Doug Downs And Elizabeth Wardle Teaching About Writing Right

Downs, Doug and Elizabeth Wardle. “Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions:
(Re)Envisioning ‘First Year Composition’ as ‘Introduction to Writing Studies.’” College
Composition and Communication 58.4 (2007): 552-585. Web. 10 Feb. 2011.

In this article, Doug Downs and Elizabeth Wardle propose a new model for first-year writing classes. They argue that these classes should take writing studies as their content and that doing so will benefit not only students but the discipline itself. They contend that the topic of the writing class should be a study of writing; students should read and discuss and research issues involving “writing, rhetoric, language and literacy” (553). They cite research that shows that students are not transferring the lessons they learn in first-year writing classes to other writing situations (in other classes), and believe that it is because these first-year writing lessons don’t necessarily apply to other situations (556-557); they contend that a better strategy would be to teach “realistic and useful conception of writing - perhaps the most significant of which is that writing is neither basic nor universal but content- and context-contingent and irreducibly complex” (557-558), a strategy that requires students study and write about writing rather than about other topics. They trace the success of their own pilot “writing about writing” courses, providing case studies that show that the curriculum works for underprepared students as well as honors students (564-573).

“The WPA Outcomes Statement adopted by the Council of Writing Program Administrators in April 2000 (http://wpacouncil.org/positions/outcomes. html) highlights four major outcomes for writing instruction: rhetorical knowledge; critical thinking, reading, and writing; processes; and knowledge of conventions. These outcomes, which reflect an ideology of access to the academy and a desire to prepare students for academic writing, are increasingly being adopted nationwide (Ericsson). But can FYC fulfill these expectations? Studies suggest that students write for various communities within the university, each of which uses writing in specialized ways that mediate the activities of the people involved (Bazerman, "Life," Shaping; Bazerman and Paradis; Berkenkotter, et al.; Hyland; Miller; Russell, "Activity," "Rethinking"; Smit). While some general features of writing are shared across disciplines (e.g., a view of research writing as disciplinary conversation; writing strategies such as the "moves" made in most research introductions; specialized terminology and explicit citation-see Hyland or Swales, for example), these shared features are realized differently within different academic disciplines, courses, and even assignments (Howard; Hull; Russell, "Looking"; Shamoon). As a result, "academic writing" is constituted by and in the diversity of activities and genres that mediate a wide variety of activities within higher education; its use as an umbrella term is dangerously misleading. In this sense, positing "academic writing" as the object upon which first-year students and teachers can act creates what philosopher Gilbert Ryle labeled a category mistake, "committed when, in seeking to give an account of some concept, one says that it is of one logical type or category when in fact it is of another" (Lyons 44). Ryle's example is mistaking a single building on a university campus for the university itself (Lyons 44-45). In a similar fashion, asking teachers to teach "academic writing" begs the question: which academic writing-what content, what genre, for what activity, context, and audience? FYC teachers are thus forced to define academic discourse for themselves (usually unconsciously) before they can teach it. FYC teachers trained in English studies and working in English departments realize academic writing as the genres and content mediating English studies for example, literary and rhetorical analyses (MacDonald; Wardle, "Cross Disciplinary" and "Mutt Genres"). These instructors are unlikely to be involved in, familiar with, or able to teach the specialized discourses used to mediate other activities within disciplinary systems across the university. In effect, the flavor of the purportedly universal academic discourse taught in FYC is typically humanities-based and more specifically English studies-based.

In light of what we know as a field about the subject of writing, we propose a radically reimagined FYC as an Introduction to Writing Studies-a course about how to understand and think about writing in school and society (Russell, "Activity Theory"). The course includes many of the same activities as current FYC courses: researching, reading, and writing arguments. However, the course content explores reading and writing: How does writing work? How do people use writing? What are problems related to writing and reading and how can they be solved? Students read writing research, conduct reading and writing auto-ethnographies, identify writing-related problems that interest them, write reviews of the existing literature on their chosen problems, and conduct their own primary research, which they report both orally and in writing. This course would serve as a gateway to WAC and WID programs better able to address issues of specialized discourse within specific academic disciplines.

The course is forthcoming about what writing instruction can and cannot accomplish; it does not purport to "teach students to write" in general nor does it purport to do all that is necessary to prepare students to write in college. Rather, it promises to help students understand some activities related to written scholarly inquiry by demonstrating the conversational and subjective nature of scholarly texts. In this course, students are taught that writing is conventional and context-specific rather than governed by universal rules-thus they learn that within each new disciplinary course they will need to pay close attention to what counts as appropriate for that dis course community. Taking the research community of writing studies as our example not only allows writing instructors to bring their own expertise to the course, but also heightens students' awareness that writing itself is a subject.Students leave the course with increased awareness of writing studies as a discipline, as well as a new outlook on writing as a researchable activity rather than a mysterious talent.


This pedagogy overcomes the problem of contradictory research and practice: rather than purporting to teach students "academic writing" and claiming to prepare them for writing in their disciplines, the course teaches students what we as a field have learned about writing as an object of study. Thus, the course acquires an attainable goal and a clear content while continuing to help students understand how writing works in the academy so that they can succeed there. Its content does not distract from writing (the perennial difficulty of writing-course content), since the content is writing.”

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