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

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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.” 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