Still Writing about Writing (and Talking and Arguing and Asking Questions about Writing, Too)

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154213_pastedImage_1.jpgToday's guest blogger is Matthew Bryan, an associate lecturer in Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Central Florida, where he graduated with his MFA in Creative Writing in 2009. There, he serves as the faculty editor for Stylus: A Journal of First-Year Writing and as a coordinator in the first-year composition program. Most recently, he updated the instructor’s manual for the third edition of Writing about Writing.


The longer I teach, the more acute my fear becomes that I will one day enter a classroom and make absolutely no sense. Here’s how I picture it: I’ll be going on about writing processes or rhetorical situations or some such thing, and while students might still nod politely and smile—take notes even!—they’ll know that there’s nothing really behind what I’m saying, the emperor has no clothes, etc. A related fear is that I’ll start to actually believe all of the easy explanations I’ve given my students over the years, when I was some combination of too lazy or too tired to give them a real answer. I imagine the effect would be much the same.

These fears were at the front of my mind when my wife, a writing-about-writing neophyte, began teaching first-year composition this semester. In our conversations about teaching, would I be exposed? Would the carefully constructed lessons and insights I’ve stored in my toolbox over the years be shown for so many jargon-infused bromides under the scrutiny of somebody from the outside?

An early test came when she was preparing a class on discourse communities. She wanted to know why I thought it was useful to teach students about the concept.

            “Well,” I said, “it’s a helpful lens through which they can think about how groups of people use writing to get things done.”

            “Hm.” She wasn’t buying it.

            “Swales defines discourse community in such a way that it becomes a useful, common unit of analysis so researchers can compare how these groups work.”

            “Okay, but why do they need all of these new terms?” she asked. “Couldn’t we just tell students the concept exists—groups of people use writing and they share some of these characteristics? Do they really need to read this whole article to get that?”

This was a version of a back-and-forth I’ve considered myself over the seven years I’ve been teaching using Writing about Writing, and a conversation I’ve had several times with other teachers and, sometimes, students. We talked about how she might apply the concept to her work as a nurse, tracing the characteristics of the different discourse communities who impacted her work on a daily basis, and how she has, in turn, adapted her writing and communication practices in light of these communities. We talked about how students would benefit from hearing these real examples of discourse communities in action. We talked about how they can benefit, too, from reading the dense, scholarly articles about subjects like this, not simply because it’s practice in reading dense, scholarly articles (though it is that), but also because it allows them to see some of the messy work of new ideas being developed—over time, through back and forth with other writers, through constant questioning (“Discourse community wasn’t a thing,” I like to remind my students, “until some people came together and convinced each other it was”). And we talked about, finally, how the way she talks to her students about these subjects would likely be rather different from how I do, but that that’s okay and even valuable. In finding her own way, she’d be able to talk with students honestly, developing her own arguments and explanations for what they should be considering as well as—critically, I think—having room to hear their own perspectives.


I’ve always found these sorts of conversations helpful, serving as a chance for me to learn as well as re-think what I’m doing as a teacher and why I’m doing it. Writing-about-writing is not orthodoxy, as Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs have pointed out many times (see, for instance, here and here). Indeed, a key part of the value (pedagogically) and the appeal (from the perspective of teacher satisfaction) of the WAW approach stems from just how delightfully squishy so many of the subjects we can talk about are. This squishiness presents opportunities for teachers from different educational backgrounds (say an MFA in creative writing, or a an MA in English literature) to leverage the expertise they’ve developed in their specific field; even though English and writing faculty from different disciplines might have different ways of talking about and valuing writing, they all have some experience and perspective to share. And though some students may bristle at the label of “writer” (when I tell them we’re all writers at some point, how many scrunch their faces up with that mixture of disbelief and pity for me in being so naïve?), all of this talk about writing—why we do it, how we do it, what we think about when we do it—gives them places to jump in, too.


WAW has long struck me as an approach to teaching for skeptics: nothing is set in stone, and the chances for questioning and debating are many, if we allow them. While this can complicate assignment sequences and plans for assessment, I’d argue that it’s a productive sort of complication. In framing the key writing tasks as not only chances to apply course concepts, but as opportunities to test, challenge, and extend them, we can invite students into these conversations about writing and encourage their abilities as critical thinkers as well.

And so I find myself, semester after semester, trying to meet each class anew. There’s always the impulse to relax into calcification, to reuse the same old lessons and repeat the same old explanations. But there is also the never-ending self-doubt: am I doing enough to help students? Is this going to prepare them for where they want to go? Is my curriculum engaged enough with the messy, sometimes ugly world beyond the walls of the classroom, and is it preparing them for that, too? It’s in these moments that I relish the opportunity to talk to others new to the WAW approach—students and faculty alike—to hear about what they’re thinking and doing, and to try to see what I’m doing and saying in my class through their eyes.


A new edition of Writing about Writing containing new readings and ideas no doubt occasions similar opportunities for re-visioning a course, and I hope that the new material will be helpful for teachers getting up and running for the first time and perhaps encourage others to give WAW a try—in particular, a new FAQ section in the instructor’s manual and on the catalog includes answers to questions like, “What if my background isn’t in Writing Studies?” and “What are students producing?” Because, for me, my favorite part of teaching has been and will likely always be the conversations it’s opened up about writing and how it works. It seems to me that these conversations can help to keep us honest and to keep us learning, and they only get better as more and more people join them.

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.