Author Archive

Writing-about-Writing (Centers)

posted: 8.6.14 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

Guest blogger Megan Lambert is a Rhetoric & Composition M.A. candidate at UCF. This is her second year teaching first-year composition courses with UCF’s Department of Writing & Rhetoric as a Graduate Teaching Associate, and she also works as a graduate assistant and tutor in UCF’s University Writing Center. She is currently working on her thesis project, which explores how tutors use writing resources to address composition concerns and facilitate learning opportunities in writing consultations.

For teachers of writing, the writing center serves as a valuable academic resource for their students, offering assistance with assignments at any stage of the writing process. This assistance usually takes the form of one-on-one tutoring sessions—often between a peer tutor and a student—where the student’s concerns are the major focus of the tutoring session. However, this does not mean that the goal of the writing center is to “fix” students’ papers. Writing center work is based on Stephen North’s now-famous axiom that the purpose of tutor sessions “is to produce better writers, not better writing.” As such, the goal of writing centers is similar to that of first-year composition programs that implement a writing-about-writing curriculum: both aim to equip students with an understanding of writing concepts and practices so that they can better address rhetorical situations they encounter in the future.

I’ve been fortunate to see the frequent realization of this goal as a tutor and graduate assistant for a university writing center that implements a writing-about-writing approach in tutoring sessions. At the UCF University Writing Center, tutors are graduate and undergraduate students who are familiar with the threshold concepts and readings that inform the writing-about-writing curriculum used in the first-year composition courses. With this, tutors are able to assist writers beyond their usual requests of attention to “grammar and flow.” One way that tutors use a writing-about-writing approach in a tutoring session is to take time to explain the concept of rhetorical situation and its components, then help writers to understand and assess the rhetorical situation of their writing assignment. This is easiest when the writers are students in the first-year composition courses who come to the writing center with assignments from the writing-about-writing curriculum. These writers can see how the rhetorical situation is directly related to their assignment because it is actually part of their assignment, and the tutors can help them better understand these writing concepts that they’re learning.

However, tutors can often encounter challenging consultations when this approach does not meet the expectations of writers who came to get their papers edited, or students who have discipline-specific questions, thinking that the tutors are experts in the writing styles and genres of all fields. As a result, tutors must learn how to navigate the issue of negotiating the focus of the session within the time constraints. Our tutoring sessions are 45 minutes long, which is enough time for tutors to explain a relevant writing concept and help the writer begin to apply their new understanding to their writing, but it’s not enough time to also check the entire paper for errors. I have experienced several tutoring sessions where the writers have gotten frustrated with my agenda, thinking that it does not align with theirs; they believe that I am wasting their time instead of giving them the writing assistance they came for. As a result, I’ve learned that it’s crucial for tutors to be transparent with the reasoning behind their writing-about-writing approach.

For example, when writers ask for help with “grammar and flow,” it is because these are components that make up their understanding of “good writing.” To address this concern using a writing-about-writing approach without frustrating the writer, tutors can begin by explaining that understanding the rhetorical situation is a beneficial way of figuring out what makes the writing good beyond word choice and transitions. In addition, when writers expect tutors to be experts in their discipline’s writing, tutors can explain how the concept of genre is useful in this situation: with the writers’ knowledge of the discipline, the tutor and writer can work together to understand the genre’s purpose and conventions, and then learn how to write effectively within that genre. If writers recognize the session is being spent in a way that will help them with their writing now, and also in the future, the tutoring session has the potential to be far more productive. In my experience, it’s the writers who recognize how we are helping them who benefit the most from the writing center.

In spite of the more challenging tutor sessions, and even in response to them, the writing-about-writing approach is useful for the writing center for the same reasons that it is useful for first-year composition: it allows writing tutors to combine their knowledge of writing concepts and practices with the writers’ disciplinary knowledge in a collaboration effort to develop problem solving strategies to address the writers’ specific concerns. Especially with recurring appointments, this approach can translate into learning opportunities for writers and eventual transfer for responding to future rhetorical situations.

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Being Transformers

posted: 4.23.14 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

Guest blogger Nichole Stack has been an instructor with UCF’s Department of Writing and Rhetoric since 2010. Having worked with diverse student populations around the nation and abroad for about 16 years, she has witnessed quite a range of growth in the field of teaching and learning. She’s currently pursuing a doctoral degree and writing her dissertation on how General Education courses can and should facilitate transformative learning in students, particularly in first-year composition using a writing-about-writing curriculum. She is grateful to be a member of UCF’s DWR faculty and thrilled to take part in the important changes that continue to happen here each year.

There is much more to teaching first-year composition in a writing-about-writing program than meets the eye. Early on as a FYC instructor at UCF just learning about writing-about-writing curriculum, I heard students passing by ask, “Why do they just teach all ENC 1101 and ENC 1102 every semester? Are they less qualified professors or something?” My first reaction was to jump on the nearby bench and heatedly defend my comrades (and myself), but instead I realized that this notion of “Gen Ed course= Easy Street” is pretty commonly held. I thought about how difficult it is to dethrone, too. My next thought was, wow, writing-about-writing could be just the avenue to help achieve this; maybe we can transform this thinking.

Four years later, this transformation has been fast underway and is gaining momentum, especially with the recent Board of Trustees’ approval of our B.A. in Writing and Rhetoric. Significant changes are happening on many levels, and one of the most exciting places to see them is in the classroom. I think of writing-about-writing teachers as major “transformers”not so much in the sense that we ourselves are changing (although I believe this is a prerequisite and inevitable result of my main point here), but in that we effect meaningful changes in our students’ frames of reference. We get them to engage in critical examination of assumptions they and others have about writing, posing difficult questions about what we believe, why we believe it, who has told us to believe it, what it means across contexts, and how it shapes our activity. This kind of questioning can mark the beginning of real transformation; transformative learning theory in education identifies this as “a disorienting dilemma,” considered a critical component to change on a cognitive, psychological, and behavioral level.

The theory defines transformation as:

the emancipatory process of becoming critically aware of how and why the structure of psycho-cultural assumptions has come to constrain the way we see ourselves and our relationships, reconstituting this structure to permit a more inclusive and discriminating integration of experience and acting upon these new understandings.

In undergoing such an “emancipatory process,” there are key phases through which one passes. We may recognize these in our own teaching and learning:

  • A disorienting dilemma
  • Self-examination and critical assessment of epistemic and sociocultural assumptions
  • Recognition that one’s discontent and the process of transformation are shared and that others have negotiated a similar change
  • Exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions
  • Planning of a course of action and acquisition of knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plans
  • Provisional trying of new roles and renegotiating relationships/ negotiating new relationships
  • Building of competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships
  • Reintegration into one’s life on the basis of conditions determined by one’s perspective.

These kinds of major shifts in habits of mind and behavior have a core place in the writing-about-writing curriculum (for instance student favorites like authority and discourse communities come to mind), and they are supported by research in ideas like transfer and threshold concepts. And like these concepts, transformation often happens in unpredictable moments for the learner. As mindful as we may be about the time-intensive and oft-elusive process of change, we want to see results, measure outcomes as having been met, and then move on to the next group of students to transform some more. However, the kind of growth we’re talking about doesn’t really work that way. So on one hand, we’d like for it to look like this:

(Possible partial interpretation: “Sally is rocking all the outcomes!”)

But really, it looks more like this:

(Possible partial interpretation: “Oh Jimmy, he gets genre analysis, but he just can’t synthesize those sources and class readings.”)

If we were all economists or farmers, perhaps we would better understand this conception of growth and be more patient, trusting that the solid seeds of threshold concepts we’re diligently sowing in our first-year writing courses will germinate when the conditions are ideal for each learner. When a seed is planted in nature, substantial growth happens underground where no observable changes can be seen. There are also significant unseen and uncontrollable forces that determine the success of the seed’s growth. The same might be applied to our students, where transformation in a learner may not be visible to us for a while (or ever) but is nonetheless occurring. And if the learner continues on into another transformer’s course, the chance is even higher, and on and on, until one day, ideally, they become a transformer, too.

The transformational process is not easy, predictable, or painless (to continue the above analogy here: a seed actually dies before it sprouts). The process requires tremendous time and investment from both teacher and learner, and it’s not feasible to go through in a predetermined amount of time. As illustrated in the phases of transformative learning theory and supported by research in our own field, it involves fundamental and uncomfortable shifts in one’s frames of reference, which is far from “Easy Street.” Thankfully, our relocation is becoming more widely recognized. We’ve only moved forward because of the painstaking efforts and radical strides educators before us have made, and with them now, we continue to carry on the transforming. That is, as long as we are taking sound measures to put the theories into practice and facilitate transformation in our classrooms. But that topic deserves a post all on its own…Until then, happy sowing and growing.


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Rhetoric Here, There, Then, Now

posted: 3.3.14 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

Writing-about-writing is invested in having students encounter research on writing that may upset their (and their culture’s) everyday conceptions of writing. And that makes a conference like last week’s Writing Research Across Borders meeting in Paris last week an awfully interesting place to be. You’re surrounded by mounds of data on cutting-edge questions like how ideas flow in the creation of writing, how writers in the humanities actually cite sources, and what students seem to really take away from a variety of different writing pedagogies.

You also strike up conversations with colleagues from around the world, like one I had with a professor from Australia. She observed that many Australian writing instructors are only just awakening to the possibilities rhetorical theory offers for writing instruction. Rhetoric seems to have been, for the past 50 years, a pretty distinctly American sport when it comes to writing instruction.

Yet for all we do in America with rhetoric, in many ways it’s like the 20th century never existed … or that much after 300 B.C. has. Because what the average American college writing instructor seems to know about rhetoric is Aristotle: logos, ethos, and pathos. Advanced knowledge of rhetoric includes the five canons (invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery) and, at a real stretch, kairos. This is the instruction that dominates American writing textbooks.

What I’m interested in these days is how Aristotle and other rhetorical theorists of the time were limited by their world, and how when we read the hallowed words of the classical Greek philosophers we do not consider the whole of their rhetorical situation.

What might Aristotle have said differently about rhetoric if he had lived in a world where humans could move faster than 25 miles per hour (on the back of a horse)? Which was also pretty much the top speed for information transmission, apart from line-of-sight mirror flashes and smoke (on a clear day).

What might Aristotle have said about rhetoric had he lived in a world where writing was not a specialized activity of working-class scribes? What about a world in which a printing press would make possible the writing of a text for more than lecture notes to one’s students?

And this of course is not to mention the possibly of speaking to an audience of more than a few thousand people at once, or more importantly in one physical location small enough to be reached by a single unamplified human voice. How about a world where texts were revised after writing instead of being entirely mentally composed before any words were written down? (And where The Illiad could be an oral story told entirely from memory!) Aristotle could not imagine these worlds.

And nor can his rhetoric, really. What we have in classical rhetoric is principles for how to give a good speech in a handful of very formal rhetorical situations. Yet these are the principles that stand in for most of the rhetorical instruction U.S. students receive. It’s a far sight better than an absence of attention to rhetoric. But I hope as other writing instructors across the world increase their use of rhetorical theory, they look at more than our country has tended to for the past 50 years. In my next post, if more pressing matters don’t present themselves, I’ll write more about what that could be.

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Talking the Talk

posted: 12.18.13 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

I need to preface this post with the explanation that until this year, I’ve not taught in or with a program where many instructors are using a writing-about-writing approach at the same time. Since I started experimenting (literally) with WAW attempts in 2002, in any program I’ve taught in it’s pretty much been little ol’ me, with the occasional exception. So a lot of other people around the country have a lot more experience than I do with lots of instructors teaching lots of students in the style of WAW. This semester is the first time I’ve planned a WAW version of Comp I for multiple instructors—in this case, TAs (and most of them first-semester teachers). So what others might have been seeing for years, I’m getting my first look at.

And it’s like this: when I get to sit in on other people’s classes, I hear student interchanges, class discussions and workshops, and it blows me away. Our new instructors have students doing this thing that I often struggle to get my own students doing: talking fluently with the language of our field. Exigence. Collaboration. Readers. Revision. Invention. Intertextuality. Discourses. And when I say “fluently,” I mean that not only did I get to see a couple hundred students over the course of the semester glibly inserting this vocabulary into their classroom talk; I mean that they were using such language to support meaningful, applied discussion about pieces of writing they were working on and arguments they were conducting about the workings of discourse, rhetoric, and writing.

I’ve heard this in my own classrooms many a time—it’s one of the palpable changes in comp-course discourse that convinced me to stay on the WAW track. But I hear it maybe five or at the most ten students at a time—a half a class. Being able to listen in on ten different instructors’ students walloped me with the effect repeatedly. And, I thought, these students are doing it more than my students. How’s that happening?

I think it might be that my new instructors have not yet been disabused of their idealism and sunk to my level of cynicism about what students can be asked to do. Usually, because WAW asks so much of students who are very new to college, I imagine myself as one of the more demanding instructors I know. But these TAs: they’re insisting that students take excellent reading notes, and finding ways to grade them on it without seeming oppressive (or sucking up too much of their own time). They devote class time to getting students to make connections across readings explicitly, and insisting that students use the language of the readings as they do. These instructors insist that students not generalize about the readings or leave impressionistic but ungrounded statements hanging—claims about the text have to be backed up by language from the text.

Sure, I do all these things with my students, too, but I think I’m a little lazier about it. And I think the difference between how many of my students thus intelligently adopt the language of the field to talk writing, and how many of theirs do, might come down to this difference in rigor. Seeing with fresh eyes what WAW pedagogy makes possible for writing students’ learning, and how excellent teaching can lead students to that learning, has left me very grateful for the chance to teach WAW with other teachers. It makes a big difference.

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Crossing Thresholds

posted: 11.20.13 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

In my last post, I wrote about the difficulties of helping students see the practical, transferable value of things we teach them. In particular, I was a little frustrated that the analysis and assessment techniques I shared with students in the Writing with Communities and Non-Profits course didn’t really hit home with them until guests from non-profits started coming to class and sharing what amounted to the same techniques.

In today’s post, I’d like to follow up on that and talk a little about the same class and the issue of threshold concepts. As we’ve already mentioned in this blog, the next edition of WAW will be centered around threshold concepts. At the same time, I am co-editing a book with Linda Adler-Kassner on threshold concepts (Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts in Writing Studies, Utah State University Press, forthcoming 2014), and am currently writing a chapter for that book with my colleague Blake Scott on how threshold concepts can help shape writing majors. So, suffice it to say, the lens of threshold concepts is on my mind. To recap, threshold concepts are, according to Meyer and Land, communally-agreed upon knowledge from a field that learners must understand in order to progress in their learning in that field. Learning a threshold concept “occasion[s] a significant shift in the perception of a subject.” Threshold concepts “expose the previously hidden interrelatedness of something.”

One of two big assignments in Writing with Communities and Non-Profits was a grant project. This entailed pairing students with community non-profit partners, and then asking the students to find ten possible funding sources (using the Foundation Directory) and then to write a grant proposal to one of those sources. This project required the students to spend a lot of time with their non-profits, learning about their programs and achievements, and to write many, many drafts of what was a new genre for all of them.

The day the students turned their grant proposals into me, we talked in class about what they had learned while completing this project. Their reflective comments surprised me. They learned that

  • they can’t predict how readers will understand what they have written because each reader brings something different to the reading experience. (I’d instructed them to have multiple people read their grant proposal drafts, and they’d learned that each reader fixated upon something different, and interpreted claims and points differently, sometimes in opposite ways from other readers.)
  •  no matter how many times they revise, their proposal can still be improved upon. (In other courses, they pointed out, they’d been told to do revision but had no real commitment to doing it and thus acquired no particularly urgent learning about how important revision is to meaning and effectiveness.).
  • using what they know from another setting (for many of them, this meant using techniques learned in creative writing courses) was possible but difficult, and required conscious and careful repurposing (being creative and passionate in the Needs section of a grant proposal requires a different approach than being creative and passionate in a novel, but creative writing techniques can be drawn upon.)

As I sat listening to the students explain their learning, I realized they were telling me that they had crossed some important threshold concepts about writing:

  • Readers and writers together construct meaning in texts.
  •  Writing requires revision and is not perfectible.
  • Using writing knowledge in disparate contexts requires careful reflection and repurposing.

These were not the threshold concepts I had set out to teach them in this particular course. These weren’t even conscious outcomes of the course. I went in wanting the students to think about how writing mediates activity in the workplace, for example. While I included lots of scaffolded drafting and revision time in the course, I did not stop to think about what I was trying to teach them by including that. The threshold concepts the students named are threshold concepts I share, and they were implied in the design of my course. But I did not stop to think about them as the main threshold concepts of that particular course when I designed it.

One of the issues I’ve been struggling with how different threshold concepts are from outcomes. Outcomes can be set at the beginning of a course and then measured; threshold concepts are much slipperier. They underlie what we know and say; they underlie our desired outcomes and our course activities and assignments. But they are not easily taught in a direct manner or at a particular time. When students cross particular thresholds depends on many things, including their own histories and experiences and identities and motivations and dispositions. The students in my class have all revised before, and shared their work with others before, and drawn on prior knowledge before. But for some reason, their work with a non-profit client on this particular text at this particular time enabled them to understand threshold concepts they had not understood before. Of course, that isn’t true for all of them. I can see some of them still going through the motions, and that’s intriguing, too. They all had similar experiences, but their learning happened in different ways.

So how and why do students cross learning thresholds when they do? How can we better name the thresholds we hope they will cross, but also be open to whatever thresholds they cross while they are with us, even if they weren’t the ones we’d planned for? Learning is messy. But when it really happens, it’s incredibly rewarding. And it reminds us why we chose to be teachers in the first place.

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My Favorite Things

posted: 10.24.13 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

I haven’t thought to do this before because I really don’t like choosing favorites. I actually sort of resent living in a culture where people can randomly demand of you, “What’s your favorite…” and you look like the loser if you can’t say. I’m a rhetorician, for crying out loud—a professional situationalist. My favorite in this moment will probably not be my favorite in the next. (Except ice cream. And pizza.)

But I can do lists of favorites. And why have I never done that with WAW readings? It’s risky, but what the heck. Here are the pieces I keep going back to all the time, which is one reason you’ll be able to find (almost) all of them in the second edition of Writing about Writing. (Another reason is because they all engage threshold concepts, and in the new edition we like thinking about those.)

Deb Brandt’s “Sponsors of Literacy”: with James Gee’s notion of “Discourses,” I think Brandt’s work on structures, influences, and material sponsors of people’s literate lives is the biggest idea in literacy studies.  So powerful for students to gain this perspective.

Victor Villanueva’s Bootstraps: the parts where he’s telling his story of coming to college/academic literacy. So amazingly rhetorical and smart! A lot of students will see themselves in this. The ones who don’t need to hear first-hand what it’s like to be where Villanueva has been.

Don Murray’s “All Writing is Autobiography”: Is there any more powerful statement of the personal nature of all writing? The guy publishes a scholarly article that’s half poetry and manages to blend expressivist and postmodernist views of writing in ways that are readable to first-years. Whoa. (And on the same subject: anything by Peter Elbow ever, and does anyone remember Ken Macrorie’s Uptaught?)

James Porter’s “Intertextuality and the Discourse Community”: You know what every writer eventually needs to learn? That they’re not an island, that they’re not as clever as they think, and that originality does somehow, magically result from existing ideas and from collaboration. Porter (and the Declaration of Independence) is mind-blowing on these points.

Mike Rose’s “Rigid Rules, Inflexible Plans, and the Stifling of Language”: Thirty years after this article, “everyone knows” that too many rules can freeze a writer. Rose was one of the first to systematically investigate this idea and propose the differences between writers who think in rules and those who think in guidelines. When you finish Rose, read John Dawkins on “Teaching Punctuation as a Rhetorical Tool” and Joe Williams on “The Phenomenology of Error,” which also handle quite nicely the rules-versus-guidelines (and who is subject to which) discussion.

Margaret Kantz’s “Teaching Students to Use Textual Sources Persuasively”: If only for the line, “[Shirley] believes that facts are what you learn from textbooks, opinions are what you have about clothes, and arguments are what you have with your mother when you want to stay out late at night.” No one does better than Kantz at helping readers see the difference between information and argument, and showing how most of what we perceive as the former is the latter.

Dennis Baron’s “Pencils to Pixels”: Ain’t technology great? Baron helps readers realize that writing is ever technological, but often in ways we’ve forgotten are technology. Like pencils. Equally important and forgotten, he reminds us that writing is quite a bit visual. Try Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics for that. (And anything by Ann Wysocki.) Your mind will never be the same.

And one that didn’t make it into the 2e: Jim Corder’s “Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love.” You will find no more beautiful description of rhetoric as a search for shared values, common ground, and an act of deep engagement with other rhetors.

And in the universe of WAW, those are a few of my favorite things.

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Thinking about…WAW 2e, Writing for Non-Profits, and Transfer

posted: 9.25.13 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

As I write this blog post, Doug and I are in the thick of editing page proofs for the second edition of Writing about Writing, which will be out in January. We are excited about this new edition and all of the changes in it. We hope you will be excited about it, too. The second edition has been entirely re-arranged around the idea of threshold concepts—concepts central to understanding writing that we think are relevant to all writers, whether they ever take another writing class or not. And we’ve tried to order the threshold concepts so that each chapter builds on the concepts in the previous chapter.

However, as we are doing this editing work, my own teaching attention is elsewhere. For the first time in many, many years I am not teaching a composition course. Instead, this fall I am teaching an upper-level undergraduate course, Writing with Communities and Non-Profits. In the spring, I will teach another undergraduate course, Rhetoric and Civic Engagement, which is a required course for all of our writing minors.

So what is on my mind right now is the connection between theory and practice, between learning in the classroom and learning in civic and professional settings. Really what is on my mind is what is usually on my mind: how to help students see the value and relevance of what we discuss in the classroom and know how to use it in their writing lives outside the classroom. Even though this issue of “transfer” is my primary research area at the moment, I never cease to be surprised at how difficult this can be for students to do, and for me as a teacher to facilitate.

As an example, this semester we started the Non-Profit class by learning some analytical lenses for looking at texts in context: rhetorical analysis, genre analysis, and activity analysis. We spent time looking at texts used by local non-profits and examined their features across organizations and settings. For example, what is an annual report? What does it do? What are its features? What is an appeal letter? Why do these genres exist? What moves do they always make, and what moves seem optional? Students struggled with this analysis, as they usually do at first. But they seemed to be catching on.

Then we began having guests come to class. On Tuesday, a Communications Director from a local non-profit visited class and shared a number of texts she had composed. She brought three examples of appeal letters that she had written, and she had taken the time to highlight three rhetorical “moves” that she always makes in every appeal letter, no matter who the audience is or what the “ask” is for.  The students were mesmerized, fascinated, and utterly surprised when I pointed out that our guest had just done a partial genre analysis for them. They didn’t make that connection. What I had asked them to do in class prior to her visit was a “school activity,” and they didn’t see how it related to what seemed to them to be a “real-life activity.”

I had spent the first few weeks of class teaching them to find and analyze texts used by different non-profits and to determine where they were more and less effective and which strategies they might borrow in their own professional work. They had dutifully done what I had asked but, quite honestly, they had not done a very good job of this. They clearly thought I was giving them “busy work.” Yet when they asked our non-profit guest how she learned to write the texts she was sharing with them, she said, “I looked at all the examples I could find of successful texts used by other non-profits, and then I modeled my own texts after those.” The students all nodded and smiled and wrote in their reflective statements for the next class that what they had learned that day was that they should analyze sample texts in order to get good at writing their own. The fact that I had shown them how to do the same thing just a week before didn’t register.

So I continue to wonder: how can we make school activities meaningful enough so that students see them as relevant and helpful when they are working outside of school? I do all I know how to do to encourage this: I explain connections, use real-world materials, ask students to analyze and reflect, etc. Yet still far too often, when students get to the “real world” project, they don’t think to connect and apply what we’ve just done in the classroom. But some students do make these connections. Why? What accounts for the different reactions by different students? I have explored this question in a recent article in Composition Forum, but I am curious to hear your thoughts on the question.

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Finally Here

posted: 8.21.13 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

We don’t usually get terribly personal in our blog posts, but for this one, I’m writing about this very specific moment I’m in: my first opportunity to launch new graduate teaching assistants into a writing-about-writing curriculum. I’ve been waiting for this for almost six years.

It’s true that about three years ago I was interim comp director, and that the GTAs on my watch did wind up teaching writing-about-writing, but that was mostly, not entirely, my fault; I introduced them to a couple central ideas and they told me, “we should just do writing about writing.” They went off and did it, and I just held on for the ride. That was in the days before the textbook, and we just kind of felt our way through everything.

So, this is different, because now it’s happening on purpose. Just like when first-year college students enter a WAW classroom, I find myself thinking of these new GTAs, “This is going to work because they don’t know it’s not supposed to.”  Oh, and because it’s a really good idea—but will they still think so at the end of the school year? Or will I have been the first director of composition in the country to have an entire year’s GTAs hate WAW?

What I’m Worried About

Of course, I should be asking myself: What’s the worst that could really happen?  (Just like I actually ask of these brand new teachers, some of whom were seniors in English three months ago.)  Let’s see: they could hate it, rebel, and leave; they could implement it poorly and create bad experiences for students, or decide that teaching writing isn’t at all for them; they might lack the flexibility, the give and take of expectations, that this kind of teaching requires.

What I’m Excited About

I know, though, both that catastrophe can strike no matter the pedagogy and that catastrophe is actually pretty rare in WAW courses, if reports are to be believed. There’s an essential, intuitive “fit” between writing instruction, WAW, and college students that somehow simply makes the approach work.

More than worried, I’m excited to walk into the orientation, where new GTAs themselves have been writing about writing, and hear the typical “sure, this makes sense, what else would we do?” response from the teachers-to-be.

I’m excited that more students than ever get to spend their semester in their writing class focused closely on writing–not just in analyzing their work in the course, but in doing their work in the course.

I’m excited by the responses from students in my most recent first-year comp course, just ended, who were delighted that the course was something other than the same repetitive worries about grammar and writing of assignments that had little meaning to the writers.

What I’m Expecting

Of course, this stuff doesn’t teach itself, and I’m expecting a mix of worry and anticipation from the new writing instructors.  If their reactions are typical, they will be intrigued by the potentials of this style of writing instruction. They will wish they’d been able to read the entire Writing about Writing book, but most won’t have. They’ll have read enough. They’ll be eager to see, as I am, every single semester, what encounters students will have with these ideas. Mostly, I expect, we’ll have a good time exploring, investigating, and coming to more richly understand writing. Which it seems to me is what it’s all about.

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Disciplinary Expertise and Writing Studies

posted: 8.1.13 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

Last week at the Council of Writing Program Administrator Conference in Savannah, I presented on the question of expertise. In particular, I asked how we make decisions about hiring and staffing if we teach courses, both first-year composition and upper-level writing, that teach from the content/research/theory of our field. This is not a hard question for any other field: biologists teach biology, historians teach history. But our field of Rhetoric and Composition has blurry boundaries. Everyone who writes has popular understandings of writing that they may mistake for specialist knowledge. Professional writers not in our field have specialist knowledge of a particular kind, but not necessarily the sort of specialist knowledge we have generated as a discipline that studies writing. And, of course, historically, many people without disciplinary expertise in Rhetoric and Composition have been hired to teach writing courses.

For all of these reasons and many others, our field has a difficult time with questions about disciplinary expertise. What does it mean to teach from our field’s specialized disciplinary knowledge? Who is qualified to teach our disciplinary courses? Who is qualified to make policy about writing, writing instruction, and writing assessment? While these questions are uncomfortable, we have to find a way to address them if we want to have any hope of making systemic and consequential changes in the way writing is viewed, taught, engaged in, and assessed.

I’ve recently been reading Harry Collins and Robert Evans’ book, Rethinking Expertise. While not everything that they have to say is relevant to our field, they do provide some helpful food for thought in thinking through the questions I posed above. Collins and Evans outline a number of types of expertise, including the following:

  • Popular understanding :what people generally understand about a particular concept or phenomenon
  • Primary source knowledge: knowledge of the research literature from a particular field without necessarily interacting with members of the field
  • Contributory expertise: the ability to “contribute to the domain in which the expertise pertains….the ability to do things within the domain of expertise” (p. 24)
  • Interactional expertise: mastery of the language of a particular domain, including the ability to converse about the issues and ideas, but without making research contributions to the domain
  • Referred expertise: expertise from another domain that has relevance to doing work in the current domain

Collins and Evans assert repeatedly their belief that “the location of expertise is the social group” (p. 78).

Reading this list of expertise types brings up several questions for me: What kinds of expertise are needed in order to teach content-based courses? And what domains of knowledge are relevant for teaching writing courses? For example, is primary source knowledge enough to teach a writing about writing course, or does the teacher need to have more interaction with the members of the field who are creating research and forwarding the disciplinary conversations and theories? Do some courses require more contributory (research-based) expertise from the field of Rhet/Comp (for example, our Rhetoric and Civic Engagement or Introduction to Writing Studies courses), while others require more referred expertise (for example, our Professional Writing or Professional Editing courses)?

As our field moves from focusing primarily on first-year composition and sees the creation of more writing departments, more writing majors, and more upper-level classes, we will have to answer these questions and many others. The discussion we have been having about writing studies content in first-year composition and how to help faculty become prepared to teach that content is only one of many discussions about disciplinary knowledge and expertise that we will be having over the coming years.

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Words without Desire

posted: 6.26.13 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

It’s possible I don’t really feel like writing this blog post, that I’d rather be reading and playing music and mountain biking. But the writing needs doing, so here I am. Our students, of course, are so often in the same place. I at least have a meaningful exigence for this writing, more I think than our students often experience with their assignments.
No matter how open and intelligent our writing course designs are, no matter how legitimate the exigencies for which our students write, the one slight problem we can never get around is that, most often, given their choice, our students would not be writing at all.

This challenge of exigence is of particular meaning to me at the moment since I just launched my 6-week summer writing course yesterday, with a small group of College Writing I students who (and who can blame them) seemed like they might have liked to have been elsewhere. So, working to frame the course as investigation rather than mere practice—one of the best hallmarks of WAW—I found my main challenge to be meeting their skepticism with some actually meaningful exigence. This course will be a lot of work (another hallmark of WAW), and to what end? Investigating, exploring writing, studying how to write with authority (the course theme)—these are worthy pursuits, unless you hadn’t really wanted to do that (or anything) to begin with.

No, this post will not reveal the Great Answer to the conundra of exigence, relevance, and urgency—why this now? “Because you have to” just isn’t the ideal motivational answer, but sometimes it’s the answer that there is, and the rest is contrived. Quite well contrived, possibly, but still.

When it comes to writing-about-writing, we’re often telling students that the work of the course is to un-do prior knowledge, to re-write misconceptions, to overwrite earlier teaching and learning experiences. It’s an interesting motivational statement: “You’ve been taught wrong, we’re here to fix it.” I usually try to contrive better ways to say it than that, though it’s what I think. One of the more positive ways to put it is, “You’re thinking about writing as this one small thing, and you actually know how to do that pretty well, and that lets us look at writing as this much larger thing that will raise a lot of questions for you, and then we’ll use the course to address some of those questions.”

For my class yesterday, this meant, specifically, picking apart the terms “proficiency” and “creative.”  As in, “I want to increase my writing proficiency” and “I want to write more creatively,” which were two of the learning goals students suggested. It didn’t take us long to realize that “writing proficiency” is a vague expression that doesn’t really have much concrete meaning for most people, and that “creative” means, well, “creative.” Whatever that means.

So I offered a new exigence: a search for concrete meaning in the writing course, to try to get away from things everybody just says because that’s what one says around writing, and instead to push for something tangible that stands up to some interrogation. They seemed interested, I’m interested, and that’s a good start.

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Categories: Douglas Downs
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