The Writing about Writing (WaW) movement has grown popular over the past few years, and I’ve joined in.
I teach first-year composition every semester. In fact, I’ve taught these and equivalent courses every semester since I became a graduate teaching assistant in 1998, and I’ve experimented with a number of approaches emphasizing rhetorical knowledge, critical thinking, writing processes, knowledge of conventions, and literacy for composing in electronic environments. I also required a textbook with thematic readings on popular culture, gender and race controversies, diversity, moral and ethical debates, and the elusive American Dream.
Then one day, during a unit on reading and writing arguments about sustainability, a student blatantly asked, “Can’t we just learn about English?” It was a good question that I took seriously. Frankly, I don’t want to moderate political discussions; I’ll let the political science instructors handle that. I’d much rather discuss how reading, writing, language, and literacy work in different contexts, which is why WaW attracted me.
A WaW approach foregrounds research in writing and related studies by asking students to read and discuss key texts in the discipline and contribute to the scholarly conversation themselves in order to build a meta-awareness of the writing process. As two of the strongest advocates for WaW, Downs and Wardle (2007) argue that teaching students to write by introducing them to a template of basic skills creates the false impression that all academic writing looks identical. Because similar features in writing “are realized differently across academic disciplines, courses, and even assignments” (p. 556), the authors propose that writing instructors help students develop a meta-awareness of the contextual elements that shape writing so that they can become familiar with how they write on a regular basis and the types of writing valued by specific discourse communities.
The controversy: are first-year students prepared to read esoteric scholarship, the research on writing? The debate fluctuates. On one hand, Bird (2009- 2010) avows that her Basic Writing students at Taylor University embrace the challenge of reading articles from College English, CCC, and Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy because “Students can better judge their efforts in complex thinking-writing if they know what it is they are aiming for, if they know what intellectual processes they are trying to achieve through their writing” (p. 4). On the other hand, while preparing to teach Introductory Composition at Purdue from the WaW approach, Sánchez, Lane, and Carter (2014) anticipated that “students might feel daunted by the material and by the lack of a user-friendly textbook to access this information pertaining to the knowledge and practice of writing” (p. 120). Nevertheless, for these authors, exposure to this occasionally abstruse school of thought with language and conventions to match provided an opportunity to discuss audience and genre.
I find this approach going well because my retention rates have increased. According to my student evaluations, students expect WaW in their required first-year writing courses as a means to transfer what they learn to other classes. Now we write literacy narratives, complicate the definition of literacy, persuade lexicographers to add and remove words from dictionaries, discuss how advice from creative writers can help us become better expository writers, and interview instructors across disciplines about their expectations for college-level writing. Furthermore, no one feels isolated by the political debates that once took place. Indeed, we read pieces such as Krauthammer’s “In Plain English: Let’s Make It Official” and Fairman’s “The Case against Banning the Word ‘Retard,’” which certainly inspire controversy. However, because anyone who writes has direct, personal experience with reading, writing, language, and literacy, everyone has something to contribute.
Bird, B. (2009-2010). Meaning-making concepts: Basic writer’s access to verbal culture. Basic Writing, (8/9), 1-18. Retrieved from https://bwe.ccny.cuny.edu/
Downs, D., & Wardle, E. (2007). Teaching about writing, Righting misconceptions: (Re)envisioning “First-Year Composition” as “Introduction to Writing Studies.” CCC, 58(4), 552–584.
Sánchez, F., Lane, L., & Carter, T. (2014). Engaging writing about writing theory and multimodal praxis: Remediating WaW for English 106: First Year Composition. Composition Studies, 42(2), 118-146. Retrieved from http://www.uc.edu/journals/composition-studies.html/
John Pruitt is Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Rock County, past president of the Wisconsin Council of Teachers of English, and the editor of Wisconsin English Journal.
Copyright © 2016 by the Wisconsin Council of Teachers of English.