transferring from teaching "academic" writing

In her recent CCC article, Elizabeth Wardle extends upon the argument she made with Doug Downs earlier in challenging the field to move away from conventional FYC pedagogies and curricula. As she notes, and I agree, the fundamental problem with how FYC is conceived is that it rests upon a faith in transference, that "writing skills" learned in FYC will transfer to other writing situations. This faith in turn rests upon a mythology of generalizable literacy.

The problem is that transference and general literacy do exist to some extent. All acts of reading and writing do share some common attributes, mostly the kinds of things that most kids learn in elementary school. And I think there is a limited property of transference. I am an expert writer in my specialty of digital rhetoric (if I may be so immodest). My writing practice transfers quite well to other areas of rhetoric and composition. It even would transfer fairly well to other areas of English Studies. I can write into interdisciplinary spaces. And while I wouldn't consider myself an expert writer in other humanistic fields, I think I could be more successful writing there than the average scientist. Certainly I would perform better than the typical undergrad. Also, my writing transfers fairly well from scholarship to this blog, to pedagogical texts I create, and to various institutional discourses.

Fundamentally we realize that investing time in writing will lead to better writing.

But that doesn't mean I could write a legal brief or stock market analysis or documentation for a weapons system or any other number of things…. Obviously.

When FYC began 100+ years ago, the range of undergraduate discursive practices was smaller. We didn't have as many highly specialized discourses. So maybe the idea of transference might have made a little more sense. But really transference isn't the problem. In order for a student to have a writing practice that might transfer from one discourse to another, that student has to have a writing practice in the first place!

So that's a problem and, no, FYC is not the solution. 

In addition, writing well in a particular discourse requires knowledge of the field it supports. I always use the iceberg metaphor with my students. Of course one of the perception issues for FYC on campuses is the belief that one can just replicate the part of the iceberg above the water without the rest of it. Writing well takes time, knowledge, and dedication. Students might acquire these in four years, but FYC certainly cannot assure that they do.

I would think that all of that should be painfully obvious to anyone. And the basis of Wardle's argument is that we need to begin rethinking FYC by rejecting the premise that it can achieve the goal of preparing students to be successful composers of the multi-genre constellation known as "academic writing." She also suggests that FYC might be seen like BIO 101 or PHIL 101 as an introduction to a discipline. That works OK for me, though I'm not sure that from there you can make the argument for the small, writing intensive courses that we have. That is, if FYC is to be like other Gen Ed courses and other Gen Ed courses are taught in large lecture sections, then, well…

And here we get an interesting departure based on institutional context. If you're a small, liberal arts college where most of the courses are small then there's no problem. If you are a state comprehensive school where most of the FYC courses are taught be contingent faculty, then maybe moving to bigger sections means people lose their jobs (albeit exploitative jobs). If you're a research university then those small sections fund your graduate students and you don't want to lose them.

In any case, "we" are in the business of believing that students benefit from sitting in small introductory courses where they write a lot. Do I believe that? Yes, I do. I don't think those courses can do the magical things that have been expected of them, but I believe that an intensive writing course where students study, practice, and reflect upon writing practices is at least as valuable a part of general education as any. I do agree with Wardle that such a course can serve as an introduction to the field of rhetoric, where I think the fundamental argument is that rhetorical-compositional practices are an intellectual advantage for students in the same way that thinking historically or reasoning scientifically or contemplating philosophically (i.e. things one might acquire elsewhere in Gen Ed) is an advantage. That is, they are an advantage in a general way that is only indirectly transferable to other contexts.

What genre should FYC students write if the fictitious "academic writing" is finally ripped away? That's obvious. They write in the only genre available to them: the genre of the FYC classroom. Genres are not plug 'n play. Genres emerge from a set of relatively stable contexts: writers, audiences, and exigencies. Not the other way around. FYC does provide this. Every semester, you have first-year students writing to one another and their instructors for the purpose of understanding how rhetorical methods and knowledges help us understand writing. Maybe students aren't all fired up about the subject. But then they aren't interested in biology when they take BIO 101 or history when they take HIS 101 and so on and so forth. That's the nature of general education. Students often aren't interested in taking it. That's part of the challenge.

In any case, if you think of the purpose of FYC in this way it can actually open the course up to a wider degree of variety than one finds in other disciplinary intro courses or even in current FYC curricula which remain tied to lock-step. oversimplified textbook versions of process, tired mode-driven pseudo-genres, and fantasies of academic writing that make virtually every FYC class seem like a failure.

The expectations of such a course should be simple. We cannot measure the success of FYC by how well a student does in some discipline-specific writing course two years later when they are next asked to write a research paper. The expectations should be analogous to those in any gen ed course. Students should demonstrate that they have learned certain introductory concepts and demonstrate some facility with particular disciplinary practices.

I find myself writing about FYC quite a bit. And in a year, I will find myself directing a composition program at Buffalo. So such conversations are interesting and relevant to me. At the same time, as a discipline I think we need to start turning more of our energies away from such matters and toward other rhetorical concerns that might speak to broader humanistic and cultural concerns.

In the end, FYC is just a couple introductory courses.