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Composition Forum 26, Fall 2012

Nowacek, Rebecca S. Agents of Integration: Understanding Transfer as a Rhetorical Act. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2011. 192 pp.

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Laura Martinez

Recent studies on transfer in rhetoric and composition have identified “students’ persistent struggles and often failed efforts” to “draw on what they learned in previous classes” as they learn to communicate in new settings (Nowacek 2). Longitudinal studies on transfer, primarily from first-year composition, have illustrated students’ difficulties with viewing connections among their courses (McCarthy), have taught us that students themselves have little faith in the potential for transfer from FYC (Bergmann and Zepernick), and have emphasized the role of metawareness in students’ understanding of the “need” for transfer (Wardle). Despite the value of such findings, Rebecca Nowacek points out, longitudinal studies that require long data collection periods are sometimes “unable to include first-hand observations of classroom discussions” that can “make visible” the “detail-rich context” within which students connect knowledge (3). Seeking to provide such details, Nowacek uses a synchronous approach to study transfer for one semester in a team-taught multidisciplinary course sequence.

Working within a three-semester “Interdisciplinary Humanities Seminar offered to first-year honors students at a Catholic university on the East Coast,” Nowacek studied eighteen students in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences as they entered the second semester in their first year of college (4). In addition, the study included interviews and observations with the three course instructors—Roger from history, Thomas from religious studies, and Olivia from literature. Each course in this seminar had a “disciplinary designation,” but all of the class sessions took place in the same room with the same participants, which often prompted conversations to be carried through different classes (4). In addition, Nowacek points out, “sessions with only one professor present were the exception,” as instructors readily visited and engaged with students in all of their courses (4). In this environment, Nowacek was able to record and analyze class discussions, conduct interviews with students and instructors, and collect student work throughout a single semester, using her data to gather insights into how these students and instructors adhered to opportunities for transfer among various disciplines (4).

Primarily, Nowacek’s findings suggest multiple implications for how genre and transfer research can be combined to help explain how students use previous conceptions of writing as they attempt to write in new contexts. Her focus on the recontextualization of genres expands on the sociocultural approach to transfer that considers both the individuals and the activity systems in which transfer is embedded (see, for example, Beach; Beaufort; Wardle). Adopting King Beach’s concept of transfer as the “generalization” of knowledge across activity systems, sociocultural and activity-based conceptions of transfer emphasize the social interactions and organizations through which transfer operates (qtd. in Wardle 67). Nowacek similarly defines transfer as context-dependent, but she draws a distinction between transfer and genre research. “Theories of transfer,” Nowacek explains, “assume that an individual is moving among fundamentally different situations and seeking to identify some similarity” (20). On the other hand, “theories of genre assume that individuals find themselves in fundamentally similar situations and draw on socially constructed and constitutive genres in order to minimize the sense of difference in these different situations” (20). Hence, “spoken and written genres are a central mechanism” that provide the “cues” for transfer (12). Drawing from the work of Anis Bawarshi and Mary Jo Reiff, Nowacek suggests that in order to encourage students to apply their knowledge about writing to new writing situations, instructors must understand the genres that are already familiar to students, and must complicate students’ conceptions of genres as patterns of static conventions. Furthermore, as students develop and adjust their conceptions of genres from one classroom to the next, they must act as “agents of integration” who repurpose and “sell” their writing to a new audience (68). Instructors, then, function as “handlers” of transfer, providing the adequate cues for students and serving as the audiences for the students working as agents (68). Though previous scholarship has addressed the value of teaching genres as “intertextual” and situated within activity systems (Devitt; Russell), Nowacek illustrates the negative impacts that limited perceptions of genres may have on students’ future successes with writing.

For example, in her discussion of one student, Kelly, Nowacek points out that Kelly’s preconception of “diary” as a genre that focuses on the psychological portrait of an individual prevented Kelly from fulfilling the requirements of the “Medieval Diary” assignment in her history class, where she was asked to “‘focus on material details’” relating to the life of a character in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (47-48). Working from her understanding of “diary” as a genre, Kelly wrote a “Medieval Diary” centered on the psychological issues of the character she had chosen, eventually earning a poor grade on the assignment. In this case, Kelly’s genre confusion caused her to experience “negative” transfer, where her previous understanding of a genre and her lack of rhetorical awareness about the discipline and course in which she was writing kept her from adjusting this genre in order to fit the expectations of the instructor in her current class.

Kelly’s situation with her medieval diary, in my opinion, reflects Joseph Petraglia’s portrayal of writing as an “ill-structured” situation that counters students’ usual preference for “well-structured” academic learning. Students in Nowacek’s study frequently resisted a rhetorical perspective on academic knowledge. After a discussion between instructors Olivia and Roger extended into a disagreement over the significance of the scientific method in their respective disciplines, students expressed that they were “irritated,” viewing the discussion not as a reflection of the rhetorical dexterity embedded in the disciplines, but as a personal quibble between their instructors (95). Nowacek further notes that the student notebooks she analyzed after this disagreement contained little mention of the discussion between the instructors, focusing instead on what David Russell has described as the “cool and hardened truths” of the course content (qtd. in Nowacek 95). Though the instructors were using the contrasting views on the scientific method as an opportunity to demonstrate how disciplinary knowledge is shaped by academics in their fields, students resisted the “ill-structured” nature of this discussion in favor of the “well-structured” facts that they wrote down in their notebooks. This inclination toward “facts and content” rather than rhetorical flexibility, Nowacek suggests, also governs students’ perceptions of genres. As she explains, such a misconception leads to negative transfer, as students attempt to carry genre knowledge across contexts without adhering to the need for recontextualization (95).

Drawing from multiple class discussions and student interviews, Nowacek’s findings certainly support her call for “helping students see the rhetorical domain of disciplines” by working with students to recontextualize genre knowledge and “sell” their writing to new audiences (128). Within the unique environment of a small Learning Community, Nowacek identifies the value of incorporating the “ill-structured” nature of writing into all disciplines. She concludes by proposing an interdisciplinary LC model to writing instruction, where there is no traditional FYC course, but where responsibility for writing instruction lies “within a learning community taught by non-FYC instructors” (129). Though Nowacek’s findings can support the argument for the establishment of LCs and the replacement of FYC as a separate course, her research also provides multiple opportunities for instructors to acknowledge the role of teaching genre awareness in more traditional FYC courses. In particular, Nowacek’s illustration of the symbiotic relationship between students as “agents” and instructors as “handlers” of transfer seems readily applicable to FYC classrooms. Though many institutions may not be able to apply the ideal LC model that Nowacek suggests, viewing students as “agents of integration” within FYC may allow instructors an opportunity to effectively “handle” potential opportunities for transfer. For example, by allowing students to research and trace genre knowledge across various activity systems, FYC instructors can encourage students to explore how genres become repurposed within disciplines, hence preparing students to understand how they might “sell” their writing to various audiences.

After reading the discussion of how students like Kelly and others in history and literature may misuse what Kathleen Jamieson has referred to as their “antecedent genres” in an attempt to transfer writing-related knowledge, it’s clear to me that we should actively acknowledge students’ antecedent genres as we create new assignments to encourage transfer. As Nowacek suggests, instructors must continue “working behind the scenes through assignment prompts and class discussions to promote the success of students as agents,” pushing students through their assignments to the necessary rhetorical awareness needed to understand the situated nature of genres (68). Furthermore, though Nowacek makes the claim that “instructors may also function as the audience to whom students must sell their connections,” I think that a case can also be made for the role that students play as audience members to their instructors’ attempts at encouraging transfer (68). In the discussion between Olivia and Roger, for example, understanding the role of students as audience could perhaps have prompted these instructors to directly ask their students to acknowledge and discuss how the scientific method may have been recontextualized within their respective disciplines. This discussion may have allowed students to better understand the instructors’ purpose for choosing to openly engage in their quibble. In this case, students may have seen the discussion between their instructors as representative of disciplinary values rather than individual preferences. Instead of only expecting students to make and “sell” the connections to their instructors, a curriculum focused on encouraging transfer might also consider how such connections could be “sold” to students in their current courses.

Though, as Nowacek admits, the setting of her study was “not typical of most undergraduate classrooms,” this unique opportunity allowed her to develop “a theory of how transfer operates,” primarily by illustrating the roles that students and instructors may undertake in their efforts to encourage transfer beyond a single course or discipline (6). Her most valuable contributions, perhaps, are the extensive examples of class conversations that may allow instructors to better understand how students use prior genre knowledge to navigate writing in new contexts. Using these illustrations, and learning from the experiences of students like Kelly, instructors in many institutional settings can work to foster their roles as “handlers” of transfer, primarily by emphasizing the rhetorical exigencies that define transfer as recontextualization.

Works Cited

Bawarshi, Anis, and Mary Jo Reiff. Genre: An Introduction to History, Theory, Research, and Pedagogy. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor, 2003. Print.

Beach, King. “Consequential Transitions: A Sociocultural Expedition Beyond Transfer in Education.” Review of Research in Education 24 (1999): 101–39. Web. 1 Jan. 2012.

Beaufort, Anne. College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instruction. Logan: Utah State UP, 2007. Print.

Bergmann, Linda, and Janet Zepernick. “Disciplinarity and Transfer: Students’ Perceptions of Learning to Write.” WPA 31.1/2 (2007): 124–49. Web. 1 Jan. 2012.

Devitt, Amy. Writing Genres. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2004. Print.

Jamieson, Kathleen. “Antecedent Genre as Rhetorical Constraint.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 61 (1975): 406–15. Web. 1 Jan. 2012.

McCarthy, Lucille. “A Stranger in Strange Lands: A College Student Writing Across the Curriculum.” Research in the Teaching of English 21.3 (1987): 233–65. Web. 1 Jan. 2012.

Petraglia, Joseph. “Writing as an Unnatural Act.” Reconceiving Writing, Rethinking Writing Instruction. Ed. Joseph Petraglia. New York: Routledge, 2009. 79–100. Print.

Russell, David. “Activity Theory and its Implications for Writing.” Reconceiving Writing, Rethinking Writing Instruction. Ed. Joseph Petraglia. New York: Routledge, 2009. 51–78. Print.

Wardle, Elizabeth. “Understanding ‘Transfer’ from FYC: Preliminary Results of a Longitudinal Study.” WPA 31.1/2 (2007): 65–85. Web. 1 Jan. 2012.

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