This webpage describes a WAC-sponsored WAW institute at Appalachian State University and links to articles and resources that were provided.
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.
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.
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.
On the WAW network Ning in 2014, instructors had a conversation about pilot programs implementing WAW approaches. With the contributors’ permission, we have copied and pasted the initial post and–in the comments–the replies.
Hi. I’m new here. We are heading into the fourth semester of a small, informal WAW pilot at Hunter College. For two semesters, I was the pilot. Now we are three teachers and next semester we will be at least four.
So far it’s been bottom-up and horizontal, run mostly below the school’s radar by a grad student and adjuncts, with support from WPAs who see us as an interesting experimental model.
We are thinking about issues like common course elements and goals, recruiting other adjuncts to do a kind of teaching that we know requires more work for no extra pay, and formulating programmatic assessments that move beyond rubric-based essay or portfolio readings so we avoid the negative washback effects and unanticipated misuses of information we generate, so that our assessment can deeply benefit our teaching.
We haven’t thought about “threshhold concepts” as such; but we agree with Liz Clark’s 2010 argument that we face a “digital imperative” so this semester we all taught paperless classes that included website portfolios and movie essays. Rhetoric feels important too: we all taught some classic rhetoric and some visual rhetoric, even as we learn it ourselves.
Wardle and Roozen’s goal of teaching to promote “rhetorical dexterity (Carter, 2008) across boundaries and in multiple contexts.” (111-12) feels like a powerful touchstone.
Anyhow, I’d love to talk here or directly at smolloy at hunter dot cuny dot edu.