This blog was originally posted on September 25th, 2013.
As I write this blog post, Doug and I are in the thick of editing page proofs for the second edition of Writing about Writing, which will be out in January. We are excited about this new edition and all of the changes in it. We hope you will be excited about it, too. The second edition has been entirely re-arranged around the idea of threshold concepts—concepts central to understanding writing that we think are relevant to all writers, whether they ever take another writing class or not. And we’ve tried to order the threshold concepts so that each chapter builds on the concepts in the previous chapter.
However, as we are doing this editing work, my own teaching attention is elsewhere. For the first time in many, many years I am not teaching a composition course. Instead, this fall I am teaching an upper-level undergraduate course, Writing with Communities and Non-Profits. In the spring, I will teach another undergraduate course, Rhetoric and Civic Engagement, which is a required course for all of our writing minors.
So what is on my mind right now is the connection between theory and practice, between learning in the classroom and learning in civic and professional settings. Really what is on my mind is what is usually on my mind: how to help students see the value and relevance of what we discuss in the classroom and know how to use it in their writing lives outside the classroom. Even though this issue of “transfer” is my primary research area at the moment, I never cease to be surprised at how difficult this can be for students to do, and for me as a teacher to facilitate.
As an example, this semester we started the Non-Profit class by learning some analytical lenses for looking at texts in context: rhetorical analysis, genre analysis, and activity analysis. We spent time looking at texts used by local non-profits and examined their features across organizations and settings. For example, what is an annual report? What does it do? What are its features? What is an appeal letter? Why do these genres exist? What moves do they always make, and what moves seem optional? Students struggled with this analysis, as they usually do at first. But they seemed to be catching on.
Then we began having guests come to class. On Tuesday, a Communications Director from a local non-profit visited class and shared a number of texts she had composed. She brought three examples of appeal letters that she had written, and she had taken the time to highlight three rhetorical “moves” that she always makes in every appeal letter, no matter who the audience is or what the “ask” is for. The students were mesmerized, fascinated, and utterly surprised when I pointed out that our guest had just done a partial genre analysis for them. They didn’t make that connection. What I had asked them to do in class prior to her visit was a “school activity,” and they didn’t see how it related to what seemed to them to be a “real-life activity.”
I had spent the first few weeks of class teaching them to find and analyze texts used by different non-profits and to determine where they were more and less effective and which strategies they might borrow in their own professional work. They had dutifully done what I had asked but, quite honestly, they had not done a very good job of this. They clearly thought I was giving them “busy work.” Yet when they asked our non-profit guest how she learned to write the texts she was sharing with them, she said, “I looked at all the examples I could find of successful texts used by other non-profits, and then I modeled my own texts after those.” The students all nodded and smiled and wrote in their reflective statements for the next class that what they had learned that day was that they should analyze sample texts in order to get good at writing their own. The fact that I had shown them how to do the same thing just a week before didn’t register.
So I continue to wonder: how can we make school activities meaningful enough so that students see them as relevant and helpful when they are working outside of school? I do all I know how to do to encourage this: I explain connections, use real-world materials, ask students to analyze and reflect, etc. Yet still far too often, when students get to the “real world” project, they don’t think to connect and apply what we’ve just done in the classroom. But some students do make these connections. Why? What accounts for the different reactions by different students? I have explored this question in a recent article in Composition Forum, but I am curious to hear your thoughts on the question.