Paper #3: Objectifying Transfer

Forgive me in advance for the sci-fi references, but when considering transfer, I cannot help but think about molecules disappearing and re-materializing similar to the transporter on Star Trek’s Enterprise. Certainly, to draw a parallel, the area of transfer of learning within writing has been like a “beam-me-up-Scotty” process:  mystical, magical, and sometimes menacing.

Perhaps transfer is not as menacing as Captain Kirk’s molecules stuck in mid-transport with hope flagging about his full return to human embodiment, but if teachers of first-year composition subscribe to the view that students are supposed to retain knowledge and skills for future coursework or career, then the notion of transfer can undoubtedly feel menacing—a deep onus for the instructor.  Certainly, transfer remains a major question in composition studies today, or, as Smith calls it, transfer is “the heart of the matter in learning to write” (119).   That’s why a number of composition scholars have found it important to study transfer to explore what level or levels of writing skills transfer from one context to the next.

Potential Objects of Study with Transfer

To go about these investigations, scholars have used various objects of study.  From my research, Wardle and Tinberg both study their students, first-year-composition (FYC) students (or former ones) to be exact, and in Wardle’s case, they are honors-level composition students in a private liberal arts college, while in Tinberg’s, the population of students consists of community college students who completed FYC but have taken a semester or two of general education courses beyond FYC.  Further similarities between Wardle and Tinberg’s work include using student texts as objects of study, and Tinberg takes his investigation one step further by making faculty who teach outside of FYC objects of study.

In addition, to their evidenced investigations, Wardle and Tinberg mention in their implications other areas that might prove to be objects of study in the future.  For instance, Wardle talks about pedagogy and transfer, referring to auto-ethnography and rhetorical analysis as possible ways of improving transfer. Such pedagogical strategies could be objects of study.  Additionally, Tinberg discusses programmatic changes in the implications from his study, mentioning how better sequencing of courses might improve transfer.  This, too, could be an object of study.  In fact, in my interview with ODU Assistant Professor of Technical and Professional Writing Daniel Richards, he mentioned how transfer would be easier to study if a “matrix” of coursework, requiring writing, were in place institutionally.


ODU’s Dr. Daniel Richards talks about studying transfer.

Additionally, Richards and I discussed a writing-in-the-disciplines approach as a way to perhaps promote transfer. Programs, like these, could also be objects of study, as could attitudes or behaviors, although they will have to be explored in concrete ways. For instance, Richards mentioned the importance of reciprocal behaviors among faculty across the disciplines; the engineering faculty should want to collaborate with the composition faculty and vice versa to share the burden of transfer.  Accordingly, this type of partnership could be an object of study.

Finally, Richards and I contemplated together the idea of digital learning objects, like Joe Moxley‘s Writing Commons, standing in the gap to aid transfer, as a remembering of the subject.  We discussed the importance of memory in transfer, covering a few related ideas from Erasmus’ De duplici copia verborum ac rerum, where he would write phrases in “several hundred variations” (Burton) in order to teach rhetorical flexibility and memory; to memorable visuals, such as Aristotle’s triangle; in-class recapitulations from one meeting to the next; and the work on memory from recent ODU graduate Eric Sentell.  Altogether, when thinking about digital learning objects helping recover buried memories, we thought this might be a useful object of study when considering transfer of writing skills.

Analyzing Objects of Study on Transfer

To analyze some of these objects of study related to transfer, it appears that most use surveys, interviews, and performance assessments.  For instance, Wardle interviews her students and reviews their writing.  In addition to interviews and writing assessments, Tinberg, also surveys his populations.  When thinking about the digital learning objects scenario proposed in the discussion with Richards, I have not found research that fully speaks to this type of research, but, beyond surveys, writing assessments, and interviews, review of data analytics might play a part, as one looks to correlate use rates to a digital learning object with improved transfer of writing.   One noticeable element with analyzing transfer is the limited populations in the research, as scholars look to examine either by pilot studies or case studies. Even the longitudinal study that Smit mentions by Walvoord and McCarthy takes place among one institution. These limits do not bode well for external validity, but then again, that may not be an end goal either. Another interesting event within the analysis is the coding that must go on in order to help categorize or quantify information.  Here, I think particularly of Tinberg’s four values of writing:  expressive, critical, boundary crossing, and formalistic. How a scholar codes should not be overlooked, for it can certainly change meaning but by the same token offer room for greater avenues of scholarship.  All that said, these instruments and strategies of analysis aim to get at the carryover of skills and learning through subject and evaluator perceptions. We know we never will fully understand, but to engage in such analysis shows that we care about the craft and desire to improve. Moreover, as Tinberg points out, studies and associated analyses, such as those performed regarding transfer, are good ways to work toward demonstrating to college and university administration — and the scrutinizing legislatures to which they report — institutional effectiveness.

Analyzing Other Areas of Inquiry in Writing Studies 

While this post talks exclusively about transfer as a major question up until now, I would like to add that other areas of inquiry within writing studies — process, abilities, pedagogies, etc.. — certainly could receive similar treatment.  Using texts, programs, and people as objects of study seems to be a largely fundamental way to approach major questions in the field. Historically speaking, Janet Emig’s work, as far back as 1971, looks at the composing processes of twelfth graders, taking on texts and people/students as objects of study; and while it might be a bit of a stretch, if we want to go back millennia, we might even say such informal analysis of, say, micro-transfer originates with the assessment of students and their “texts” through the Socratic or dialectical method of teaching rhetoric. Certainly, the objects of study still used today have their place in the history of composition studies, and they will seemingly continue into the future, until we truly find ways to read another’s mind, but then what fun will that be?

Works Cited

Burton, Gideon O. “copia.” The Forest of Rhetoric: Silva Rhetoricae. Brigham Young University, 2015. Web. 6 Oct. 2015.

Richards, Daniel. Personal interview. 6 October 2015.

Smit, David W.  “Transfer.”  The End Of Composition Studies. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2007. 119-134. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Tinberg, Howard. “Reconsidering Transfer Knowledge at the Community College: Challenges and Opportunities.” Teaching English in the Two Year College 43.1 (2015): 7-31. Web. 5 Oct. 2015.

Wardle, Elizabeth. “Understanding ‘Transfer’ from FYC: Preliminary Results of a Longitudinal Study.” Writing Program Administration 31.1-2 (Fall/Winter 2007): 65-85. Web. 7 Oct. 2015.

3 thoughts on “Paper #3: Objectifying Transfer

  1. Matthew, your post is so timely. Right now, my college is working on new goals, and each department is in charge of coming up with one. The English department is proposing transfer as a goal. This is something I see as problematic every day: Composition instructors stress the importance of clear, grammatically-correct, logical academic writing. The local history professor slaps an A on a paper that would earn a failing mark in most English courses, and then tells the dean that the English instructors aren’t teaching students how to write well. Why aren’t students applying the writing skills they teach to their other classes? This varies by college, of course, but in the case of my college, the other departments undermine everything we say. I warn students, “Professors in other classes will deduct points if you don’t cite correctly, so let’s learn how to do this!” Those same students omit citations entirely from their biology “research” papers, and they receive perfect scores.

    What does this mean? What are good OoS to use to figure out how to solve this problem? Maybe some of these surveys and writing assessments need to come from outside of the English department.

  2. Matthew, as I’ve been thinking about different research methods, I realized that longitudinal research might be helpful for studying transfer, which sent me in your direction. I used to work at a college with an award-winning writing across the curriculum (WAC) program, and we did several large-scale writing assessments. I don’t know how well we saw evidence of transfer at a college that used to require students to take a WAC course as a graduation requirement in addition to the general education composition classes. I’m curious: does any of the scholarship you’ve read address how genre and different discourse conventions impact transfer?

  3. Pingback: Paper #4: Theories and Methods | Matthew Bodie

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