The “Content” Question in Composition: Three Take-aways

This fall, the Georgetown Writing Program’s “Reading Writing Group” has been looking at different approaches to teaching first-year writing, focusing especially on how content in a first-year composition courses helps—or impedes—in facilitating successful transfer of writing knowledge.

During our September meeting, we discussed Kathleen Blake Yancey, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak’s “Teaching for Transfer (TFT) and the Role of Content in Composition” (2014). This book chapter argues that content in first-year writing is not merely an add-on or side note, but rather a “window or fulcrum through which students learn about writing and how to write.”

TFT usually involves asking students to study key terms and engage in semester-long metacognitive reflective writing. This dynamic interplay between learning new vocabulary and practicing self-awareness encourages students to produce their own theory of writing by the end of a course. Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak argue that these interwoven processes of developing writing expertise are critical in students’ development of a “writing passport” that they can take to future courses and sites of writing. Three main themes emerged from our discussion.

Deciding what my writing course will be about

In our discussion of “Teaching for Transfer (TFT) and the Role of Content in Composition,” we considered specifically the question of how instructors communicate to students what our courses are fundamentally “about.” For instance, how might a “media and culture” first-year writing course pitch to students—even from a syllabus alone—that this is first and foremost a course about how media functions rather than an opportunity to develop a self-aware knowledge-base and set of practices to take to future sites.

Introducing the field of Writing Studies in First-Year Writing classes?

The TFT approach offers an interesting contrast to the Writing about Writing approach (WAW), in which the content of the course serves to introduce students to the discipline of Writing Studies. Both TFT and WAW take as their central goal the successful transfer of knowledge from one writing situation to the next, but WAW specifically emphasizes how students can use existing scholarship in writing studies to “(re)construct knowledge about writing, writers, writing processes, discourse, textuality, and literacy” (Doug Downs). The WAW method closely aligns course content with its disciplinary home in writing studies.

Embracing the novice mindset

Our group kept coming back to the need for instructors to advocate for the usefulness of “a novice mindset.” For instance, Sommers and Saltz’s longitudinal study, published in 2004, argues that undergraduate writers who accept the status of a beginner, while also aiming to see beyond the scope of a one-semester class, tend to make the most writing progress in sites beyond first-year writing.

Within the study, one student who strongly identified as “a writer” found it exceedingly difficult to take on a novice mindset because that was in direct conflict with both her present identity and future aspirations. A separate student in the study, who did not identify strongly as a writer, but rather as an actuarial scientist, found it easier to be comfortable with, and aware of, his novice mindset. In turn, his specific learning outcomes tended to be more meaningful and transferable to other sites. The authors suggest that students who accept the novice mindset would need to see this as a “non-threatening step toward improving” writing.

The TFT method continues to speak to many of our central concerns in how to make writing courses at Georgetown a bedrock for our students’ future writing lives. And this article in particular led us to ask of our ourselves: How do we balance student excitement about writing with the need to make each new assignment a challenge? How can we infuse a useful and continual self-awareness into our students’ writing lives?

–Phil Sandick


3 Ideas for Thinking About Multimodal Writing: Notes from the Spring Learning Community

Last semester, we published a series of posts about multimodal writing assignments – assignments that ask students to compose not only with words, but also with other modes like images, sound, or video. (You may know it as “digital writing;” the terms are often used relatively interchangeably.)  Alongside this blog series, the Writing Program (in partnership with CNDLS) also ran a faculty Learning Community focused on the design and implementation of such writing in the classroom – which I had the pleasure of facilitating.

Our group met monthly throughout the semester, and covered a range of questions related to using digital/multimodal writing in the classroom. With participants coming from a wide range of disciplines both within and beyond the Humanities, our conversations showcased a similar range of ways to think about using this non-traditional but increasingly relevant writing style to reach our course objectives. I wrote about these conversations, and about the assignments that came out of them, for The Prospect over the summer – you can read that piece here. For our blog, I’ve pulled out three of the ideas that stuck with me the most, and which I think are particularly helpful for anyone considering adding multimodal writing to their course.

➤ Multimodal assignments don’t need to be high-stakes. There’s a tendency to think of multimodal writing solely in terms of major projects, but it can be a great tool for low-stakes writing as well. Ask students to map out their research using a tool like MindMup, on the way to drafting a traditional paper. Have them respond to readings by assembling a quick image essay. A friend of mine even has students use reaction GIFs as a tool in peer review. Digital writing assignments don’t have to be long or weighty to be useful.

➤ It’s never too early to think about scaffolding. We spent a lot of time talking and thinking about how to set the stage for multimodal writing assignments, and how to support students through the writing process. Since these assignments often ask students to use new tools or compose in new forms, building in time to explain expectations and help pace the work is crucial. Don’t wait til the assignment sheet is set in stone to begin thinking about this – sketch a timeline for how you’ll roll out the assignment as you design the prompt. And consider setting multiple deadlines for different parts of the process: for example, one for initial brainstorming; one for a rough draft; and one for the final

➤ There are different degrees of freedom, and each has its place. Some people in our group favored a hands-off approach – giving students a topic and end goal for the assignment, and letting them choose the form that writing took: website, photo essay, Prezi. Others started with the form and platform – a website with Weebly, a brochure with InDesign – and tailored the shape of the assignment to match. Both approaches offer benefits as well as limits. Freedom of format can overwhelm students, and can require more class time to explore possible options. Mandating a structure and platform pushes students into a single perspective, and can bring pre-existing expectations that aren’t necessarily in line with the actual assignment’s goals. Think carefully about what you want an assignment to achieve, and what degree of freedom will best enable students to succeed.

If this post has you thinking about what digital writing might look like in your course, I’d love you to join me later this semester for our new workshop, “Bringing Digital Writing into Your Course” – November 29th from 1:00-2:00 in the Lannan Center (4th Floor New North). We’ll be talking about these ideas and more, and you’ll have a chance to do some initial writing + sharing to start the assignment design process. Hope to see you there!


Reading Writing Group – Fall 2018

Join your colleagues this fall for a series of discussions about teaching writing. Each month we will look at a different set of texts (from articles to book chapters to writing textbooks to assignment guidelines) to explore the best practices for teaching writing and teaching for transfer. To access the readings and RSVP, email Phil Sandick at

What’s new?

Welcome to our new and improved website.  We now offer sections for faculty teaching first-year writing and for those whose courses fulfill the Integrated Writing requirement, as well as a variety of resources for all faculty who include writing in their courses. You’ll also find information about Writing Program events, workshops, and news. We’ll update these resources all year,  so check back regularly for new ideas, announcements, and resources.

We hope these resources will inspire you. We’re also offering two Workshops in August to help you plan your fall courses.

A student guide to proofreading and writing in science

Congratulations to Human Science professor Jason Tilan, who together with former GU colleagues J.P. Hyatt and Elisa Bienenstock, has just published an article based on their work on a core Integrated Writing course, Physiological Adaptations. Their essay appears in Advanced in Physiological Education. Check it out!

Here’s the abstract of the essay:

Scientific writing requires a distinct style and tone, whether the writing is intended for an undergraduate assignment or publication in a peer-reviewed journal. From the first to the final draft, scientific writing is an iterative process requiring practice, substantial feedback from peers and instructors, and comprehensive proofreading on the part of the writer. Teaching writing or proofreading is not common in university settings. Here, we present a collection of common undergraduate student writing mistakes and put forth suggestions for corrections as a first step toward proofreading and enhancing readability in subsequent draft versions. Additionally, we propose specific strategies pertaining to word choice, structure, and approach to make products more fluid and focused for an appropriate target audience.

Integrated Writing: Myths and Realities

Myth: Teaching writing takes time away from teaching content
Reality: You can teach writing by using course readings to examine how people in your field produce and share knowledge, make arguments, and use specialized language, formulas, or evidence

Myth: Teaching writing means assigning more papers
Reality: Teaching writing is about quality, not quantity; the focus is on preparing students to write better papers

Myth: Teaching writing means much more grading time
Reality: Providing clear assignments and guidance for writing can make grading more manageable, and students’ papers are likely to be better

Myth: Teaching writing means I have to assign long, formal papers
Reality: Teaching writing can involve short, low-stakes writing assignments, presentations, and multimedia projects

Myth: Teaching writing means I have to read and comment on everything my students write
Reality: You can help students learn about writing is by asking them to review and comment on each other’s work

Myth: Teaching writing means teaching editing and grammar
Reality: Teaching writing means letting students know when their form, style, or approach to argument doesn’t meet the expectations and standards of their audiences

Myth: Our students would write well if only they could get the grammar and mechanics right
Reality: Writers struggle to get the language right when they’re unsure about the content