Skip to content

Composition Forum 42, Fall 2019

Review of Barbara Bird, Doug Downs, I. Moriah McCracken, and Jan Reiman’s Next Steps: New Directions for/in Writing about Writing

Christopher Iverson

Bird, Barbara, Doug Downs, I. Moriah McCracken, and Jan Reiman, eds. Next Steps: New Directions for/in Writing about Writing. Utah State UP, 2019. 293 pp.

Recently I taught a first-year writing course, doing my best to adhere to what LaRiviere refers to in this collection as the “virtues” (269) of Writing about Writing pedagogy. Many of my students appreciated the opportunity to act as researchers of writing and define literacies in their own terms, but when I mentioned the title of Wardle and Downs’ Writing about Writing, they chuckled with friendly exasperation at their instructor who clearly thought entirely too much about writing. We did not use Wardle and Downs’ text that semester, and they finished the term having enjoyed the agency that the course encouraged but still not convinced that they should be writing about writing. This reaction stuck with me as I read Bird, Downs, McCracken, and Reiman’s Next Steps: New Directions for/in Writing about Writing, which both promotes the writing about writing (WAW) approach to university stakeholders unfamiliar with it and engages “the converted” in thought about what comes next. If the virtues of WAW can convince student writers of their agency to think critically about writing, why would the idea of writing about writing make them uncomfortable?

It could be that the idea seems tautological on the surface. There’s so much to write about in 2018 in the United States that a rather narrow view of what writing is could seem constraining. Similarly, as Gaier and Wallace note in their “Student Voice” contribution (55), and as DeWinter also supports (191), the focus for student writers during the semester is writing a paper, while the benefits of learning writing as a process and the value of defining that process often become clear to writers over time and after the course. This aversion to WAW might also relate to the faculty reaction Mahaffey and Reiman note, as a move towards WAW pedagogy means a shift from formalist, argument-based essay writing to more inquiry-guided explorations of literacy and writing as a process, and university stakeholders must be on board with this shift (125). Resistance to WAW can come from students and faculty alike because of its departure from more traditional, argument-based writing instruction and the shifts in attitude necessary to follow through on that departure; more specifically, students might find the topic uninspiring, and faculty may resist changes that entrench writing into its own discipline.

Which is why Next Steps is designed to not only show the value of writing about writing, but also to dispel the notion that the approach is monolithic. Indeed, Bird, Downs, McCracken, and Reiman open with a reminder of three main principles of WAW: that writing is a worthwhile object of study, students are viewed as writers rather than student writers, and that knowledge of writing is advanced with students as researchers (3-4). These are broad and guiding principles, and they organize this text into three parts that show how these principles apply to the areas of Writerly Identities, Process, and Engagement, challenging previous knowledge on these topics. Next Steps also includes contributions that show how the topics have changed since the 2007 publication of Writing About Writing’s first edition.

Because the editors value how local context shapes pedagogy, they feature contributors from a range of institutional types (research universities, liberal arts schools, technical schools, community colleges) and stakeholders (WPAs, tenured faculty, contingent faculty, graduate instructors, students, alumni). This amounts to 29 chapters that allow the book to address the implications of WAW across multiple contexts. To make this point even more effectively, the editors include key information about institution types/sizes, course contexts, study design and methodology (when applicable), whether or not a program is a WAW program, whether the study examined a course or single assignment, the status of the writer (tenured, tenure-track, professional, contingent faculty, or student/alumni) and finally, they include key terms. This information matters because context shapes how WAW is conceived, implemented, and received and why (4). For example, LaRiviere’s relabeling of the principles of WAW as “virtues” arose in large part because she implemented those virtues in a program that did not adopt a WAW approach, so she had to make the WAW goals distinct from the more traditional, argument-based learning goals of her program while using the texts and assignments the program prescribed (262). While LaRiviera’s case is an outlier here, this example makes clear that WAW affords some autonomy to faculty and students alike even if programs might not acknowledge it.

Thanks to this diversity of perspective, Next Steps touches upon the implications of WAW for second language/multilingual writing (Grant; Rudd), culture and writing (Wilson and Jackson, Vera; Hart); student identity as researchers (Ogilvie; Johnson; Kleinfeld), STEM writing (Arbor; Lucchesi; deWinter), two-year colleges (Casey; Aksakalova and Zino ), digital composition and multimodality (Wenger; Stinson; Smith, Frick, and Siebel), transfer (Tremain; Nowacek), writing in the disciplines (Robinson), and threshold concepts (Wardle and Adler-Kassner). Alongside reflections, there is advice on ways to approach WAW in different contexts, such as an unsupportive program (LaRiviere), hybrid programs (Mahaffey and Reiman), multiple programs across institutional contexts (Read and Michaud), interdisciplinarity (Bryan, Roozen, and Stack; Cutrufellow), linguistic diversity (Gennaro), and curricular review (deWinter). Also noteworthy is the inclusion of Student Voice contributions that take diverse approaches to WAW, including long-term learning about composition (Gaier and Wallace; Hoover, Limesand, Hammond, and Wellman), the rhetorical knowledge to write across linguistic, cultural, and professional communities (Sugimoto), and multimodality (Smith, Frick, and Siebel).

This collection pulls from so many diverse writers, stakeholders, institutions, and programs to make clear that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to WAW. As a relatively new instructor who learned of WAW early in my career, I need no convincing to appreciate the merits, principles, and virtues of WAW. But I know that others do, and I particularly appreciate Read and Michaud’s Negotiating WAW-PW Across Diverse Institutional Contexts for making clear that institutional contexts play a large role in how WAW is put into practice in professional writing courses across disciplines. This chapter differs from others in the collection insofar as it does not name a single institutional context and the instructors in question vary from tenured professors to contingent faculty. This array of contexts and identities presents a diverse picture of how WAW can work based on existing department/program standardization that sets expectations for writing outcomes from administrators and, similarly, students’ learning expectations based on current-traditional approaches to writing (168, 169). Faculty at any level must manage those expectations, but those with the safety of tenure (or on the tenure track) may have more freedom to take chances and intentionally diverge from more traditional curricular expectations and adopt unsanctioned materials (169). Because of the various contexts in which WAW could be implemented and by whom, Read and Michaud propose two definitional rubrics for enacting WAW in professional writing courses: “weak” and “strong.” A strong definitional rubric would incorporate disciplinary knowledge of professional and technical writing from scholarly sources and stick closely to the principles Downs and Wardle propose in Writing About Writing. A weak one would retain two major elements of the strong rubric: 1) an explicit focus on transferrable rhetorical knowledge, and 2) some incorporation of actual professional and technical writing as material for study (170). They acknowledge that the weak rubric omits much of the strong rubric’s potential for institutional change, but the weak rubric at least allows contingent and newer faculty to take calculated risks and employ WAW in some form.

A foundational principle of WAW is that students are taught to embrace their writerly agency and act as composition writers and researchers. Therefore, I was intrigued by the “Student Voices” contributions to Next Steps (Gaier and Wallace; Sugimoto; Hoover, Limesand, Hammond, and Wellman; Smith, Frick, and Siebel), and in this review I want to draw attention to Sugimoto because he helps set up WAW for worthwhile next steps. Sugimoto writes from personal experience in a required first-year writing course designed for English Language Learners at a private university in Florida with a strong aviation program. He reflects that learning about discourse communities allowed the class to explore professional writing and how it intersects with cultures and languages (68). He adds that learning about cultures and communities of writing helped make sense of a situation in which he had a misunderstanding with his host family where he turned down food and gifts out of politeness, but learned that his politeness, meant to save bother, actually caused the host family stress (69). Sugimoto also reflects on discourse communities as they apply to his profession, noting that in aviation, English is the lingua franca, but individuals within that community have different communication styles depending on their backgrounds, and this causes accidents despite the common language (69). Ultimately, Sugimoto echoes others’ sentiments that WAW can teach transferrable ideas (Nowacek) but adds that those in the process of learning English can apply that knowledge (such as discourse community knowledge) to their understanding of the various Englishes and help native English speakers understand that dynamic as well.

This is not the place to report everything Next Steps has to offer, but I want to end by reflecting on those next steps. The collection seems rooted in the past and the present more than the future. Bird, Downs, McCraken, and Reiman open with a short history of WAW, reminding us that WAW pedagogies are not entirely new, but rather newer iterations of approaches to acknowledging that students benefit from direct access to writing studies discourse and have the agency to create it (13). The editors reach back as far as Ancient Greece to explain the role of Aristotle’s students in recording his texts, and they include 20th-century scholars such as Murray and Elbow who knew that writers have plenty to learn from other writers, students or otherwise. The shifts that have taken place since Writing About Writing’s initial publication in 2007 are grounded in existing rhetorical theory.

This is a book about those changes. It is a look at the state of WAW as of 2019, with chapters such as El Ensayo: Latinxs Writing about Writing (Wilson, Jackson, and Vera)—acknowledging the work WAW has done and still has to do as the American academy moves away from prizing, above all, a white, middle class aesthetic—and Podcasting and Protocols: An Approach to Writing about Writing through Sound (Smith, Frick, and Siebel)—extending the conversation from scholarship on alphabetic literacy to multimodal composition. Therefore, while I suspect that Next Steps will be most effective for those who already support WAW, the text’s exploration of those next steps could allow for those critically interrogating other ways of writing instruction to pull from WAW and inform their thinking.

For example, I am interested to see WAW pedagogy mapped onto community-engaged/public writing, where students’ roles as writers and researchers will necessarily change when stakeholders outside of the academy are involved. I am also keen to learn how interdisciplinarity invites scholarship from across disciplines into WAW discourse as those disciplinary lines blur and the need for researchers outside of English/Writing Studies asks us to continue the tradition of rethinking the field, and graduate students may benefit from the varied perspectives and history of WAW to help guide this change. Much like I was unable to give every chapter of Next Steps: New Directions for/in Writing about Writing its due attention, I could not include the accompanying website, which will likely change to accommodate these shifts. Ultimately, I hope to see more editions of Next Steps as a result of the work of faculty, administrators, researchers, and students in our field, and I’d like to see if, by the time of those updates, students like the ones I mentioned at the beginning of this review will find the concept of writing about writing more enticing. Maybe one or more of them will even contribute a chapter.

Works Cited

Wardle, Elizabeth and Doug Downs, eds. Writing about Writing: A College Reader. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2017. 913 pp.

Return to Composition Forum 42 table of contents.