Since the spring semester ended on May 4th, I have been reading Kathleen Blake Yancey, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak’s influential work, Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing. In reading the work, I have developed a new appreciation for how what the field of compositional studies has come to refer to as “the transfer question” has affected my past and present educational careers.
The impact of first-year composition courses on student understanding of the writing process is the central concern of the text. The authors examine how the transfer question forces writing instructors to “ask how we can support students’ transfer of knowledge and practice in writing; that is, how we can help students develop writing knowledge and practices that they can draw upon, use, and repurpose for new writing tasks in new settings” (2). Successful first-year composition (FYC) courses model and teach the writing process and equip students with the tools they need to be successful. Regardless of which discipline students move on to, the skills students acquire in first-year composition should travel with them.
In a happy coincidence, the authors spend a significant amount of time examining a 2005 study lead by Susan Jarrett at my undergraduate alma mater, the University of California at Irvine. Jarrett interviewed 35 upper-division (junior or senior level) students from a variety of majors to see if the compositional skills they learned early in their academic careers transferred to their disciplines. The results of Jarrett’s study “suggests that students do develop a writing process and they do use and adapt it as they move beyond FYC” (16). Jarrett found that “while the students could point out or describe writing practices, they often struggled to find language that would facilitate their descriptions, especially in regard to “modes of development” and “academic genres” (17).
While developing and disseminating the “language” Jarrett identifies is a key objective of Writing Across Contexts (see the discussion of Teaching for Transfer (TFT) courses on pages 73-76 for more information), I want to focus on something else that happened at UCI in 2005: the launch of the peer writing tutor program. During the fall semester, I was hired with four other undergraduate students to form the first peer tutor cohort (comprised of three English and two history majors).
Much like Jarrett’s interview subjects, my fellow peer tutors and I each had writing processes but struggled to articulate our “modes of development.” Sue Cross, a writing specialist and the driving force behind the peer tutor program, equipped us with a new vocabulary. Over the course of my training, I learned about the writing process, invention techniques, audience, rhetorical situations, contextualization, and discursive communities. Armed with a new vocabulary and a better understanding of the rationale behind writing instruction more broadly, we peer tutors set up shop in campus dormitories and worked with students from all disciplines. At last year’s International Writing Center Association (IWCA) conference in Denver, I had the chance to reconnect with Sue Cross. Now the Associate Director of UCI’s Center for Excellence in Writing and Communication, Sue informed me the peer tutor pilot program was the first step to establishing a writing center at the university.
While I do not mean to suggest that the program, and subsequently the writing center, were started in response to Jarrett’s study, the timing of the program’s launch does draw attention to the fact that the answering the transfer question takes a collaborative effort.
My experiences as a peer tutor, an English instructor, and a writing center coordinator have shown me that innovations in writing pedagogy require proactive and dynamic collaboration within and across disciplinary, departmental, and institutional contexts.
Yancey, Kathleen Blake, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak. Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing. Utah State UP, 2014.