Downs, Douglas and Elizabeth Wardle.  “Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)envisioning “First-Year Composition” as “Introduction to Writing Studies.”  CCC 58 (4) 552-584.


In this article we propose, theorize, demonstrate, and report early results from a course that approaches first-year composition as Introduction to Writing Studies. This pedagogy explicitly recognizes the impossibility of teaching a universal academic discourse and rejects that as a goal for first-year composition. It seeks instead to improve students’ understanding of writing, rhetoric, language, and literacy in a course that is topically oriented to reading and writing as scholarly inquiry and that encourages more realistic conceptions of writing.

  • D&W begin by acknowledging that FYC is typically conceived of as a course where students prepare to write across the university . . . in essence, it is a course that putatively teaches a “universal educated discourse” that is transferrable across scenes of writing.
  • Obviously, the universal educated discourse doesn’t exist; as such, it isn’t what FYC should be about.  Supporting this position, according to the authors, reinforces the broader perception at the university that Writing Studies doesn’t have a subject and that writing courses are not genuine research areas or legitimate writing pursuits (553).
  • The authors suggest that we should move beyond FYC as a universalizing discourse enculturation to Writing Studies as a class where content knowledge about Writing Studies should be introduced, thereby changing student understandings about writing and the ways they write (553).
  • The authors make the move to validate Writing about Writing as a way to call attention to the disciplinary legitimacy of the field . . . this is especially the case when WS majors are being established across the country.
  • Article trajectory:  1)  Question the grounds of FYC as enculturation into universal academic discourse; 2) examine important misconceptions about writing and writing skills transfer that often permeate expectations of FYC; 3) describe their introductory pedagogy of writing about writing, report on student experiences in pilot courses, and address challenges of FYC when writing about writing is the basis of the curriculum; 4) conclude by addressing some of the critiques of this pedagogy.
  • Problematic assumptions about FYC:  1) writing is independent of content; 2) writing is composed of syntactic and mechanical problems (not rhetorical/contextual); 3) writing skills are easily transferrable to other courses outside the discipline of WS (554-5).
  • WPA Outcomes statement (2000) highlights four outcomes:  1) rhetorical knowledge; 2) critical thinking, reading and writing; 3) processes; 4) knowledge of conventions (555).  But these are individualized (think Bazerman – Disciplines) and aren’t universalized.  This is a category mistake – to assume that WS is synechdocal to university writ large.
  • The assumption that “far transfer” occurs easily from WS classes to classes in disciplines like Biology is a mistake – there is almost no evidence for this.  As such, the notion of universalized academic discourse (composed of grammatical/syntactical structures) is faulty as it differs based on the discipline.
  • The two-semester sequence of FYC is a problem because it reinforces a host of misconceptions about the nature of writing on which the assumption is based (557).  IOW, we should shift the goal of FYC from “teaching academic writing” to “teaching realistic and useful conceptions of writing” (557).  This means we should teach writing as the result or progenitor of contexts that are contingent, rhetorical, and irreducibly complex (558).  This is essentially recognizing that writing is rhetorical, radically contingent, and contextual.  This is a move away from genres as static forms toward genres as stabilized forms that address particular rhetorical situations.  TONS of overlap here with the work of rhetorical genre studies.
  • D&W propose a course where the content is writing:  How does writing work?; How do people use writing?; What are problems related to writing nd reading and how can they be solved? (558).
  • Grounding principles and goals:  1) writing cannot be taught independent of content; iow, writing instructors should be expert readers; 2) course is realistic about what it can and cannot achieve – we can’t teach students to write in the general or completely prepare students to write in college; rather, we can help students understand some activities related to written scholarly inquiry by demonstrating the conversational and subjective nature of scholarly text (559); 3) refuses a double-standard concerning writing related to rules for student writers vs. rules for expert writers – this means respecting authority but also seeing themselves as valuable authorities with situational/contextual knowledge (559-60).
  • Texts in this course are used to report research about writing and theorize ways of thinking about writing to raise important questions about scholarly “moves” and genres in the academy.
  • Common denominators in texts used in course:  1) readings are concerned with issues that students have firsthand experience in – from questions of purpose, prewriting, drafting and revision, and critical reading; 3) readings tend to be data driven, research-focused. These are more valuable than highly theoretical pieces as they’re more readable, more concrete, and more accessible (560).
  • Readings include:  1) Haas and Flowers – “Rhetorical Reading Strategies”; 2) Kantz – “Helping Students Use Textual Sources Persuasively’ 3) Lakoff & Johnson on metaphor; 4) Gee on cultural discourses that explore texts as rhetorically contingent and dispel notions such as “objective information” or “disembodied text”; 5) Evans – “Learning Schooled Literacy”; 6) McCarthy – “Stranger in Strange Lands” (561).  I’d imagine Bartholomae would be important to frame and critique the universalizing notion early in the course.
  • Reflective assignments are about responding to texts, not becoming masters of textual content.  Literacy narratives are an important aspect of these classes.
  • Research assignments are heavily geared toward primary research, inviting students to generate knowledge rather than ape it.  Here’s what it looks like:  1) begin by conducting library research about primary research; 2) write formal research proposals that articulate their research questions and outline their methods; 3) work on writing with sources by integrating interpretive summaries, annotated bibliographies, literature reviews, community maps (map the stakeholders of a particular argument and a separate community map of the extant researches to allow students to identify gaps in research; 4) conduct interviews, surveys, read aloud/think protocols, close observations, discourse analysis.
  • Research questions:

  • Presentation assignments:  both a written report and an oral presentation supported with various multimodalities.
  • What did students get out of this kind of FYC course: 1) increased self-awareness about writing; 2) improved reading abilities and confidence; 3) raised awareness of research writing as conversation.  What did students struggle with: 1) course is demanding and different; 2) few appropriate resources exist for FYC students (this is changing somewhat with the recent anthologies on WAW ); 3) students produce imperfect work; 4) instructors MUST be knowledgeable about writing studies (begs questions about adjunct labor/qualification to teach this sort of class).
  • Critiques:  1) teaching about writing may not improve student writing – there is evidence that shows that this class doesn’t necessary transfer to students other courses . . . but exercises in self-reflection and mindfulness are transferrable skills that assist students in understanding their writing process across courses; 2) course represents instructor desire to teach about things they know: ummmmmm, this is what everyone else in the academy does, folks – what’s different about us?  We are a discipline, after all.
  • What’s good about this pedagogy?  1) the course doesnt teach students about writing in their disciplines but teaches students about what we as a field have come to know about writing as an object of study; 2) pedagogy teachers transferable conceptions of writing as rhetorical/contextual and specialized; 3) course educates students about the existence of WS as a field (578).

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