What are we doing here?
Official Description: This course provides continued instruction and practice in the techniques of composing, with emphasis on argumentation. Students will write both formal and informal assignments, one of which will be a research paper. They will be expected to demonstrate increased competence in the writing processes from invention through revision. Class work involves analysis of occasion, audience, and purpose, as well as peer critiques and evaluation.
Our class is going to be different from any other English class you’ve had. The focus of our conversations and research into writing is going to be centered on questions of transfer; that is, we’re going to explore how you can transfer what you know about writing from one classroom to another, from college to the workplace, and from your work life to your private life. To do this, we’re going to have conversations about what is means to do academic writing and engage in undergraduate scholarship even as we’re learning some thing about how writing and research work in higher education.
What is transfer?
Scholars in education and, most recently, in writing studies have started to ask questions about what students learn about writing in their first year of college and how they apply that knowledge later on in their academic and professional careers. For many years, writing teachers (and others) simply assumed that it was easy for students to practice writing in one course and then continue applying that information for their other courses. Research, however, has come to show us two interrelated things: Learning to write is a lifelong process, and learning about writing—how it works and how people apply this knowledge about writing as an activity—may be the best way to prepare students for the wide variety of writing tasks they’ll face in college an in their professional lives.
Transfer—or the knowledge and skills we learn in one context enhancing what we know or do in another related (but not identical) context—depends on students learning the knowledge or skill in the first place, but transfer also depends on individuals knowing when to apply particular pieces of information and abstract thinking that can take time. So, for our purposes, let’s think of transfer as “how previous learning influences current and future learning, and how past or current learning is applied or adapted to similar or novel situations. Transfer, then, isn’t so much an instructional or learning technique as a way of thinking, perceiving, and processing information” (Haskell 23).
When we talk about transfer in your first-year writing course (and beyond), we want you thinking about how you think about, perceive, and process information—both in similar learning environments and in unrelated situations. Think of it like this. You’ve been driving a car for a few years. You know how to navigate the roads, how to adjust the mirrors, and even how fast to take particular corners on the drive home. Now, if you needed to drive a moving truck, you could do a pretty good job on the streets. There would be some adjustments and learning curves, but driving a car and driving a moving truck would be similar enough that triggers would cue your senses and reflexes. This is what is often called “low road transfer,” or that automatic triggering in similar circumstances. For me, the best example of this would be thank you notes. As a child, my mother had me write notes to family friends and grandparents whenever I received a gift. Many, many, many years later, when I got married, I needed to write thank you notes to friends and family who purchased gifts as part of the celebration. Even though I hadn’t written a note like this in years, the little cards, folded in half, reminded me to name the gift I received, to comment on why it was going to be useful, and to say something meaningful about my relationship to the gift giver. This writing situation was easy for me not only because I knew the genre (thank you notes) but also because I had practice with the activity itself.
Now, as a writing teacher, you might expect me to say that I also exhibit good “high road transfer,” or that transfer of skills or knowledge that depends more on mindful abstractions. This hasn’t always been easy for me. Like you, I’ve encountered a number of writing tasks that I had never practiced, never read, and never studied. For example, as a faculty member, I have to set goals for myself each year, explaining to my boss (the Dean of Humanities) what I plan to do as a teacher, as a researcher, and as a colleague at SEU. Never in my life have I had to do this: not when I was waiting tables in high school, not when I was entering inventory data into a computer system for an oil and gas company, and certainly not when I was proofreading wills for a probate attorney. (Yes, I had all those jobs.)
When I sat down to write up my professional development plan, I didn’t have a genre to work from—I’d never written a project like this before—but I did have experience working with reflection and with goal setting. By thinking back to what I had written years and years ago as a 4-Her and remembering what I know about reflective writing, I was able to dissect this new writing situation and see that beneath its differences were similar moves I had made before as a writer. This is “high road transfer,” or our ability to use reflective thought to abstract from one context and make connections to another. I want you entering this course thinking about transfer because, as I hope the above examples illustrate, if you can begin to recognize how and why writing situations are different, then you’ll be better prepared to adapt your (reading and) writing processes and practices for the writing challenges you’ll face throughout your career at SEU and beyond.
Our job—and the goal of this site—is to give you the knowledge and language to recognize the working parts of writing situations. This is why we’re organizing the class around Threshold Concepts.
What is a Threshold Concept?
As you first start thinking about threshold concepts, you may find yourself wondering if these are more than vocabulary terms. Yes, the concepts you’ll work through in this course are also the jargon of writing studies, but these concepts are also representative of big ideas related to writing—ideas that are so big and so unique to the way that writing scholars think and talk about writing that learning them will allow you to approach your own writing activities as an expert. In your other courses, these threshold concepts may act as gateways, or ideas that you must master before you can understand any other content.
So, a threshold concept isn’t just an idea you need to understand to move forward in a course; a threshold concept is something that can act as a lens for you to use in your analysis of ideas within a discipline. These threshold concepts affect how different groups of people ask questions, how they seek answers to their questions, and even how they interpret the data once they’ve collected it.
There are some key features of threshold concepts, and these features help us separate out vocabulary, jargon, and skills we might learn in a discipline from a concept unique to how a given discipline makes knowledge.
Transformative. Once you understand a threshold concept, the way you think about your discipline will change. If you are a business student, for example, understanding opportunity cost might fundamentally change how you think about the work you do in that field. The same might be true for a linguistics student or social scientist thinking about signification.
Troublesome. Threshold concepts are not easy to wrap our brains around; in fact, they may not only seem unnecessarily difficult, but they may not even make sense. When I first learned about signs and signifiers, I couldn’t grasp the idea that some things are “real” and others are just what we labeled them. Once I understood the relationship and significance of these terms, I couldn’t think about words and language use in the same way. Irreversible. Once we understand and grasp the concepts, we cannot unlearn them, just as I suggested above. Because I have a background in women’s studies, I think about media representations of women through a particular lens. This doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy movies, like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, but it does mean that I have to consciously “turn off” that part of my brain to avoid over analyzing the gender roles suggested by the film.
Integrative. Threshold concepts, once we learn them, help us make connections within our discipline that we couldn’t easily make before. As you work through the eight concepts of this course, we hope that you’ll use our built-in cues to make these connections. We also hope that you make your connections and bridges between various concepts. More importantly, by the time our course is over, you should have a clearer understanding of three threshold concepts related to writing.
Threshold Concept #1: Writing mediates activity: writing gets things done and makes things happen.
Threshold Concept #2: Good writing is completely dependent on the situation, readers, and uses it’s being created for.
Threshold Concept #3: Writing is knowledge-making, an ongoing, recursive process that changes not only what you write but also what you think. Okay. So, what does writing for transfer mean? Writing for transfer is a pedagogical approach (a way of teaching) based on the theory that changing what you know about writing can change the way you write. Writing is relevant to all of us, and what you learn about writing now will be useful to you after this class ends (and even after you leave SEU). You already have 12+ years of (formal) reading and writing experience, so you have the expertise to ask interesting questions about why you (and others) write, which is the first step to becoming a student scholar. This course should give you declarative knowledge about writing—you’ll know things about writing that more than 50 years of research has uncovered—and procedural knowledge about writing—you’ll know more about how writing practices, including your own, work. Here are some questions that you’ll be able to answer by the end of the course: How does writing help us learn? What is the purpose of asking questions in college, and what do questions have to do with writing? Is college writing (and research) really any different from what you learned in high school? How, if at all, does writing matter for your job or for your major?