Writing and the Question of Transfer: Content Matters

written by admin on September 9, 2014 in Studying EL and Writing with no comments

by Jessie L. Moore

The 2011-2013 Elon University Research Seminar on Critical Transitions: Writing and the Question of Transfer supported multi-institutional research by 45 scholars and resulted in an impressive (and still growing) list of conference presentations and publicationsWriting across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing by Kathleen Blake Yancey, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak (Utah State University Press, 2014), a recent addition to that writing transfer scholarship, merits the attention of both writing studies scholars and faculty across the university who teach writing-intensive courses.

Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak investigate the content of first-year composition, including a curricular approach called Teaching for Transfer (TFT). In 2013, Robertson and Taczak gave the Center for Engaged Learning a preview of their finding that the content of first-year composition does matter:

In Writing across Contexts, Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak draw from studies of transfer, reflective practice, and learning more broadly as they examine the role of curriculum in promoting (or not promoting) students’ transfer of writing knowledge and practices from first-year composition (FYC) to future writing contexts. They compared an expressivist approach, a media and culture theme, and the Teaching for Transfer design for teaching FYC by interviewing faculty, analyzing course materials and students’ writing, and interviewing students both during the semester they were enrolled in FYC and in the subsequent semester.

In brief, students in the expressivist FYC course seemingly drew from prior (high school) experiences with writing, but they did not tap their FYC course content when they wrote for future courses. Similarly, students in the media and culture themed FYC drew on models and process strategies in subsequent writing contexts, since they had not developed rhetorical analysis strategies or writing theories in FYC to guide their examination of and responses to future writing situations. Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak write:

Without discernible content, students fill in their own content; without a theory on which to build and apply knowledge, Carolina turned to models and Darren turned to process. In cases like this – when content or theory is absent or indiscernible, and especially when it is perceived to be at odds with writing in other university sites – models of writing become the teacher and the curriculum…. Too much “floating” content – content unmoored to specific writing theory or practice – resulted in a lack of cohesion, a common thread absent throughout the course design that students could discern or use as a guide or passport. (pp. 87-88)

In other words, regardless of how good a teacher might be, if the FYC curriculum doesn’t supply students with writing-relevant content and with a theory for organizing that content as it relates to understanding and responding to varied writing contexts, students are unlikely to apply their FYC experience to writing in subsequent courses and extracurricular contexts.

In the TFT design, students learn key terms central to analyzing, practicing, and theorizing writing (e.g., genre, audience, rhetorical situation, etc.) and develop their own theories of writing. Reflection also plays a key role in students’ theory-building processes. While not all students in the TFT FYC course in Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak’s study engaged in mindful transfer from FYC to their subsequent writing contexts, two of the three case study students “kept building their theory of writing, then, connecting key terms and concepts to one another and layering in new concepts as they learned them” and “they became increasingly sophisticated at articulating and practicing their theory of writing” (p. 99). The curriculum’s grounding in writing’s key terms helped students build ways of thinking about and practices for engaging with future writing contexts.

Given that first-year composition courses often are required for all students based on the assumption that students will transfer what they learn there to their subsequent writing-intensive courses across the university, faculty invested in Writing across the Curriculum and Writing in the Disciplines should take a close look at the FYC curricula at their campuses. Writing across Contexts offers a helpful framework for discussing how a FYC curriculum grounded in writing content can help students assemble and remix writing knowledge in ways that promote transfer to other writing contexts.


Jessie L. Moore (@jessielmoore) is the Associate Director of the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University and associate professor of Professional Writing & Rhetoric in the Department of English.