Testing a Theory of Writing in FYW

Nicholas Jackson
University of Louisville

In 2016, four other instructors at UMaine (where I was teaching at the time) and I began incorporating elements of the Teacher for Transfer curriculum into our WAW first-year-writing course. The theory of writing has been the TfT element I find the most useful, and I have students return to it repeatedly throughout the course, asking them to reflect on how they would make changes in light of their most recent reading and writing and then to revise that theory accordingly.

In planning our assignment sequences, we discussed the benefits of explicitly asking students to reflect on writing in other classes as well. This prompt is what I developed to foster that reflection. It is part of a scaffolded assignment sequence in which students engage in new writing tasks between (almost) every class to work toward final portfolios. This prompt is typically when I see students begin to make more thorough connections between the writing they do in first-year-writing and the other types of writing they engage in or expect to engage in in the future. While many of the readings I include focus on writing in new contexts, some of which are non-academic, asking students to apply their own theories to those other types of writing helps them see these connections more clearly than when they just read what others have said.

Prompt: Your last assignment asked you to “test” your theory of writing against your experiences writing your last essay in order to think about how complete and useful this theory is. While this is a good start to evaluating the usefulness of your theory, you should once again recall Downs’ and Robertson’s claim that “The better–the more completely, consistently, and elegantly–a theory accounts for past experience and the more accurate its predictions about future experience, the stronger or more robust it is, and thus the more useful it is” (111). As such, it would seem useful to test how consistently your theory of writing can account for your past experiences with writing and make predictions about future writing experiences for writing experiences outside of this class. Therefore, for this assignment you will turn your attention to writing you have produced (or are producing) outside of this class in order to begin to develop a clearer picture of the usefulness of your theory of writing.

For next class, please select a piece of your writing from outside of this class. It can be something you have completed or something you are still composing. You may choose an academic example (a history paper or lab report you wrote last week; an essay from high school) or a non-academic example (a tweet, a post on an online forum, a letter to your grandmother, fanfiction, a prayer journal, etc.). The more unlike the writing you do in ENG 101 this sample is, the more fruitful and interesting your examination will likely be.

After you have selected the piece of writing, use your theory of writing as a frame to explain what you did as you composed this piece of writing, how you did so, and why, much as you did in your last assignment. Like with the last assignment, the length will, in part, be determined by the usefulness of your theory of writing. If you find yourself unable to write much, you may want to instead begin thinking about how you will revise your theory of writing to account for this other type of writing.

You do not need to send me this piece of writing (though you can), but you will need to make sure I have enough context to understand what you’re saying, so you’ll want to cite specific examples from your text. Make sure you also explain what your theory of writing fails to account for–that is, are there ways your theory of writing as it is currently written fails to explain what happens when you write, say, a tweet instead of an academic essay? How will you revise your theory of writing in light of this information?

When you have finished, please revise your theory of writing based on the work you did here. Please send me your revised theory and the writing you did above.

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