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Composition Forum 32, Fall 2015

Response to Heather Lindenman’s ‘Inventing Metagenres’: Clarifications and Questions for Future Research

Kathleen Blake Yancey, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak

We write today with a twofold purpose: to thank Composition Forum for its continuing interest in the research on transfer, and to respond to Heather Lindenman’s Inventing Metagenres. We correct some statements the article makes about our own research; and because we found Lindenman’s study both helpful and provocative, we raise some questions and suggest some alternative lines of reasoning that all of us interested in transfer may want to pursue.

As to the corrections:

  1. Lindenman claims that in Writing Across Contexts the students we interviewed “saw their out-of-school writing as ‘expression.’” In fact, this is the opposite of what we found. In interviews, students explained that they understood writing as what they called expression, which we trace directly to their experiences inside school. As we wrote in Contexts:
in spite of their own experience as writers to others, these students see writing principally as a vehicle for authorial expression, not as a vehicle for dialogue or an opportunity to make knowledge, both of which are common conceptions in college writing environments. We speculate that this way of seeing writing—universally as a means of authorial expression in different historical and intellectual contexts—may be influenced by the emphasis on imaginative authorship in the high school literature curriculum, in which students read the writing of poets, novelists, and dramatists as forms of (canonical) expression.

In sum, we theorize that students identify expression as a defining purpose of writing because of the high school curricular emphasis on literary authorial expression.

  1. There is also some confusion about a student, Rick, whose work we studied: Lindenman’s interpretation leaves out a significant part both of what he said and of what we interpreted. Lindenman points to Rick’s comparison between writing in FYC and in a chemistry class, observing that he “is able to ‘map similarities’ across his first-year writing class and his science classes; he then draws on his new understanding to create a successful poster for chemistry class (120-5) and write more effective conclusions” (136). This synopsis is correct but incomplete. Rick articulates similarities, but he sees key differences, too, as he says with reference to the poster:
I have this poster I had to create for my chemistry class, which tells me what genre I have to use, and so I know how to write it, because a poster should be organized a certain way and look a certain way and it is written to a specific audience in a scientific way. I wouldn’t write it the same way I would write a research essay—I’m presenting the key points about this chemistry project not writing a lot of paragraphs that include what other people say about it or whatever. The poster is just the highlights with illustrations, but it is right for its audience.

Our conclusion about Rick’s writing in science contexts, as we shared it in Writing across Contexts, is that Rick “begins to see writing as synthetic and genres as flexible, and in the process he begins to develop a more capacious conception of writing, based in part on his expert practice of tracingsimilarities and differences across his own past and present writing tasks.” In other words, in our view, students who make separate observations about similarities and about differences have made a good beginning; what they also need, as Rick shows us, is a more sophisticated analysis of both similarity and difference in tasks across contexts.

As to the alternative lines of reasoning and some questions:

  1. Lindenman makes the claim that in the questions researchers ask students, we construct conceptions of writing for our students—an important point. She also argues that such questions can exert a constraining effect: “writing teachers and researchers find students unable or unlikely to transfer genre knowledge across domains because the questions we ask of them often invoke these domains and therefore eclipse other possibilities,” an interesting speculation. But the research that Lindenman points to differs from the research she conducts in that they include very different student populations, and we wonder if that too doesn't make a large difference in her research findings and interpretations. For example, the article begins with the NCTE/CCCC Listening Tour, an interview project involving students entering college; likewise, much of the research on transfer Lindenman points to focuses on first-year college students. Lindenman’s students, in contrast, are well into their majors, with more than 3/4 them college seniors: “Eight of the ten students who participated in all four stages were college seniors, and two were college juniors.” Given that most of these students are finishing their college careers (rather than starting them), we wondered how their perceptions might compare with those of students at comparable stages, such as those studied by Hilgers et al. and Jarratt et al. Their research, of course, tells us that students require a vocabulary with which to articulate knowledge about writing: Lindenman’s study seems similar in that it speaks to her subjects’ capacity for terminology, or the ability to focus on writing conceptually, something those of us researching in transfer have identified as critical to student writing success at all levels.

  2. One of the students informing Lindenman’s study is Robert, whose writings include “scholarship essays, grant essays, and grant applications, which he has composed for personal reasons, as a part of the campus trail club, and as an anthropology research assistant”: his experience raises two questions for us. First: given that a student entering college isn't likely to be engaged in writing these kinds of texts yet since occasions for them are not yet available, are we correct in thinking that first-year students are less likely to draw on such writing and thus also less able to identify the kinds of metagenres traced in the study? Second, 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. Lindenman seems to agree when she says, “Indeed, it is possible that students’ experiences with “wild” genres (Prior, Soliday) . . . played a role in helping them transcend the academic-nonacademic divide when analyzing their own compositions.” What is the role, in other words, of wild genres in supporting student transfer, and what differing moments might the academic career present for students’ transfer of writing knowledge and practice?

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