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Composition Forum 32, Fall 2015

Response to Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak

Heather Lindenman

I appreciate the opportunity to reply to Kathleen Blake Yancey, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak’s helpful response to my article. I am grateful for the authors’ close attention to Inventing Metagenres and for using this as an opportunity to continue the dialogue in the spirit of our field. I accept Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak’s point about students’ understanding of writing as “a vehicle for authorial expression” (111). In addition, the authors raise a number of excellent questions about the state of transfer research, and I want to take up two of those here.

  1. Students’ recognition of similarity and difference when relating their writing across contexts

The authors note that one student they profile in Writing Across Contexts, Rick, articulates both similarities and, crucially, differences between his writing experiences. In particular, they show that Rick “begins to develop a more capacious conception of writing, based in part on his expert practice of tracing similarities and differences across his own past and present writing tasks” (124, italics mine). Scholarship in Rhetorical Genre Studies supports the authors’ point that students who recognize the differences (along with the similarities) between their various writing tasks seem better equipped to transfer successfully. In Anyone for Tennis, Anne Freadman makes the case that we identify genres by their similarities but also by the ways they differ. Indeed, Mary Jo Reiff and Anis Bawarshi’s as well as Rebecca Nowacek’s discussions of “not talk” demonstrate how important it is for students to locate the specific ways their compositions are not only similar, but also different. Recognizing the differences between genres makes it more likely that writers will not mindlessly replicate prior knowledge in situations that call for an alternate approach. Following in the tradition of transfer research informed by Rhetorical Genre Studies, Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak demonstrate in Writing Across Contexts that students’ ability to draw effectively on their prior writing experiences depends not only on their ability to see likenesses, but also on their ability to distinguish between their various writing endeavors in careful, nuanced ways.

In my article, I present students’ ways of categorizing their compositions by metagenres, groupings that highlight similarities between a collection of writing tasks that are often otherwise quite strikingly different from one another. While my informants’ metagenres do not seem to erase the significant differences between their writing tasks, they do bring to the forefront relevant similarities that productively link students’ compositions by their broader purposes. In my dissertation project, I expand on the work I do in “Inventing Metagenres” by attending to additional ways that students relate their various writing experiences. In the larger project, I present five ways, of which metageneric reasoning is one, that students successfully relate their writing experiences by both similarity and difference. These include analogical reasoning, antithetical reasoning, a fortiori reasoning, and comparative/contrasting reasoning. Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak’s concept of “mental maps” of writing that serve as guiding frameworks for writers (41-42, 124-25, 129) has proven especially useful to me as I consider how students’ ways of relating their writing experiences might facilitate successful transfer. I look forward to reporting more on this in the future.

  1. Attention to upper-level college students

Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak suggest that the results of my study may depend to a degree on the population I survey and interview. It is certainly the case that a study of different student populations—notably younger, less experienced, or less involved college students—might yield different findings than my study of college juniors and seniors. Doug Brent (Crossing Boundaries) and Michael-John DePalma (Tracing Transfer Across Media) both demonstrate, like my study does, that upper-level students draw meaningful connections among their composition activities and other academic and life experiences. Their research is consistent with the authors’ suggestion that “it may be that the later college experience provides an especially fortuitous moment for transfer, particularly if students are engaged in writing such real-world genres.” Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak’s suggestion is intriguing and merits further inquiry. As the authors suggest in their response, future studies might explicitly compare the ways first-year and upper-level students relate (or do not relate) their writing experiences.

I also wonder how we might take advantage of this “especially fortuitous moment” in our pedagogy. Writing instructors and administrators might design upper-level writing classes that more intentionally help students locate useful relationships (which include similarities and differences) among many of their writing experiences across contexts. How might advanced composition courses serve as a hub for students to analyze their writing from academic, professional, and personal settings? What in-class activities might help students identify useful relationships? Furthermore, if upper-level students are drawing useful connections that help them transfer successfully across writing contexts, composition scholars might share our research on that population more widely to provide a counterpoint to the doom-and-gloom accounts of students’ minimal academic gains and unhelpful non-academic pursuits during their college years (e.g. Arum and Roska). We might leverage our findings to communicate with wider audiences about the extent to which students’ wide array of college experiences may prepare them to write effectively after graduation.

Thanks to Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak for raising such thought-provoking questions and creating a productive opportunity for dialogue about issues of importance to our field. Thanks also to the editors for the opportunity to reply to the authors’ illuminating response.

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