Category Archives: Resources

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’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.

rhetorical analysis prompt

This is a two-page handout I used in an upper-level course called “Theory and Practice of Expository Writing” at Hunter College. As you’ll see in the various (and rapid) deadlines, this version is from a compressed summer session, which met for four days a week for five weeks.

handout – prompt for academic essay, with scaffolding – summer 2012

This assignment entered in the second unit of the course, in lesson 11 of 20, and I was happy with the idea that students could use the readings from unit 1 and the first part of unit 2 to provide enough context that they would feel confident about their claims. That said, a good number of students opted instead to read further and to take on something new.

I’m happy to discuss anything about this assignment — including, possibly, critique — in the comments or by email.

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!

Downs, “Teaching first-year writers to use texts: Scholarly readings in Writing-about-Writing in First-Year Comp”

Downs’ article provides great suggestions for helping students navigate scholarly articles.

Downs, Doug. “Teaching First-year Writers to Use Texts: Scholarly Readings in Writing-about-writing in First-year Comp.” Reader: Essays in Reader-Oriented Theory, Criticism, and Pedagogy (2010): 19-50.

New to WAW? Start here.

Welcome! If you are new to Writing about Writing, we recommend doing the following:

  • Read about some sample courses. For instance, Barbara Bird describes her WAW-themed basic writing course at Taylor University in this article.
  • Take a look at the kinds of writing projects students in WAW courses might develop by browsing Stylus, UCF’s Journal of First-Year Composition.
  • For some basic scholarship on WAW and its effectiveness, see Doug Downs’s (2010) annotated bibliography.

If you like what you see, make sure you subscribe to the WAW Network email list as well as to site updates (so you can be notified when there is a new post)!

Image credit: “It’s time to get started” by The fixerupperz (Own work), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Interview with a Writer (Betsy Sargent)

This assignment, developed by Betsy Sargent for WRS 101: Exploring Writing (U of Alberta), tasks students with the following:

You are going to interview an individual in that field or line of work about the writing they do every day and how they go about doing it. Interviews with individuals who have more work and writing experience than you do—or experience of a different kind—can generate rich material to help you, your colleagues, and your instructor get a better sense of the wide variety of writing that gets done in the world.

Image credit: “Job Interview” by nuggety247 on Pixabay, CC0 license.