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Teaching for Transfer: A Passport for Writing in New Contexts
English 101, the universally required writing course at colleges and universities, ought to play a significant role in students’ success in college and beyond. After all, the course serves as a gateway to the curriculum, a curriculum that puts a special premium on writing, especially writing in response to reading. The stakes are even higher at community colleges, where students so often struggle to complete their studies. While some of my colleagues in composition and rhetoric may blanch at the thought, I would assert that English 101 has a special burden to prepare students for all the writing challenges that await them in college and in their working lives. Those same colleagues may question how a single course, taken over fifteen weeks, can possibly prepare students for the array of writing challenges that await them deeper in the curriculum, let alone out in the workplace. But what if we imagined a set of outcomes less bound to the number of pages written or genres attempted but instead aimed at promoting a habit of mind or, more to the point, asking students to theorize about habits of mind that will help them articulate and apply concepts critical to becoming successful writers? Such a habit or such theorizing might serve as a “passport” for students as they move their writing into new contexts.
Teaching for Transfer
Recent work by transfer scholars within composition studies—most notably Kathleen Blake Yancey, Lianne Robertson, and Kara Taczak’s 2014 work—has suggested that transfer of knowledge from English 101 to other courses and contexts may be possible if teaching is geared explicitly for such transfer. In other words, rather than hoping that somehow our students will be able to take what skills we teach and apply them to writing after English 101, Teaching for Transfer (TFT) adopts a writing curriculum that boldly charges students to develop a portable theory of writing applicable across broad and varied contexts, including the workplace.
The notion that student writers at the community college—especially students in their first college course, as is often the case with English 101—might be taught to develop such a theory seems to fly in the face of those who insist on a conventional, skills-based approach, which still dominates at community colleges (Grubb and Gabriner 2012). And yet the “skill and drill” method of writing instruction has not translated into improved course completion or an increase in student retention beyond the required writing course. Nor has it promoted the habits of mind—such as metacognition, which many say is crucial to knowledge transfer—that our students will likely need to become thoughtful and creative problem-solvers in class and beyond.
Introducing Threshold and Troublesome Concepts
Initially I moved toward a TFT curriculum in my English 101 course by promoting in students a critical and portable vocabulary about writing through teacher commentary and peer review, post writes (writers’ commentary on their drafts in progress), and reflective cover letters as part of portfolio assessment. That vocabulary was based primarily in the formal aspects of written expression: meaningful transitions, the grounding of argumentation in evidence, appropriate style and tone, and so forth. I did not explicitly call attention to key writing-based concepts such as “rhetorical understanding” or “genre knowledge.” While I did have students write in various genres—such as a proposal to solve a community problem or an interview/profile—I did not ask students to reflect on how knowledge of a genre can lead to successful writing. I simply had them write in a particular form. Moreover, as I reflected on the course’s current and rather vacuous list of course outcomes (“learning to view writing as a process,” for example, or “learning to write with sources”), I suspected that I was doing a disservice to my students by not giving them the theoretical and practical understanding that they would need to succeed as writers.
I revised my course after I was introduced to the so-called “troublesome knowledge” and “threshold” concepts (Meyer and Land 2014; Adler-Kassner and Wardle 2015). I became aware of those concepts when I became involved in the Naming What We Know project, led by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle. This project was initially online and later it became a published exchange with colleagues within composition studies about concepts that define the ways of thinking in a discipline. The assumption was that each discipline has its own threshold concepts, the understanding and application of which marked students’ entry into the ways of the discipline. Such entry is rarely easy; indeed, the concepts that need to be understood are often difficult and troublesome. However, these concepts often lead to transformed student understanding (Adler-Kassner, Majewski, and Koshnick 2014).
Indeed, faculty members who have been teaching composition for several decades may find it troubling or difficult to recall such essential concepts, which over time have become nearly invisible as practice has overlaid and obscured such concepts. When reading colleagues’ contributions, I was led to reflect on concepts that I considered key to my discipline. I was especially taken with the concept of metacognition and was encouraged to incorporate explicit teaching of that habit of mind. If students are to take what they’ve learned in English 101 to other writing situations, they will at the very least need to be aware of their own writing habits and ways of thinking.
Developing a Theory of Writing
I turned to the TFT curriculum in order to bring that level of awareness to my students. Through a series of mixed-genre readings, weekly reflective blog posts, and major writing assignments, my students are well into the process (as I write this essay) of generating a theory of writing that I hope will serve them well beyond the course. I adjusted the curriculum reflecting my own ongoing pedagogical priorities and the realities of the community college classroom. For example, I have retained peer review and the practice of using class time to review and share drafts in progress. I also continue to have students include post write commentary on each of their drafts, answering the following questions:
- Did this assignment remind you of any writing that you’ve done previously? Please describe that work.
- What was new about this assignment? Please be precise.
- What kinds of knowledge/writing skills did you draw on to produce this draft? Please begin to use some of the key terms that have begun to form the basis of your theory of writing. For example, did you draw upon your understanding of audience awareness or genre? How so?
- When drafting, what choices did you make? Please explain.
- What questions do you have for readers about the piece?
These questions are designed in part to prompt students to engage the question of transfer in concrete terms: What assignments have they done in the past? What previous experiences and knowledge sets have they brought with them to the present writing situation?
Reading across Genres and Modalities
To give students a foundation in key writing concepts, I have continued using a textbook for the course to provide students with accessible and tested material on core concepts such as rhetorical situation, audience, voice, genre, peer review, and critical thinking. The required reading beyond the textbook—all linked on our course webpage—consists of works that cross genres and modes, including TED Talks, a YouTube video, an article in a popular magazine, an obituary, and a celebrity profile.
Given the range of learners in a typical community college classroom, the inclusion of visual material seems the right approach. In addition, the clear distinctions among these genres brings out the important point that the forms, conventions, and purposes of writing can differ in dramatic ways. In weekly blog posts, major assignments, and class discussions, I ask students to analyze these works using key words that we have generated, collected, and reflected upon throughout the semester.
The TFT curriculum in writing consists of two critical elements: (1) a set of organizing and foundational key terms and (2) a sequence of writing assignments, both informal and formal, that assist students in understanding and deploying those terms—and, hopefully, prompting an additional set of terms critical to theory-making in the composition classroom. The course is organized around critical writing terms, such as genre, composing, audience, rhetorical situation, peer review, reflection, exigence, knowledge, and context. Students define these terms, attempt to see relationships among them, and apply them to their own work and the work of others. Throughout the course, students are asked to develop a theory of writing that incorporates these terms and any others that have been generated in class discussions.
Exploratory Weekly Blog Posts
Each week students are prompted to reflect in their blogs in ways that prepare them for the major assignments of the course and the overall course objective to promote a theory of writing. The posts typically ask students to reflect on key concepts, grounding their reflection in the assigned works for the week. For example, in week one, students are asked to reflect on the question, “What is writing?”:
- What are the definitions, ideas, thoughts, expressions that you associate with writing?
- What defines successful writing for you?
- What type of writer do you see yourself as, and why?
- Create a list of five to eight key terms that define writing for you.
For the second part of this assignment, students read an assigned commencement speech and then they address these questions:
- What do we learn about writing from this text?
- Is this text “successful” according to the criteria you defined earlier? If so, how? If not, why not?
- What else might you say about this text to help you classify the text as successful or not successful?
- Do you want to revise your list of key terms based on this reading? If so, explain what you would revise (or not) and why (not).
Subsequent blog post assignments require students to reflect on other key terms and apply such terms in an analysis of given works. Blog posts also provide a space for students to explore and propose topics for major assignments, as well as reflect on works in progress or on the process that produced a work.
As to the major assignments, students from the very start are asked to define and deploy key terms, such as genre, audience, and rhetorical situation, in an analysis of source material. For most of my teaching career, I had delayed the research-based essay until the last part of the 101 course, not fully acknowledging that writing with sources requires continual practice and revision.
Students must use sources in their writing from the very start, supported by class discussion, informal blog posting, peer review, and teacher commentary. For the first major assignment, students are asked to write a source-based article that employs the concepts of genre, audience, and rhetorical situation in an analysis of three given sources. How does a commencement speaker, for example, express his understanding of the commencement address genre? How does he undermine the conventions of that genre? Why does an author, in debunking western stereotypes of Africa, choose to deliver her message in the genre of the PechaKucha—a slide show consisting of twenty slides each of which is shown no longer than twenty seconds? After engaging in such analysis, students are then asked to reflect on the relationships among the terms—genre, audience, and rhetorical situation—as a critical, early step toward developing their own theory of writing.
As I noted, research is a key component of the Teaching for Transfer curriculum, but rather than see research as thesis-driven (that is, establishing a thesis and then locating sources in support of that thesis), the transfer curriculum constructs research as inquiry and is often open-ended. Students are encouraged to ask big questions, questions that may yield multiple and perhaps contradictory or counterintuitive answers. To prepare students for their research, I ask them to view a TED Talk in which a compelling case is made for the social good that gaming can produce. In addition, students watch another TED Talk in which a writer invites us to think of innovation as not a solitary activity but one that is deeply social and often a product of happenstance. And rather than limit students’ choices as to school-sanctioned sources, students are asked to provide a range of sources, both primary and secondary: interviews, personal observations, peer-reviewed and web-based sources, and popular sources (such as TED Talks and BuzzFeed).
Staying with their research topic, in their next assignment students are asked to construct a target audience and communicate what they’ve learned about their research by writing a composition in three genres, one of which needs to be an infographic. Students choose from a list of possible writing formats—such as public service announcements, musical lyrics, and short videos. Students reflect on their purposes and the rhetorical choices that they’ve made in their compositions. Throughout the course, students have been analyzing various genres—both written and visual. Now they put their knowledge into action.
Finally, as a culminating project in the course, students produce a reflection-in-presentation; that is, in a genre of their choosing, students look back at their writing during the semester and address the following questions:
- What is your theory of writing at this point in the semester?
- What was your theory of writing coming into English 101?
- How has your theory of writing evolved with each piece of composing?
- What has contributed to your theory of writing the most?
- What is the relationship between your theory of writing and how you create(d) knowledge? In other words, what uses, generally, does a theory of writing have in your own learning?
- How might your theory of writing be applied to other writing situations both inside and outside the classroom?
Similar in purpose to a cover letter for a portfolio, this piece requires that students review the work that they’ve done in the semester, taking stock of the changes that they’ve made to the writing. In that sense, this assignment, like the cover letter, further promotes metacognition—a key component of transfer knowledge. But what separates this from the standard reflective cover letter is its focus on a theory of writing, as it has evolved throughout the course. In order to take what they’ve learned in the course and apply it in other writing situations, students must not only adopt a metacognitive habit of mind, they must also have a portable writing theory—their passport to the writing curriculum. Each writing situation will no doubt pose its own challenges, but when in possession of such a passport, community college writers will be better prepared to meet those challenges, no matter the genre.
Implications for Writing Beyond the Classroom
Given the importance of workplace training in the community college mission, it is worth noting that such a theory could come to good use as students move into the workplace, where written communication and record keeping is commonly expected. Genre knowledge may play a large role for novice nurses, for example, as they come to understand the expectations and constraints of a nursing log or care plan, no matter the clinical location. And an understanding of purpose and audience will no doubt assist budding grant writers, who must fashion a request for funding support in ways that maximize their chances for success. Given that community college students (and, indeed, millennials as a group) are one of the most mobile demographics in higher education, providing them the means to transfer from one learning context to another can be only for the good.
Adler-Kassner, Linda, John Majewski, and Damian Koshnick. 2012. “The Value of Troublesome Knowledge.” Composition Forum 26. http://compositionforum.com/issue/26/troublesome-knowledge-threshold.php.
Adler-Kassner, Linda, and Elizabeth Wardle, eds. 2015. Naming What We Know. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.
Grubb, W. Norton, and Robert Gabriner. 2012. Basic Skills Education in Community Colleges: Inside and Outside of Classrooms. New York: Routledge.
Meyer, Jan, and Ray Land. 2003. “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising within the Disciplines.” Enhancing Teaching-Learning Environments in Undergraduate Courses Project, Occasional Report 4. University of Edinburgh. https://kennslumidstod.hi.is/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/meyerandland.pdf.
Yancey, Kathleen Blake, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak. 2014. Writing across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.
Howard Tinberg, Professor of English, Bristol Community College