Skip to content

Composition Forum 22, Summer 2010

Warnock, Scott. Teaching Writing Online: How and Why. Urbana: NCTE, 2009: 235 pp.

Bookmark and Share

Derek Mueller and Angelique Trent

In his 2009 Teaching Writing Online: How and Why, Scott Warnock provides composition instructors with a pragmatic reference written to guide them through their initial forays into online teaching. Warnock explains that he was motivated to write the book when he discovered that resources for teaching online tended to disregard activities generally valued by composition practitioners, such as conversation, peer response, and reflection. The book consists of both practical scaffolding for the uninitiated and rationale for moving the teaching of writing online. Warnock emphasizes what he finds to be viable—even “progressive” (x)—about online writing pedagogy: chiefly, the matter of writing itself figuring so prominently as the mode of communication. He briefly acknowledges causes for skepticism felt by many in the humanities toward online instruction, but rather than developing nuanced rebuttals to common arguments against online course offerings, he extends an open hand to newcomers, inviting them to overcome fear and anxiety they may have felt in association with the prospect of teaching wholly online. While it occasionally hints at cutting edge developments for online writing pedagogy that help “students write and think in ways previously unimagined” (xxvi), Teaching Writing Online holds tightly to the rails, casting a prototypical image of online writing instruction in the mold of Course Management Systems, the same CMSes experienced online instructors and those versed in digital production oftentimes deride as excessively restrictive. Consequently, experienced online instructors may find Teaching Writing Online useful primarily as a quick reference handbook for mentoring new online instructors.

Readers of Warnock’s book will recognize his reliance on a pair of go-to ideas, or givens, throughout: migration as a controlling metaphor for conceptualizing the relationship between face-to-face courses and online courses and the Socratic method of inquiry. Both ideas created for us a sense of stability and evenness across the book’s eighteen short chapters. Namely, Warnock often frames his guidance by establishing direct correspondences between what happens in face-to-face writing courses and what happens when those courses shift online. Migration, in the context of online pedagogy, hints at inertia: qualities of teaching-as-practiced are persistent, according to the migration metaphor, whatever the mode of delivery. Certainly there are advantages for newcomers in thinking about online teaching as methodologically, practically, and philosophically familiar for its grounding in face-to-face teaching; in fact, Warnock cites the confidence of newcomers as his main reason for preferring the trope of migration and adds that “people who perceive online instruction as totally alien to their normal, tried-and-true teaching practices are often scared off from teaching online” (xiii-xiv). Migration emphasizes carry-over, though indeed it risks downplaying the radically innovative side of digital writing platforms.

The Socratic method is tightly woven into the structure of Teaching Writing Online and also into English 101: Expository Reading and Writing, the first-year writing course it showcases. Perhaps Warnock favors the Socratic method for probing into the how and why of teaching writing online because it allows him to draw upon a half-decade of first-hand experiences teaching writing online in the Drexel University program he has also administered since 2004. The method provides a continuous questioning model for newcomers who will, with successive turns, think through online pedagogy more deeply as they become more involved with it. Each chapter ends with a list of questions, and we can imagine Warnock—or any writing program administrator or mentor of new online faculty—using the questions heuristically for guiding conversations and shaping initial lines of pedagogical inquiry.

While some of Warnock’s chapters, such as his chapters on being organized, developing an online ethos, and completing the syllabus, will seem like common sense to experienced online instructors, faculty new to the online format of instruction will find many of the topics covered in Warnock’s book especially practical. Warnock imparts new online instructors with insights typically exclusive to seasoned faculty who have adapted their teaching to online platforms primarily through trial and error. For example, Teaching Writing Online provides its readers with important advice on how to manage online classes, which can be overwhelming to new instructors who feel the need to be ever-present, all-knowing, and always-on when they teach online. Additionally, Warnock addresses issues experienced online instructors are familiar with, such as motivating online students to participate in discussion threads and deterring students from plagiarizing, and he offers approaches to handling these issues new instructors are guaranteed to encounter. Although some of Warnock’s tips at times border on being too rudimentary (e.g., his description of how to maintain one’s computer documents when using more than one computer), for the most part, new online instructors will benefit from Warnock’s shared insight, and mentors to new online instructors can couple their sense of what works with Warnock’s takes on the “how” and “why” of online writing pedagogy.

New online instructors expressly will value the material covered in Warnock’s latter chapters. Throughout these chapters, Warnock provides specifics for facilitating online writing course content. For example, in his chapter entitled, “Conversation: Online, Course ‘Talk’ Can Become Writing,” Warnock satisfies the one question many new online instructors will want answered: How often do I need to respond to students’ posts in the discussion thread? Rather than provide his readers with an ambiguous answer, Warnock, piggybacking off Gilly Salmon’s advice from E-Moderating, offers his audience an exact number: no more than one post to every four student messages (76). From a pedagogical standpoint, we appreciated Warnock’s caution that the key to online discussion is not the strict adherence to the 1:4 message ratio but rather that instructors avoid dominating online discussion and allow students to “roam” and discover writing through their interaction with each other. As Warnock directs, “Let [the students] sustain the conversation with questions and comments” (76). Warnock extends his “how” of online writing instruction to include a sample syllabus, weekly plan, and message board conversations, all of which clearly demonstrate the pedagogy Warnock himself values in practice. The artifacts he shares reflect a curricular framework familiar to us, perhaps with the exception of the message board conversations in Appendix C. To illustrate dynamic interactions in a threaded discussion, Warnock provides a discussion centered on Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken.” We found the focus on a literary genre peculiar in the context of a first-year writing course, and we wished the exemplary threaded discussion better reflected the dialogue Warnock described elsewhere in the book, which he said was often focused on student writing.

Because readers of Teaching Writing Online will find Warnock’s instruction engaging and informative, they may nevertheless find as we did occasional inconsistencies in his advice to beginning online writing instructors. That is, while he encourages instructors to be confident as they make the leap to teaching online, Warnock too emphatically discourages those inexperienced with online pedagogy from adapting certain forms of technology for their teaching. Warnock sometimes seems conflicted over just how cautious to be with his guidance. He proceeds under the assumption that these instructors who have never taught online only have a basic understanding of technology. However, even though this assumption looms over Warnock’s imagined audience, he at times mentions a few forms of technology but does not deeply enough explain what they are or how exactly his readers can use them. For example, Warnock mentions audiovisual (AV) technologies in Chapter Three, but he does not offer enough concrete guidance for newcomers to online teaching to actually use AV. When discussing textual synchronous conversations, he again anticipates and even feeds into his readers’ expected fears by citing Hewett and Ehmann’s statement that these conversations “can be tricky” and that “many students possess a lingo and fluency in chat that could be confusing and even intimidating to an instructor” (33). We found ourselves wishing for further explanation of how Warnock thinks online instructors can overcome the discord he identifies. Nevertheless, the solidity of the rest of Warnock’s text will help readers forgive these minor discrepancies.

Lasting impressions from Warnock’s book include that online writing pedagogy is viable, that it can be done thoughtfully, and that it is increasingly a fixture in the landscape of higher education. Citing a 2008 Sloan-C report, Warnock mentions that during the fall 2007 semester, 20 percent of college students were enrolled in at least one online course (x). As interest from students grows and as the development of online programs continues to escalate, those new to online pedagogy will find in Warnock’s Teaching Writing Online tested, pragmatic guidance. Furthermore, for writing program administrators and teaching mentors this book will serve as a grounded, thoughtful primer, an introduction to online writing instruction informed by scholarship in rhetoric and composition and computers and writing. New online instructors will be reassured by having Warnock’s straightforward approach close at hand.

Works Cited

Hewett, Beth L., and Christa Ehmann. Preparing Educators for Online Writing Instruction: Principles and Processes. Urbana: NCTE, 2004. Print.

Salmon, Gilly. E-Moderating: The Key to Teaching and Learning Online. London: Kogan, 2000. Print.

Sloan-C. “Staying the Course: Online Education in the United States, 2008.” The Sloan Consortium. November 2008. Web. 28 Mar. 2010. <>.

Bookmark and Share

Return to Composition Forum 22 table of contents.