Smit, David W. “Transfer.” The End Of Composition Studies. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2007. 119-134. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 24 Sept. 2015.
Smit’s book offers a look at several big questions within composition studies, and one that looms large and has received a great deal of attention in recent years is the question of transfer; that is, the ability for students to take what they have learned from one setting and apply it to another.
Smit proclaims that it is “radical” for composition studies to claim that they can effect transfer, and he goes on to proclaim boldly that in order to for instructors to promote transfer from one class or context to another, then they “are going to have to find the means to institutionalize instruction in the similarities between the way writing is done in a variety of contexts.” In this chapter, Smit introduces one classic problem with transfer in writing instruction by borrowing from Russell’s analogy of the ball that essentially says that it is wrong-headed to think that if an individual learns how to kick a soccer ball, then s/he would know how to throw a football, too, despite both being balls and the central object of a sport. Likewise, just because students are provided general writing instruction, that does not mean they will be able to perform competent writing in all situations and contexts. Or to make it even more concrete, Smit’s example is that “[w]e cannot assume writers know how to put together an effective proposal to a city council just because they can write effective proposals to change an English department’s curriculum” (121).
As a possible solution to the problem of transfer, Smit applies James Voss’ work, which “distinguishes between weak and strong problem-solving strategies” (122). A weak problem-solving strategy is exemplified in a scenario where an instructor asks his novice students to write a series of essays all related to a job, from job satisfaction to a letter of recommendation. While performing many different types of writing, this, Smit says, still is a weak problem-solving strategy because they are too based on genre or context. Smit inquires about what will happen to the novice student when asked to write a research paper for history when previously exposed only to this vast-and-varied, context-based type of writing. Smit concludes that such design doesn’t bode well; rather, he believes, even though some ideas of organization, process, style, and conventions might transfer, “[t]he novice writer’s problem is knowing under what circumstances these strategies may be strong, under what circumstances they can be applied directly with some degree of appropriateness” (124).
To prove his point, Smit provides an extensive discussion on case studies that study transfer among four university courses in business, history, psychology, and biology, wherein students were asked to write a variety of papers, evaluating or solving a problem. The findings from the study show that students used similar ways–formulating theses and sub-points–to complete their assignments across the courses; and in the big picture, the studies’ authors found examples of “students transferring knowledge from one class to another and that in their writing for a particular class students often relied on examples of thinking and writing that they had learned elsewhere” (128-9). However, Smit also mentions the large number of examples containing difficulties in transfer that the study also cites.
Sadly, Smit’s view is rather pessimistic or skeptical about transfer, based on these studies. He writes, “[W]e cannot assume that writers will transfer the kinds of knowledge and skills they have learned previously to new writing tasks. Such transfer is unpredictable and depends to a great degree on the student’s background and experience, over which the instructor has little control” (130). Despite such warnings, Smit still gives these words of advice regarding instruction in the composition classroom: “[W]e must find ways to help novices see the similarities between what they already know and what they might apply from that previously learned knowledge to other writing tasks” (134). Seemingly, such advice means instructors should be more intentional not only about teaching particular genres or contexts but also making sure to teach students in what other ways they might apply the task.
After reading Smit, I began to think about my own course design and recent installment of a writing-in-the-disciplines approach to my first-year writing course. In this course, students learn both genre and context, and that, of course, makes me pensive based on Smit’s findings here, but I do believe my course design might offer some redeeming qualities when it comes to transfer, for I attempted to create assignments, with the help of faculty in other disciplines, that they might actually do in other courses. I hope this method proves positive for transfer as my students move through their academic career. Still, with such incertitude regarding this topic, and such institutional service often expected of composition studies, it is no wonder that transfer continues to be a major question in the field and the subject of journals, books, and courses. I look forward to pondering this major question more in the future.