As recently as 2004 Smit was able to conclude [in The End of Composition Studies], ‘As far as I know, there are no research studies that concentrate directly on the nature of transfer in writing.’

Elizabeth Wardle, “ ‘Mutt Genres’ and the Goal of FYC: Can We Help Students Write Genres of the University?”
CCC, June 2009

From first-year composition through advanced professional and technical communication, writing curricula are constructed under a foundational premise that writing can be taught. Arguments over the ability to teach writing have coursed through the veins, often under the skin, of the disciplines related to writing studies for decades. Usually, the discipline, and especially those directly involved with the teaching-learning of writing, moves forward choosing to leave foundational questions alone and assume the truth of primary premises. The premise that writing can be taught, but more specifically our understanding of what we mean by “taught” and “learned,” have remained unquestioned, undisturbed, under the skin.

Laptop Classroom

One of the chief assumptions about the teaching and learning of writing is the assumption that when we speak of teaching and learning, we are speaking about knowledge (of all sorts) that can be “transferred” across critical transitions. First-year composition is often a required course for all students with the assumption that what is learned there will transfer to other coursework and throughout students’ educational careers. Senior capstone courses often integrate writing instruction that is intended to transfer to post-graduation writing in new workplaces or graduate or professional programs.

Arguably, all of modern education is based on the broader assumption that what one learns here can transfer over there – across critical transitions. But what do we really know about transfer, in general, and writing transfer, in particular? Is “transfer,” and all of the assumptions that tag along with it, the best term to use to understand, enhance, and found education (broadly) and writing education (specifically)?

Elon University is pleased to announce the 2011-2013 Elon University Research Seminar on Critical Transitions: Writing and the Question of Transfer, a two-year research seminar that will facilitate multi-institutional research exploring these questions within the context of critical transitions. We invite interested scholars from across the disciplines to submit applications and to join a cohort of researchers collaborating on the study of writing transfer at critical transitions – to explore these under-the-skin foundational arguments about writing education.

Critical Transitions and Writing Transfer Questions

We anticipate facilitating research cohorts focused on writing transfer at one or more of the following critical transitions:

  • high school-to-college
  • two-year college to four-year college
  • writing in general education to writing in the major
  • college to new workplaces, graduate, or professional programs
  • curricular to co-curricular or extra-curricular
  • informal-to-formal

Research questions might include:

  • What writing strategies and practices do students transfer across these critical transitions?
  • What attitudes, strategies, or forms of knowledge enable effective writing in a new setting?
  • What is the importance to successful transfer of knowing the history and nature of the community or context?
  • How do students respond to writing tasks in new environments – what are the intermediate steps involved in transfer?
  • What kinds of features/support facilitate effective writing in new contexts?

To examine these questions, cohort members might engage with the following methods:

  • participant-observer or other type of ethnography
  • case studies of a group of writers over time
  • interview techniques, such as discourse-based interview (Odell et al, 1983)
  • evaluation and/or analysis of student work (including, potentially, student e-portfolios)
Laptop Classroom


Participants will be active producers of significant, concrete outcomes. Outcomes of the Elon Research Seminar could include white papers, an edited volume, conference panels, individual publications, and/or a website gallery of cohort projects – as well as local initiatives on participants’ home campuses.