Being Transformers

1 0 661


This blog was originally posted on April 23rd, 2014.

Guest blogger Nichole Stack has been an instructor with UCF’s Department of Writing and Rhetoric since 2010. Having worked with diverse student populations around the nation and abroad for about 16 years, she has witnessed quite a range of growth in the field of teaching and learning. She’s currently pursuing a doctoral degree and writing her dissertation on how General Education courses can and should facilitate transformative learning in students, particularly in first-year composition using a writing-about-writing curriculum. She is grateful to be a member of UCF’s DWR faculty and thrilled to take part in the important changes that continue to happen here each year.

There is much more to teaching first-year composition in a writing-about-writing program than meets the eye. Early on as a FYC instructor at UCF just learning about writing-about-writing curriculum, I heard students passing by ask, “Why do they just teach all ENC 1101 and ENC 1102 every semester? Are they less qualified professors or something?” My first reaction was to jump on the nearby bench and heatedly defend my comrades (and myself), but instead I realized that this notion of “Gen Ed course= Easy Street” is pretty commonly held. I thought about how difficult it is to dethrone, too. My next thought was, wow, writing-about-writing could be just the avenue to help achieve this; maybe we cantransform this thinking.

Four years later, this transformation has been fast underway and is gaining momentum, especially with the recent Board of Trustees’ approval of our B.A. in Writing and Rhetoric. Significant changes are happening on many levels, and one of the most exciting places to see them is in the classroom. I think of writing-about-writing teachers as major “transformers”not so much in the sense that we ourselves are changing (although I believe this is a prerequisite and inevitable result of my main point here), but in that we effect meaningful changes in our students’ frames of reference. We get them to engage in critical examination of assumptions they and others have about writing, posing difficult questions about what we believe, why we believe it, who has told us to believe it, what it means across contexts, and how it shapes our activity. This kind of questioning can mark the beginning of real transformation; transformative learning theory in education identifies this as “a disorienting dilemma,” considered a critical component to change on a cognitive, psychological, and behavioral level.

The theory defines transformation as:

the emancipatory process of becoming critically aware of how and why the structure of psycho-cultural assumptions has come to constrain the way we see ourselves and our relationships, reconstituting this structure to permit a more inclusive and discriminating integration of experience and acting upon these new understandings.

In undergoing such an “emancipatory process,” there are key phases through which one passes. We may recognize these in our own teaching and learning:

  • A disorienting dilemma
  • Self-examination and critical assessment of epistemic and sociocultural assumptions
  • Recognition that one’s discontent and the process of transformation are shared and that others have negotiated a similar change
  • Exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions
  • Planning of a course of action and acquisition of knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plans
  • Provisional trying of new roles and renegotiating relationships/ negotiating new relationships
  • Building of competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships
  • Reintegration into one’s life on the basis of conditions determined by one’s perspective.

These kinds of major shifts in habits of mind and behavior have a core place in the writing-about-writing curriculum (for instance student favorites like authority and discourse communities come to mind), and they are supported by research in ideas like transfer and threshold concepts. And like these concepts, transformation often happens in unpredictable moments for the learner. As mindful as we may be about the time-intensive and oft-elusive process of change, we want to see results, measure outcomes as having been met, and then move on to the next group of students to transform some more. However, the kind of growth we’re talking about doesn’t really work that way. So on one hand, we’d like for it to look like this:

(Possible partial interpretation: “Sally is rocking all the outcomes!”)

But really, it looks more like this:

(Possible partial interpretation: “Oh Jimmy, he gets genre analysis, but he just can’t synthesize those sources and class readings.”)

If we were all economists or farmers, perhaps we would better understand this conception of growth and be more patient, trusting that the solid seeds of threshold concepts we’re diligently sowing in our first-year writing courses will germinate when the conditions are ideal for each learner. When a seed is planted in nature, substantial growth happens underground where no observable changes can be seen. There are also significant unseen and uncontrollable forces that determine the success of the seed’s growth. The same might be applied to our students, where transformation in a learner may not be visible to us for a while (or ever) but is nonetheless occurring. And if the learner continues on into another transformer’s course, the chance is even higher, and on and on, until one day, ideally, they become a transformer, too.

The transformational process is not easy, predictable, or painless (to continue the above analogy here: a seed actually dies before it sprouts). The process requires tremendous time and investment from both teacher and learner, and it’s not feasible to go through in a predetermined amount of time. As illustrated in the phases of transformative learning theory and supported by research in our own field, it involves fundamental and uncomfortable shifts in one’s frames of reference, which is far from “Easy Street.” Thankfully, our relocation is becoming more widely recognized. We’ve only moved forward because of the painstaking efforts and radical strides educators before us have made, and with them now, we continue to carry on the transforming. That is, as long as we are taking sound measures to put the theories into practice and facilitate transformation in our classrooms. But that topic deserves a post all on its own…Until then, happy sowing and growing.

About the Author
Doug Downs is an associate professor of rhetoric and composition in the Department of English at Montana State University. His research interests center on research-writing pedagogy and facilitating undergraduate research both in first-year composition and across the undergraduate curriculum. He continues to work extensively with Elizabeth Wardle on writing-about-writing pedagogies and is currently studying problems of researcher authority in undergraduate research in the humanities.