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7 Posts authored by: Douglas Downs Expert

Today's guest blogger is Matthew Bryan, an associate lecturer in Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Central Florida, where he graduated with his MFA in Creative Writing in 2009. There, he serves as the faculty editor for Stylus: A Journal of First-Year Writing and as a coordinator in the first-year composition program. Most recently, he updated the instructor’s manual for the third edition of Writing about Writing.


The longer I teach, the more acute my fear becomes that I will one day enter a classroom and make absolutely no sense. Here’s how I picture it: I’ll be going on about writing processes or rhetorical situations or some such thing, and while students might still nod politely and smile—take notes even!—they’ll know that there’s nothing really behind what I’m saying, the emperor has no clothes, etc. A related fear is that I’ll start to actually believe all of the easy explanations I’ve given my students over the years, when I was some combination of too lazy or too tired to give them a real answer. I imagine the effect would be much the same.


These fears were at the front of my mind when my wife, a writing-about-writing neophyte, began teaching first-year composition this semester. In our conversations about teaching, would I be exposed? Would the carefully constructed lessons and insights I’ve stored in my toolbox over the years be shown for so many jargon-infused bromides under the scrutiny of somebody from the outside?


An early test came when she was preparing a class on discourse communities. She wanted to know why I thought it was useful to teach students about the concept.

            “Well,” I said, “it’s a helpful lens through which they can think about how groups of people use writing to get things done.”

            “Hm.” She wasn’t buying it.

            “Swales defines discourse community in such a way that it becomes a useful, common unit of analysis so researchers can compare how these groups work.”

            “Okay, but why do they need all of these new terms?” she asked. “Couldn’t we just tell students the concept exists—groups of people use writing and they share some of these characteristics? Do they really need to read this whole article to get that?”


This was a version of a back-and-forth I’ve considered myself over the seven years I’ve been teaching using Writing about Writing, and a conversation I’ve had several times with other teachers and, sometimes, students. We talked about how she might apply the concept to her work as a nurse, tracing the characteristics of the different discourse communities who impacted her work on a daily basis, and how she has, in turn, adapted her writing and communication practices in light of these communities. We talked about how students would benefit from hearing these real examples of discourse communities in action. We talked about how they can benefit, too, from reading the dense, scholarly articles about subjects like this, not simply because it’s practice in reading dense, scholarly articles (though it is that), but also because it allows them to see some of the messy work of new ideas being developed—over time, through back and forth with other writers, through constant questioning (“Discourse community wasn’t a thing,” I like to remind my students, “until some people came together and convinced each other it was”). And we talked about, finally, how the way she talks to her students about these subjects would likely be rather different from how I do, but that that’s okay and even valuable. In finding her own way, she’d be able to talk with students honestly, developing her own arguments and explanations for what they should be considering as well as—critically, I think—having room to hear their own perspectives.


I’ve always found these sorts of conversations helpful, serving as a chance for me to learn as well as re-think what I’m doing as a teacher and why I’m doing it. Writing-about-writing is not orthodoxy, as Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs have pointed out many times (see, for instance, here and here). Indeed, a key part of the value (pedagogically) and the appeal (from the perspective of teacher satisfaction) of the WAW approach stems from just how delightfully squishy so many of the subjects we can talk about are. This squishiness presents opportunities for teachers from different educational backgrounds (say an MFA in creative writing, or a an MA in English literature) to leverage the expertise they’ve developed in their specific field; even though English and writing faculty from different disciplines might have different ways of talking about and valuing writing, they all have some experience and perspective to share. And though some students may bristle at the label of “writer” (when I tell them we’re all writers at some point, how many scrunch their faces up with that mixture of disbelief and pity for me in being so naïve?), all of this talk about writing—why we do it, how we do it, what we think about when we do it—gives them places to jump in, too.


WAW has long struck me as an approach to teaching for skeptics: nothing is set in stone, and the chances for questioning and debating are many, if we allow them. While this can complicate assignment sequences and plans for assessment, I’d argue that it’s a productive sort of complication. In framing the key writing tasks as not only chances to apply course concepts, but as opportunities to test, challenge, and extend them, we can invite students into these conversations about writing and encourage their abilities as critical thinkers as well.


And so I find myself, semester after semester, trying to meet each class anew. There’s always the impulse to relax into calcification, to reuse the same old lessons and repeat the same old explanations. But there is also the never-ending self-doubt: am I doing enough to help students? Is this going to prepare them for where they want to go? Is my curriculum engaged enough with the messy, sometimes ugly world beyond the walls of the classroom, and is it preparing them for that, too? It’s in these moments that I relish the opportunity to talk to others new to the WAW approach—students and faculty alike—to hear about what they’re thinking and doing, and to try to see what I’m doing and saying in my class through their eyes.


A new edition of Writing about Writing containing new readings and ideas no doubt occasions similar opportunities for re-visioning a course, and I hope that the new material will be helpful for teachers getting up and running for the first time and perhaps encourage others to give WAW a try—in particular, a new FAQ section in the instructor’s manual and on the catalog includes answers to questions like, “What if my background isn’t in Writing Studies?” and “What are students producing?” Because, for me, my favorite part of teaching has been and will likely always be the conversations it’s opened up about writing and how it works. It seems to me that these conversations can help to keep us honest and to keep us learning, and they only get better as more and more people join them.

One reason I started using writing-about-writing emerged in coordinating research instruction in my university’s library. Our assignments demanded that students locate and engage peer-reviewed journal articles as their main sources, but it wasn’t actually happening. Students would dutifully find the minimum number of scholarly sources and, as Rebecca Moore Howard and Sandra Jamieson’s Citation Project has demonstrated, paraphrase a sentence or two from the first couple pages. Then they would move on to the real sources on whatever Issue of Social Import they were writing on, Newsweek or Esquire or Billy Bob’s Emporium of Deeply Learned Opinions on Everything website.


Not only was it tough to get students to truly engage scholarly sources, students didn’t understand the nature of those sources. What is a scholarly article? Where does it come from? Why is it? And how come it’s not written in “normal” English?


The problem wasn’t even just that we and every other college composition program in the country was requiring students to do the kind of reading they least liked—pages after repetitive page of nothing but words. It was that we were failing at explaining the whole thing, the entire knowledge-making enterprise that leads to this mysterious thing called “scholarship.” Yet if you can’t understand this, you’ll have the wrong idea about what higher education is to begin with, and you certainly won’t attain the oft-stated FYC learning outcome of coming to understand academic argument as writers taking turns in ongoing conversation for the purpose of constructing new knowledge through cooperative argument.


I have only ever found one way of helping students grapple with this incredibly stubborn set of threshold concepts around the nature, origin, and function of scholarly texts: Hand them scholarly texts and explain the whole system. While learning the nature, origins, and function of scholarly texts in their comp courses, students discover

  • How the people who write such texts tend to read (Scholarly writers, for example, tend to read “around” articles rather than straight through them.)
  • Context is as important to meaning as the text itself. Professional readers know through experience, or to take specific steps to find out, where a piece appeared and thus who its intended readers/users are, what the writer’s motivations for creating the text were, and what gap (in the research) the piece fills, its exigence.
  • A scholarly text really is a turn in an ongoing conversation (which they are aware of).


Understanding reading this way is hard for students in part because they lack the experience on which these kinds of readings strategies are intuitively based. Few scholars can actually articulate Swales’s CARS model of research article introductions, but most know it instinctively. We want writing students to know it explicitly in order to help make up for their inexperience.


Recognizing this need, in the 3rd edition of Writing About Writing we’ve developed “assist tags” for some of the most difficult or essential readings. The tags help map for students moments in the texts those CARS and other moves in scholarly conversation are happening. Students see not only genre conventions being used at key moments in the piece, such as arguments being extended from previous conversation in the field, but also behaviors professionals might use such as looking ahead or returning to read later.


The more we can show students such genre and behavioral moves, the more success we’ll have with FYC’s mission of helping students engage with scholarly conversation.


Here’s a sneak peek at one of the genre assist tags, featured in Deborah Brandt’s “Sponsors of Literacy.”


Another year and I’m once again humbled by our new TAs—how intuitive WAW work is for them, the ideas they contribute to our program for teaching WAW approaches, the possibilities they see for it. Concurrently, our second-year TAs have come back to their third semester of teaching with tweaks, new assignments, and ideas for how to better teach existing assignments. Last spring, a group of our senior adjunct faculty held an 8-week salon series on developing WAW pedagogy. Everyone’s ideas for where to take their courses were different.


On other fronts, I’ve been peer-reviewing a number of journal submissions, as well as drafts for an edited collection, that in one way or another focus on WAW. It’s both wonderful and amazing to see some of the emerging scholarship making its way to print, especially the breadth of approaches to WAW being described. Elizabeth and I have also begun developing the third edition of Writing about Writing.


Amongst all this intellectual fecundity, occasionally—both in my own program and in the literature on WAW—a troublesome question arises: “Is what you’re describing really ‘writing about writing’?”


These moments make me squirm, for two reasons. First, the question gestures toward a “core” of principles underlying the purposes and configurations of WAW approaches. Having to ask if an approach is “really” WAW suggests those deep values are somehow being confounded. Second, and more uncomfortable, the “really WAW” question foregrounds ownership: who gets to call what WAW? If an approach is inconsistent with the core that most instructors of writing-about-writing would recognize, do we really have grounds to say “this isn’t that”? Does it matter? Does having a name risk creating a diversity-crushing monolith?


What distinguishes writing-about-writing, across the hundreds of programs and instructors using some version of it, seems to be

  • Purpose: teaching declarative knowledge about writing in order to enhance metacognition, vocabulary, and writing processes and behaviors—for the purposes of shifting conceptions of writing to more accurate and effective ones, strengthening learning transfer to future writing scenes, and shifting epistemologies (particularly in relation to sources and contingency).
  • Methods: reading scholarship in writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies; creating writing projects whose themes interrogate various aspects of the same subjects; intensive, iterative reflection on students’ own literacy and writing experiences ; and, frequently, conducting primary research projects on questions related to writing, literacy, and rhetoric.


This is a quite small set of limits on what “counts” as writing-about-writing; these scripts are what making a given instructional approach recognizable as writing-about-writing. It seems to me that the only reason this name—or any other for these approaches—matters is because of the function of names as shorthand, a “handle on a briefcase,” for identifying the underlying philosophy of instruction. In the moments where it occurs to anyone to ask “You’re calling this approach writing-about-writing, but is it really?” part of the concern is simply, if someone looks at what you’re calling writing-about-writing, will they think that WAW is something other than these purposes and methods?  Is what your students are writing actually about writing? And if not—why bother to call the approach something it’s literally not?


Ultimately, though, the name simply offers a reminder to ask what the focus and purpose of a given course truly is. What is truly neat to see is the wealth of ways people are expanding on those very basic scripts to do WAW.


This blog was originally posted on August 6th, 2014.


Guest blogger Megan Lambert is a Rhetoric & Composition M.A. candidate at UCF. This is her second year teaching first-year composition courses with UCF’s Department of Writing & Rhetoric as a Graduate Teaching Associate, and she also works as a graduate assistant and tutor in UCF’s University Writing Center. She is currently working on her thesis project, which explores how tutors use writing resources to address composition concerns and facilitate learning opportunities in writing consultations.


For teachers of writing, the writing center serves as a valuable academic resource for their students, offering assistance with assignments at any stage of the writing process. This assistance usually takes the form of one-on-one tutoring sessions—often between a peer tutor and a student—where the student’s concerns are the major focus of the tutoring session. However, this does not mean that the goal of the writing center is to “fix” students’ papers. Writing center work is based on Stephen North’s now-famous axiom that the purpose of tutor sessions “is to produce better writers, not better writing.” As such, the goal of writing centers is similar to that of first-year composition programs that implement a writing-about-writing curriculum: both aim to equip students with an understanding of writing concepts and practices so that they can better address rhetorical situations they encounter in the future.


I’ve been fortunate to see the frequent realization of this goal as a tutor and graduate assistant for a university writing center that implements a writing-about-writing approach in tutoring sessions. At the UCF University Writing Center, tutors are graduate and undergraduate students who are familiar with the threshold concepts and readings that inform the writing-about-writing curriculum used in the first-year composition courses. With this, tutors are able to assist writers beyond their usual requests of attention to “grammar and flow.” One way that tutors use a writing-about-writing approach in a tutoring session is to take time to explain the concept of rhetorical situation and its components, then help writers to understand and assess the rhetorical situation of their writing assignment. This is easiest when the writers are students in the first-year composition courses who come to the writing center with assignments from the writing-about-writing curriculum. These writers can see how the rhetorical situation is directly related to their assignment because it is actually part of their assignment, and the tutors can help them better understand these writing concepts that they’re learning.


However, tutors can often encounter challenging consultations when this approach does not meet the expectations of writers who came to get their papers edited, or students who have discipline-specific questions, thinking that the tutors are experts in the writing styles and genres of all fields. As a result, tutors must learn how to navigate the issue of negotiating the focus of the session within the time constraints. Our tutoring sessions are 45 minutes long, which is enough time for tutors to explain a relevant writing concept and help the writer begin to apply their new understanding to their writing, but it’s not enough time to also check the entire paper for errors. I have experienced several tutoring sessions where the writers have gotten frustrated with my agenda, thinking that it does not align with theirs; they believe that I am wasting their time instead of giving them the writing assistance they came for. As a result, I’ve learned that it’s crucial for tutors to be transparent with the reasoning behind their writing-about-writing approach.


For example, when writers ask for help with “grammar and flow,” it is because these are components that make up their understanding of “good writing.” To address this concern using a writing-about-writing approach without frustrating the writer, tutors can begin by explaining that understanding the rhetorical situation is a beneficial way of figuring out what makes the writing good beyond word choice and transitions. In addition, when writers expect tutors to be experts in their discipline’s writing, tutors can explain how the concept of genre is useful in this situation: with the writers’ knowledge of the discipline, the tutor and writer can work together to understand the genre’s purpose and conventions, and then learn how to write effectively within that genre. If writers recognize the session is being spent in a way that will help them with their writing now, and also in the future, the tutoring session has the potential to be far more productive. In my experience, it’s the writers who recognize how we are helping them who benefit the most from the writing center.


In spite of the more challenging tutor sessions, and even in response to them, the writing-about-writing approach is useful for the writing center for the same reasons that it is useful for first-year composition: it allows writing tutors to combine their knowledge of writing concepts and practices with the writers’ disciplinary knowledge in a collaboration effort to develop problem solving strategies to address the writers’ specific concerns. Especially with recurring appointments, this approach can translate into learning opportunities for writers and eventual transfer for responding to future rhetorical situations.

Douglas Downs

Being Transformers

Posted by Douglas Downs Expert Apr 3, 2015


This blog was originally posted on April 23rd, 2014.


Guest blogger Nichole Stack has been an instructor with UCF’s Department of Writing and Rhetoric since 2010. Having worked with diverse student populations around the nation and abroad for about 16 years, she has witnessed quite a range of growth in the field of teaching and learning. She’s currently pursuing a doctoral degree and writing her dissertation on how General Education courses can and should facilitate transformative learning in students, particularly in first-year composition using a writing-about-writing curriculum. She is grateful to be a member of UCF’s DWR faculty and thrilled to take part in the important changes that continue to happen here each year.


There is much more to teaching first-year composition in a writing-about-writing program than meets the eye. Early on as a FYC instructor at UCF just learning about writing-about-writing curriculum, I heard students passing by ask, “Why do they just teach all ENC 1101 and ENC 1102 every semester? Are they less qualified professors or something?” My first reaction was to jump on the nearby bench and heatedly defend my comrades (and myself), but instead I realized that this notion of “Gen Ed course= Easy Street” is pretty commonly held. I thought about how difficult it is to dethrone, too. My next thought was, wow, writing-about-writing could be just the avenue to help achieve this; maybe we cantransform this thinking.


Four years later, this transformation has been fast underway and is gaining momentum, especially with the recent Board of Trustees’ approval of our B.A. in Writing and Rhetoric. Significant changes are happening on many levels, and one of the most exciting places to see them is in the classroom. I think of writing-about-writing teachers as major “transformers”not so much in the sense that we ourselves are changing (although I believe this is a prerequisite and inevitable result of my main point here), but in that we effect meaningful changes in our students’ frames of reference. We get them to engage in critical examination of assumptions they and others have about writing, posing difficult questions about what we believe, why we believe it, who has told us to believe it, what it means across contexts, and how it shapes our activity. This kind of questioning can mark the beginning of real transformation; transformative learning theory in education identifies this as “a disorienting dilemma,” considered a critical component to change on a cognitive, psychological, and behavioral level.


The theory defines transformation as:

the emancipatory process of becoming critically aware of how and why the structure of psycho-cultural assumptions has come to constrain the way we see ourselves and our relationships, reconstituting this structure to permit a more inclusive and discriminating integration of experience and acting upon these new understandings.


In undergoing such an “emancipatory process,” there are key phases through which one passes. We may recognize these in our own teaching and learning:

  • A disorienting dilemma
  • Self-examination and critical assessment of epistemic and sociocultural assumptions
  • Recognition that one’s discontent and the process of transformation are shared and that others have negotiated a similar change
  • Exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions
  • Planning of a course of action and acquisition of knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plans
  • Provisional trying of new roles and renegotiating relationships/ negotiating new relationships
  • Building of competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships
  • Reintegration into one’s life on the basis of conditions determined by one’s perspective.


These kinds of major shifts in habits of mind and behavior have a core place in the writing-about-writing curriculum (for instance student favorites like authority and discourse communities come to mind), and they are supported by research in ideas like transfer and threshold concepts. And like these concepts, transformation often happens in unpredictable moments for the learner. As mindful as we may be about the time-intensive and oft-elusive process of change, we want to see results, measure outcomes as having been met, and then move on to the next group of students to transform some more. However, the kind of growth we’re talking about doesn’t really work that way. So on one hand, we’d like for it to look like this:









(Possible partial interpretation: “Sally is rocking all the outcomes!”)


But really, it looks more like this:

(Possible partial interpretation: “Oh Jimmy, he gets genre analysis, but he just can’t synthesize those sources and class readings.”)


If we were all economists or farmers, perhaps we would better understand this conception of growth and be more patient, trusting that the solid seeds of threshold concepts we’re diligently sowing in our first-year writing courses will germinate when the conditions are ideal for each learner. When a seed is planted in nature, substantial growth happens underground where no observable changes can be seen. There are also significant unseen and uncontrollable forces that determine the success of the seed’s growth. The same might be applied to our students, where transformation in a learner may not be visible to us for a while (or ever) but is nonetheless occurring. And if the learner continues on into another transformer’s course, the chance is even higher, and on and on, until one day, ideally, they become a transformer, too.


The transformational process is not easy, predictable, or painless (to continue the above analogy here: a seed actually dies before it sprouts). The process requires tremendous time and investment from both teacher and learner, and it’s not feasible to go through in a predetermined amount of time. As illustrated in the phases of transformative learning theory and supported by research in our own field, it involves fundamental and uncomfortable shifts in one’s frames of reference, which is far from “Easy Street.” Thankfully, our relocation is becoming more widely recognized. We’ve only moved forward because of the painstaking efforts and radical strides educators before us have made, and with them now, we continue to carry on the transforming. That is, as long as we are taking sound measures to put the theories into practice and facilitate transformation in our classrooms. But that topic deserves a post all on its own…Until then, happy sowing and growing.

This blog was originally posted on March 3rd, 2014.


Writing-about-writing is invested in having students encounter research on writing that may upset their (and their culture’s) everyday conceptions of writing. And that makes a conference like last week’s Writing Research Across Borders meeting in Paris last week an awfully interesting place to be. You’re surrounded by mounds of data on cutting-edge questions like how ideas flow in the creation of writing, how writers in the humanities actually cite sources, and what students seem to really take away from a variety of different writing pedagogies.


You also strike up conversations with colleagues from around the world, like one I had with a professor from Australia. She observed that many Australian writing instructors are only just awakening to the possibilities rhetorical theory offers for writing instruction. Rhetoric seems to have been, for the past 50 years, a pretty distinctly American sport when it comes to writing instruction.


Yet for all we do in America with rhetoric, in many ways it’s like the 20thcentury never existed … or that much after 300 B.C. has. Because what the average American college writing instructor seems to know about rhetoric is Aristotle: logos, ethos, and pathos. Advanced knowledge of rhetoric includes the five canons (invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery) and, at a real stretch, kairos. This is the instruction that dominates American writing textbooks.


What I’m interested in these days is how Aristotle and other rhetorical theorists of the time were limited by their world, and how when we read the hallowed words of the classical Greek philosophers we do not consider the whole of their rhetorical situation.


What might Aristotle have said differently about rhetoric if he had lived in a world where humans could move faster than 25 miles per hour (on the back of a horse)? Which was also pretty much the top speed for information transmission, apart from line-of-sight mirror flashes and smoke (on a clear day).


What might Aristotle have said about rhetoric had he lived in a world where writing was not a specialized activity of working-class scribes? What about a world in which a printing press would make possible the writing of a text for more than lecture notes to one’s students?


And this of course is not to mention the possibly of speaking to an audience of more than a few thousand people at once, or more importantlyin one physical location small enough to be reached by a single unamplified human voice. How about a world where texts were revised after writing instead of being entirely mentally composed before any words were written down? (And where The Illiad could be an oral story told entirely from memory!) Aristotle could not imagine these worlds.


And nor can his rhetoric, really. What we have in classical rhetoric is principles for how to give a good speech in a handful of very formal rhetorical situations. Yet these are the principles that stand in for most of the rhetorical instruction U.S. students receive. It’s a far sight better than an absence of attention to rhetoric. But I hope as other writing instructors across the world increase their use of rhetorical theory, they look at more than our country has tended to for the past 50 years. In my next post, if more pressing matters don’t present themselves, I’ll write more about what that could be.

Douglas Downs

Talking the Talk

Posted by Douglas Downs Expert Apr 3, 2015

This blog was originally posted on December 18th, 2013.


I need to preface this post with the explanation that until this year, I’ve not taught in or with a program where many instructors are using a writing-about-writing approach at the same time. Since I started experimenting (literally) with WAW attempts in 2002, in any program I’ve taught in it’s pretty much been little ol’ me, with the occasional exception. So a lot of other people around the country have a lot more experience than I do with lots of instructors teaching lots of students in the style of WAW. This semester is the first time I’ve planned a WAW version of Comp I for multiple instructors—in this case, TAs (and most of them first-semester teachers). So what others might have been seeing for years, I’m getting my first look at.


And it’s like this: when I get to sit in on other people’s classes, I hear student interchanges, class discussions and workshops, and it blows me away. Our new instructors have students doing this thing that I often struggle to get my own students doing: talking fluently with the language of our field. Exigence. Collaboration. Readers. Revision. Invention.Intertextuality. Discourses. And when I say “fluently,” I mean that not only did I get to see a couple hundred students over the course of the semester glibly inserting this vocabulary into their classroom talk; I mean that they were using such language to support meaningful, applied discussion about pieces of writing they were working on and arguments they were conducting about the workings of discourse, rhetoric, and writing.


I’ve heard this in my own classrooms many a time—it’s one of the palpable changes in comp-course discourse that convinced me to stay on the WAW track. But I hear it maybe five or at the most ten students at a time—a half a class. Being able to listen in on ten different instructors’ students walloped me with the effect repeatedly. And, I thought, these students are doing it more than my students. How’s that happening?


I think it might be that my new instructors have not yet been disabused of their idealism and sunk to my level of cynicism about what students can be asked to do. Usually, because WAW asks so much of students who are very new to college, I imagine myself as one of the more demanding instructors I know. But these TAs: they’re insisting that students take excellent reading notes, and finding ways to grade them on it without seeming oppressive (or sucking up too much of their own time). They devote class time to getting students to make connections across readings explicitly, and insisting that students use the language of the readings as they do. These instructors insist that students not generalize about the readings or leave impressionistic but ungrounded statements hanging—claims about the text have to be backed up by language from the text.


Sure, I do all these things with my students, too, but I think I’m a little lazier about it. And I think the difference between how many of mystudents thus intelligently adopt the language of the field to talk writing, and how many of theirs do, might come down to this difference in rigor. Seeing with fresh eyes what WAW pedagogy makes possible for writing students’ learning, and how excellent teaching can lead students to that learning, has left me very grateful for the chance to teach WAW with other teachers. It makes a big difference.