by Steven Dube
“I want my students to internalize the idea that they are not writing isolated essays in a writing class, but that they’re writers thinking through their choices, no matter what the context is.”
1. One common difficulty that students face in research is filtering out irrelevant information. A student, let’s call him James, may say that he wants to research the health benefits of organic food, and he will do so, but he will also include information on why it’s so expensive. First drafts are littered with interesting but irrelevant points. In class, we talk about filtering out information and how writing is as much, if not more, about what you choose to not write about as your topic itself. In fact, you can use your topic to filter out what’s irrelevant. It’s a pretty exciting moment when James gets this idea and rewrites his essay successfully.
The problem is that in his next essay, when James analyzes an Onion article mocking passive-aggressive behavior as ineffective; instead of using a quote to illustrate this aspect of the article, James chooses a quote about how we overreact to small matters. It’s the same issue we faced in the research essay. This quote is no more relevant than much of his initial research was, and yet James doesn’t see it.
He hasn’t made the connection between the research essay and the analysis essay. Semester after semester, I have seen students struggle in this way with skill application. The student has learned to focus for his research essay but cannot apply what he’s learned in his essay for history class. The student knows how to write with telling details for his personal essay but in his short story forgets to describe in detail the basic facts of the scenario.
2. Having many students struggle like this over the years has made me think deeply about the role of transfer in my classes. It helped me realize that there were many missing connections that needed to be made. I realized I needed to do more explaining.
One way I began to make transfer a part of my class was to add more direct discussion of it during the semester. These days, I would not have left James alone to discover the connections between essays. I would have, instead, pointed out the similarities in his writing problems across assignments (and later courses). I would have said something like, “This is the same issue we faced in the research essay. It’s a common issue that we all face in our writing – avoiding a mixed message, keeping out irrelevant information. We saw how it got us sidetracked in the research essay. Now, we can see how it sidetracks the analysis in this assignment. As you rewrite your essay, aim to omit quotes that don’t fit your focus.”
Previously, I hadn’t realized that I needed to get this specific as we worked on drafts, but soon I saw the benefit to this level of specificity for keeping the conversation going and illustrating how class concepts from one essay might apply to other areas. I want my students to internalize the idea that they are not writing isolated essays in a writing class, but that they’re writers thinking through their choices, no matter what the context is.
This work culminates, at the end of the semester, when students reflect on how they plan to use the skills of the class going forward for their portfolio cover letters. I don’t merely want them to think about transferring skills they have learned in this class but to also use the cover letter as on opportunity to put this skill into practice. I remind them that this cover letter is also a new writing context and they can approach it the same way, choosing to keep focus, writing with telling details, and so on.
In this way, once we’ve completed our first essay, transfer is weaved into the fabric of the course. The students get and like it; it gives their work meaning. For some, their writing mindset changes from that of completing writing assignments the way they think their professors want them written to actively making choices as a writer.
3. I give my students even more opportunities to think about transfer with an extra credit assignment: use any of the skills of the class in any other writing context (a paper for another class, a short story, a Facebook post). I don’t want us merely talking about transfer but also practicing it as frequently as possible. As part of the extra credit, the students have to write a page-length reflection about why they chose to use certain skills. Extra credit is given based on how successful and thoughtful the student is about their writing.
One of my students, William, wrote a reflection about an analysis essay in his Music 109 class that I liked because it gave serious consideration to what skills were and were not applicable in this case. He writes, “I incorporated many of the elements I learned to use in my writing assignments, but left out just as many because of the more formal setting… I decided against including personal details such as anecdotes or opinions.”
It’s interesting that he’s thinking about what skills he’s not using (in fact, I’ve added that element to the extra credit: use or don’t use any of the skills of the class). It’s clear that William is making choices based on the genre setting; he is thinking like a writer.
4. Putting transfer into practice has had an added benefit. It’s allowed me to see where my own instruction could be clearer. After seeing the power of narrative in the I-search essay, for example, I have had students over-apply narrative to their argument writing. I had one student present a story of how he made friends through social media as evidence that most people are not addicted to social media.
I had to explain that he was using narrative in a misleading manner. I explained that, while his example could be evidence of the benefits of social media, that didn’t mean that others weren’t using it in a destructive manner.
This process has made me reassess my strategy. I had been showing my students the power of personal narrative but not always explaining why and how it could be used. I now realized I was unintentionally suggesting that the personal could be applied indiscriminately. I realized that I needed to bring this up as a writing problem.
In this way, bringing transfer into the classroom shows me how my students are thinking about their writing and allows me to evaluate what’s working and what needs further refinement. Sometimes, my students’ attempts at transfer work and sometimes they fail. They’re always experimenting. But regardless of the results, the conversations generated by these attempts at transfer may be the main benefit of bringing it into the classroom.
Steven Dube is a lecturer in Stony Brook University’s Writing and Rhetoric Program.