Narrative Introduction to the New Syllabus for College English I

Like most first-year writing programs—or we should say, like most writing programs until the last ten years or so—ours has focused on “academic writing.” This phrase is in quotation marks to suggest that there is something questionable about the term.  “Academic writing” implies that there is a generic type of writing that is academic, that academic writing is a genre in itself.  In fact, of course, academic writing is real only to the extent that it occurs within a discipline.  Thus literary analysis, philosophical proof, and ethnography are all academic genres; and they vary quite a bit from one discipline to the next.  In other words, generic academic writing doesn’t really exist, and we don’t want to teach our students that it does; we don’t want to teach them that they can readily, without reflection, apply what they’ve learned in ENGL1201 to their tasks in biology, psychology, or nursing.

Ed once had a nursing student in his Composition Theory and Practice class.  She was in the middle of learning how to do charting—the notes scribbled on charts at the foot of hospital beds—and she was very frustrated because the lessons she took from previous writing classes about narrative details and “going in depth” in no way prepared her to do charts.  It didn’t help that her nursing instructors didn’t know how to talk to her about the problem she was having, which isn’t surprising because they probably weren’t trained in Writing Across the Curriculum or Writing in the Disciplines.  If her ENGL1201 class had focused on making choices appropriate to the rhetorical situation, she might have anticipated challenges to writing in new contexts for different purposes.

We can hear some objections to this line of reasoning (notice, please the naysayer in the text), pointing out that good grammar is good grammar, good punctuation is good punctuation, and concision is concision.  While we could point to differences among various disciplines when it comes to the use of passive voice, the first personal singular, and verb tense conventions, we would generally agree with this naysayer.  We would even agree—touching on critical thinking here—that mastering the art of developing claims, warrants, and evidence is likely universal, but also point out that we wouldn’t want to teach our first-year students what counts as good evidence in their history classes or which warrants connect evidence and claims in their philosophy class.  (For example, Ed Jones got a D+ in his Introduction to Philosophy course in college and, the same semester, got an A- in his Introduction to Poetry class.)  Finally, we’d agree that it’s important in all disciplines to cite sources, but we wouldn’t want our students assuming that they were all set just because they could use MLA style.  Rather, we’d want them to be able to recognize that citation styles vary quite widely among the professions.

In fact, in general, we would like to teach our students how to be flexible writers, to be aware that they should expect to be surprised when they write in situations that are new to them, whether that be a new discipline or a new job. And we want them to be prepared with a whole arsenal or, more peacefully, a whole tool kit or even better a whole personal theory of writing that can guide them.  According to current theory in the world of composition studies, the following are important parts of curricular design:

    • Thanks in large part the Writing about Writing movement, started by Wardle and Downs’s seminal 2009 article in College Composition and Communication, we’ve learned that students need to develop a vocabulary, a set of key concepts, in order to develop an understanding of how writing works.
    • These concepts may best be thought of as threshold concepts, which according to Meyer and Land represent the “conceptual and ontological shifts students must undertake to achieve capability in writing” (Adler-Kassner and Wardle). The word “ontological” here might seem a bit odd, but any FYW instructors will recognize, as just one example, the angst students can experience when giving up the narrative “I” and discovering a new voice that emerges as they become thinkers in relation to sources.
    • Reflection, which requires key concepts to occur at all, is central to students’ really owning the new relationship they start to develop with writing and the writing processes that enable this more flexible (or adaptable) approach to writing.
    • All of the above is designed to create an experience of learning to write that is transferable, an emphasis that has inspired much of our new curriculum and that is articulated in Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak’s Writing Across Contexts Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing.

Within this larger context, a focus on the rhetorical situation is fundamental.  We want students to use writing to act in the world, which is what rhetoric is all about: a writer (or rhetor) trying to accomplish a purpose (to address an exigence) by moving an audience.  And we want to help students see that being a writer involves making choices—about genres most appropriate for a given audience and about the medium through which the audience may be best addressed.  Primarily, we want to help students see that writing is not (definitely NOT) primarily an act of following rules, even though virtually every classroom they’ve been in has reinforced that belief.  We want students to see that writing does not meaning following rules but, instead, always involves making choices.  That means that, in whatever way we can, we give students opportunities to make choices, with real purposes, to reach real audiences.

The challenge is to develop courses to teach students some of the generic skills that do transfer in an unsophisticated way and at the same time teach skills that normally do not transfer easily. Psychologists like Perkins and Salomon call the transfer of knowledge from one situation to a very similar situation “near transfer.”  Near transfer describes the knowledge that sources have to be cited for a paper in ENGL1201 and also in ENGL1202; slightly less near would be recognizing that sources have to be cited in any discipline. We will continue to teach such near-transfer skills like citation, the conventions of formality and paragraphing, and the importance of evidence.  For this reason, the major assignments in the new curriculum will look similar to those in the old curriculum.  But the overall approach is quite different, because it requires that students become articulate about rhetorical choices and be given multiple opportunities to enact those choices.

What will be common in the new common syllabus

Students must be given opportunities to make rhetorical choices—for example, between academic audiences and other audiences—and to analyze real-word genres such as a New York Times book review to learn how to accomplish the tasks of our current “Analytic Essay of a Written Text.”  Writing assignments should not primarily be about following teacher-given guidelines for writing but about developing students’ own explicit and embodied knowledge of acting in various rhetorical situations.  In addition, assignments should build on and encourage students’ own sense of curiosity about the world and language.  After all, inquiry is what drives the academic enterprise.

Students will be explicitly be introduced to the following concepts and be responsible for knowing their definitions and for applying them in various ways: Purpose (exigence), audience, rhetor (writer/stance), constraints, context, medium, genre, ethos/pathos/logos, style, design, writing process.  The overall construct of rhetorical situation contains most of these concepts.

Students will reflect on their writing process(es) and on their understanding of the key concepts in relation to their own writing throughout the semester, in metatexts, as part of the final exam in which they create their own personalized theory of writing, and possibly in other informal writing assignments.

Downs, Douglas, and Liane Robertson, “Threshold Concepts in First-Year Composition.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle, UP Colorado, 2015.

Perkins, David N. and Gavriel Salomon. “Transfer of Learning.” International Encyclopedia of Education, 2nd ed. Pergamon Press, 1992.

Yancey, Kathleen Blake, et al. Writing across Contexts : Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing. Logan : Utah State University Press, 2014., 2014.