Kristiane Stapleton is the 2012-2013 TA Coordinator of Writing Center Outreach. She is also writing her dissertation in Literary Studies, working on early modern women writers and the visual rhetorics for authorship they construct.
In this blog post, I’m going to explore the ways that my Writing Center and Writing Across the Curriculum training has enhanced the way I think and talk about my own teaching.In a move my students will recognize, I’m going to try to push that conclusion further and ask how and why my Writing Center training has and will continue to improve my classroom teaching.
In doing so, I’m going to use an unusual and exciting course that I’m a TA for here at UW-Madison this semester—an introductory English course on Detective Fiction developed by Professor Caroline Levine that pursues broad questions about knowledge production—to make a bold claim about the ways that Writing Center and Writing Across the Curriculum practices can interact with and influence course design, and the ways in which they can help to teach transfer, a pedagogical goal as desirable as it is elusive, by encouraging conscious reflection and the explicit articulation of connections between disciplines.
By the term transfer, I mean teaching my students how to transfer their writing skills from one genre and one discipline to the next.Transfer is an important factor in student success, retention, and engagement; however, the research on transfer is dismal.We know how absolutely central it is (entire curricula have been designed around increasing transfer!), but we haven’t been able to teach it as successfully as we’d like.
The goal of transfer is to teach students how to connect the writing they do in one course and one genre to the writing they’ll do in their next course and an entirely different genre, creating students who are not only competent in the individual genres they are practiced in, but who are competent at recognizing and meeting generic requirements.However, research has found that students resist the idea that what they learn about writing in an English course can be just as applicable in an Engineering course.As Linda Bergmann and Janet Zepernick put it in their article, “Disciplinarity and Transfer:Students’ Perceptions of Learning to Write,” students cannot see how the “flowery adjectives” and “fluff” that a literary analysis requires translate to writing that values the “concise” and the factual (125).
Transfer is difficult on multiple levels. For more on the current state of research on writing-related transfer, see Jessie Moore’s recent update and Rebecca L. Nowacek, a distinguished alum of our Writing Center staff’s, 2011 book Agents of Integration: Understanding Transfer as a Rhetorical Act.
Because transfer, like other kinds of deep learning, can be so difficult to assess, it is just as difficult to ensure that your pedagogy results in transfer.In his research on “The Effect of Pedagogy and Knowledge Transfer,” Philip J. Parker, an engineering professor at UW-Platteville, lays out the problem:“Studying the relationship between pedagogy and learning is a daunting task, because our ability to measure the dependent variable (student learning) is so limited, and because a large number of extraneous variables are present” (1).
Even so, transfer is at the backbone of much of the work that we do at the Writing Center. We teach transfer when we teach students to consider the importance of rhetorical situations and to look at the way that audience, purpose, and genre interacts in every piece of writing they do. Some scholars, like King Beach, emphasize the importance of “conscious reflection” in these moments.By taking assumed connections between disciplines and making them so explicit that they become both the context and the content of the course, Professor Levine has fully incorporated “conscious reflection” into “Detective Fiction”—a move that I hope will have significant pay-offs for our students (42).
Currently a TA for “Detective Fiction,” an introductory literature course being taught by Professor Caroline Levine, I have 35 students from every major but English (although I suspect there are a few potential majors and double majors lurking).My students range from freshmen to seniors.Some of them are just beginning their college careers, while others are already independent scholars pursuing Honors research and writing capstone papers in their majors.
I’d like to consider how we articulate, support, and encourage transfer from the beginning:from departmental and course planning to individual meetings with students.Throughout all of these I encourage you to think about the ways that Writing Center and WAC training can enhance this process.
Interviewing Professor Levine
Professor Caroline Levineis an accomplished scholar of Victorian literature and the next chair of the English department at UW-Madison.
Her course, English 177, “Detective Fiction,” is deliberately structured to teach students about the genre of detective fiction through a range of examples from the origin of the genre in the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, the suspense of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, golden age detective fiction by Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, hard-boiled detective fiction by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and examples of the modern police procedural ranging from Cotton Comes to Harlem by Chester Himes to the television series The Wire.
In the second half of the course, other examples are interspersed with essays about detective fiction from sociologists, historians, anthropologists, scientists, and critiques and defenses of detective fiction, providing the students with an interdisciplinary scholarly and cultural context within which to think about the search for knowledge that detective fiction models.My notes from the first day of lecture position the central paradox of the course:detective fiction is fiction about coming to the truth.Why is fiction the best place to explore and model how we reason our way to truth?And what does detective fiction have to tell us about the university, and its composite disciplines’, role in the search for knowledge?
I (identified in the interview as KS) began my interview with Professor Levine (identified as CL) by explaining the motivation behind this blogpost and my interest in transfer as a major pedagogical goal. By drawing connections to students’ learning in other disciplines from the course’s construction, Profesor Levine was also articulating the principle of transfer from the very beginning of this course, a connection that has become more and more explicit as our students begin writing their final papers.
The final paper assignment is distinctly interdisciplinary.It asks them to draw parallels between their own search for knowledge in a college course or assignment and the search for knowledge we see modeled in detective fiction in one of two ways:through an analytical paper incorporating models of detection we’ve encountered throughout the semester and linking them to your own quest for knowledge, or through a fictional narrative staging an encounter with three detectives, authors, or critics we’ve encountered this semester along the way.Many of my students are making comic strips for the
second option, adding a creative and visual element to the assignment.Students who are not as interested in reflecting on their own knowledge production and the connections between detective fiction and their other coursework have the option of writing purely analytical papers arguing the opposite:that detective fiction is not a good model for knowledge production.
Our conversation was wide-ranging and inspiring—Professor Levine was as generous with her thoughts as she was with her time.I’ve broken the interview up into representative sections, and at the end of this post I’ll pose further questions concerning how we can mirror some of this work in our teaching and in one on one meetings with students.If you’re short for time, focus on the last two subheadings:I think they’re the most useful for developing broader applications.
Inspiration for the course
KS: I want to think about how course design and all these things coming together can in some ways create transfer—and maybe the only way to create transfer is to sort of reinforce it on every level.
CL: Right, and while I’m teaching those lectures that are about transfer I feel so happy.Even when I’m not sure if the students are getting it, I feel like I’m doing my job in a way that I don’t usually do it, so I get that there is something different about this teaching than the usual.The genesis of something like this is of course just happenstance.My dad was a historian, and I lived in a house full of nonfiction books, almost all religion, philosophy, history books—and one work of fiction, which was The Murder at the Vicarage. I read it like three times as a kid, because I was obsessed with fiction.I always read fiction, it was the only thing that I cared about, and there was no fiction in my house, so I had to read this detective novel.And I didn’t think about it or ask about it until I was an adult and had finished grad school and had written this dissertation about suspense.
I came home, and I said, “Dad, why do you have Murder at the Vicarage?” and he said, “Oh well, the most important theorist of history [R. G. Collingwood] in my training, uses it as a model for history, so I use it as a model in my historiography seminar.” That was really a light bulb moment for me. I think part of the question is, “where are people not noticing that they’re already incorporating an example from another discipline?”For my dad it wasn’t anything, it wasn’t noticeable; it was just what he did because this is what Collingwood did.It took me being in another discipline to realize that he was using literature to make this point about history, and that seemed interesting and surprising, and it was connected to what I was doing anyway.
I had taken 3-4 history courses as an undergraduate, and in at least two of them we read a novel.Historians routinely teach fiction…and it would be interesting to think about [in other disciplines], even in a science textbook. Where is a metaphor?Or where is an anecdote?Or where are these things that we think of as more literary,because I wonder if those are the places where the transfer happens—instead of starting in literature and thinking outward, to start in the other disciplines, and say, “Oh right, you also think about something that we think of as the province of literature.”
KS:I wondered if you could think about how you’re designing some of these writing assignments.Like the smaller once a week writing and then the two larger assignments—for you, what are some of the skills you want them to get or how you want them to think about the course?
CL:Well, it was a very self-conscious decision on my part and it might be part of the answer to this question [of transfer].These are not literature majors, by and large, and I don’t need them to be literature majors
KS:I have one out of 35 who is considering it.
CL:Right!Even considering it.And we know that a lot of them are business majors and science majors and they’re doing this as a requirement. The traditional way of teaching literature seems to me not to work anymore.It used to be either that you said there were these universal values that you enter into when you read a great text, or there was a sense of social mobility that came from knowing literary texts; if you had read the great texts, you wouldhave a chance of entering into the upper middle class.Neither of those is really true anymore, and so what can I say that literature offers to students who don’t read for pleasure, who don’t want to major in literature?We don’t want it to just be there for the people who might love it.I feel like that’s the usual justification we give for those Gen Ed courses. There might be 20 people in the class who didn’t know they love literature, and then they take the big literature course, and now they know, but that seems incredibly inefficient to me.
KS:We will reach those 20!
CL:Kind of problematic, even though it is valuable to reach those 20; I would never say it isn’t.And I do think, sometimes, people’s sheer enthusiasm for literature is infectious…I love it myself, but I’m not sure that other people have to love it, so I don’t think about it as a value for everybody.So what is it that they could get from it?It’s not the literary.It’s what the literary does that connects to all these other things.
KS:It’s the functionality
CL:Right! …the assignments are not literary…There’s no close reading, there’s no work in metaphor and symbol, there’s no work in even thinking about narrative form or plot particularly. It’s all centered on knowledge, and knowledge is the one thing I assume we all have in common in the university—so it is an attempt to get at something common, but as you say, not the same in every text, and that’s what makes literature really exciting because you could learn disciplinary methods… It’s the fact that it doesn’t itself have to belong to a particular discipline that makes it clear that the genre was going to play with a lot of these different kinds of knowledge, so it’s interesting to think about something that would reach everybody but would not be the same over and over again.
The questions are focused on the things I think everybody has in common:how do you look for knowledge?What is the connection between looking for knowledge and being part of a larger social organization?And for me, partly, one of the more urgent questions around the university, which we haven’t talked about so explicitly in lecture, but I feel very strongly, is the relationship between education and citizenship—what does the detective serve? What ends do we care about? So that’s the second question.The first one is [about] kinds of knowledge—how do you gather knowledge, and the second is how are you connected to your society and what kind of a person are you if you gather knowledge?That seems like something we also all have in common. They’re all attempts to get at difference via some common question.
Thinking and writing:lecture and section
KS:Let’s say that I have a student who’s a freshman.She’s a politicial science major, and she’s approaching writing a 5-7 page poli sci paper.Are there principles of the writing and the work that we’ve done here that you want her to be able to think about as she starts writing this paper?
CL:That’s a great question.I feel like you have a much clearer sense of the writing part of it… what I would want for that student most is a self-consciousness about the process of gathering knowledge as she does it, so that she’s in
her political science course and they’re talking about comparative constitutions [and she’s thinking]:what kind of knowledge is that?If we compare these two things what am I getting from that?Is it like a genre or is it gathering knowledge?Are these clues?Pieces of evidence? Maybe the real practice is less the conclusion, which I think is what we always imagine, including the critics of detective fiction. We imagine it all happens at the end, [but it’s really more about] when you have a hunch, or you think something is the way it is, can you break it down backwards so other people can see where you’ve been.And that seems like a rhetorical skill, so maybe it is writing ultimately in the sense that it’s breaking down a process.
KS:Well, as you were talking, I thought—what you’re doing with their thought before they start writing [in lecture], we’re trying to do with their writing once they start [in section], and then these two fit together.In many ways teaching transfer [ETA: much like teaching writing in the Writing Center!]
is like teaching them how to value the middle—to value the thought process, the steps that get you to the conclusion, or that as you learn about kinds of writing, the steps that get you to producing a finished paper, breaking it down into steps and process, which this final assignment is doing in such a smart way—getting them to think about why you make these decisions.Process!I mean, I’ve written it on every paper I’ve graded recently, right, but I think they’re starting to think about their own process as they write this paper.I hope so!
One of the things we did in section was we modeled one example of how they would do it if they were doing a fictional narrative and turning their quest for knowledge into an actual quest: how they might use evidence, where they might incorporate it, and the idea that they might, say, ventriloquize a character, that what they’re doing is in many ways knowing the general information about that character so that they’re able to recreate or create moments that seem realistic within their own narrative.And the other assignment is saying find a specific moment that already exists in the texts about detection, evidence, or knowledge production and relate it to what you’re doing, so it’s the same level of command of the character and the model, but you’re utilizing the evidence differently.That seemed really helpful to think about how it’s the same and different—it looks the same, you know these three characters/moments you’d be incorporating in the assignment, it’s writing the same process, but the way you put the pieces together has this fundamental generic difference.
CL:It’s so helpful to talk to you about it, because you realize how complicated transfer really is when you start to think about it.The complexity of the cognitive maneuver of transferring—it has so many pieces in it.So when we do take it for granted, if we like to do it anyway, if we read sociological theory and then we take it to our literary text because that’s fun for us.
KS:I mean, it is, but it’s also that we so often only teach one genre of writing.So when we got the first paper assignment I thought, “Oh man—I’m used to teaching early literature; this is going to be a shift.” I’m so used to teaching them close reading in a literature classroom and how to pull out these moments… and suddenly the language wasn’t the hinge—it was the thought that went into it, or the process of thought, and that was a big shift for me.What made me embrace it was thinking about it as a more transferrable skill.So the papers that we’re going to get at the end of this course…are not going to be the same kind of genre that in many ways we value and we teach, but they’re going to show—I think, I hope—a command of a kind of thought process that is ultimately maybe more valuable when the course is over.
Consistency and transfer:creating departmental and interdepartmental networks
CL:Did you see that list of eight criteria for developing writing that the whole department signed off on? Something that students would say to me pretty frequently was that every professor wants something different in a paper, and I believe that to be absolutely false—we all want the same things; we just weight them differently.But we all know what a good paper and a crappy paper is… so David Zimmerman and I collected all these assignments from people in the department and realized that we use different words for what are the same skills, so we defined what they meant… and then we said why they were important beyond college.
It’s the same process—it’s to say what’s common across all of these assignments that look totally different from each other—they all want you to use evidence in a way that’s persuasive, they all want you to have a clearer, more argumentative organization, they all want you to have a fluency with style, but some professors are giving 90% to one and some are giving 50% to that same characteristic.The idea was that students would then be able to figure out their own what they needed to work on from this list, rather than thinking the professor wants me to do this, and that’s the only thing I have to do…[We wanted them] instead to think, well, what do I need to work on, what kinds of assignments help me..
It’s the same pedagogy—it’s all the same—you find out what’s actually transferring, or needs to transfer
KS:What should transfer—
CL: There are differences, but there are these core things that all these courses will ask you to do, and now it’s up to you to figure out how to do it rather than to trust these authorities… It’s up to you to figure out— you’re the actual recipient of this, not the expert, and you need to synthesize and translate for yourself in order to gain knowledge.
KS:In some ways I think that’s so smart for consistency, right, showing them that all these things matter, but also how the language they might have picked up from other disciplines they learned how to write in [can be useful], things like that.It’s a little different working with English majors—part of what makes this course so interesting is the lack of English majors while teaching an English course, and that’s a really interesting teaching dilemma, because how do you get across what we value to an audience that doesn’t have the training or has very different levels and kinds of training while still making it palatable to them?
CL:Right, and useful.
KS:And I wonder, do you feel like English courses, for example, are tending more to usefulness and practicality rather than some sort of ivory tower model?
CL: I think what you said earlier is right, that we’re taking a lot for granted that may in fact be happening [I put forward the idea that we often assume our students are already making these connections to their daily lives or to their other disciplines, when we need to make them explicit], which is to say that you spend a semester close reading difficult passages of early modern literature and you are just a better thinker when you leave.And you may not know that! You may not know that your language awareness has leapt and the professor may not tell you that.We take for granted that it’s happening, and to some extent it’s true, but how much should we foreground that, how much should we talk about what transfers, how much do English majors want of that?And then there’s the danger which one of my senior colleagues said to me, and I get it, which is what if you do make literature into a service department, and it loses its value, which is special, which is not simply to help people to write better?
…I do think that what you learn in a literature class is awesome for learning how to think and write.If we just make it more explicit maybe that would be enough, but then there’s a kind of even broader project.Can we really just push the transferrable stuff and where should we do it—should we do it in the GenEd context, should we do it in the upper division classes with English majors?Should we mix it around and do a little bit of this, a little bit of that? What do we do with those pieces? …
KS:I’d also love to see conversation with other departments about what they do and how.In many ways what I like about the outreach work is that I feel like, because I’ve been in some one else’s classroom, I’ve learned the language that they use to talk about writing.Then when I’m meeting with a student, say, I’m able to talk about organizing your paragraphs in terms of organizing sections of a lab report.
CL:And you actually know what that looks like because you’ve gone and taught; you’ve worked with one…
KS: So in some ways I think our incredible disciplinarity, being locked within a discipline, can prevent some of the knowledge from transferring—because, like you say, we’re not using the same words.We’re teaching the same things but we’re presenting them differently.And I think this course thinks about how a historian presents something or how a sociologist presents something and, in doing that, can show those connections in a way that can be difficult to do in other courses…
CL:I like to think across disciplines, and not everybody does, so it doesn’t work for everybody…It would be great to collaborate, and to think as departments about how we have certain things in common, how we develop certain things differently and what we give as motivation.
KS:We do some of that work in the Writing Center.So when we have a staff meeting, for example, we’ll have some one from Philosophy come, bring sample papers, and talk to us about what they value in philosophical writing.We looked at analogies and examples and how those can show a kind of synthesis and application of philosophical thought.Whereas if my student uses an analogy for a full paragraph in a literature paper I’m almost always thinking this is filler!
That’s something we do in our writing center training that we don’t do in our English training because part of the supposition is that you’re teaching English majors, but we so often aren’t in the introductory/GenEd courses.
CL:And we get attacked [as a discipline] for not just teaching English majors but for only teaching towards people who are going to go to graduate school in English.That’s our focus.
KS:That’s our model!So how do we in some ways upset that model at the training level and at the departmental level?
CL:That’s really profound!(laughs)
KS:We’re developing a manifesto here!
CL:We’re in trouble, so we need to develop a manifesto.
KS:The idea of the Humanities in crisis I think is motivating a lot of this work.
CL: And it should, for some of us—but others of us would be doing it anyway [and have devoted their lives to this kind of work]… We’re in crisis, so we can persuade people for the first time that we all need to do this. It would be great to think about the expertise and the kinds of work that happens in the Writing Center filtering up as knowledge and practices we can draw on in order to reach more students in a way that feels effective to everybody.
KS:Because a lot of us have that same training in common, and we work with people in different disciplines…
CL:And everybody who works at the writing center is seeing lots of assignments from lots of different courses.
KS: I think that really makes you think about how you write an assignment in a different way—[you don’t believe] there’s only one acceptable model.So for example, the assignment that asks 8 questions, which is often my personal model, because I love rhetorical questions, is not as effective, particularly not in other disciplines.And so how does an increasing awareness of the types of assignments that are common in other disciplines make you think about the way you write assignments in your own teaching?
We’re about out of time, but I really like the place that we’re ending, which is this idea of both where we begin thinking about our pedagogy and how it interacts with WAC, but also on a departmental level, the kinds of language and the kinds of training we offer across departments. How do we do more of this as a department?And more of it on the course, the section, and the student level?I feel like there are all these rungs and we’re starting to see the same theory being applied to them, but that we need to think about this holistically.
…At the end of the interview, Professor Levine and I promised to meet up again at the end of the semester and to continue to think about these things strategically —so if you have any suggestions for thinking about these questions further, please offer them in the comment section!
Our own practices
I believe that articulating your pedagogical goals can make a huge difference in student learning.If that goal is transfer, and if the course is built around articulating why transfer matters and how important it is that students apply the rules about writing and learning they’re gathering in one course to their future coursework and to their lives more generally, I think it is possible for students to come away from the class with a far deeper concept of what transfer means and how the various kinds of learning they do throughout their university education can and will interact.
How do we carry some of these things through in section, in Writing Center workshops, or in our one on one meetings with students?What do we need to articulate, both in the classroom and in the Writing Center, in order to make students aware of transfer (whether we encourage them to perceive the ways that they are already transferring skills from other courses and other writing or we provide them with language to translate the skills they are learning in our own courses to their future work)?
Perhaps most importantly:what do we gain by thinking of transfer with and between our Writing Center teaching and our disciplinary teaching?
Beach, King.“Consequential Transitions:A Developmental View of Knowledge Propagation Through Social Organizations,” in Between School and Work: New Perspectives on Transfer and Boundary-crossing, (eds) Terttu Tuomi-Gröhn and Yrjö Engeström. Bingley, UK: Emerald Group, 2003. 39-61.
Bergmann, Linda S. and Janet Zepernick.“Disciplinarity and Transfer:Students’ Perceptions of Learning to Write.” WPA: Writing Program Administration 31, 1-2, Fall/Winter 2007.124-149.
Moore, Jessie.“Mapping the Questions:The State of Writing-Related Transfer Research.Composition Forum 26, Fall 2012. http://compositionforum.com/issue/26/map-questions-transfer-research.php Web.
Nowacek, Rebecca L. Agents of Integration: Understanding Transfer as a Rhetorical Act. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2011
Parker, Philip J.“The Effects of Pedagogy on Knowledge Transfer.” Proceedings of the 2008 ASEE North Midwest Sectional Conference.2008.1-7.