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.

WAW: Increasing Credibility and Course Personalization

posted: 3.17.11 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

Dan Martin_WAWToday’s guest blogger is Dan Martin, a fulltime Instructor in the Writing and Rhetoric Department who has been teaching composition courses at UCF since 2004. His research interests include writing studies, composition pedagogy and classroom instruction, writing across the curriculum, and writing about literature.

When I first learned that our department was planning to change the composition curriculum to writing about writing, I was a little concerned. How will my students react to this new approach to teaching and learning writing? Will it erode or increase the shaky credibility composition courses currently have? How will I teach the material, and where will I connect my teaching and writing knowledge with this new material? But as soon as I began reading the text, I started to see possibilities for interjecting my strengths and personality into the curriculum that would allow me to overcome these potential obstacles.

WAW gives the field, the instructor, and the course more credibility, direction, and pragmatism because it makes sense to teach writing theories and concepts in a writing course. Historically, writing courses rarely focus on the totality of writing and all of its components—all the decisions and nuances that accompany good writing. WAW helps eliminate many questions students and teachers have about what we are doing in writing courses: we teach writing studies. Composition instructors can be experts in their field rather than glorified writing consultants, tutors, or editors—since writing studies requires background and working knowledge on dozens of writing concepts, principles, and theories. There’s a universalizing of the field that comes with this approach and it’s a good thing, increasing the reputation and respectability of writing departments and instructors everywhere and allowing for more personalization in the classroom.

Having taught composition courses for several years at UCF, I’ve seen more than a few ways to teach college writing. Regardless of the approach or the textbook, I always found a way to use what I knew about writing to connect with the composition materials other people told me I should be using in the classroom—but it was difficult and limited. None of the textbooks or pedagogical approaches gave me a very strong sense of foundation to implement my writing knowledge; I never felt like I was teaching from an established theory or pedagogical principle. I was teaching context-specific writing, but students were not working from a real context. I should have been teaching writing principles that carry over into more than one context. And there’s a big difference.

Before I started using WAW, my students did learn about writing concepts that extended beyond the three or four genre-specific essays they were asked to compose during the semester. But many of those concepts never fully resonated with the students because they were also learning about a specific genre that did not necessarily connect with a particular set of concepts, leaving them with little information about writing they could take to other writing situations. So instead of working backwards, and asking students to produce a specific genre and forcing a context and exigence onto it, I have them start with a broad and accessible concept presented in a text like WAW, and show students how to recognize and apply the concept in a variety of writing situations I know best, using a variety of genres I am familiar with.

My graduate work is in literature and literary theory, which is nothing more than a rhetorical framework for examining texts and textual meaning. I built my composition courses around theories of intertextuality because of my literary background. I have a unit on intertextuality and authorship that asks students to trace intertextuality in a chosen text after reading Porter’s article on intertextuality and discourse communities. They use what they find, along with articles from Grant-Davie and Haas and Flowers, to make an argument about textual construction, authorship, textual meaning, and plagiarism. Students also use intertextual theories and approaches to research to enter academic conversations on writing studies topics and to learn research strategies and delivery processes. I’ve taken what I know best about writing and framed my courses around those ideas to personalize my course.

Many of the rhetorical strategies we read about and implement for analysis in the WAW curriculum are not limited to a specific kind of text, so someone’s familiarity with textual construction can synthesize well with the writing theories presented in Writing about Writing. Liz mentioned in one of her previous posts that she was concerned about hiring instructors without a rhetoric background until she realized that instructors can develop their textual and rhetorical competency in a number of different ways, even though they may have a limited writing studies background and less knowledge of the discipline’s lexis. Once instructors from any writing-intensive background connect their knowledge of writing with the technical language most often used to define that experience, they can personalize the material in very unique ways, giving them an opportunity to add something valuable and personal to the field.

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Categories: Writing about Writing
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