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Composition Forum 24, Fall 2011

Wardle, Elizabeth, and Doug Downs. Writing about Writing: A College Reader. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 747pp.

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Laurie McMillan

It is here at last. A composition reader that answers the call of those who have adopted—or are ready to adopt—Writing-about-Writing (WAW) pedagogies for first-year composition. WAW pedagogies take many forms, but in every manifestation, writing is featured not only as a means of learning and communicating, but also as a field of study, effectively resolving the recurring question of what content belongs in the composition classroom.

Unlike many new composition readers, this one has a ready-made audience. Interest in WAW approaches has surged since Doug Downs and Elizabeth Wardle’s 2007 landmark article in College Composition and Communication: “Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning ‘First-Year Composition’ as ‘Introduction to Writing Studies.’” Since then, the WAW community has grown: a workshop was held at the 2008 Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC); a Special Interest Group (SIG) was formed to meet annually at CCCC; a Yahoo group, a ning, and the Writing-about-Writing Network (WAWN) (chartered by Betsy Sargent) were created to facilitate collaboration and communication; and regular conference papers, panels, and publications have addressed nuances and particularities of WAW teaching practices and early assessment results. A forthcoming book chapter by Downs and Wardle updates their understanding of WAW pedagogies and charts current practices on the basis of a WAW survey (“Re-Imagining”). In short, the field is ripe for the Writing about Writing textbook.

Why all the interest in Writing-about-Writing pedagogies? Well, the benefits are manifold. Most obviously, having students focus on writing, rhetoric, discourse, and the like is a way of reducing the tension that often exists when composition teachers try to discern how much of the course should be devoted to the practice and craft of writing and how much of the course should be devoted to the theme or content area. Furthermore, a course centered on composition studies helps composition scholars use their expertise in the classroom, while it also helps educate the many teachers of composition who have backgrounds in literature or creative writing. Indeed, Writing about Writing is likely to appeal to readers of Composition Forum because it includes the work of familiar scholars such as Sondra Perl, Mike Rose, Joseph Williams, Donald Murray, and Joseph Harris. At the same time, these very articles will contribute to the growth of instructors who are new to composition studies or who teach first-year writing without regularly participating in relevant scholarly communities.

In addition to streamlining the focus of a first-year composition course in ways that benefit both students and teachers, WAW approaches engage students on a metacognitive level, which is important for the empowerment of student writers as well as for transfer of learning. In Wardle and Downs’s text, the emphasis on metacognition is visible in the activities and questions that are used to frame each essay. Many of these prompts ask students to use their own experiences and belief systems to engage with the readings. In addition, each chapter ends with two or three extensive writing assignments, many of which require students to apply ideas from the chapter to experiential or community-based research, in forms such as an autoethnography, a literacy narrative, and a discourse community ethnography. Making these kinds of connections helps students to see that they have valuable knowledge, which can help them learn from and extend scholarly thinking about composition. As Downs and Wardle explain in their forthcoming book chapter, “Students are empowered to better understand themselves as writers and users of language because the course treats them as authoritative speakers and asks them to own and take control of their own literate experiences, expertise, and questions” (“Re-Imagining”).

While empowering students is one of the most important tenets of WAW pedagogies in general and this composition textbook in particular, my favorite metacognitive prompts in Writing about Writing occur in “Meta Moment” questions that directly support the transfer of student learning. The “Meta Moment” feature appears in a gray box that is set slightly apart from each article and its follow-up questions, appearing exactly as “Meta Moments” should appear—in their own space, where a different kind of thinking can take place. And it is in these spaces that students can focus most explicitly on their learning so as to be more likely to apply it in future situations. For example, one “Meta Moment” asks, “How can you benefit from knowing the results of Haas and Flower’s study? How does reading and understanding this article help you achieve the goals of this chapter?” (Writing about Writing 138). These sorts of questions—a staple of the Wardle and Downs reader—contribute to student engagement in meaningful ways.

The articles themselves in Writing about Writing are quite difficult, aimed at a scholarly rather than a student audience. Such choices are consistent with the belief among WAW practitioners that “students can handle complex texts when given appropriate scaffolding and support” (Downs and Wardle, “Re-Imagining”). In Writing about Writing, that scaffolding appears in many forms: an introductory chapter that explains the approach of the book and uses a few articles to help prepare students to read scholarly writing; student-friendly introductions to each chapter as well as to each article; the framing questions mentioned above; and the inclusion of student writing as well as several texts from popular writers.

Still, teachers new to WAW approaches might initially be taken aback by the use of composition scholarship in a first-year classroom. Wardle and Downs explain that the essays need act only as “springboards” to help students think about “their own reading and writing experiences,” with student writing remaining at the center of the course (Writing about Writing vii). Furthermore, creating a reader of composition scholarship rather than a rhetoric that summarizes such work is vital to the spirit of inquiry so many first-year composition teachers value. Instead of presenting knowledge of writing as stable as a rhetoric might do, the selection of readings with the accompanying scaffolding keeps the course focused on students’ “experiences with writing, discourse, and literacy, and their (and the field’s) open questions on these issues” (Writing about Writing vii).

The scope of the book makes it versatile enough for a variety of WAW approaches, including the most common ones focused on either “literacy and discourse,” “language and rhetoric,” or “writing and writers’ practices” (Downs and Wardle, “Re-Imagining”). In addition to the introduction, Writing about Writing includes five chapters that address, respectively, thinking about reading and writing in general; writing processes; literacy development; community discourses; and authority for college writers. Each chapter includes five to seven scholarly articles, a student article, and two or three assignment options. The use of a variety of fonts helps delineate the various parts of each chapter, and the photo of each author included in the text is a small editorial detail that draws readers in; it’s helpful to know that real people exist behind the words on the page. Although the book covers a lot of ground, it is compact and thus not visually overwhelming.

Writing about Writing is like any textbook, however, in that it is unable to do everything. Some might mourn the lack of full definitions and explanations common to composition rhetorics (regarding such concepts as classical rhetoric, Rogerian argument, Toulmin logic, and so forth) or might supplement the text with attention to peer review, writing style, or genre conventions. Other teachers who have become comfortable with a particular content in their courses may not be ready to make the leap to a WAW pedagogy.

Yet, for those who are ready to take the leap, Wardle and Downs have created a strong zip line that will keep instructors from falling into an abyss. The text itself offers comprehensive guidance for teachers as well as students. In addition, an instructor’s manual (by Deborah Weaver and Lindee Owens) provides chapter overviews and article summaries, student outcomes, and even assignment calendars to guide planning. Bedford also offers a host of online resources that both students and teachers can access. My favorite among these is an authors’ blog, Bedford Bits, with the Wardle and Downs segment titled “Write On: Notes on Teaching Writing about Writing.” The blog entries are worth reading, especially for those who are interested in finding out more about how a WAW approach might work.

And for those, like me, who have already converted to WAW but have been cobbling together their own readers or making do with a composition text that is “good enough”—well, I’m sure they are happy about the new choice. After all, it tends to be helpful to have teaching and learning resources that closely match pedagogical strategies. In his January 2011 blog entry, Doug Downs expresses as much: “I’m never completely comfortable being involved in a ‘movement’—I’m not a movement kind of guy, generally. But I do think that’s how a lot of us advocates of WAW would describe the approach and its growing use: as a movement in Composition. And now the movement has a textbook.  Cool.”

Works Cited

Downs, Doug. “New Year, New Semester, New Book—w00t!” Write On: Notes on Teaching Writing about Writing. Bedford Bits, 20 Jan 2011. Blog posting. 31 March 2011. <>.

Downs, Doug, and Elizabeth Wardle. “Re-Imagining the Nature of FYC: Trends in Writing- about-Writing Pedagogies.” Defining Composition Studies: Research, Scholarship, and Inquiry for the 21st Century. Ed. Kelly Ritter. Logan: Utah State UP, forthcoming. Print.

———. “Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning ‘First-Year Composition’ as ‘Introduction to Writing Studies.’” College Composition and Communication 58.4 (2007): 552-84. Print.

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