Category Archives: Teaching Strategies

Writing-About-Writing in the Student-Centered Composition Research Classroom

This blog post provides observations from an expository writing and research class I recently taught using a WAW approach. In the class, I asked my students to read series of composition articles organized by topic, to help students acclimate to a shared research environment. These topics included the use of grading contracts in composition research, peer review in composition classrooms and in professional writing situations, and articles providing historical context for the field of composition.

The general theme of these articles was an application to classroom writing activities and writing pedagogy. WAW approaches to teaching composition allow students a wide opportunity to gain familiarity with elements of composition theory and to gain further experience and practice using WAW threshold concepts in classroom discourse. But students learning in WAW classrooms achieve even more when they take responsibility, not only to learn content, but in teaching their fellow students.

When teaching composition I attempt to help students claim power by co-teaching the WAW curriculum with them. In doing this I attempt to invoke principles of critical pedagogy, following the principles Shor suggests in When Students Have Power. Shor explores the benefits and pitfalls of designing courses with students taking a more direct role in decision-making that affects the class (e.g. meeting times, class assignments). I attempt to do this by dividing the class into workgroups—usually five groups of four students—and then assign specific days and articles for each group to cover.

Although they are still subject to instructor power in the classroom, students co-operating in teaching WAW articles have liberty to select whichever methods they would like to help present on their assigned readings for the week. I provide students examples of what previous classes have done for activities (e.g. handouts outlining the reading, lists of generative discussion questions). I then ask students to lead discussion using their own activities. Having used this approach during the past several years of teaching WAW, I have three observations:

1. Students who are responsible for teaching articles make significant reflection on those articles during low-stakes, informal writing assigned for those articles.

2. Students who are responsible for teaching articles also specifically refer back to earlier threshold concepts they taught while engaged in later classroom discussions covering new threshold concepts. Cooperating in work groups provides students the opportunity to develop what James Gee calls affinity groups, which foster an environment to discuss threshold concepts.

3. Students have an easier time identifying with composition theory as a result of teaching the content with their peers. Although this could be considered a graduate student effect, undergraduate students also show signs of showing greater identification with a WAW curriculum when they are not only positioned as composition researchers but as co-instructors. Pedagogically, I’m concerned not just that students identify with metacognitive concepts but that they are able to transfer this knowledge to other rhetorical situations for their own purposes.

Student Feedback and Response

I invited students to voluntarily provide feedback throughout the course and at the end of the semester by means of an informal survey. In this space I will focus on one aspect of feedback students provided: the difficulty in students making links between the WAW articles and formal course writing assignments. As is the case in many classes, students in this sectioned noted how they felt they had to read too many articles. While I had taken care to limit the total readings to what seemed manageable to me, I do intend to revise the reading list to reduce the total number of readings required with their feedback in view.

Nonetheless, perhaps the most important thing I learned in making this attempt to teach this course as a WAW course is to more closely integrate concepts from the reading into the required formal writing assignments. As a WAW approach, inviting students to use the writing concepts they have been reading about in their writing means giving them an opportunity to do just that in writing. That is because education, especially in a WAW classroom, is somewhat reducible to what transfers to other rhetorical situations and contexts. In this class, I submit, the general skills required to access research scholarship (rhetorical assessment of authorship and situation, summary, synthesis, reflection, analysis) are all skills tied into gaining access to other sites’ discourses.

With regard to the student-centric group work, students acknowledged in their feedback that they seemed to get along quite well with their peers. Additionally, each article that they read provided an excess of content for students to wallow in. I had required students to write informal writing assignments for each of the readings, but this time I missed a vital opportunity to have students connect their wallowing to formal writing assignments. That would have potentially allowed students to make more connections among the articles, the other formal writing they were doing, and the specific research goals I was asking them to achieve.

A perennial issue, peer review and feedback, made its presence known in discussions with students throughout the semester. Students commented to me that group presentations allowed the class to discuss WAW threshold concepts from the readings together, to better understand them. I find it likely that asking students both to write individually and to present as groups, to discuss threshold concepts, both made the process somewhat tedious but also effective. At the end of the class, the entire class looked for patterns in the survey responses they had voluntarily filled out. Several students at that time observed that though they had not always enjoyed the workload, they had gained knowledge about writing throughout the semester’s reading and writing assignments.

Samuel Stinson, a PhD student, is a teaching assistant at Ohio University.

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).

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.

Support for Critical Reading

On the WAW network Ning in 2011, instructors had a conversation about how to help students read scholarly articles. With the contributors’ permission, we have copied and pasted the initial post and–in the comments–the replies.

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Hi, all!

I’m in the process of meeting w/ and preparing a group of 9 of our part-time faculty here to pilot WAW in spring 2012. (It will be piloted in our second semester comp course.)

The one question I’m getting consistently, that I am currently unable to answer is about supporting students with the readings. I know Barb Bird has done a good deal of work on this and I’m sure others of you have as well. I’d benefit from seeing handouts, hearing about your approach, and advice on supporting instructors in their approaches!

Thank you!

-Michelle LaFrance

(To read the replies, scroll below or click on “Comments,” above.)