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College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instruction

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Composition research consistently demonstrates that the social context of writing determines the majority of conventions any writer must observe. Still, most universities organize the required first-year composition course as if there were an intuitive set of general writing "skills" usable across academic and work-world settings.

In College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instruction, Anne Beaufort reports on a longitudinal study comparing one student’s experience in FYC, in history, in engineering, and in his post-college writing. Her data illuminate the struggle of college students to transfer what they learn about "general writing" from one context to another. Her findings suggest ultimately not that we must abolish FYC, but that we must go beyond even genre theory in reconceiving it.

Accordingly, Beaufort would argue that the FYC course should abandon its hope to teach a sort of general academic discourse, and instead should systematically teach strategies of responding to contextual elements that impinge on the writing situation. Her data urge attention to issues of learning transfer, and to developmentally sound linkages in writing instruction within and across disciplines. Beaufort advocates special attention to discourse community theory, for its power to help students perceive and understand the context of writing.

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Chapter 1 - The Question of University Writing Instruction

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Anne:  What’s your sense of yourself as a writer now, compared to four years ago?

Tim:   Uh, well, shoot. Four years ago I would have said, you know, I’ve got … I don’t know … Four years ago, before taking classes here, I would have said, well that’s not really writing … realizing that … it’s not like a particular genre that qualifies as writing. Okay, now you can use style or you pay attention to this, but it’s like, you know, whenever you scribble something down, I mean anytime you sit down at the keyboard then that’s writing. Even if it’s one, two, three, four …

—Tim, senior year of college

Anne:  Do think you grew as a writer?

Tim:   In college? Oh yeah, yeah.

Anne:  How?

Tim:   Well, I grew to enjoy it and I think I enjoyed it because I was set free, and in being set free I think I found that I had some skill at it … I had occasions that were handed to me (laughs). Write! Well, might as well make this fun.

—Tim, two years after college

This book has two stories to tell: the story of Tim’s somewhat limited growth as a writer (from this researcher’s perspective) between the time he started a freshman writing class at a major US university until two years after he had graduated from school; and second, more argument than story, a case for a re-conceptualization of writing instruction at the post-secondary level. In an earlier ethnography, I examined the struggles of four writers to acclimatize themselves to the demands of writing in college and then in the workplace. Out of that work came a beginning articulation of the nature of writing expertises and a demonstration of why transfer of writing skills from one social context to another is a major issue as yet given too little attention in conceptions of writing curricula. In this work—a blended genre of both ethnography and argument—I draw on the data of a longitudinal case study of one writer bridging from high school writing instruction to freshman writing and then to writing in his two majors, history and engineering, to answer the fundamental question college administrators, college professors in disciplines other than composition studies, and business leaders ask: why graduates of freshman writing cannot produce acceptable written documents in other contexts? At the same time, for those readers who are well acquainted with the scholarship that answers that question, I provide additional empirical work and pragmatic suggestions (in the final chapter and appendices) that may aid the effort to build more coherent writing instruction at the post-secondary level. And for theorists and critics who have not focused on these issues, I hope to provide food for thought on the nature of writing expertise. I see the issues I raise here as relevant to all venues for college-level writing instruction: freshman writing programs, writing-in-the-disciplines programs, programs to train teaching assistants and tutors in teaching of writing, and writing center pedagogies.

 

Chapter 2 - The Dilemmas of Freshman Writing

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Like the playwright who gives stage directions so that the reader can imagine a living, breathing experience, or the composer who begins an opus with a prelude, I begin this chapter with excerpts of field notes and other documents gathered at the site of this case study—an English department at a prestigious private university in the South. These bits and pieces, together, form a backdrop to the discussion that follows.

The heavy wood door to English, in the middle of the quad, is like all the other nondescript doors on the quad—dark brown, with the department name in white lettering. Opening the door, one’s eye is drawn to a wide, thickly-carpeted stairway with curling wrought-iron and wood railing leading to the second floor, where the department chair, his secretary, and the senior faculty have their offices.

In the first floor wood-paneled vestibule is a lighted glass case housing book jackets—those of books faculty have written. Next to the vestibule is a small anteroom that houses the faculty mailboxes, a love seat, and a coffee table. On it is a copy of The New York Times Book Review. On a Wednesday morning, between 10 and 10:30, five men and one woman pick up mail. One catches snippets of conversation: “Did you attend the meeting on language and culture… . The way she situates the relationship of language to consciousness … models for a cultural context of violence and power. ” … Beside the mailboxes is a poster announcing a poetry reading in the afternoon.

 

Chapter 3 - Freshman Writing and First Year History Courses

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In history courses students acquire skills that should be of value in many occupations and endeavors: how to think critically, evaluate evidence, and write with force and clarity.

—History department web page

Write an essay of 1,000 words. Discuss the film in light of the readings and discussion to date… . The point of this exercise is to demonstrate that you have read the materials and can apply them to thinking about the film.

—History course syllabus

The details of Tim’s writing experiences as he progressed through the coursework for a major in history will be given in the next chapter, but here I hold up for the reader’s view the parallel (“parallel” in the sense of being “simultaneous”) experiences Tim was having in his first year in his writing courses and in his entry level history courses—History 101 Western Civilization, and History 185 History of Islam.

READING-TO-WRITE DIFFERENCES

I begin with several charts that juxtapose freshman writing and Tim’s experiences in his entry-level history courses.

 

Chapter 4 - Learning To Write History

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You get good at taking a situation that’s extremely diffuse and … infinitely variable. With so many variables you would have to write a huge linear equation to describe [it]. It’s not even linear. You get good at saying okay, really casting out what’s not relevant … reduce it to one or two or three variables so you can kind of see what’s going on … if I had to I could always say something cogent about the material … although I flapped a lot, I could always kind of reduce these big things to, you know, something.

—Tim, senior year

This comment, about history writing, was made after Tim had completed the requirements for a major in history and had started his second major in engineering. So in part, it is a reflection of his understanding of writing in history, and in part a reflection of the differences he perceived between writing in history and writing in engineering. The comment was made “off the cuff.” It is glib and cursory. And yet, there is truth to the comment as well: it represents the limited knowledge and skill Tim gained in history writing as an undergraduate and suggests the road to expertise in writing in a discipline is a long one. This chapter will reveal, in part, what the beginnings of such a process were for this writer.

 

Chapter 5 - Switching Gears: From History Writing to Engineering

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I never used to have patience with techies who would turn up their noses at fuzzy classes but I’m starting to sense why they do. I’m starting to get impatient with people for going on and on about nothing.

—Tim, two years after college

The first few classes that I took, they were “weeder” classes, so they just cleaned my clock. In response, I just kind of lowered my standard and also kind of held on to history as my, “I don’t need that while I have history.” Kind of as an excuse. Something to hide behind… . Even the individually designed major was something I was hiding behind so I wouldn’t have to take classes that I was afraid of.

—Tim, senior year of college

During autumn quarter, my passion and determination united to bring me out of a slump that had roots in a three-year hiatus from technical studies. At mid-quarter, I was brought to a crisis by my growing desire to pursue advanced smart product design and by my slipping grades. After testing my passion to be certain it was genuine, I dug in my heels and got busy relearning how to learn. By the end of the quarter I turned two failing midterm grades into final exam and project grades of B+, A–and A. That quarter marked a sea change in my approach to studies that will serve me the rest of my engineering career.

 

Chapter 6 - New Directions for University Writing Instruction

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As I begin this final chapter, I wish first to honor the acts of courage and integrity of all of Tim’s teachers to teach him well, as well as Tim’s own dedication to learning and to making a meaningful contribution to society. I am privileged that these individuals have allowed me to get to know them and to try, through this research, to provide suggestions for how we all might teach writing better. And to all who read this for the sake of this same enterprise of teaching well and learning well, I say, we are in this inquiry together. Knowing readers will make their own connections and draw their own conclusions from this work, I offer final thoughts only as catalyst for furthering the inquiry we are in together.

It seems to me that three things need to be noted at the end of this case study.

First: a developmental model for understanding writers’ growth, for designing curriculum and assessment measures and for training teachers (whether writing teachers or teachers in other disciplines) and tutors needs to encompass the five knowledge and skill domains used here to frame the analysis of a writer’s growth. To focus on one or several aspects of writing expertise to the exclusion of the others represents less than a full view of the developmental process for gaining writing expertise. This theoretical lens can be useful not only in designing curriculum and understanding what the causes are for individual students’ writing problems, but also in designing tools for assessing writing development.

 

Epilogue: Ten Years Later

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I sweated through the work of this research project alone. But I always knew I must go back to Carla, Tim’s freshman writing teacher, for two reasons: Her read of the manuscript would be another means to triangulate the data, and I owed her the right to comment on my analyses and interpretations of her courses. So I sent her the manuscript when it was a solid second draft. What resulted was a five-hour conversation that we agreed to tape and use as the basis for this epilogue. Here, you may read the edited version of the transcript, which we collaborated on. The italicized portions represent those sections I felt were most germane to the arguments of this book.

Anne: What were some of your thoughts when you read the manuscript?

Carla: Tim was atypical in some important ways. He was really good at expressive writing. That was where his talent was. Each student has his own particular strengths and weaknesses as a writer and usually you need their strengths to find their weaknesses as well. So, yeah, he was not uniquely talented as an expressive writer, but talented, and really enjoyed it. So it doesn’t surprise me that he ran into some conflicts as he got further into his majors.

 

Appendix A: From Research to Practice: Some Ideas for Writing Instruction

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Here I briefly lay out a few of the teaching strategies I and my graduate student and collaborator, Dana Driscoll, have developed and tested in the classroom to put into practice the principles laid out in Chapter 6—principles that enable writers to become more flexible and learn writing requirements in new contexts more readily. I also draw on the excellent work of Amy Devitt, Mary Jo Reiff, and Anis Bawarshi in Scenes of Writing: Strategies for Composing with Genres (2004). And if ideas I think are mine were in fact borrowed from others but I no longer remember, I trust those individuals will let me know so that I can express gratitude and give proper acknowledgement.

TEACHING FOR TRANSFER

As I explained in Chapter 6, writers will not automatically bridge, or bring forward, appropriate writing strategies and knowledge to new writing situations unless they have an understanding of both the need to do so and a method for doing so. In other words, writers, if they want to gain expertise in multiple genres and discourse communities, have to learn to become lifelong learners. The developmental process for writers never ends.

 

Appendix B: Samples of Tim’s Essays

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Here are two essays Tim wrote in his freshman year of college: one, a textual analysis of an article by an ethicist, written for Freshman Writing, and the other, a historical essay interpreting events and texts for a western civilization course, also Tim’s first year at the university.

RIGHT AND WRONG IN GENETIC ENGINEERING: A CHRISTIAN’S PERSPECTIVE (FOR EGL 102)

The last decade’s discoveries in genetic science have opened discussions at the dinner table, laboratory, and Congress on questions that ten years ago existed solely on the pages of science fiction. Their relevance is now real, casting confusion over the decisions of birth, illness, treatment, and death. Is it morally justified, many ask, to read a fetus’ genetic code, allowing the parents to abort a handicapped child? Is it right to consider altering the DNA, the very map of life? Isn’t the integrity of life threatened by manipulating genetic traits?

Answers given to questions of right and wrong in genetic therapy range widely. Many fear that people who altered the genetic makeup of individuals would be “playing God.” Other invoke the experience of the Nazi era in Germany and oppose any development of gene-altering processes, concerned that it will lead to similar atrocities. Still others suggest that any new technology that is useful should be put into practice.

 

Appendix C: The Research Methodology

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To assess systematically what is or isn’t working in any program of writing instruction is difficult because longitudinal studies of writers are difficult. Equally difficult is data-driven theorizing about writing expertise and the developmental processes of writers, given the number of variables at work, many of which are hidden from a researcher’s scrutiny. Case studies are difficult to generalize from with absolute certainty. And, as this is the case of a mainstream student (i.e. middle class and white), cases involving students of diverse backgrounds are needed to determine the usefulness across a broader spectrum of writers of the theoretical framework presented here. With these difficulties in mind, I urge other researchers to test the robustness of this theoretical framework of writing expertise in capturing the nuances of what in fact is going on in disciplinary writing at the undergraduate level and in other contexts for writing. For those interested in case study methodology, I offer in more detail here how data collection and analysis were handled.

 

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