Wednesday, July 18, 2007

FYC as Intro to Writing Studies: The Next Big Thing?

Doug Downs and Elizabeth Wardle's lead article in CCC has gotten people on the WPA-L fired up. I tend not to post much to lists because I read them in digest and always feel out of the flow of the conversations. The 3-5 times I have posted to various lists in the last 3-5 years, my post almost always kills any conversation, or at least signals that the conversation was over two days ago. Also, as I think about preparing new TAs, I am also thinking about my own learning style--definitely an observer / watcher type more than any other style. Even kids in high school noticed my style.

Back to FYC as Writing Studies. I've been using and advocating something a tiny bit like what Downs and Wardle describe, but I have been using popular press kinds of articles, mainly about "new literacy," not writing specifically, so I guess I am philosophically sympathetic, but I could go much further in practice. Their article did make me think about scholarly articles I could assign in my fyc class without making a radical shift this fall, although I haven't made any decisions along those lines yet. I'm thinking about things like an article on peer review (Nancy Welch's "Sideshadowing"? -- too theoretical?), something on revision, etc. I also just started watching Take 20; I need to wath the chapter where people recommend a piece of scholarship.

What I really wanted to reflect on, however, is one of the posts on WPA-L that suggested that this article signals "the next big thing" in fyc and writing studies. I have no objections to this approach being the next big thing, but I wonder how we, as a field, could measure, evaluate, assess, document in some way, that "the next big thing" actually leads to some kind of improvement in something. That something might be better student writing, but I actually doubt that. That something might be TA training, which seems more reasonable (TAs are more likely to learn about scholarship in reading, writing, research, etc.), or that something might be "better classroom dynamics," although one of my nagging questions as I read the piece was "how boring / exciting is this classroom / pedagogy?" Geoff Sirc has challenged all of us to engage our students, and I am just not sure how well this approach would accomplish that goal. The student comments included in the article suggested some success in this area, but I wonder what the majority of the class thought? The authors acknowledged the high percentage of students who "failed" under this approach; my hunch is those are the students who might succeed under a pedagogy that doesn't so obviously remind them that they are novice writers who are unlikely ever to acquire the habits of expert writers.

Last thought on why I don't think student writing would "improve." Connors and Lundsford documented that student rate of error in writing has not changed statistically throughout the 20th century (I think this research was updated, but I didn't see the resulting article). Types of errors changed, but not overall error rate. I did some research about 5 or 6 years ago on a program publication that lasted 20 years and survived 3 theory changes in the department. The writing assignments changed, so the students' writing changed, but I got the impression that the program wrote the students, and each "big new thing" in the department lead to changes in assignments, teaching methods, and genres taught, but there was no evidence that student writing, as a whole, got better. Theory / approach changes often seem like window dressing; I'm not saying such things are useless (window dressing can be a valuable change), but changes in labor practices, infrastructure, staffing, etc., are more likely to get observable, documented, positive change. The Chronicle of Higher Ed, citing changes at Princeton, Duke, and a few other Ivy-ish places, called this change the "million dollar solution" to first-year writing. THAT would be the next big thing if public institutions like mine put up the money to take fyc even more seriously.


Liz said...

Hi Kevin, I enjoyed your comments. I think your reservations are certainly understandable. I do want to say something about student motivation and engagement with this pedagogy, though. It's probably not at all cool to say something like "yuh huh, they are too engaged," but I am afraid I'll just go ahead and say something like that. I think the primary reason they are engaged is that the course treats them like scholars. They get interested in questions and then pursue them as scholars do; we never stop telling them they have something to contribute to the conversation and then they start to believe it. When the students present at UD's yearly presentation of undergraduate scholarship, audience members tend to be bowled over--not just by what the students did, but by how excited first-year students can be about scholarship. The students are really the best salespeople for the approach. Is every single student engaged all the time? No. But I can count on my hand the number of students who didn't find a way to get engaged by the end. It's not about treating students as novice writers, but the opposite--treating them as working researchers and writers who explore what interests them and write in the genres appropriate to what they explore. As for the grading problem--true, fewer students get As, but I can also count on my hand the number that have failed. Fewer write perfectly polished prose, but, as we say in the article, what they learn about what they write as they produce something imperfect seems more important. Anyway, that's my take. I enjoyed your blog and wish you *would* post more to WPA-L.

Elizabeth Wardle

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