Transfer: or, Without Which Nothing

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My topic this time should be a familiar one to anyone involved in composition instruction:  this is the concept of “transfer,” the notion that students should take what they have learned in their composition classes about writing and make full use of it in their subsequent university career, and beyond.  Applicable, of course, to all learning in a formal educational setting, transfer is (or at least ought to be) a fundamental concern, and goal, of all educators. The fact that transfer is a subject of intense research at such places as Elon University in North Carolina reveals, however, something that most of us, I suspect, have experienced—which is that transfer is not something that happens often enough in student learning.  Students who master writing skills and conventions in their composition courses all too often do not apply those skills in their written work in their other coursework, leading to the common complaint (which I hear all the time now that I am my university’s director of academic assessment) that “our students can’t write.”  A major question (if not the major question) for researchers of transfer, then, is how to achieve it in the educational process. So what does this have to do with teaching popular cultural semiotics? Actually, a whole lot.  Because the whole point of teaching popular cultural semiotics as part of composition instruction is to instill in students a habit of critical thinking, one that they will take beyond their analysis of particular popular cultural artifacts into the realm of their entire experience, scholastic and otherwise.  Focusing on popular culture provides not only a familiar platform for developing such habits but also crosses, by definition, from the curricular to the extra-curricular experience of our students.  Students are always experiencing popular culture: by studying it critically in a classroom, they are breaking down the barriers between their “learning” and their “lives.”  All too often students, and society at large, assume that there is some sort of profound difference between the campus (too often called the “ivory tower”) and the “real world.”  Assuming such a distinction, more or less unconsciously, students thus create impediments to the fundamental necessity of transfer: the carrying into the totality of their lives what they have learned in school. So I am always very happy when students tell me that, after taking a popular cultural semiotics class with me, they cannot look at pop culture in the same way any more.  Because not only have they learned the particular skills the course is untended for, they are transferring it all into their lives.  It is appropriate that the General Education credit that they earn in the class is classified under the category of Lifelong Learning, and one might say that lifelong learning is what transfer is all about to being with.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.