At Home with Writing about Writing

Cynthia A. Cochran, Illinois College

December 5, 2015

A few years ago I began to learn about a growing community of people teaching writing in a way that would eventually make me feel right at home: Writing about Writing. I had not yet discovered Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs’ book of that title and had neglected to read their seminal article on this teaching approach, but at conferences I began to hear people using the term, and a departmental colleagues began using Writing about Writing.  One year at 4Cs, I took a look at its chapters and noticed assignments similar to those I had developed for my students, such as chapters on literacy narratives and writing processes, an explanation of discourse communities, metacognitive questions, and even some of the essays and articles I had been using with students.

Having a background in rhetoric and composition studies, I was delighted – and intrigued — to see some of my favorite research articles, too, seminal works in writing studies. It was almost a coming home.

Over the next year, I continued to use the same book I had recently adopted, Gary Goshgarian’s Exploring Language; its range of readings on language in written, oral and visual communication interested my students and I found them to be useful as springboards to getting students to consider their own language use at a metacognitive level. Themes in my course drawn from Exploring Language chapters all focused on some dimension of visual, verbal, or semiotic communication included freedom of speech and censorship; hate language; sign language and visual rhetoric; discourse communities and genre; language, identity, and literacy narratives; propaganda; and writing processes. The students seemed receptive enough and they certainly improved their writing, but I did not think they were as advanced at the metacognitive level as I wanted them to be so as to facilitate transfer of writing knowledge and skill from my class to all their other classes.

I began to question my approach, specifically, whether my syllabus did enough to encourage or require students to read and possibly do empirical studies of writing. Were a literacy narrative and an assignment like an etymology essay enough? Had I been too timid about introducing students to methods of inquiry I use? I began to think so.

At the next 4C’s my curiosity drove me to the WAW SIG, partly to find out whether what I did was WAW enough, or WAW at all, or maybe something else. I entered the WAW house tentatively.

As I listened to colleagues describing their approaches to teaching first-year students about writing studies – not just about how to write – my curiosity grew, as did my comfort. It was great to meet people who had confidence that undergraduates in any field would and could learn more about writing and improve their own writing effectively through WAW. Remember, I had never included more than two assignments that asked students to examine writing as data. Maybe I didn’t need to be afraid to share my expertise with students more directly by engaging them in discussions about the study of writing.

So I changed plans. I began to include more assignments to engage students in metacognitive self-reflection about their recent writing to build on their literacy narrative. I reverted to using an assignment that asked students to collect interview data about writing in a particular discourse community. And I included a researched paper on a topic related to language. Finding a way to squeeze everything in was difficult to do in the context of teaching in a learning community defined mainly by my teaching partner’s first-year seminar topic (but that is an essay for another day).

Currently my approach is to introduce students to college writing through WAW by introducing them to themselves. From day one to the final, I layer in opportunities for students to reflect on their progress as writers: I periodically ask them to consider and self-assess their writing history, strengths and needs, processes and goals. After a first assignment in which they write a brief in-class essay on their writing strengths and needs, they read literacy narratives by a range of writers included in the anthology and then write their own essay on some aspect of their language identity. I still ask them to write researched paper on a topic related to course theme of language and communication. They also now do a brief assignment that involves interviewing someone in their chosen or current favorite field of study, find an example of writing in that major or profession (preferably something written by their interview subject), and use this as an example for analysis. The course ends with a final in-class reflective essay to cap their literacy project, which by that time will include their first-day essay, their literacy narrative, several self-assessment letters, and the final essay.

I still characterize my course as one that hits a half-way mark between WAW and writing about communication. Sometimes I share my own research with the students – whatever research I happen to have completed most recently, what I will be talking about in my next conference paper, or questions I would like to research. I report on recent findings in writing research whenever the moment arises. But although the students may draw on reports of empirical studies in their own research paper, their only data collection happens in the discourse community assignment. I may add a verbal think-aloud protocol assignment for them to study their writing process, an assignment harkening back to my teaching assistant days under the direction of Linda Flower.

I won’t bother you with the stories about improved course evaluations since I’m not certain those things are always worth the effort, but I will say this. I am feeling at home with WAW. I believe this approach is working, though I have no easy way to do a comparison study without sacrificial lambs. But I can see the evidence of the improvement in their writing and in the things some of them say in their self-assessments. Imagine my delight, for example, when one of them wrote about his assistant football coach, who had written a journal article! Because I want to increase students’ ability to think at the metacognitive level, I talk explicitly and often about transferring concepts and skills from one domain to another; the thread of self-assessment reinforces their metacognitive skill, which I hope will lead to greater transfer. (Perhaps there is a study about that in my future – and perhaps some students will collaborate in that research.)

WAW has slowly became home as I explore its rooms. Each assignment I try is like a piece of furniture to be moved, prized, or perhaps tossed to the curb. Now in my second year as At-Large Member on the WAW Steering Committee, I have grown in confidence that I am “doing WAW.” During the past year, I have been conducting research with Rebecca Babcock, interviewing instructors about WAW and examining their course materials. I am excited by what I am learning about what WAW is and can be. Through it all, I have grown more confident as I realize that WAW is a house with rooms to spare and lots of furniture to buy.

And yet, expansive as it is, WAW is a cozy house. I have become increasingly cognizant that the WAW community enfranchises me to live out and share with my students the expertise I have been so careful to nurture.

Postscript: For the landmark article justifying the use of WAW for teaching beginning college writers, complete with sample assignments, see Doug Downs and Elizabeth Wardle’s 2007 College Composition and Communication article, “Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning “First-Year Composition” as “Introduction to Writing Studies” (58.4, pages 552-584).

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