Here I Come, Brave New World! (A Manifesto, of Sorts)

Reading Naming What We Know was truly transformative for me. I would read each threshold concept in Part 1, and I just kept wanting to fist pump. I would regularly stop and post a line from the text on Facebook. I was literally seeing EVERYTHING I know about writing and teaching writing in print. These were the core principles that I work by every day, but I realized what they also were: little symbols on a page, written by people distant from me in time and space, decoded by my brain, checked against my pre-existing knowledge, made real in my mind, and moving me into action.  I was having quite the meta-literacy moment.

Facebook status

The metaconcept that “Writing is an Activity and a subject of study” pretty much says it all. I teach my students how to perform that activity to the best of their current ability, and I do so based on many of the threshold concepts–threshold concepts named, defined, and described by a collective effort of the best minds in my business. Unfortunately, I never talked writing pedagogy with my students.  While I have been trying to model for my students how to think like a writer, we haven’t actually been talking what writers do and what writing actually is.

Adler-Kassner and Wardle argue, “When teachers and learners recognize writing as complex enough to require study, and recognize that the study of writing suggests they should approach, learn, and teach writing differently, they are then invited to behave differently and to change their conceptions of what writing is and their practices around writing that extend from those conceptions” (16).  To write well, we must talk about writing, and practice what we talk about, then think about what we practiced.

My next three days will revolve around two issues: finishing this course and convincing my colleagues that our college is best served by first-year and developmental writing becoming their own department, separate from literature. I spent my day writing a justification for such a department. I will spend my evening writing this post; then I will spend the weekend completing my final paper. Seventy-two hours of literacy, composition, and writing studies. Kevin Roozen states, “Through writing, writers come to develop and perform identities in relation to the interests, beliefs,and values of the communities they engage with, understanding the possibilities for selfhood available in those communities” (50-51). If that’s true, then this is my identity: I am a composition specialist. A literacy theorist. A writing teacher.

More importantly, I want my students–and all of LCC’s students–to discover their own identities through writing. Therefore, I feel even more committed to make sure that literature and composition stay separate. Roozen explains that writing “functions as a key form of socialization as we learn to become members of academic disciplines… processions, religious groups, community organizations, political parties, families, and so on” (51). This threshold concept has steeled my resolve that literature cannot be allowed to dominate or even creep into first-year writing courses. Just because my colleagues’ identity revolves around literature, they must not impose their identity on those of our students. My fellow instructors should not privilege their “literacy” by imposing it on students who want to be engineers, nurses, and electricians.

In her well-known essay “No Place for Literature,” Erika Lindeman endorses first-year composition as a place where “writers and readers enter the conversation of the academy and begin to contribute to the making of knowledge” (313). To me, that’s exactly what a composition course should be. We have this very solemn and awesome responsibility: We take in students from high school and we mentor them in being part of the Academe. If reading and writing are at the core of knowledge production, then our job is to teach students how to be knowledge producers.

Therefore, we must prepare students to be prepared for whatever comes their way in college and beyond. If we only teach students one mode, one genre, one disciplinary way of thinking, we have doomed them to perpetual struggle. Instead, writing teachers need to teach student writers how to be nimble, flexible versatile. “For those of us who teach writing,” says Howard Tinberg, “the objective is not just to have our students produce effective writing…We also want our students to demonstrate consciousness of process that will enable them to reproduce success. Megacognition is not cognition. Performance, however thoughtful, is not the same as awareness of how that performance came to be” (75). Writing instructors must not be satisfied with merely teaching students how to write; we must first and foremost teach them how to think about writing.

Needless to say, I came away from Naming What We Know convinced that my first-year classes will now be explicitly about writing, not just about teaching how to write. As Doug Down and Liane Robertson observe, the purpose of composition courses is twofold. First, such classes should be a place “for students to examine and ideally reconsider prior knowledge about writing in light of new experience and knowledge.” Secondly, first-year writing must “serve as a general education course, teaching transferable knowledge of and about writing so that what is taught and learned can be adapted to new contexts of writing” (103).

When I reached the end of Down and Robertson’s chapter and looked over their suggested readings for a “writing about writing” composition course, I had a bit of an epiphany: “Screw that,” my brain said. “I’m using Part 1 of this book! It’s an OER, the chapters are highly readable, and it would be fun to tell my students that they read the same book I read in graduate school!”

Works Cited

Adler-Kassner, Linda and Elizabeth Wardle, editors. Naming What We Know. Utah State University Press, 2015.

Downs, Doug and Liane Robertson. “Threshold Concepts in First-Year Composition.”   Adler-Kassner and Wardle, editors. pp. 105-121.

Lindeman, Erika. “Freshman Composition: No Place for Literature.” College English 55.3 (1993): 311-316.

Roozen, Kevin. “Writing Is Linked to Identity.” Adler-Kassner and Wardle, editors. pp. 50-52.

Tinberg, Howard. “Metacognition Is Not Cognition.” Adler-Kassner and Wardle, editors. pp. 75-76.

Wardle, Elizabeth and Linda Adler-Kassner. “Metaconcept: Writing Is an Activity and a Subject of Study.” Adler-Kassner and Wardle, editors. pp. 15-16.


One Response to Here I Come, Brave New World! (A Manifesto, of Sorts)

  1. Roozen explains that writing “functions as a key form of socialization as we learn to become members of academic disciplines… processions, religious groups, community organizations, political parties, families, and so on” (51).

    Leslie, my neck hurts from nodding “YES” while reading your discussion here.

    The next time I teach research writing at the college level, I am going to begin with Bartholomae’s “Inventing the University” as a way of helping students understand that they are doing more than just writing a paper…and as Leslie notes, “Writing instructors must not be satisfied with merely teaching students how to write; we must first and foremost teach them how to think about writing.”

    Leslie, I am excited by your desire to give writing its own ground…we had previously discussed the separation of the writing department from the English department at UCF where Wardle once taught. I believe this approach helps legitimize composition as its own discipline and not the stepchild of literary studies, and helps funnel resources where they are needed when it comes to writing education. I am tired of working in departments with people who have no experience (and no theoretical or pedagogical background) in composition thinking they can teach writing just because they have an MFA or MA in poetry or literature for example. What the HELL does that have to do with composition instruction? I’m much more open to working with journalists as colleagues, however, lol.

    That being said, I am a thesis director for a popular MA Lit program and at the proposal stage have a routine set of questions I ask all students, one of them being, “What do you want this MA and thesis to do for you?” The response is typically, “I want to teach college,” to which I then reply, “Well, the reality of college teaching with an MA is teaching first year writing. Do you have any experience teaching writing?” And the answer is almost always, “No.”

    My next step is to explain that if I’m on the hiring committee for English faculty at a university (and I have been previously and will be again as of this fall) then when a candidate with an MA in Lit interviews, one of the questions I ask is “How does your education in literary analysis and criticism translate to the developmental writing or research writing classroom?” Students are typically silent at this point or they respond sheepishly with, “Hmmm, yes, I can see what you mean.” So A LOT of my thesis supervision and guidance is usually around helping those who want to seek higher ed employment to develop a thesis that addresses pedagogy in some way, often focused on applying the teaching of literature in some way in the writing classroom. I don’t pretend to hide this agenda and students are free to choose another direction. But I encourage them to consider why teaching Chicana literature, for example, is useful to the first year writing experience. Or why Poe has a place in first year writing. Or why feminist theory and literature can be useful in a WAC/WID paradigmatic first year writing program.

    So though I want to teach comp with comp instructors, the reality is that many of the instructors who will be teaching comp will have a lit background regardless of what department comp is in. My goal then is to help those instructors understand what we want our students to understand, that they are entering a discourse community known as the university and that their writing and pedagogy “functions as a key form of socialization as we learn to become members of academic disciplines… processions, religious groups, community organizations, political parties, families, and so on” (51).

    Marlen : )

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