The Quandary of Writing Across the Curriculum

Julie Foertsch’s 1995 article, “Where Cognitive Psychology Applies: How Theories About Memory and Transfer Can Influence Composition Pedagogy” continues with the work of Michael Carter’s 1990 piece, “The Idea of Expertise: An Exploration of Cognitive and Social Dimensions of Writing,” which I wrote about previously.

Foertsch begins by pointing out that the concept of transfer is largely overlooked in composition scholarship (with the exception of Carter’s work).  Likewise, I have noted the same thing — even twenty years later there is little discussion of transfer in the field of composition (which is why I am revisiting these now “dated” articles).  And yet, as I have said a number of times in my posts for this Provisions blog, I believe that the concept of transfer is central to understanding what underlies the common “students can’t write” complaint.  I also think that revisiting the concept of transfer in eduction is important as our teaching/learning experiences are increasingly shaped by our digital/networked culture.

Foertsch, like Carter, believes that there needs to be a synthesis between general and local knowledge in order to teach writing effectively.  Foertsch in particular attempts to bring together the seemingly disparate composition “camps” of the social theorists and cognitive theorists.  Social theorists believe all writing is deeply contextual, discipline specific, and therefore local (so that ultimately transfer is unlikely or rare). Cognitive theorists believe generalizations can be useful across writing contexts (meaning transfer is indeed possible).  To bring these two together in a pedagogically useful way (and by this she means in a way that promotes transfer of learning), Foertsch draws on cognitive psychology’s work on memory.

[What follows is entirely paraphrased from Foertsch’s article.  I do not pretend to have any deep knowledge of cognitive psychology]:  Historically cognitive psychologists made a distinction between “semantic” and “episodic” memories. As the names connote, semantic memories refer to “an entire class of entities”; whereas, episodic memory is tied to a specific episode or instance (the difference between your knowledge of how to knit and what is in yarn store versus that time you knitted with your grandmother and the cat got into the yarn bag).  It was once believed that semantic memory was more “robust and more readily accessible,” would eventually replace or override episodic memory, and hence was more useful than episodic memory.  Later this theory of memory was called into question resulting in a model of memory known as “instance based,” favoring the strength and usefulness of episodic memory:  “[M]emory traces of individual instances can be retained indefinitely.  Semantic generalizations still occur, but they are by no means automatic replacements for the set of episodic memories that they summarize” (366).  Finally there is the “connectionist models” of memory, which see memory as a pattern of activation [based on the name of this model, you can probably see this is where we are headed].  “With connectionist models, both highly specific ‘episodic’ memories and more generic ‘semantic’ memories can be stored on and retrieved from the same set of connection weights” (367).  The level of specificity of the recalled memory depends on how many past episodes were similar to the current context.  What we end up with is not a dichotomy (semantic OR episodic with one being more robust, useful, etc.) but a continuum (!!!) “where the vast majority of memories have both some degree of generalization and some degree of context dependency” (369).  Continuum.  Context.  Generalization.  We are finally back to writing and composition pedagogy (phew)!

Drawing on this model’s ability to connect both the local (context specific memory recall — episodic) and the general (abstract, semantic memory), Foertsch makes the move to say writing too needs to be connectionist and that we can make this happen through our writing curriculum.  Using the evidence from cognitive psychology, Foertsch points out, one could conclude that “teacher-provided generalizations” / “generalizations about academic writing” have little use without “real-life” context or a plethora of “contextual retrieval cues.”

Q:  So of what use “are teacher provided semantic strategies and ‘decontextualized’ cognitive approach” (370)?

A:  To answer this question, we must turn our attention to the problem of transfer.

I’ve written previously about the “problem of transfer”:  that it can occur, but is rare; that it can only occur if we create pedagogically sound/effective conditions for it to occur; that often we see education as being achieved when transfer occurs; that spontaneous transfer is rare unless the situation involves an expert; and so on.  Foertsch tells us that all of these challenges to transfer occurring suggest a causal relationship between “the number of related episodic memories one has” and the ability to “transfer that learning to new contexts” (371).  This points us back to scholarship on the difference between novices and experts.  Ultimately it seems, experts have “enough exemplars of relevant problems in memory to bet able to abstract out the general structural relations…” (371).  That is, the more previous experience/examples upon which to draw, the more expert the person is.

However, even if novices will always be less accurate than experts at identifying the relations that are relevant, they can be explicitly instructed to use the same strategy that experts use….  [S]ucessful transfer can be achieved even with relatively low levels  of past experience as long as the novices are forced to process the problems in ways that direct their attention toward structural commonalities…rather than surface-level differences.  (emphasis in bold mine 372)

Q:  So how does this help us teach writing so that transfer might occur?

A:  “[B]ecause few lower-level college courses require writing, many students have limited opportunities to gain experience with academic writing….  [T]ransfer of learning is most likely to be obtained when general principles and reasoning processes are taught in conjunction with their real-life applications in varied, specific contexts” (374).

The general solution that many schools use (including our own) to ensure the general to context specific continuum is covered in teaching students to write is through a “general” first year writing course followed by a writing intensive course within the major.  The efficacy of these separate courses for general and local knowledge/writing is unclear, as students often “forget” and/or don’t understand how to apply the writing principles they were taught in first year writing.  While the general to local continuum when it comes to writing instruction should essentially be attended to in every course, it rarely happens.  Instead, we divide up the teaching of writing with those outside the discipline of English expecting the experts teach writing in a way that adequately prepares students for all future academic writing, while those within English departments rarely have the kind of expertise (not to mention the lack of time) to teach discourse conventions specific to other fields.  Similarly, those faculty outside of English departments argue that they have neither the time nor the expertise to teaching writing in their courses, having so much content to cover.  It’s quite a quandary.  For me the answer lies in creating more collaboration across disciplines as faculty.

Foertsch’s answer lies in working with students “to analyze the underlying discourse conventions” (379).  This requires a collaboration between students and teachers to “contrast and compare different writing contexts and assignments and to make generalizations about writing and rhetorical skill” (378).  This approach would use “real-life examples from a variety of academic contexts and have student analyze these examples in such a way that encourages transfer” (378).  As a result, “students would become aware of the differences in how the generic principles that they learn will actually apply once they start writing for specific disciplines” (379).

Foertsch also recommends two levels of composition courses before students move onto their junior or senior year discipline-specific writing instruction, in which instructors take time to teach the specific discourse conventions of the field.

All of this seems a very (long…) round-about way of doing what many first year writing textbooks aim to do, which is teach the “moves” of “academic discourse” (see, for example They Say / I Say).  What I find, however, is that these “moves” are often still too general.  I believe that collaboration between first year writing programs and other departments / other colleagues across the disciplines is central to addressing the problem of transfer.  The kinds of “real-life examples” that Foertsch refers to need to be understood in the deep way that experts  have access to in order to be discussed and analyzed with students.  Working collaboratively we might be able to actually address this kind of local knowledge in a more effective way in first year writing.

In sum a writing curriculum that teaches for transfer:

  • Has more writing early on in a student’s college career.
  • Has a robust WAC program that has resources (time/compensation) for faculty across disciplines to collaborate in the teaching of writing in order to create a contextualized general knowledge approach to writing instruction.
  • Is focused on working with students to recognize the conventions of academic discourse (structural commonalities as opposed to surface-level differences).

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