Reflecting on WAW: A Pedagogical Journey

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by Heather Camp, Associate Professor of English and Director of Composition at Minnesota State University, Mankato 

The invitation to guest blog for the writing-about-writing network has led me to reflect on the ways I have benefited from WAW over the last five years. As I survey this period, I see a dynamic relationship between WAW and my teaching philosophy, a relationship that has challenged and changed me as a teacher and administrator.

Like others interested in WAW, my initial explorations were motivated by the work of David Smit, Anne Beaufort, Elizabeth Wardle and others who were asking pointed questions about the transferability of writing skills acquired in first-year composition. These questions impelled me toward transfer research, including Linda Bergmann and Janet Zepernick’s maxim that we teach students “how to learn to write” for future writing situations (emphasis added). This seemed like a genius idea to me, and it shaped my personal teaching philosophy and the theoretical orientation of the Composition Program I direct.

Other ideas from WAW appealed as well. Long concerned with the question of content for FYC, I eagerly embraced the notion that writing itself was a rich and appropriate subject matter for the course. I felt that this content would teach students more about writing than would readings about popular culture or current events. I also was persuaded that incorporating composition scholarship into the course would provide students with a more concrete introduction to the notion of disciplinary communities and their unique discourse practices. These ideas continue to speak to me, even while I now recognize (through WAW-based teaching experience) the complexities that accompany these pedagogical decisions.

On multiple occasions, I have helped develop a WAW curriculum for my university’s Composition TAs, who teach English 101. During their first semester of teaching, these teachers work from a common syllabus and assignment sequence designed by a group of TA mentors and myself. In the WAW renditions we have adopted, we have embraced a loose definition of WAW, one that accepts Downs and Wardle assertion that “any meaningful genre, form, writing-related content, and medium can make an appearance in a WAW class” (133 emphasis added). Anecdotal evidence suggests that teachers have valued adopting readings on the writing process most of all; these readings, they claim, have provided a foundation for the process orientation of the class. Metacognitive practices also seem to have been widely accepted.

Today, I continue to grapple with the transfer question that led me to WAW. However, I am in a different place than I was five years ago. New voices and ideas have entered the conversation and are influencing my teaching philosophy in various ways. These ideas include findings from neuroscience on how the brain learns, retains, and retrieves information—and what that means for teaching. They include research on the importance of novelty and relevance in remembering. And they include my own longitudinal research on writing teacher development and the evolution of teachers’ theories and practices over time. This new body of knowledge alternately affirms and challenges tenets from WAW and is helping me continue to work out my philosophy of teaching.

At their best, Composition theories and pedagogies spur us to ask new questions, take our work more seriously, evolve our teaching practices, wrestle with tensions between practice and theory, and come to a better understanding of our teaching priorities. They keep us alert, engaged, and curious. I am grateful for the growth opportunities I have been afforded by WAW, and to the vibrant scholarly community it has permitted me to join, whose members share my interests but travel on their own unique, intellectual journeys.

Works Cited:

Bergmann, Linda and Janet Zepernick. “Disciplinarity and Transfer: Students’ Perceptions of Learning to Write.” WPA: Writing Program Administration 31.1-2 (Fall/Winter 2007): 124-149.

Downs, Doug and Elizabeth Wardle. “Reimagining the Nature of FYC: Trends in Writing-about-Writing Pedagogies. In Exploring Composition Studies: Sites, Issues, and Perspectives.    Eds. Kelly Ritter and Paul Kei Matsuda. Logan: Utah State UP, 2012. 123-144.

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