Talking the Talk

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This blog was originally posted on December 18th, 2013.

I need to preface this post with the explanation that until this year, I’ve not taught in or with a program where many instructors are using a writing-about-writing approach at the same time. Since I started experimenting (literally) with WAW attempts in 2002, in any program I’ve taught in it’s pretty much been little ol’ me, with the occasional exception. So a lot of other people around the country have a lot more experience than I do with lots of instructors teaching lots of students in the style of WAW. This semester is the first time I’ve planned a WAW version of Comp I for multiple instructors—in this case, TAs (and most of them first-semester teachers). So what others might have been seeing for years, I’m getting my first look at.

And it’s like this: when I get to sit in on other people’s classes, I hear student interchanges, class discussions and workshops, and it blows me away. Our new instructors have students doing this thing that I often struggle to get my own students doing: talking fluently with the language of our field. Exigence. Collaboration. Readers. Revision. Invention.Intertextuality. Discourses. And when I say “fluently,” I mean that not only did I get to see a couple hundred students over the course of the semester glibly inserting this vocabulary into their classroom talk; I mean that they were using such language to support meaningful, applied discussion about pieces of writing they were working on and arguments they were conducting about the workings of discourse, rhetoric, and writing.

I’ve heard this in my own classrooms many a time—it’s one of the palpable changes in comp-course discourse that convinced me to stay on the WAW track. But I hear it maybe five or at the most ten students at a time—a half a class. Being able to listen in on ten different instructors’ students walloped me with the effect repeatedly. And, I thought, these students are doing it more than my students. How’s that happening?

I think it might be that my new instructors have not yet been disabused of their idealism and sunk to my level of cynicism about what students can be asked to do. Usually, because WAW asks so much of students who are very new to college, I imagine myself as one of the more demanding instructors I know. But these TAs: they’re insisting that students take excellent reading notes, and finding ways to grade them on it without seeming oppressive (or sucking up too much of their own time). They devote class time to getting students to make connections across readings explicitly, and insisting that students use the language of the readings as they do. These instructors insist that students not generalize about the readings or leave impressionistic but ungrounded statements hanging—claims about the text have to be backed up by language from the text.

Sure, I do all these things with my students, too, but I think I’m a little lazier about it. And I think the difference between how many of mystudents thus intelligently adopt the language of the field to talk writing, and how many of theirs do, might come down to this difference in rigor. Seeing with fresh eyes what WAW pedagogy makes possible for writing students’ learning, and how excellent teaching can lead students to that learning, has left me very grateful for the chance to teach WAW with other teachers. It makes a big difference.

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.