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4 Posts authored by: Elizabeth Wardle Expert

Today's guest blogger is Mark Blaauw-Haraa Professor of English and the Writing Program Coordinator at North Central Michigan College in Petoskey, Michigan, where he has taught for seventeen years. His interests include transfer theory, threshold concepts, developmental education, student retention, and adult learning pedagogy. See more of Mark's biography at the end of this post. 



Not a lot is being said about how the writing-about-writing approach might play out at a community college, so in this post I hope to provide a window into the experiences of using Writing about Writing at a two-year school.


For the past year, we’ve been scaling up the use of a writing-about-writing curriculum at my school (a rural Midwestern community college, where I teach English and coordinate the writing program). We started in F15, when a part-time faculty member with an MFA in poetry looked through the three textbook options I’d provided and settled on Wardle and Downs’s Writing about Writing. She liked the book’s focus on writing as a subject matter, not just a skill, which, she said, meshed well with how she had learned to approach writing in her MFA.


She ended up being thrilled with it. The reading was challenging, she said, but the book inspired better discussions about writing than she’d ever experienced. Encouraged, one of our full-time faculty adopted the book for S16 and had a similar experience: the book supported a deeper level of engagement with writing, more thoughtful discussions, and more interesting papers. Three more of our faculty—including me—tried it over the summer in face-to-face and online sections and were equally impressed.


As a department, we decided to make Writing about Writing the default text for our FYW sequence, which meant that new instructors (and those who didn’t submit their book adoptions on time) would have to use the text. We developed sample syllabi, including sequences of readings and assignment prompts, and advocated for the book’s widespread adoption during departmental meetings. This semester, about half of our writing instructors have been using the text.


To be fair, the book can be challenging for both teachers and students. Its organization is quite different from that of most other FYW texts, and frankly, the readings can be challenging to instructors without a background in rhetoric and composition. Much of the concern about the book that has been voiced in department meetings is tied to the idea that the book assumes a certain familiarity with scholarship in rhet/comp—a familiarity that many two-year college English faculty do not have. But out of our first five instructors who used the book, only two had degrees in rhet/comp: one had a MFA, one had a MA in lit, and one had a MA in English education. To us, that indicated that the book would work for teachers of different backgrounds.


Additional concerns about writing-about-writing pedagogy have centered on the fact that many students at the two-year college are academically unprepared. Around 60% of our incoming students end up placed in developmental coursework, a number that is common at community colleges across the country. Over the past few years, our writing program has brought an accelerated-learning program (based on the national ALP model begun by the Community College of Baltimore County) to full scale, and we retired the lowest level of developmental writing. This means that every incoming student takes our college-level writing sequence right off the bat; those who place into developmental writing have an additional co-requisite course that is designed to support their success in the college-level writing course, but all students work through exactly the same curriculum. Some instructors were still concerned that even with co-requisite support the material in Writing about Writingwould be too difficult for our developmental students.


Time will tell how these concerns play out. However, those of us teaching in ALP have been pleased so far. Certainly, my developmental-level students have needed some extra support with the readings, but our co-requisite course structure allows time for just such support. And they have grabbed hold of the concepts in the readings and responded better than most of the courses I’ve taught in the past. This reinforces the contention that while some students may be “pre-college” in their writing or reading skills, they are still adults who respond well to weighty ideas. Many books that are written for a developmental audience feature readings that tend to be simplistic; I have found that developmental writers are eager to discuss big ideas. This may seem obvious—again, we are talking about adult learners, after all—but many developmental courses are not very intellectually challenging and focus instead on skill-building. To be sure, developmental writers can improve their skills, but they need a rich intellectual environment in which to do so.



Mark Blaauw-Hara earned his Doctorate in English from Old Dominion University, with specializations in writing-program administration and pedagogy. His dissertation focused on supporting military veterans in their transition to the community college. He received his Master’s in rhetoric and composition from Arizona State University, and his Bachelor’s from Michigan State University. Mark currently serves on the Executive Board of the Council of Writing Program Administrators, he is the Reviews Co-editor for Teaching English in the Two-Year College, and he is a manuscript peer-reviewer for the Journal of Veterans Studies. Mark’s writing has appeared in the Community College Journal of Research and Practice, Teaching English in the Two-Year College,Community College Week, and Writing Center Journal, and is forthcoming in Composition Forum and the edited collection WPA Transitions.

Teaching students to understand genres and how they work has become a central goal for many writing teachers. For those of us who teach writing about writing, it is difficult to imagine explaining key concepts like rhetoric and discourse community without explaining genre. However, Doug and I (and the teachers we’ve worked with) have had a hard time finding readings about genre that are both comprehensible and accessible to students. While scholars like John Swales mention genre in passing, that has not been enough for our students. Other scholars, like Carolyn Miller, explain genre in a way that can be difficult for first-year students to grasp.


Of course, looking to other textbooks for examples about how to talk about genre has been historically pretty frustrating. Even though our field generally agrees on a view of genres as flexible responses to recurring rhetorical situations, textbooks often take the most formulaic view of genre possible. Students like rules and instructions, and first-year writing textbooks are often all too happy to provide them, even if the result is teaching students inaccurate concepts about how genres work—concepts that are not usefully transferable to new and complex writing situations.


In my own classroom, I have always spent a lot of time on genre, but have produced my own definitions and examples for students to work with. In the third edition of Writing about Writing, available this November, we decided it was time to explain genre ourselves, in the way that we explain it to our own students.


In a new first chapter, we talk about conceptions of writing and introduce students to both the idea of threshold concepts as well as some particular threshold concepts about writing that are important to all writers. We then introduce students to two threshold concepts that will help them use the book most effectively. One of these is about genres (that writing responds to repeating situations through recognizable forms) and the other is about rhetorical reading (that texts are people talking), which Doug will describe in Bedford Bits in September.


In the genre discussion, we introduce students to the idea of genres as “recurring text-types, which are ‘typified rhetorical actions in response to recurrent situations or situation-types.’” To illustrate, we draw on many examples from students’ own experience to illustrate how this works (for example, syllabi and text messages).

We provide some heuristics for thinking about how texts work, drawing on Sonja Foss and John Swales, among others. For example: what conditions call for this type of text? What content is typically contained in this type of text? What form does this type of text typically take?

We ask students to engage in some reflection about their own experience. For example, what do specific instances of genres they commonly encounter (like syllabi) have in common, and what changes across individual instances?

We end by providing some specific ways for students to think differently in all of their classes, and as they use the Writing about Writing textbook. 


 We are excited about this new addition to Writing about Writing, and look forward to hearing about your experiences using it with your students.



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.

Elizabeth Wardle

Crossing Thresholds

Posted by Elizabeth Wardle Expert Apr 3, 2015

This blog was originally posted on November 20th, 2013.


In my last post, I wrote about the difficulties of helping students see the practical, transferable value of things we teach them. In particular, I was a little frustrated that the analysis and assessment techniques I shared with students in the Writing with Communities and Non-Profits course didn’t really hit home with them until guests from non-profits started coming to class and sharing what amounted to the same techniques.


In today’s post, I’d like to follow up on that and talk a little about the same class and the issue of threshold concepts. As we’ve already mentioned in this blog, the next edition of WAW will be centered around threshold concepts. At the same time, I am co-editing a book with Linda Adler-Kassner on threshold concepts (Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts in Writing Studies, Utah State University Press, forthcoming 2014), and am currently writing a chapter for that book with my colleague Blake Scott on how threshold concepts can help shape writing majors. So, suffice it to say, the lens of threshold concepts is on my mind. To recap, threshold concepts are, according to Meyer and Land, communally-agreed upon knowledge from a field that learners must understand in order to progress in their learning in that field. Learning a threshold concept “occasion[s] a significant shift in the perception of a subject.” Threshold concepts “expose the previously hidden interrelatedness of something.”


One of two big assignments in Writing with Communities and Non-Profits was a grant project. This entailed pairing students with community non-profit partners, and then asking the students to find ten possible funding sources (using the Foundation Directory) and then to write a grant proposal to one of those sources. This project required the students to spend a lot of time with their non-profits, learning about their programs and achievements, and to write many, many drafts of what was a new genre for all of them.


The day the students turned their grant proposals into me, we talked in class about what they had learned while completing this project. Their reflective comments surprised me. They learned that


  • they can’t predict how readers will understand what they have written because each reader brings something different to the reading experience. (I’d instructed them to have multiple people read their grant proposal drafts, and they’d learned that each reader fixated upon something different, and interpreted claims and points differently, sometimes in opposite ways from other readers.)
  • no matter how many times they revise, their proposal can still be improved upon. (In other courses, they pointed out, they’d been told to do revision but had no real commitment to doing it and thus acquired no particularly urgent learning about how important revision is to meaning and effectiveness.).
  • using what they know from another setting (for many of them, this meant using techniques learned in creative writing courses) was possible but difficult, and required conscious and careful repurposing (being creative and passionate in the Needs section of a grant proposal requires a different approach than being creative and passionate in a novel, but creative writing techniques can be drawn upon.)


As I sat listening to the students explain their learning, I realized they were telling me that they had crossed some important threshold concepts about writing:


  • Readers and writers together construct meaning in texts.
  • Writing requires revision and is not perfectible.
  • Using writing knowledge in disparate contexts requires careful reflection and repurposing.
  • These were not the threshold concepts I had set out to teach them in this particular course. These weren’t even conscious outcomes of the course. I went in wanting the students to think about how writing mediates activity in the workplace, for example. While I included lots of scaffolded drafting and revision time in the course, I did not stop to think about what I was trying to teach them by including that. The threshold concepts the students named are threshold concepts I share, and they were implied in the design of my course. But I did not stop to think about them as the main threshold concepts of that particular course when I designed it.


One of the issues I’ve been struggling with how different threshold concepts are from outcomes. Outcomes can be set at the beginning of a course and then measured; threshold concepts are much slipperier. They underlie what we know and say; they underlie our desired outcomes and our course activities and assignments. But they are not easily taught in a direct manner or at a particular time. When students cross particular thresholds depends on many things, including their own histories and experiences and identities and motivations and dispositions. The students in my class have all revised before, and shared their work with others before, and drawn on prior knowledge before. But for some reason, their work with a non-profit client on this particular text at this particular time enabled them to understand threshold concepts they had not understood before. Of course, that isn’t true for all of them. I can see some of them still going through the motions, and that’s intriguing, too. They all had similar experiences, but their learning happened in different ways.


So how and why do students cross learning thresholds when they do? How can we better name the thresholds we hope they will cross, but also be open to whatever thresholds they cross while they are with us, even if they weren’t the ones we’d planned for? Learning is messy. But when it really happens, it’s incredibly rewarding. And it reminds us why we chose to be teachers in the first place.