Yancey, teaching for transfer, and a theory of writing

I saw Kathleen Yancey speak last week at RIT about her latest research on teaching for transfer. I find the focus on transfer is a little curious but important to discuss. Fundamentally, almost tautologically, the purpose of teaching and learning would be to acquire knowledge and skills that have value in contexts beyond the one in which they were first encountered (e.g., the classroom). On some basic level, this is how mammalian memory functions. One might say that all social institutions are built upon the human biological capacity for memory, a capacity that is altered by symbolic behavior, writing, other media, and various data storage, networking, and retrieval processes.  And when I say altered I mean that quite literally in that the plasticity of the brain means that it is shaped by these technosocial assemblages.

Anyway, schooling is obviously one of these assemblages which has some specific ideas about how it would like human memory to function and what the successful “transfer” of knowledge or skills from one context to another would look like.

For whatever reason (and one could go into the historical reasons for it), composition studies among all academic fields has been particularly wedded to the notion of transfer, specifically to the idea that writing instruction in FYC will transfer to future college courses and make students better writers in those contexts. It has been a troubling promise and there’s a fair degree of skepticism about the utility of what might be transferred from FYC to other contexts. There’s one thing that we can all know for sure, however, and that’s that humans definitely bring ideas about writing and writing practices with them from one situation to another. Otherwise, students wouldn’t show up writing 5-paragraph themes in our classes.

So there’s no doubt that when students leave FYC and enter some future class that requires writing (or enter a workplace that asks them to write, or write for other reasons) that they will “transfer” memories, concepts, and practices. Yancey talked a fair amount about this, noting both the theories of writing students bring into a class and the theories of writing that might already exist in a given course, discipline, workplace, etc.

I am going to speculate that nothing I’ve said is especially controversial to this point. Let’s see if I can rev it up a bit.

Given all these conditions, in a composition classroom I think one is faced with two basic options.

  1. You can teach students academic writing as it interests you (and as you have expertise/authority with it). If you’re in English Studies (which you almost certainly are), then that’s probably essayistic writing. Maybe its rhetorical analysis, maybe its literary or cultural analysis, but you get the point.
  2. You can teach students how to investigate and adapt to new writing contexts. You could say this is rhetorical analysis and maybe it falls in that category, but there’s plenty of rhetorical analysis that wouldn’t do this.

Not surprisingly I’m going to explore the second option here, but I want to give some more attention to option 1. As we know, part of the longstanding problem of FYC is the perception that it has no content. That void has been filled with literary texts, thematically-organized essays, cultural theory, and most recently composition scholarship itself. This desire for content has always been more or less at odds with a desire to focus on process. We seem stuck on the treadmill of a fairly generic, recursive set of activities (invent, draft, organize, revise, polish). The curious thing is that the selection of content seems to have almost no impact on that writing process. That is to say, generally speaking, that none of the content that we bring into the classroom seems to have any relevance to how we think about the practice of writing itself.

Now let me return to option #2 by way of this slight detour. In her contribution to Thinking with Latour in Rhetoric and Composition, Marylin Cooper poses the following questions:

What if writing teachers and their students thought of research as empirical and experimental— as producing new knowledge, not reporting what is known? What if they thought of the facts they discover as provisional, part of a trajectory of knowledge, and not as final truths? What if they thought of the readers of their texts as colleagues who provide necessary validation of their facts, not as editors? What if they thought of their goal in writing as the direct perception of reality, rather than as defending a point of view?

Latour’s “second empiricism,” which  he details in An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, is an expansion of a more familiar refrain in his work: an exhortation to listen to actors, to follow them, to seek to describe what they are doing, and not to leap ahead to theorization or explanation or argument. Cooper is following that out here in her essay and envisioning a writing practice that is empirical and experimental.

How does this connect with that second option? Basically, we’d be talking about a composition course where the activity was a (second) empirical investigation of writing and writing practices. This isn’t exactly what Cooper has in mind, and I will admit that it has the same potential to be “boring” as any academically-minded, disciplinary course does from anthropology to zoology.  So sure, it could be boring, or not. But the purpose, as noted above, would be to develop a rhetorical-analytical skill specifically designed to assist in adapting to new writing situations.

Is that all rhetorical analysis? I don’t think so. A lot of rhetorical analysis can be formalistic (a kind of rhetorical version of new critical close reading) or cultural-critical or very theoretical/philosophical. Those are all fine intellectual and academic activities (as are literary studies and cultural studies for that matter), but for this particular purpose, one is first and foremost looking for an empirical description of writing and writing practice, perhaps beginning (and ending) with one’s own.

I would hypothesize that when one did that, one would discover a number of actors significantly involved in any writing activity, human and nonhuman. This might interestingly shift the traditional focus of composition–which has been on individuals and then subjects–into a wider media-ecological perspective. One effect of this shift would be the development of different descriptions of process. That is, one would actually have course content that informed our understanding of how writing happens.

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