Once More, With Feeling: There Isn’t THE “Writing-about-Writing”

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Another year and I’m once again humbled by our new TAs—how intuitive WAW work is for them, the ideas they contribute to our program for teaching WAW approaches, the possibilities they see for it. Concurrently, our second-year TAs have come back to their third semester of teaching with tweaks, new assignments, and ideas for how to better teach existing assignments. Last spring, a group of our senior adjunct faculty held an 8-week salon series on developing WAW pedagogy. Everyone’s ideas for where to take their courses were different.

On other fronts, I’ve been peer-reviewing a number of journal submissions, as well as drafts for an edited collection, that in one way or another focus on WAW. It’s both wonderful and amazing to see some of the emerging scholarship making its way to print, especially the breadth of approaches to WAW being described. Elizabeth and I have also begun developing the third edition of Writing about Writing.

Amongst all this intellectual fecundity, occasionally—both in my own program and in the literature on WAW—a troublesome question arises: “Is what you’re describing really ‘writing about writing’?”

These moments make me squirm, for two reasons. First, the question gestures toward a “core” of principles underlying the purposes and configurations of WAW approaches. Having to ask if an approach is “really” WAW suggests those deep values are somehow being confounded. Second, and more uncomfortable, the “really WAW” question foregrounds ownership: who gets to call what WAW? If an approach is inconsistent with the core that most instructors of writing-about-writing would recognize, do we really have grounds to say “this isn’t that”? Does it matter? Does having a name risk creating a diversity-crushing monolith?

What distinguishes writing-about-writing, across the hundreds of programs and instructors using some version of it, seems to be

  • Purpose: teaching declarative knowledge about writing in order to enhance metacognition, vocabulary, and writing processes and behaviors—for the purposes of shifting conceptions of writing to more accurate and effective ones, strengthening learning transfer to future writing scenes, and shifting epistemologies (particularly in relation to sources and contingency).
  • Methods: reading scholarship in writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies; creating writing projects whose themes interrogate various aspects of the same subjects; intensive, iterative reflection on students’ own literacy and writing experiences ; and, frequently, conducting primary research projects on questions related to writing, literacy, and rhetoric.

This is a quite small set of limits on what “counts” as writing-about-writing; these scripts are what making a given instructional approach recognizable as writing-about-writing. It seems to me that the only reason this name—or any other for these approaches—matters is because of the function of names as shorthand, a “handle on a briefcase,” for identifying the underlying philosophy of instruction. In the moments where it occurs to anyone to ask “You’re calling this approach writing-about-writing, but is it really?” part of the concern is simply, if someone looks at what you’re calling writing-about-writing, will they think that WAW is something other than these purposes and methods?  Is what your students are writing actually about writing? And if not—why bother to call the approach something it’s literally not?

Ultimately, though, the name simply offers a reminder to ask what the focus and purpose of a given course truly is. What is truly neat to see is the wealth of ways people are expanding on those very basic scripts to do WAW.

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.