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Pedagogical Theory

Passion and Principle: Syncing Teaching Priorities with Transfer Strategies


Reading LaToya Faulk’s and Joe Paszek’s recent blog entries, I found myself asking a question that conversations with a number of instructors in the Composition Program have heightened for me this semester: How can we link what we already do—and what we most value—in our teaching to the goal of promoting transfer?

Joe’s post on teaching for transfer includes an excellent weekly reflective assignment that asks a short series of questions designed to promote transfer. His questions ask students to think about a concept they’ve just learned, how it connects with material discussed previously, how they might use it in future, and whether it’s actually one they’ve used before under another name. This assignment follows a helpful list of three principles Anne Beaufort recommends for fostering transfer. Its questions are a smart, creative use of the transfer principles.

Principles, of course, provide important guidance, but putting them into practice requires both thoughtful assignments and thoughtful pedagogy (meaning, in this context, all of the modes we use to deliver instruction, from in-class activities to homework assignments to mini-lectures to facilitating discussion). Writing assignments alone are only a start toward promoting transfer: that project unfolds just as much (or more) in the day-to-day work of pedagogy. (Thanks to Derek Risse and Amy Metcalf for usefully emphasizing this point and for prompting me to think more about it, which they did during a recent seminar session.) Given the centrality of pedagogy in effectively promoting transfer, I think that for this work to succeed, it has to be driven in significant part by any individual instructor’s existing commitments.

Of course by this I mean general commitments to student learning, to meaningful engagement with students’ writing, and the like. But I also mean far more specific commitments, commitments that are simultaneously intellectual, professional, and deeply personal. Intellectual, for instance, in a commitment to a Deweyan approach that emphasizes both building on students’ prior experience and helping them expand both the depth and breadth of that experience. Professional, for instance, in a commitment to Stephen North’s view of English Studies as a close-knit integration of literary studies, creative writing, and composition studies (an argument that, for me, resonates powerfully with LaToya’s post). Personal, for instance, in a commitment to higher education as a means of access to what Gee calls social goods for historically marginalized groups (and the hope that such access, and the conversations fostering it, may lead to incremental shifts in the stubbornly systemic injustices built into the socio-economic order).

It was this mesh of commitments – even passions, at risk of evoking a hyper-clichéd visual of Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society – that came to mind as I read LaToya’s recent post, “In Conversation with Douglas Hesse’s Creative Writing in Composition Studies.” There she uses the analogy of conversations between loved ones sharing an intimate setting as a metaphor for re-imagining the relationships between (and among) composition, literary, and creative writing studies. Her concluding question invokes the risk of not holding such conversations, the risk of remaining trapped in our [institutional] histories, as those histories play themselves out in us.

One strand of thinking in transfer scholarship might be seen as deepening the wedge these institutional histories have driven between the subfields of English Studies. Take, for instance, Wardle’s claim that part of the problem in first-year writing instruction is that 1.) we’ve mistaken humanities genres for academic genres more broadly, and 2.) the lack of training in writing studies among many (perhaps most) of the (largely adjunct faculty) instructors teaching the freshman course makes it difficult to rectify the quandary mentioned in item #1. I don’t dispute either point, but I also don’t take either point as definitive for the potential relations between subfields or for the role teachers’ deep and varied expertise can bring to the challenges of promoting transfer.

And I don’t think transfer scholarship in Composition Studies does that either. In its best moments this scholarship favors integration over division. A few of these moments were exemplified in a discussion of transfer between Wardle, her co-panelists, and their audience at the 2011 CCCC, as well as in recent posts on the Writing Program Administrators listserv. As Wardle emphasized both in the CCCC panel discussion and on WPA-L, the key to implementing a pedagogy that fosters transfer is to find ways to link transfer principles to what teachers in any given context already know and value. If that “what” is intertextuality theory (as at a campus she’d recently encountered), then the theme of intertextuality should be central to conversations about how to re-envision the existing curriculum and pedagogy to integrate teaching for transfer. In contrast, that “what” may be the set of connections, and distinctions, between literary studies, creative writing, and composition studies; or it may be digital literacy; or it may be the role of techné in rhetorical theory. Whatever the “what” is, it should be at the heart of conversations about how to revise curricula and pedagogy to foster transfer.

Recent conversations with Adrienne Jankens have highlighted one example that looks promising to me, both in its potential for providing an innovative approach to teaching for transfer and as a model for how I hope instructors will engage with the challenges posed by transfer scholarship. Adrienne has a deep, sustained interest in inquiry pedagogy, as developed in Ken Macrorie’s I-Search Paper. The I-Search Paper modifies the traditional research paper by asking students to recount the story of their research on a topic of importance to them, stressing what they knew initially, what they wanted to learn and why, and what they eventually did learn. (For an example, see instructions given at Gallaudet University for doing an I-Search paper or get the words from the horse’s mouth). I can imagine adapting the guiding questions of the I-Search Paper to a Writing About Writing pedagogy designed to foster transfer, for instance by asking what students already knew about writing in a certain discourse community, what they want to learn about it and why, and what they eventually did learn. No doubt as she explores the potential links between inquiry pedagogy and transfer scholarship, Adrienne will develop a far richer, more sophisticated integration. Similarly, I can imagine a scholar-teacher interested in the interconnections between creative writing, literary studies, and composition studies developing an assignment sequence that would use Beaufort’s five knowledge domains (discourse community, genre, rhetorical, subject matter, and writing process knowledges) to examine the nature of the texts and contexts at the heart of each area of study.

Exploring such potential integrations is crucial to developing both the curricula and the pedagogy needed to teach effectively for transfer. Robin Williams, meet Anne Beaufort.

Works Cited
Beaufort, A. (2007). College writing and beyond: A new framework for university writing instruction. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.
Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. Simon & Brown, 2011.
Gee, James P. Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 2008.
North, Stephen. Refiguring the Ph.D. in English Studies: Writing, Doctoral Education, and the Fusion-Based Curriculum. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2000.
Wardle, E. (2009). ‘Mutt genres’ and the goal of FYC: Can we help students write the genres of the university? College Composition and Communication, 60(4), 765-789.

Professor Gwen Gorzelsky is the author of The Language of Experience: Literature Practices and Social Change and is currently in her second year serving as the Department’s Director of Composition. She regularly teaches courses on writing and the teaching of writing at both the undergraduate and graduate level.

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