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Live from MLA–Writing about Writing

Rebecca Day Babcock
Rebecca Day Babcock is Associate Professor of English and Chair of Literature and Languages at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin.

When I found out I would be blogging on January 8th as part of a guest blogger series here on Writingaboutwriting.net, my immediate thoughts went to the fact that I would be at MLA, and it was at MLA that I first heard about Writing about Writing and first met Betsy Sargent. So I decided that my guest blog would involve reporting from MLA on Writing about Writing-themed topics. Upon consulting the program, I saw no topics that explicitly mentioned Writing about Writing, but I did note two sessions on threshold concepts. Both these sessions, one sponsored by NCTE and the other sponsored by the MLA Committee on Community Colleges, were based on or inspired by the 2015 book Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle. While both sessions challenged and problematized threshold concepts,  participants in the NCTE session explicitly wondered if threshold concepts were as true for all students and teachers as they were for the authors of the above collection.  The Community College session both problematized and accepted the idea of threshold concepts and even encouraged audience members to articulate their own threshold concepts.

Session 338, entitled “Troubling Threshold Concepts in Composition Studies” began with an alarm sounding calling for everyone to exit the building (Several people noted that the alarm sounded at the same time that an anti-gun protest was going on, but in reality a fire in one of the elevators was what caused the interruption). The session participants filed to the street and speaker Mary Boland began to read her paper standing under a tree–police sirens and fire trucks responding to the alarm in the background.  As Boland spoke, passers by on the sidewalk tried to avoid walking in front of her. She informed the group about threshold concepts’ originators–UK economics scholars Erik Meyer and Ray Land. Boland went on to explain that threshold concepts do not apply equally to all students. (We then returned to the session room.) Boland prefers to talk about discourse communities. She is concerned that the use of threshold concepts and teaching for transfer could be used to hold more radical pedagogies at bay.

Other speakers at the session were Lance Langdon, who interviewed students as part of his research. He is concerned that threshold concepts are not accurate for all students, and that we need to look at the emotional and affective nature of these concepts. Speaker Craig Meyer thinks that students may see threshold concepts as fluid since they have experienced multiple English teachers who hold “pet peeves” as rules for writing and these constantly change from teacher to teacher. I think that perhaps threshold concepts and myths about writing are mirror images of each other and I would not be surprised if a particular item were to show up on both lists. Session organizer Jacqueline Rhodes notes that threshold concepts are not neutral. She reminds us that we should question them and their assumptions.

The Community College session (419), entitled “Threshold Concepts in First-Year Composition (FYC) at the Community College” enacted a novel format, as speakers read briefly from excerpts of papers that they had previously posed online and had engaged in discussion and feedback on before the conference.

Holly Larson discussed her students’ relation to the threshold concept “Writing is a Social Act” and explained how she forms her classroom as a community of inquiry. She works with expanding students’ ideas about writing and helping them to understand all aspects of the topics they are writing about.

Shawn Casey talked about literacy narratives and how we can have students connect those experiences to what we want them to learn in FYC. (This point is similar to one made by Craig Meyer in the previous session about having students tell their stories.) Casey also has students interview someone in their field about writing expectations and requirements. The threshold concept he is most concerned with is thinking critically about literacy.

Miles McCrimmon discussed alternatives to first year comp such as AP and dual enrollment and asked just where the threshold was. He also queried the structural metaphor of the threshold and wondered if it symbolized the virginal student being carried over the threshold by FYC into university life.

Audience members and panelists at both sessions were especially interested in pushing back and questioning the reification of threshold concepts as something, to quote Oprah, that we “know for sure.” I am happy the Adler-Kassner and Wardle collection has already sparked a debate here at MLA and I look forward to seeing where these discussions will take us in our scholarship.

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).

WAW and Business Writing: What WAW offers Business Communications Students

WAW and Business Writing: What WAW offers Business Communications Students

Geoffrey Clegg
The Pennsylvania State University–University Park
gmc5413@psu.edu
http://english.la.psu.edu/faculty-staff/gmc5413

I have used Writing About Writing for the last five years in my lower and upper level composition classes; however, due to a career transition (i.e. no longer being a graduate student), I find myself in the familiar yet different territory of business communication. While the teaching of business writing follows the familiar shuffle of our other composition courses, I have begun to rethink the value of what WAW may bring to this class specifically.

I know that you are most likely saying, “Seriously, this isn’t that big of a deal. It’s a pretty simple shift,” and I agree with that sentiment. Business writing follows the same basic conventions of all other forms of composition courses in that it stresses the rhetorical situation, audience analysis, attention to detail, and style. It is my belief, and seemingly only my belief at this moment, that elements of our approaches to FYW that are inspired or directly linked to WAW are of aid to those of us who teach primarily business students. After visiting the 2015 Association for Business Communication (ABC) conference and some small experimentation in my classroom feel a bit more comfortable laying out how.

For those who have not taught business or technical communication, the learning outcomes for these courses place a great deal of emphasis on the crafting of messages for diverse audiences inside and outside the workplace, planning effective and persuasive reports, creating resumes and cover letters, and sometimes the use of social media. To effectively begin to write toward these genres students should be able to adequately understand audience, literacies, discursive environments, rhetoric, and modality. These threshold concepts are thoroughly covered by our WAW courses through the variety of readings and assessments that engage students in understanding how each portion works in cohesion with the other.

Audience Awareness in WAW and Business Writing

By asking FYW students to reimagine audience in light of literacy and discursive needs, WAW prepares students to examine and understand the different ticks of the workplace. Let’s consider two presentations from the ABC conference:

  • Different Problems, Similar Goals: ESL Students and the Business Communication Writing Course (Marla Mahar, Oklahoma State University)
  • Generational Communication in the Workplace (Evaline Echols, Lee University)

Both presentations focused on adaptation to new linguistic norms, specifically cultural and linguistic shifts one must make whether in the workplace or classroom. Mahar’s central argument fed upon the need for international students to be placed within a separate business writing classroom due to the anxieties of L2 student writers. Echols’ presentation focused more on the intergenerational nature of workplaces and the way in which the four different generations (Traditionalist, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y/Millennials) interacted with each other. Both presentations have their place within business writing but also hold a specific link to WAW in that they rely upon having students understand the history and rationalities of why we compose in specific ways. Specifically, our work on having students understand the vital link between literacies, discursive moves, and ethnography within the WAW classroom provides a starting point for them to engage in understanding the unique natures of new environments.

The readings and assessments we give our students in WAW classrooms should create the bridge between professional and academic writing. I have covered material in my WAW FYW courses that prepares students for the rigors of what is to come, especially in relation to each of the presentations mentioned above. Having students, especially ESL students, understand the history and reasoning for why they are crafting a document in a specific way may not entirely help them overcome anxiety but it is a start. In fact, as I have previously experienced with teaching majority L2 students at Texas A&M University-Commerce, giving students access to the professional conversations about writing helps them explore their own sense of agency.

Experimenting with WAW in Business Writing at Penn State University

My time at Penn State has been a bit different as my ENGL 202D: Business Writing students were not trained in WAW during their FYW course sequence. However, this has let me experiment a bit more with them as the readings will be new to each of my students. I have slowly experimented with injecting WAW into my business writing teaching: I have made explicit use of Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts.” Stuart Greene’s “Argument as Conversation,” and John Swales’ “The Concept of a Discourse Community” in my courses. I picked these three readings primarily because of their viability to the writing assignments prescribed by the curriculum. Swales’ essay connects so easily to the nature of business communication because it focuses students’ attention on audience awareness, insider/outsider needs, and the multiplicity of genres inherent in their future field.

Students, especially my few international students (five total in all three sections), have responded well to these essays because they take the pressure off of instant perfection, the purpose of business documents, and to whom they will be addressing in different circumstances. We have engaged in conversations based purely on the nature of the needs of discourse communities ranging from the international environment to different regions of the United States. One of my Panamanian students opened up to the class about their anxieties concerning writing and speaking to their American colleagues in their coming internship. Likewise, my Vietnamese and Chinese students privately fret about their grammatical skills and sometimes under- or over-write as a reaction to thinking about how they are creating meaning in business documents. Using Lamott and Swales’ essays has generally helped these students feel more comfortable with communicating in writing in professional situations, though they still possess anxiety prior to the drafting stage.

To echo back to Echols’ presentation at the ABC conference, we have spent time discussing the generational differences they will encounter in the workplace. It is important that we expose our current students to the central idea that they will be communicating cross-generationally with others, and we must also convince them that there are conventions of literacy that are also deeply involved in how each generational group handles material and writing conventions in the workplace. In terms of literacy, I want them to think about the generational divide posed by technologies that have developed over the course of many of their future peers careers. Perhaps using Danielle DeVoss or Dennis Baron’s essays will help with this gap, something our current textbook does not speak to. I have not yet adapted WAW material to cover the literacy aspect of my unit, though. I plan on doing so over the Christmas break when I have more time.

Overall, I feel that there is a place for WAW in the business writing curriculums many universities use. While I am merely experimenting with injecting a small number of readings into my courses, I feel that this has produced some success as students feel a bit more comfortable with the reasoning for why they must switch different genres constantly in professional environments. My hope is that I can further develop my passion for WAW into something more substantial to the business writing classroom in order to help students develop further as adept writers.

To End on a Question:
You’ve already stopped reading this by now. But I have a question for all of you! Would you be willing to use WAW in a business, technical, science, or non-humanities writing course?

Call for Participants for WPA Roundtable in WAW Next Steps Collection

Hi, All —

As you may be aware, Barb Bird, Doug Downs, Moriah McCracken, and Jan Reiman are editing a collection on Next Steps in Writing about Writing, a compendium of approaches to WAW assignments, courses, and programs by about 40 teachers and researchers from around the country.
One chapter we would like to include in that collection is a roundtable of WPAs who have built or are building programs that use WAW approaches. The roundtable will be a collaboration of 4-5 authors responding to a short series of questions we editors will pose about the challenges, strategies, and rewards of creating whole-program WAW instruction.
Currently we are building the roundtable, and we wanted to solicit participation from across WAW Standing Group membership in order to represent a good selection of institutional types and program configurations.
If you would be interested in writing short responses to a series of questions on being a WPA in a program using, or trying to use, WAW approaches, please e-mail us at nextstepswaw@gmail.com, telling us what type of institution your program is in and briefly detailing the nature of your program and its use of WAW approaches.
Cheers —
Doug Downs, Barb Bird, Moriah McCracken, and Jan Rieman

WaW’s Impact on Writing Center Tutoring

Mary Tripp, PhD, is a lecturer and assistant director of the university writing center at the University of Central Florida.

What happens in the Writing Center when FYC moves to a WaW curriculum? In short, a bit of anxiety, a need for some tutor education, and a deeper, more thoughtful approach to tutoring writing.

The Composition program at the University of Central Florida transitioned to a Writing about Writing curriculum for first-year composition (FYC) starting in 2009, moving to a completely WaW focus in 2012. This transition impacted more than just students and faculty in first-year composition. As more and more first-year writers began to seek help with assignments from FYC courses, our writing center tutors became concerned about their abilities to help these writers. These concerns led our director, Dr. Mark Hall, to develop a more formal introduction to the threshold concepts central to our field because, according to Hall, “tutors who come through the WaW curriculum understand something more about writing because they have a better understanding of threshold concepts” in writing.

At the writing center, we’ve found that our tutors fall into three groups: tutors who were formally trained in WaW during this professional development, tutors who transferred FYC credits and who have no experience with WaW, and cradle WaW’ers who learned the concepts as FYC students.

The first group are those who were asked to study the WaW curriculum during our weekly Writing Seminar in Fall 2013. Those tutors had guided professional development with a faculty member to help them think and learn about threshold concepts such as rhetorical situations, discourse communities, and writing processes. Andres, a tutor who went through this training explains that the seminar discussions with other tutors and with faculty in the writing center deepened his own understanding of writing, helping him communicate that knowledge during tutoring sessions.

The second group of tutors were not familiar with WaW and began tutoring with us after the professional development seminar. For these tutors, seminar experience focused on other areas of concern in our center (multi-lingual writers and commonplace genres, for example). They have no formal training in WaW and are “learning on the job” as they tutor, just the way they would tackle any other unfamiliar disciplinary writing. Casey, a tutor who just started this past year, describes the learning she did on her own and with her writers as she learned the concepts with them during tutoring sessions. Exposure to WaW during her tutoring sessions has helped her think about writing differently.

The third group consists of those who “grew up” with our first-year composition program and came to tutoring specifically because they were intrigues by WaW’s rich approach to thinking about writing. These tutors are more knowledgeable about writing and how it works—they have some awareness of threshold concepts in writing and are more attuned to the ways of thinking in our field. Allie, one of our newest tutors, came to the writing center because she wanted to continue the learning she began in first-year composition. According to Allie, this knowledge about threshold writing concepts, such as the ways in which discourse communities use language, makes her more confident as a tutor because she understands how language works and she has language to explain this to others.

While we can’t ensure that all our writing tutors know and appreciate the threshold concepts forwarded in a WaW curriculum, we can use our weekly seminar to help them understand writing and how it works in ways that help them approach tutoring more thoughtfully. We’ve seen this transformation in all our tutors—an unintended side-effect of WaW in FYC.

 

Image credit: cropped version of a photograph titled “Last Day,” posted to Flickr by user swcslc under a CC BY-NC-SA-2.0 license.

June 30 submission deadline for Young Scholars in Writing approaching!

Hey, All —

Solistice is almost upon us, which means that so too is the June 30 deadline for submissions to this year’s volume of Young Scholars in Writing — less than two weeks to go! Already, our undergraduate peer reviewers and faculty advising editors are reviewing the intriguing group of submissions we’ve received so far this year, and we covet an opportunity to consider your students’ research on  writing, writers, rhetoric, discourse, language, and related topics. You and your students can find more information on submissions at the journal’s new website, http://arc.lib.montana.edu/ojs/index.php/Young-Scholars-In-Writing/about, under the Submissions heading.
We’re also happy to announce that volume 12 of YSW, which printed earlier this spring, is now available in PDF on the site as well. If your students need inspiration, they could look among a wonderful collection of articles such as “Feminist Research as Journey,” “Value in Academic Writing,” “God Terms as Exigence in the Rhetorical Battle over Keystone XL,” “The Art and Rhetoric of Letter Writing,” “An Investigation of D/deaf Literacy Theory and Narratives,” and the intriguingly named “The Enthymeme: An Analysis of Sexist Advice Animals.” (We don’t make this stuff up, the students do!)  And that’s less than half of what’s in the current table of contents. We would, of course, encourage you to consider pieces in the journal as you’re selecting readings for your courses this year as well.
Feel free to send any questions to me in my Editor hat, doug.downs@montana.edu.
Cheers —
Doug

Teaching Writing about Writing 4C15 SIG

Our CCCC 15 WAW SIG (gotta love acronyms) teaching group shared some really interesting ways to teach Writing about Writing.
We had a diverse group, from people teaching at a fully integrated WAW school to STEM WAW to WAW going rogue. Thanks to all of our participants. I walked away from the SIG with many, many great ideas!

Part of our discussion seemed to circle back on ways to get students “over the hump” of a difficult and rigorous writing curriculum. Here are some ideas we discussed:

  • Teach the literacy narrative first to ease them in.
  • Use children’s literacy TV shows to get them thinking about literacy (Reading Rainbow, Dora the Explorer)
  • Use the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (http://daln.osu.edu) as a resource.
  • Teach some reading strategies such as reading the first time very quickly for main ideas, reading headings and subheadings, skimming methods and data sections while concentrating on introductions and conclusions.
  • Understanding that this difficult materials is about treating students as adult/college level learners. We don’t “water down” anything for them.
  • Reminding them that they’ll be proud of their own hard work at the end of the semester.

We also discussed a variety of ways to think about WAW courses:
STEM WAW can focus on STEM genres, using a science accommodation assignment, reading Jeanne Fahnestock’s 1986 article, “Accommodating Science: The Rhetorical Life of Scientific Facts.”

Approach WAW thematically by deconstructing preconceived notions of writing that students bring with them.

  • What about a whole course on revision?
  • What if a first-year course focused on deconstructing the five paragraph essay? Think of White’s “Five Paragraph Theme Theme.”
  • How might we deconstruct the use of “I” in academic writing?
  • This could also be a course around one of our Threshold Concepts
  • Why not construct a course around major people in writing studies? Read and write about Donald Murray’s ideas and how they’ve changed over time. What other figures might work for this approach?

Please consider using this space to comment about other ideas or assignments that work for you!