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Composition Forum 26, Fall 2012

Creative Repurposing for Expansive Learning: Considering “Problem-Exploring” and “Answer-Getting” Dispositions in Individuals and Fields

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Elizabeth Wardle

Abstract: In this introduction to the special “transfer” issue of Composition Forum, I offer some preliminary thinking about ways to expand our consideration of this phenomenon, which I will describe from here on out as creative repurposing for expansive learning, or “repurposing” in brief (Prior and Shipka; Roozen). I argue for understanding repurposing as the result of particular dispositions that are embodied not only by individuals but also by what Pierre Bourdieu calls “fields,” and the interactions between the two. In doing so, I focus primarily (but not exclusively) on the dispositions of educational systems. In sketching out my initial thoughts on dispositions, I draw on Bourdieu’s discussions of “habitus” and “doxa.” I suggest that to move forward in our consideration of repurposing and expansive learning, we might look beyond one task, one setting, or one individual to consider the habitus of the educational systems that encourage particular dispositions in individuals. I will suggest that creative repurposing is one consequence of what I will call “problem-exploring dispositions,” while “answer-getting dispositions” discourage such repurposing. I end by suggesting that the steady movement toward standardized testing and tight control of educational activities by legislators is producing and reproducing answer-getting dispositions in educational systems and individuals, and that this movement is more than a dislike for the messiness of deep learning; rather, it can be understood as an attempt to limit the kind of thinking that students and citizens have the tools to do. In this view, conducting and enacting research on repurposing (“transfer”), including the scholarship in this special issue, is a high-stakes enterprise.

What is Transfer?

Researchers inside and outside of composition studies continue to struggle with the problem of transfer of knowledge. What is it? Why does it happen? Why doesn’t it happen? How can we help it happen? What should we be looking at when we want to study it? Where does the responsibility lie? What can we do as teachers to help students bring what they already know to bear in our classrooms and to take what they have learned to other classrooms and varied rhetorical situations?

We know that the phenomenon is complicated. Clearly, individuals—and their histories, dispositions, and motivations—are central to it, since they are the ones actively working through problems and ideas. Yet, we also know that individuals don’t do this work in a vacuum. Their efforts and ideas—indeed, whether they are even willing to make an effort—are inextricably linked to the contexts in and across which they are working, learning, and acting. Researchers seem to have identified some basic principles that encourage transfer of learning (reflection, mindfulness, abstraction of principles) and for predicting when it will or won’t happen (motivation, exigence, affordances). They have also given us new words for imagining it (transforming, repurposing, generalizing, recontextualizing). In this issue, Jessie Moore provides a helpful map of the conversation about transfer in writing studies thus far, and the video interviews of researchers from Elon Seminar on Transfer provide a variety of perspectives on the study of transfer.

Yet, we continue to struggle to describe what “transfer” actually is: Is transfer the act of an individual taking something she knows from one setting or task and applying it successfully in another setting or task? Is transfer the act of transformation, in which an individual takes something he knows and is able to repurpose or transform it for use in another setting or task that is similar or not quite the same? Is transfer found in the individual, in the task, in the setting—or in some combination of all three? And if transfer is found in the combination of individual, task, and setting, how do we understand and explain it? How do we teach for it, study it, and engage in it ourselves? Several of the authors in this issue push us as a field to reconsider the relationship of individual and context by taking up questions related to individual dispositions (see Driscoll and Wells) and use of individual’s previous knowledge (see Robertson, Taczak, and Yancey).

The question that perplexes me these days is why and how some people seem to continually repurpose what they know to bring their previous knowledge and experiences to bear, while others don’t. As teachers, we see this play out time and again in our classrooms: some students work creatively and thoughtfully through new genres and new content, while others seem unable to do so, stuck in patterns and concepts as they learned them in a previous setting. In this issue, I have found Angela Rounsaville’s consideration of “the discursive space of uptake” to be helpful in considering this phenomenon, particularly when read in conjunction with the essay by Dana Driscoll and Jennifer Wells, in addition to the essay by Liane Robertson, Kara Taczak, and Kathleen Blake Yancey, which address individual disposition and use of prior knowledge.

In general, however, our field has not deeply theorized transfer much beyond what David Perkins and Gavriel Salomon offered (near and far, high and low), or even much beyond the term “transfer,” which we have problematized but continue to use (Wardle). Even more importantly, I think, we have not deeply considered larger implications of educational systems that frequently do not, as Perkins and Salomon remind us, teach for transfer.

Getting Outside the Language of “Transfer”: Dispositions That Allow for Creative Repurposing for Expansive Learning

Although we have discussed the basic problems with the term “transfer” (namely, that it forces us back to a simplistic “carry and unload” model that we have generally rejected), we continue to use the term, and it continues to color our ability to theorize about the phenomenon. We too often seem unable to get outside the language that has formed our consideration of this issue. The continued use of the word “transfer” limits our ability to think more fully about this phenomenon and what it means. Although there are practical reasons to use the word “transfer” with outside stakeholders (for example, to help legislators and accreditation agencies understand some of our basic goals), our own scholarship suggests we would benefit from other theoretical lenses and vocabulary for talking about it; we know the phenomenon is messier than the transportation model suggested by the word “transfer.”

In this introduction to the special “transfer” issue of Composition Forum, I would like to offer some preliminary thinking about ways to expand our consideration of this phenomenon, which I will describe from here on out as “creative repurposing for expansive learning,” or “repurposing,” in brief (Prior and Shipka; Roozen). I argue for understanding repurposing as the result of particular dispositions that are embodied not only by individuals but also by what Pierre Bourdieu calls “fields” and the interactions between the two. In doing so, I focus primarily (but not exclusively) on the dispositions of educational systems. In sketching out my initial thoughts on dispositions, I draw on Bourdieu’s discussions of “habitus” and “doxa.” I suggest that to move forward in our consideration of repurposing and expansive learning, we might look beyond one task, one setting, or one individual to consider the habitus of the educational systems that encourage particular dispositions in individuals. I will suggest that creative repurposing is one consequence of what I will call “problem-exploring dispositions,” while “answer-getting dispositions” discourage such repurposing. I end by suggesting that the steady movement toward standardized testing and tight control of educational activities by legislators is producing and reproducing answer-getting dispositions in educational systems and individuals and that this movement is more than a dislike for the messiness of deep learning; rather, it can be understood as an attempt to limit the kind of thinking that students and citizens have the tools to do.

In this view, conducting and enacting research on repurposing (“transfer”), including the scholarship in this special issue, is a high-stakes enterprise.

Repurposing and Problem-Solving

Recently, the behaviors of students who repurpose or don’t have been reframed for me as the actualization of different approaches to problem solving. Linda Flower and John Hayes argued decades ago that each new writing task, each new rhetorical situation, is a problem that writers face and that writers can only solve the problems that they define for themselves. If a writer defines a problem as the need to neatly reproduce what she already knows how to produce (a five paragraph essay, for example), that is how she will solve the problem. If a writer defines a problem as how to communicate with an interlocutor in a way that is effective given the exigence, she will try to solve the problem so as to accomplish that goal.

We know from cognitive psychology that there are two broad kinds of problems: well structured and ill structured. Well-structured problems have a single correct answer that can be identified, while ill-structured (or “messy”) problems do not have certain or specific answers (King and Kitchener). Rhetorical problems as encountered in every day life are rarely well structured. School problems, particularly in school systems with extensive focus on standardized testing, are more often well-structured problems.

When I provide my students with ill-structured, messy rhetorical problems (or ask them to consider one of their own choosing), I see some of them respond with creative and reflective repurposing of what they already know and engaged attempts to learn more in order to solve these problems. For example, students in my “Medical Writing” class were asked to consider a public health problem and mount a campaign to address it. One group found that students were drinking and driving late at night to find food. As a result, they mounted a “Don’t Drink and Drive Through” campaign that entailed doorknob hangers with the phone numbers of restaurants that delivered after midnight. There were many possible responses to this problem, and they creatively explored many of them before settling on this one—which also required them to modify a text type (the sales doorknob hanger) that they had all seen but never composed themselves. In contrast, I also see students who cannot or will not solve an ill-structured rhetorical problem and who, instead, repeatedly and in the face of obvious failure, keep trying to solve ill-structured problems by bringing what they already know to bear and applying it with no attempt to repurpose, explore, or create. This can happen even with advanced students. For example, a senior science student enrolled in my composition course was determined to limit his composing to the rigid reports he had been using in his upper-level coursework and internship experience. When this genre did not work with the group literacy project the class was doing, he simply refused to modify his text, arguing that scientific reports are the only valid form of writing. This second kind of student seems to have a disposition that cuts off the possibility of what Yrgo Engeström would call expansive learning or “learning by expanding.”

What separates the first kind of learner from the second? If all the students are in the same class with the same instruction and the same set of affordances and constraints, then the distinguishing factor must be related to what they bring with them or to concurrent influences in other settings.

Problem-Exploring vs. Answer-Getting Dispositions in Individuals and Fields

Although there is fairly extensive psychological research describing how people solve problems, the students I see cause me to wonder: What disposes individuals to approach problems in particular ways in the first place? What I see in my students, and in the participants in my various research projects, leads me to consider that people seem to primarily inhabit what I will call either problem-exploring or answer-getting dispositions. Problem-exploring dispositions incline a person toward curiosity, reflection, consideration of multiple possibilities, a willingness to engage in a recursive process of trial and error, and toward a recognition that more than one solution can “work.” Answer-getting dispositions seek right answers quickly and are averse to open consideration of multiple possibilities. The first disposition is appropriate for solving ill-structured problems, while the second seems connected to well-structured problems often found in the field of education.{1} In considering this notion of dispositions, I find Bourdieu’s discussion of “habitus” to be helpful. He defines habitus as “a system (i.e. a set of interacting elements) of durable, transposable dispositions” (Logic 53). John Thompson, his editor, summarizes Bourdieu’s view of habitus as

a set of dispositions which incline agents to act and react in certain ways. The dispositions generate practices, perceptions, and attitudes which are “regular” without being consciously co-ordinated or governed by any “rule.” The dispositions which constitute the habitus are inculcated, structured, durable, generative, and transposable. (12)

Does extended participation in institutionalized practices that front well-structured problems (like educational settings with an obsessive focus on standardized tests) incline participants to act and react to problems by seeking quick and formulaic answers? In other words, does extended participation in these institutionalized practices inculcate what I am calling answer-getting dispositions? Bourdieu’s work suggests it does: “when individuals act,” their practices are “the product of the relation between the habitus, on the one hand, and the specific social contexts or ‘fields’ within which they act, on the other” (Thompson 14).

Bourdieu argues that a set of dispositions, habitus, once inculcated, is not easily changeable: dispositions are not “readily amenable to conscious reflection and modification” (Thompson 13). Further, habitus “provides individuals with a sense of how to act and respond in the course of their daily lives. It ‘orients’ their actions and inclinations without strictly determining them. It gives them a ‘feel for the game,’ a sense of what is appropriate in the circumstances and what is not, a ‘practical sense’” (13). Thus, students who have spent twelve years in an educational field that teaches toward standardized tests and discourages questions would likely emerge with strongly developed answer-getting dispositions that they are not consciously aware of but that guide their actions when they face new problems, including new, difficult, and ill-structured rhetorical problems. Bourdieu argues that such dispositions are not simply cognitive orientations, but embodied ones, that dispositions are literally in the body, in what he refers to as “bodily hexis:” “turned into a permanent disposition, a durable way of standing, speaking, walking, and thereby of feeling and thinking” (Thompson 13).

Fields and Their Dispositions

Can fields inhabit dispositions? Edwin Smith notes that Bourdieu was “somewhat equivocal on whether habitus can be an attribute of an educational organisation [sic]” (463). But others have been less so. Diane Reay argues that both individuals and institutions (educational and familial) have a habitus, with the individual habitus being more inclined to change than institutional habitus:

Bourdieu (1993: 88) describes habitus as “a power of adaptation. It constantly performs an adaptation to the outside world which only exceptionally takes the form of radical conversion.” Bourdieu’s concept of habitus enables us to understand individuals as a complex amalgam of their past and present (Bourdieu 1990), but an amalgam that is always in the process of completion. There is no finality or finished identity. At the same time habitus also includes a set of complex, diverse predispositions. It invokes understandings of identity premised on familial legacy and early childhood socialization. As such it is primarily a dynamic concept, a rich interlacing of past and present, individual and collective, interiorized and permeating both body and psyche (Reay 1997, 1998a). Similarly, institutional habituses are capable of change but through dint of their collective nature are less fluid than individual habitus. They can be understood as the impact of a cultural group or social class on an individual’s behaviour as it is mediated through an organization (McDonaugh 1996). (521)

Smith, like Reay, argues for institutional habitus, although he calls the habitus of schools their “ethos.” Smith draws on situated learning theories (Lave and Wenger) to explain how school ethos (habitus) and individual habitus work together:

The perspectives offered by notions of habitus and situated learning establish school ethos as more than a background variable with some indirect effect on the learning achievement of individuals. It defines that learning achievement as participation in the ethos and in the continuous construction and re-construction of ethos. That engagement is an amalgam of conflict and collaboration; socially constructing knowledge and knowledge about knowledge; learning how to learn; and negotiation about what it is valuable to learn. The participation is co-learning by students and teachers. (468)

If both fields and individuals inhabit dispositions, how does this relationship work? Can dispositions, once established, change? Can individuals influence changes in the fields in which they act? These are important questions if we accept that creative repurposing is the consequence of a problem-exploring disposition, and the inability to repurpose is a consequence of answer-seeking dispositions.

Can Dispositions Change? Doxa, Orthodoxy, and Heterodoxy

As educators and program administrators, our understanding of how dispositions are created and whether and how they can change is central to our course of action. Bourdieu has been criticized for suggesting that individuals acquire dispositions early in life, which they then embody throughout life, without the ability to impact the fields in which they act: “Bourdieu’s emphasis on the ‘homogeneity of habitus’ in his empirical explorations of different cultural fields (1977, 1984a, 1984b) is considered problematic because it seemingly fails to account for the ways in which change can and does occur” (Maher 46). Jennifer Maher argues that “Bourdieu makes little room for resistance on the part of actors or for understanding how resistance occurs” (46). Yet Bourdieu does describe resistance in the realm of discourse—worth exploring here for a moment.

Bourdieu argues for the “universe of the undiscussed (undisputed),” which he calls doxa: “the sum total of the theses tacitly posited on the hither side of all inquiry” (Outline 168). Doxa, similar to what Gramsci calls hegemony, makes the social world seem like a “natural phenomenon,” and thus puts it beyond question (169). Doxa constructs the habitus and is the mode by which the status quo perpetuates itself. When people have the tools to see the social world and question it, that world is no longer seen as simply “natural”:

It is only when the dominated have the material and symbolic means of rejecting the definition of the real that is imposed on them through logical structures reproducing the social structures (i.e. the state of the power relations) and to lift the (institutionalized or internalized) censorships which it implies … that the arbitrary principles of classification can appear as such and it therefore becomes necessary to undertake the work of conscious systematization and express rationalization which marks the passage from doxa to orthodoxy. Orthodoxy…opinion, which aims, without ever entirely succeeding, at restoring the primal state of doxa, exists only in the objective relationship which opposes it to heterodoxy. (Bourdieu, Outline 169)

Orthodoxy and heterodoxy entail awareness and recognition of possibilities other than the “natural order” imposed by doxa. Heterodoxy and orthodoxy are in the “universe of discourse (or argument)” (Bourdieu, Outline 168). Orthodox discourse is the “official way of speaking and thinking the world,” and it conceals and “delimits the universe of possible discourse” (169). Crisis is a necessary condition for the questioning of doxa but is not in itself a sufficient condition for the production of a critical discourse (169). Heterdoxy allows for challenge, but still exists within doxa.

Language and rhetoric thus seem central to questioning doxa, since doing so requires having the tools to ask questions about the perceived “natural” state, and to engage in inquiry and debate about it. The ability to recognize the “misrecognitions,” to conceive of various questions and explore them (in other words, inhabiting what I am calling problem-exploring dispositions), is a necessary prerequisite to critical discourse.

Bourdieu seems to suggest that dispositions are changeable, but not easily, and that fields are often structured so as to produce particular individual dispositions that are amenable to orthodoxy and, even better for the dominant groups, that lack the linguistic and critical tools to question doxa. Given this argument, research on repurposing, and attempts to reconstruct educational fields to better inhabit problem-exploring and expansive learning, have important consequences.

What emerges for me from this discussion is not only that both individuals and fields inhabit dispositions, but how institutional habitus creates and recreates orthodox discourse and attempts to push the social world to the status of doxa—beyond question or even recognizable as anything other than natural and inevitable. Individual dispositions toward finding and answering and moving on, rather than asking questions and exploring problems, might be directly linked to dispositions of fields or educational habitus that have a vested interest in maintaining dominant structures, beliefs, and practices (doxa).

Individual and Institutional Problem-Exploring Dispositions: Some Examples

Before moving on to discuss the implications of using habitus and doxa to consider repurposing, it might be useful to pause for two brief examples to illustrate what it might look like for a system or an individual to inhabit problem-exploring dispositions.

Individual Example: Nicolette

I’m currently engaged in a longitudinal case study following several students who took my composition class in the fall of 2011. Here, I’ll only briefly discuss Nicolette, who has demonstrated not only a well-established problem-exploring disposition but also an effective strategy for maintaining that disposition while acting in a system that shakes her confidence as a problem-solver.

Nicolette attended a public charter school in Lakeland, Florida, but her primary disposition seems linked to her familial field. Her family struggled at times, and her parents were not college graduates—her father earned a GED and her mother attended vocational school. In spite or perhaps because of her parents’ educational histories, Nicolette embodies a tenacious problem-exploring disposition that she carries across systems. Bourdieu might argue that her disposition is the result of her class status: “the dominated classes have an interest in pushing back the limits of doxa and exposing the arbitrariness of the taken for granted” (Bourdieu, Outline 169). Her parents couldn’t always help her with the academic tasks she faced, but they expected that she would find help, for example, from her “college and career office” and her AP teachers in high school. Her internalized expectation is that she will find an affordance and pursue possibilities. In relation to her college entrance essay, for example, she said, “even though my parents didn’t know much about it, I had plenty of resources.”

Nicolette’s problem-exploring disposition becomes apparent whenever she faces a roadblock. Her approach to challenging new rhetorical problem serves as an example. When she encounters a new or difficult rhetorical problem, she analyzes all the available possibilities and questions them. She looks for examples, analyzes examples to see where they are similar or different (“compared if it fit exactly, of if there was a little leniency where it could be different”), determining how much room there is for play (“the fact that the examples deviated a little from the template but were still really close meant that there would be a little wiggle room”), and then she drafts possible responses, about which she usually seems to seek feedback from others. She doesn’t expect each new problem to be like the last, but she assumes she can bring prior knowledge to bear or find available resources that will help her explore the problem.

What is most striking to me about Nicolette’s approach is her confidence in her ability to explore solutions and make changes when her solutions are not effective. This year, she found herself in a “Western Civilization” class where her previous strategies proved ineffective. The teacher did not give examples and did not provide feedback along with assigned grades. As a result, Nicolette did not know where to look for solutions other than those she had been trying. She did not, however, blame herself or her usual means of exploring rhetorical problems. Rather, she felt the system was inadequate: “I feel it is something I can do if I had help, but I feel like the help isn’t there.” She told me that the teacher was “not a very good” affordance for learning. She tried new solutions to each assignment, demonstrating that she understood there were multiple possible ways to resolve the problem. However, none of her attempted solutions were particularly effective, and the teacher never provided any feedback to guide her to new solutions.

Given the situation, Nicolette demonstrated a strong instinct to preserve her disposition. One of her usual method of approaching a new problem—to ask for help and advice from others—was one she chose not to use here. When I asked her why she wasn’t utilizing the teacher, she responded: “He is a very harsh person, so I’m scared that if I go see him he’ll say, ‘Oh, you suck at life.’” Because her problem-exploring disposition appears to depend on some level of self-confidence, she avoided her teacher. Her performance in “Western Civilization” might suffer, but her long-term confidence as an explorer of problems remained.

System Example: Iowa State University’s Computer Science Program

The Computer Science Program at Iowa State is an example of field that has been designed to encourage deep learning and to encourage the individuals acting in it to inhabit problem-exploring dispositions. In Iowa State University’s Computer Science Program, students don’t learn specific languages or skills but instead learn principles and concepts that they can transfer and apply to any language they need to work with in the future. The second program outcome for the undergraduate major is stated as “an ability to analyze a problem and identify and define the computing requirements appropriate to its solution” (“Program Outcomes”). The courses are designed at the conceptual level: “Com S 331: Theory of Computing,” “Com S 342: Principles of Programming Languages,” “Com S 440: Principles and Practices of Compiling.” (Compare this to the program at my own institution, which consists of much more specific courses: “Intro to Programming with C,” “Intro to Programming with Java.” No such courses are offered at Iowa State).{2}

A friend of ours, let’s call him John, graduated from this program and found a job programming for Java. He was concerned that he would have to “catch up” with employees who graduated from other programs where they had specifically been taught Java. Instead, he found he could think about the programming problems at a conceptual level and call on the principles he knew to solve the programming task at hand. His problem solving was more creative because he was not bound to a particular set of rules but to underlying concepts that could be repurposed flexibly across problems.

These examples demonstrate ways that individuals and fields can inhabit problem-exploring dispositions, and suggest there is a dynamic relationship between the disposition of the individual and the field. John, for example, was deeply influenced by the problem-exploring disposition of Iowa State’s Computer Science program, and he grew to inhabit that disposition himself, embodying it when he went to work for Java, where many other employees inhabited answer-getting dispositions. Nicolette brought with her a deeply established disposition that enabled her to approach problems reflectively and with an openness to multiple possibilities; when she was forced to act in a field that did not provide the necessary affordances for her to explore and solve problems effectively, she protected her disposition even at the cost of a possibly higher grade. She did not change the “Western Civilization” classroom disposition, but neither did that classroom’s disposition change her own. Her experience there did force her, however, to make selective choices about her values and approaches. Her confidence and disposition were, in the end, more important to her than a grade. As a result, her own confident problem-exploring disposition remains as she moves in and out of other systems.

Engaging in a field with an answer-getting disposition once or twice for a short period of time might not deeply affect an individual’s disposition (as was the case with Nicolette), although Anastasia Efklides argues that it can: “what is task-specific can become part of the person’s dispositional characteristics and have long-term effects on students’ willingness to learn and to regulate their learning” (65). But if the individual is immersed in such a field over extended periods of time, as is the case with educational institutions, it seems almost unavoidable that the individual will inhabit and display an answer-getting disposition across time and bring that disposition to bear, engaging in the work of other fields. In turn, that individual’s answer-getting disposition informs the norms of the fields engaged in long term. Or one might engage in new fields where this disposition is not the norm. In such cases, the interplay between the individual disposition and the field disposition is an ongoing case of production and reproduction with possibility for contradictions and constraints that result in modifications in dispositions of either the individual, the field, or both. Smith describes participants as “simultaneously creatures of [school ethos/habitus] and partly creators of it” (469 emphasis mine).

What Do We Gain from Considering Habitus, Field, and Doxa in Relation to Repurposing and Expansive Learning?

Bourdieu’s work provides a lens for understanding our students and their approaches to rhetorical problems without dichotomizing the individual and the context. He also reminds us that—because individuals inhabit dispositions that are acquired through extended participation in fields that reproduce those dispositions—entering a system with another kind of disposition altogether must be disorienting and difficult to reconcile. Participation in a new field with a problem-exploring disposition might disrupt and bring to conscious awareness the individual’s previously unconscious and embodied answer-getting disposition, forcing him into what activity theorists call a psychological double bind. I see students respond to such double binds in many ways: through confusion and failure, through attempts to follow directions without considering underlying principles and beliefs, through changing understanding, and sometimes through relief and excitement that another disposition is possible.

Along with several of the authors in this issue, I suggest that we turn our attention to the dispositions that students are embodying across fields, and consider how the nature of those dispositions can either inhibit or enhance their ability to engage in the expansive learning and repurposing that I understand to constitute “transfer” of writing-related knowledge. But we cannot do so without considering the larger fields in which they acquired those dispositions and how their interaction in our current courses influences the dispositions of our programs. Dispositions matter for repurposing, but individual dispositions are never simply individual; they are products of and contributors to the dispositions of educational, familial, and religious fields.

The implications of Bourdieu’s work go beyond the integration of field and individual. Bourdieu’s approach urges us to consider the larger implications of habitus. We already know that schools settings are rarely designed to teach for creative repurposing. But why aren’t they? We know how to teach for repurposing; the research is available (in this issue, Beaufort provides a helpful update to her advice from five years ago on how to teach writing for “transfer,” while Boone et al and Ford describe programs designed to teach for “transfer”). We seem to be seeing more and more students arrive on college campuses as the products of an educational habitus that teaches immediate answer-getting and eschew problem-exploration or question asking. Why is this the case? Even if we could design our programs to teach for repurposing, how do we address the individual dispositions that disincline students from such repurposing, and the fields that inculcated such dispositions in them?

The State of Current Educational Dispositions

From where I sit in Florida, the positive examples I gave here of problem-exploring dispositions appear to be the exception. We seem to be living in a society that is discouraging expansive learning and driving problem-exploring dispositions out of school habitus at an alarming rate.

The high school teachers I work with tell me miserable tales of being forced to prepare students for months to take simple, formulaic tests. They are not allowed to give homework, and they must accept assignments no matter how late they are because when students fail, teachers and schools are considered failing, and they are financially punished. They are, in essence, being forced to participate in a school system that embodies answer getting and eschews critical thinking and exploration at all costs. Such a system seems intended to reproduce in its student participants passive thinking and acceptance without question of whatever is presented.

The Florida Legislature recently passed a law reducing general education from 36 to 30 hours, and doubling tuition for any credit hours taken beyond 130. Their perception seems to be that learning should be fast and focused. There is no room in this educational system for students to follow new interests or questions, nor to explore a variety of general education courses as they consider ideas and subjects that they have not encountered before. My university’s president calls the double tuition on additional hours a “curiosity tax.” The general guiding force in our Florida educational system seems to be attending class for the sake of finding a job as soon as possible, for the sake of getting a piece of paper, not for the sake of learning, thinking, and creating.

Why don’t our educational systems display and encourage problem-exploring dispositions? Why are we tacking so hard and so fast toward shallow educational systems that encourage and embody answer-getting dispositions? Why is the answer-getting system so much more attractive and prevalent? Maybe because problem exploring is messy and unpredictable, while answer-seeking maps onto our desires for efficiency and quantifiable predictability. Deep learning isn’t efficient or easy, and it doesn’t happen on a predictable, quantifiable schedule.

Bourdieu’s work forces us to consider a more unpleasant answer. Students with problem-exploring dispositions are threats to the dominant class(es): “the dominant classes have an interest in defending the integrity of doxa or, short of this, establishing in its place the necessarily imperfect substitute, orthodoxy ” (Outline 169). As more students find their way to institutions of higher education, those institutions cannot support the dominant structures and simultaneously impart problem-exploring dispositions to their students. The instruction of rhetoric, fully understood and not just taught as style or delivery, is historically linked to critical exploration of ill-structured problems, and pushing doxa into the universe of discourse and heterodoxy. Orthodox discourse attempts to “[delimit] the universe of possible discourse” (169), “the universe of the thinkable,” and, in fact, deny the dominated classes “access to the instruments of the struggle for the definition of reality” (170). From this perspective, then, the attempt to remove problem-exploring and ill-structured problems from school settings is not simply an aversion to the messiness of deep learning and problem solving but an attempt to limit the kinds of thinking that students and citizens can do. When people have the language and the disposition to explore problems critically, they are dangerous to the dominant and authorized order. Bourdieu reminds us of John-Paul Sartre’s comment: “Words wreak havoc when they find a name for what had up to then been lived namelessly” (qtd. in Outline 170).

Next Steps: Introduction to This Issue

What can writing studies do to counter the educational systems’ rejection of programs that encourage problem-exploring dispositions? If we cannot find ways to change our educational fields and, in turn, to encourage creative and reflexive dispositions in our students, then our students will find themselves pursuing easy answers and avoiding the complexity of exploring difficult questions. As we know from personal experience, there are serious consequences to watching helplessly as educational systems take on stronger and stronger answer-getting dispositions.

The kind of transfer research presented in this journal goes a long way in helping us counter trends toward easy answers, standardized approaches, and learning silos. Putting into practice what we are learning from transfer research can help us provide our students with tools to disrupt the dispositions they have acquired from years in K-12 fields focused on answer-getting.


Although I set out to write a brief introduction to this special issue, the activity quickly turned into an extended thinking session. I owe four people a big “thank you” for talking through ideas with me, and reading various pieces and drafts: Mark Hall, Jennifer Maher, Kevin Roozen, and Angela Rounsaville.

  1. Bourdieu uses “field” to describe “the structured space of positions in which the positions and their interrelations are determined by the distribution of different kinds of resources or ‘capital’” (Thompson 14). (Return to text.)

  2. The various writing-about-writing curricula (Downs and Wardle) being enacted around the country are an example from our own field of curricula designed to teach transferable principle and concepts (declarative knowledge about concepts) rather than specific how-tos limited to one context. To learn more, visit UCF’s First-Year Writing website: (Return to text.)

Works Cited

Adler-Kassner, Linda, John Majewski, and Damian Koschnick. The Value of Troublesome Knowledge: Transfer and Threshold Concepts in Writing and History. Composition Forum 26 (2012). Web.

Beaufort, Anne. College Writing and Beyond: Five Years Later. Composition Forum 26 (2012). Web.

Bourdieu, Pierre. The Logic of Practice. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1990. Print.

———. Language and Symbolic Power. Trans. Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson. Ed. John B. Thompson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1999. Print.

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