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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. [read more]

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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. [read more]

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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. [read more]

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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.
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The Power of Transparency over Rhetorical Systems

posted: 5.10.13 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

Somewhere in the past of this blog, I’ve probably made a glancing reference to Clive Thompson’s concept of radical transparency, the tendency of modern America to confessional disclosure or exposure of information that by tradition has been kept secret. In this post I want to think at greater length about the role of radical transparency in writing instruction and, more particularly, its role in writing about writing.

I frequently write about WAW’s suitability for addressing misconceptions of writing and, especially, the double standards frequently imposed on student writers by teachers and administrators who make requirements for students’ writing that they would never follow in their own. For example, the research that WAW students do on writing process can expose ways that students’ writing is held to higher standards of proofreading than their teachers’ professional writing is (a point explored well in Joseph Williams’ classic “Phenomenology of Error” article, which we also reprint in Writing about Writing). Another kind of transparency happens in WAW classes when students explore their own writing environments, discovering, for example, what the architecture students on their campus write, versus the engineering students, law students, veterinary students, etc. [read more]

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Getting Ready for WAW at the MSU Writing Program

posted: 4.11.13 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

Say you had been on the writing faculty in an English Department at a sci/tech/ag land-grant university for five years and had just earned tenure. Say, further, that in the coming summer you would be rotating into the department’s Director of Composition role, administering the first-year composition program. (It’s not terribly large – about 140 sections a year, taught by about 12 graduate teaching assistants from the English M.A. program and about 12 part-time, adjunct faculty.) Say that the tradition of your FYC courses is rather undisciplined, something to do with teaching extremely thoughtful, argument-based response to cultural-issues texts. (Such that many versions of the course are indistinguishable from the also-required first-year seminar.) The adjuncts have extreme seniority and a tradition of being left to themselves; the TAs are assigned a textbook and overall syllabus and prepped by the director of composition. And say, finally, that into this you were thinking, “What a great time to move to a writing-about-writing approach to first-year comp!”

What would you do to actually make the first moves? [read more]

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It’s a Deep Subject

posted: 3.13.13 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

Your intrepid co-bloggers have, for about the past year, and especially the past couple months, been consumed with revising Writing about Writing for its second edition. This past week we finished its new material, and the 2e is much closer to our ideal book.

I thought I’d talk here about why that would be—what’s the difference between an ideal and what can actually be written? Why don’t the two simply correspond? Why don’t we “get it right the first time”? Or at least the second time? Several reasons:

1. We’re trying to hit a moving target. Every time we teach a WAW class, we learn more about how to do it well. Every new teacher using a WAW approach brings new considerations and ideas. We happen on approaches, readings, or ideas that make us happier. (For example, we’re learning now about threshold concepts, which the second edition is built to account for.)

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Forgetting the Basics

posted: 2.13.13 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

Doug

I had a sort of dumb week with writing about writing.

In an Introduction to Writing Studies class, which is the gateway course to our writing major, I’d assigned David Russell’s piece “Writing in Multiple Contexts: Vygotskian CHAT Meets the Phenomenology of Genre.” It’s pretty complex, as Russell brings together cultural-historical activity theory and genre theory to explain how context mediates a given writing task. It’s actually not in the Writing about Writing textbook because it’s a little too much for a first-year audience. I’ve used it before with sophomore writing majors, though, and done okay.

But not last Tuesday. Prior to class, students’ blog posts on the piece were quite good, once I waded past the six or seven Inspired Artistic Writers who called Russell, among other things, pretentious, a fraud, and a hack. His language can be pretty tough, for sure, especially on the first page:  “My particular contribution has been to analyze the ways writing is deployed and learned across contexts by seeing genre systems operating in both the socio-psychological (subjective and intersubjective ) plane and the sociological (objective and institutional) plane.” Even I don’t entirely know what to make of that on first glance, and any undergraduate who dwells on it would likely just get frustrated.

Still, many students, using my prompt about how comfortable Russell’s explanation of writing as a tool is, were able to converse well on the class blog about the value of tool metaphors versus other metaphors for writing. I walked into Tuesday’s class jazzed and impressed with their work. [read more]

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What It’s Really Like to Be a Writer

posted: 1.16.13 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

Doug

One of the epic struggles fought in first-year composition over the years has been whether the people who take the course will be treated as students or as writers. With notable exceptions, such as the height of the expressivist movement, the weight of the pendulum has swung toward “students.” And there are things we just don’t tell students (but maybe we should).

We should be telling more about how projects lead to projects. Like many other opportunities, the first project is among the hardest to get; good work on it leads to further invitations. People who write well are never short of things to do, because one project leads to the next. This is not really an effect students will see in a classroom.

We should be telling more about how writing turns into other writing by recirculating and recycling. Writing, like the ideas it represents, is organic and grows in strange directions, but it rarely starts over or starts from a blank page, any more than our minds and cultures and the ideas they generate ever work without a sense of “what just happened.” Students might not recognize this in their everyday work. [read more]

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Riding on Ice (A Lesson in Conceptions)

posted: 12.14.12 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

Doug

As a boy, the absolutely most fun winter activity was taking my bike down to the ponds a block from my house and riding on the ice. At first I didn’t even know if it were possible. Can ice hold a bike? (Easily.) Would it be too slippery to stay upright or get any traction? (Not if the ice is dry.) I learned how to turn (slowly), accelerate (slowly), stop (slowly), and fall if I was going to fall (quickly). I learned what would happen if I hit icy ruts: that I was going to fall, quickly. Those childhood experiences formed my habits of how to ride a bike in icy conditions.

Now my bike ride to campus is three miles, and the city never plows the bike lanes in winter. (In fact, it actively plows snow from the car lanes into the bike lanes. Hosers.) For a few years I battled the ice in just the ways my childhood taught me. And then I got a set of studded tires. (Yes, they make studded bike tires.) I didn’t realize they’d be really any different to ride than regular tires—sure, a little noisier, like studded car tires, but no big deal, I thought. Incorrect.

While I’ve been writing about conceptions of writing for years, I never stopped to think that I have conceptions of riding. The studded tires have changed them. [read more]

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