Write On: Notes on Teaching Writing about Writing

ELIZABETH WARDLE is professor and Chair of the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Central Florida. Her research interests center on genre theory, transfer of writing-related knowledge, and infusing composition classrooms with the field's best understandings of how writing works. She is currently conducting a longitudinal study of writing transfer with colleagues from UCF and Auburn University. DOUG DOWNS is an associate professor of rhetoric and composition in the Department of English at Montana State University. His research interests center on research-writing pedagogy and facilitating undergraduate research both in first-year composition and across the undergraduate curriculum. He continues to work extensively with Elizabeth Wardle on writing-about-writing pedagogies and is currently studying problems of researcher authority in undergraduate research in the humanities.

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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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.

Here I want to think about a third kind of transparency, what I’ll call systems transparency. First, though, I need to do some thinking about rhetoric. We know that writers are usually at their strongest when they can clearly anticipate how readers will use their texts; that’s why writers who get to see readers try to use their writing revise it better than those who don’t. This is essentially another way of saying that writers who better understand their rhetorical situations, including who their readers are and how they’ll use the texts, have a greater chance of creating better writing for those situations.

Well, how do writers come to understand their rhetorical situations?

One way is through this radical systems transparency: have the people in power in the situation (or the people in charge of it) take as much “hiddenness” out of the rhetorical system in question as possible. Which, when you think about it, is a kind of power-sharing. And if the rhetorical system in question is an institution of higher education, then its writing teachers may be uniquely positioned, particularly in a writing-about-writing course, to demystify the institution for students.

An example I often use is a general-education course appeal. Suppose a student wants to substitute a course for a required gen-ed course, and this substitution requires a written appeal to a review committee. What does the student know about where their writing actually goes? What happens to it? Who reads it?  From what stance, in what mood? Why is a written appeal required to begin with? What values does that reflect? What values are faculty members who sit on a gen-ed appeals committee likely to share to begin with? All of which is to say, there’s a rhetorical system that a newcomer with a limited angle of vision can’t be expected to understand well, but needs to understand well in order to write effectively in it.

In a way, this is the premise underlying disciplinary writing instruction as well, and why such instruction  is vastly superior to general writing skills instruction. But there’s something even more at work here: in sharing knowledgeable perspectives about the workings of a rhetorical system, we go some way toward equalizing the power imbalance that “the system” gains by keeping itself opaque to its subjects.

In my last class meeting of the semester in my Intro to Writing Studies class, as we reflected on particularly effective learning moments in the class, what my students said they most appreciated were the days when we talked about how the school works. Its politics, its systems, its reasons and values. In other words, its rhetoric. One of the particular pleasures of teaching writing-about-writing is such truth-telling.

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When Faculty across the Disciplines Imagine Composition

posted: 4.29.13 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

I was recently asked by another university to give a series of workshops to faculty from across a variety of disciplines about how to teach for transfer and how to encourage transfer across contexts. In these workshops, we talked about common misconceptions about writing and writing transfer, including the misconception that writing is a basic skill that is easily transferable from one context to another. We also talked about more robust, research-based conceptions of writing and writing transfer. And we considered what these research-based conceptions of writing meant for these faculty members from disciplines as varied as nursing, history, nutrition, and engineering. 

What fascinated me about these workshops is the same thing that fascinates me every time I work with faculty from across the disciplines: that it took them all of about an hour to digest and accept research-based conceptions of writing, and then it took them about five additional minutes to start looking for research-based ways to improve student writing. They were quite interested in the model of writing across the curriculum that we have begun here at UCF.  This is, of course, what I always hope for—that faculty from across the university will take responsibility for helping their students learn to write effectively in their disciplines.

But what also interested me was that at one of these workshops (which included only one writing faculty member) the group somehow became interested in yet another question: Given what we know about writing, what is it that you would like to see first-year composition accomplish? The group of diverse faculty members came up with a quick list of goals for first-year composition that blew me away: teach students sound conceptions of writing, help them see that good writing requires revision, help them be willing to engage in writing as practice, teach them to reflect on writing and writing situations, and so on. In essence, this group of faculty members designed outcomes for a philosophically sound writing about writing class in about fifteen minutes.  They were able to do so, I think, because once they acknowledged their own responsibility in teaching students to write in their disciplines, they could quite realistically conceive of first-year composition as an entry point, a foundational experience that could teach students reflective habits of mind and flexible writing practices that these faculty members could build on afterwards.

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Categories: Elizabeth Wardle
Read All Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs