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It’s all Meta to Me: My 2019-2020 Research Questions

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Metalanguage, metacognition, metadiscourse, metapragmatics, metagrammar – I am seeing references to all things meta in professional journals and conference presentation titles. In his overview of scholarship on metadiscourse, for example, applied linguist Ken Hyland notes that metalanguage “concerns people’s knowledge about language and representations of language” (17); metalanguage engages language’s ability to reflect on itself, to be employed for the purpose of language analysis.

 

And we, as writing teachers, are aware of the value of reflection, particularly in teaching for transfer. 

 

But over the past couple of semesters, I’ve watched students in corequisite sections of freshman composition wrestle with the task of articulating reflections, particularly reflections on their rhetorical and grammatical choices. I am wondering what makes this reflective task so challenging. Is it a lack of experience in this sort of thinking and writing? A sense that reflection is one more thing that they need to get right for me, the instructor (and thus another opportunity to fail)? Have I not illustrated to them the value of the process? Is there a lack of vocabulary—words to capture the concepts that shape their revising and editing processes? Or perhaps those concepts are still quite fluid and thus resist articulation?

 

These questions are shaping my reading, thinking, and pedagogical experimentation this semester, not only in my corequisite section of FYC, but also in my sections of the grammar courses that English majors at my institution are required to take. As one of my graduate instructors used to say, I’m taking time this term to muck around in the data and explore the context; I’m focusing on creating opportunities for metatalk in my classes, and listening—or reading—as attentively as I can to what my students have to say. 

 

I’m also fortunate to collaborate with some advanced students who are making space for metatalk about writing and language for my students outside of the classroom. My corequisite students, for example, are working weekly with two of our “Writing Fellows,” who are workshopping papers with them in a small group setting. In my sections of grammar classes, I have student supplemental instructors who offer sessions during the week for class members to talk through and apply concepts we are covering in class. In these relaxed sessions, they are asking composition students and sophomore grammar students important questions: what’s going on in this paragraph? In this sentence? Why do you feel uncomfortable with it? What could we differently here, and how would it change our response?

 

In all sections, both composition and grammar, I’m asking for more drafts with annotations, questions, and—of course—reflections.

 

As I meet with the writing fellows, supplemental instructors, and students in my class, I want to hear what obstacles they encounter engaging in metalinguistic discussions, and then consider how my pedagogy might address those obstacles in future semesters—or how students can investigate metalinguistic awareness with me. As this semester progresses, I will be blogging both about my observations and about some of the strategies we are experimenting with in class. 

 

What are you investigating in your teaching this fall? What has energized you about your return to the classroom for this academic year? I would love to hear from you.

 

1 Comment
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You pose an interesting question here, and I find myself performing an act of meta-cognitive analysis/reflection in attempting to answer it.  My overall impression is that the whole matter can be compared to learning to ride a bicycle.  An incredibly complicated set of motor skills is involved in bicycle riding, but if you were to reflect on what you were doing while learning to ride, you'd probably fall right over.  Once the basic skill is mastered, however, you can quite consciously reflect on every movement in your riding (which is what bicycle racers do) and be able to explain what you're doing and why.

I think that the same is true for writing.  While I today reflect on every word and punctuation mark in everything I write, especially seeking to anticipate every possible reader response to what I'm writing, I don't think that I could have done that very well when I was learning to write.  This may be what you are experiencing with your first-year composition students.  They're learning to ride the bicycle at this point and may not be quite ready to reflect on exactly what they're doing.  But you might try asking your students to reflect on what they're doing when they write text messages.  They learned how to ride that kind of bicycle years ago and might find it illuminating to reflect on exactly why they write every letter (and everything else) in exactly they way they do when texting.

About the Author
Miriam Moore is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Georgia. She teaches undergraduate linguistics and grammar courses, developmental English courses (integrated reading and writing), ESL composition and pedagogy, and the first-year composition sequence. She is the co-author with Susan Anker of Real Essays, Real Writing, Real Reading and Writing, and Writing Essentials Online. She has over 20 years experience in community college teaching as well. Her interests include applied linguistics, writing about writing approaches to composition, professionalism for two-year college English faculty, and threshold concepts for composition, reading, and grammar.