Revolution Lullabye

May 24, 2011

Downs and Wardle, Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions

Downs, Douglas and Elizabeth Wardle. “Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)envisioning ‘First-Year Composition’ as ‘Introduction to Writing Studies.'” CCC 58.4 (June 2007): 552-584.

Downs and Wardle argue for revising first-year writing curriculum so that the course becomes an introduction to writing studies, where students explore writing studies as a content-filled discipline that questions ideas and practices of reading, writing, and literacy. Part of the reason both first-year writing and the field of rhetoric and composition have such low status in the academy is that they are both perceived to be content-less; making the first-year course about the research and theories of writing studies helps improve the status of both the first-year course and the discipline. Downs and Wardle explain the “writing about writing” first-year courses that they taught at University of Utah, Utah Valley State College (both Downs) and University of Dayton (Wardle.)

Notes and Quotes

Students in these courses learn that writing is conventional and context-driven (559). They also become more self-aware writers and understand that academic writing is a conversation.

Challenges: finding appropriate material, having students learn skills that will be useful in other courses, professional development needed for part-time and full-time faculty in order to teach this course

Instead of learning how to write, students in an “Introduction to Writing Studies” course learn about writing, and what they learn changes how they think about writing and how they write.

“It seeks instead to improve students’ understanding of writing, rhetoric, language, and literacy in a course that is topically oriented to reading and writing as scholarly inquiry and en couraging more realistic understandings of writing.” (553).  

make first-year writing like other first-year introductory courses

there is a powerful misconception that first-year writing can give students transferrable general writing skills (554). Writing is far more diverse and complex than that.

In a writing about writing course, students read research about writing, conduct their own writing research, write ethnographies about writing, locate writing issues that interest them, write reviews of existing literature – they are seen as gateways to WAC and WID programs

Readings about problems in the composing process (drafting, revision, reading for purpose, critical reading) and research-based, data-driven studies. Examples of readings include Berkenkotter, Huckin, Sommers, Perl, Flower and Hayes, Elbow, Murray, Swales, Dawkins, Kantz, Lakoff and Johnson, Gee

Assign reflections on the readings, literacy narratives for students to discover what they know about their own writing

Sample student-generated research questions:

Do college freshmen and seniors use rhetorical strategies at all or in similar ways? * How useful is Microsoft Word’s grammar checker? * What makes a classic literary work a “classic”? * What makes an effective business plan?* How does music (or lighting, or other environmental factors) affect writing and revision? * How do literacy activities vary at high- and low-income day cares? * What kinds of writing will a social work major encounter in his career? * Is writing taught in medical school? Should it be, and if so, how?

January 27, 2009

Downs and Wardle, “Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions”

Downs, Douglas and Elizabeth Wardle. “Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning “First-Year Composition” as “Introduction to Writing Studies.” CCC 58.4 (June 2007) 552-585.

The authors argue for transforming the required first-year course, usually taught as a introduction to the skills necessary to write “academic discourse” into a course that introduces students to writing studies as a field, using their own courses at University of Dayton and Utah Valley State College as examples. The generalized first-year course stands in contradiction to many of the established, researched theories in rhetoric and composition: that all writing is content and context-driven, that writing is an area of research and study, that writing is a complex activity that requires more than good luck and “transferable” basic skills, and that experts in writing are needed to teach writing. Such a shift in the curriculum of the first-year course allows for better transitioning to WAC initiatives (because writing, from the very beginning, is grounded in content and context), gives the newly developing majors a cornerstone foundation course, and improves the position of writing at the university from a service discipline to one that is recognized by students and faculty as a field with valuable, relevant, and important research and theoretical knowledge.

Quotable Quotes

“Writing studies has ignored the implications of this research and theory and continued to assure its publics (faculty, administrators, parents, industry) that FYC can do what nonspecialists have always assumed it can: teach, in one or two early courses, “college writing” as a set of basic, fundamental skills that will apply in other college courses and in business and public spheres after college. In making these unsupportable assurances to stakeholders, our field reinforces cultural misconceptions of writing instead of attempting to educate students and publics out of these misconceptions” (1) page numbers are from printed online version

“Students leave the course with increased awareness of writing studies as a discipline, as well as a new outlook on writing as a researchable activity rather than a mysterious talent” (7).

“By employing nonspecialists to teach a specialized body of knowledge, we undermine our own claims as to that specialization and make our detractors’ argument in favor of general writing skills for them. As Debra Dew demonstrates, constructing curricula that require specialization goes a long way toward professionalizing the writing instruction workforce” (21).

Notable Notes

what the first-year course is reflects the whole discipline. Making it more rigorous and centering it on the field of rhet and comp will improve the status of rhet/comp.

category mistake – Gilbert Ryle – academic writing as one category of writing when it really cannot be defined as an umbrella term

problems/consequences of the shift: no textbook that teaches first-year writing in this way, huge labor force that needs to be trained, the research takes a long time and student work won’t be as clean or neat, high schools don’t prepare students for the field, so there’s a huge learning curve that needs to happen, content and expecatation-wise

courses that follow the intro to writing studies model use readings drawn from the research of the field of rhetoric and composition, allows students to explore their own writing practices in juxtaposition, and asks them to do research on writing.

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