lexis, and discourse and their respective meanings. I also learned why people write differently and why writing within standard parameters can be important. More than that, I learned the differences between being a professional (who has been accepted into a field) and being a student (who is in the initiate state of membership).

WAW has also helped teach me new and useful information about how to write to the academic standard. I learn best by example and in reading, and to a degree emulating, those who write professionally, I was able to improve my writing significantly. The CARS model was also helpful in allowing me to see how to organize my work. Prior to encountering CARS, I had simply been writing drafts as best I could and having them peer-edited for subsequent revisions.

4. Your research project, which was excellent, used Gee’s construct of discourse to think about your own positioning within multiple discourse communities here on campus: classroom, student newspaper, and campus PR office. Can you talk a bit about this project?

While doing my research project, it’s interesting how much the “politics” at the PR office, student newspaper, and elsewhere in other work environments I’ve experienced became clearer to me. For example, the student newspaper is a quasi-professional setting in that it is entirely student-managed and there is almost no faculty oversight. At the same time, the paper is published and distributed to thousands of people who read it every day. Every so often there is a conflict in the newspaper office that impedes workflow. After reading Gee’s piece on discourses, I concluded that the professional needs and expectations of the newspaper were sometimes conflicting with the students’ self-awareness as students. The understanding I’ve acquired through researching my own participation in different fields, through the lens of discourses, is something that I will be able to continue to use throughout my life.

5. What else would you like to say about the WAW approach, from the perspective of an English major?

The WAW approach is incredibly beneficial to serious students who want to learn about writing. Often students aren’t instructed at all by professors; rather, they are simply told to complete assignments and hand them in. WAW gives students tools like the CARS model and examples of professional writing. WAW both shows students how the pros do it and then guides them through the process of doing it for themselves. This is an efficient way to gain knowledge and retain it.

Categories: Writing about Writing
You might also like: How Do You Scale This Thing?
Read All Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

2 Responses to “The Student's Perspective: WAW for English Majors”

  1. Doug Downs, Montana State University Says:

    One thing that’s interesting to me in Hayden’s responses, Michael, is that he so much associates the WAW instruction with giving a better understanding of systems (my term). His final response, for example, suggests how WAW moves away from a kind of arbitrariness (again my term) he seems to have encountered in other instruction. His answer to your second question also conveys that sense of getting a bigger, more systemic picture of what happens to students and how written communication works. Good — that’s how it ought to be. I believe the applicable internet meme would be Writing Instruction: ur doin it right. 🙂

  2. Mike Michaud (Rhode Island College) Says:

    Thanks Doug! Yeah, Hayden did great. But I would note that what made so much of WAW work for him is what HE brought to it–and this would be something to think about in terms of working with first-year students. I’ve had this experience twice, now, working with adult students and with upper-level traditional-age students (majors and non-majors): because they are mid-way through their acculturation process (or in some cases near the end), WAW gives them a language to understand what they have been going through or are going through. They have enough experience to understand some core WAW principles. With the freshmen, it’s sort of more forward-looking, because they don’t have as much experience yet to understand some of what WAW teaches. It’s more: This is going to help you in the future when you find yourself… That can be tough for an 18/19 year old to internalize and use, though, esp. if someone on the other end isn’t cuing them or tapping into that prior knowledge and experience. What made WAW useful for Hayden is, I think, it gave him a language to talk about and make sense of what was happening to him RIGHT NOW (esp. since he was engaged in professional writing in 2 settings outside of the classroom).