Paper #2: Butterflies, Bo-Peep, and the Bemusement of Process and Transfer in Composition Studies

How do students complete their writing today, and how will they complete it in the future? That twofold question is at the heart of two major points of inquiry within the field of composition studies.


“Pencils down!” Let’s see how you wrote and what you learned about writing. That’s process and transfer in a nutshell. Credit:
Ohmann Allanne

Theories around process, or the procedures and practices by which writers compose (or are asked to compose) their works, aim to answer the first half of that question.  Subsequently, theories around the idea of transfer, or the “knowledge and skills that can transfer to writing tasks in other courses and contexts” (Wardle 65) usually after completing an introductory writing course, respond to the second half of that question.  Herein, I will explore some of the theories and pedagogies around process and transfer within writing and discuss personal application and challenges surrounding these two important issues of inquiry.

Pritchard and Honeycutt argue that one can find elements of the writing process in early Greek and Roman models of teaching rhetoric (276).  Perhaps here we might consider, as Winterowd and Blum mention, Plato’s process of dialectic (3) or Isocrates’ paideia (15), or we might even look at Bloodgood’s ascription of Quintilian’s theories of “Imitation, Authenticity, Modeling, and Practice” (32) to support the writing process. Still, however, while ancient foundations may exist, process in writing did not appear in the literature until 1947 in Day’s seven steps to writing (Pritchard and Honeycutt 276), and it is followed by only a small interest in theories around process in the 1950s and 1960s; however, the ground-breaking work on teaching process as instruction in the classroom came in the 1970s with “the seminal contributions of Peter Elbow, Janet Emig, Donald Graves, Donald Murray, and Mia Shaughnessy” (Pritchard and Honeycutt 277).

Moving forward in the look at process within the history of composition studies, Fulkerson addresses the significance of process both from a historical and twenty-first-century angle.  Examining the differences and similarities in composition studies between 1980 and 2001, Fulkerson speaks to how, although more than twenty years apart,  writing process tops the list in two important bibliographic works: Donovan and McClelland’s 1980 text, Eight Approaches to Teaching Composition, and Tate, Rupiper, and Schick’s 2001 text, A Guide to Composition Pedagogies (see a comparison chart and read more details at PAB #2.1 Composition at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century).   Additionally, Fulkerson examines the axiologies of Critical/Cultural Studies, Contemporary Expressivist Composition, and Procedural Rhetoric and the implementation of process through the framework of those perspectives.  As such, Fulkerson seems to conclude, with Berlin, in his short detour and criticism of post-process theory, that everyone teaches process in writing, just no one teaches it in the same way (669). Such amorphousness aside, Fulkerson does provide, throughout his discussion on the three main perspectives he sees as dominant in composition studies, the ways each practitioner appears to implement process in the classroom. See the chart, below, for a break out of those implementations.

Fulkerson breaks out how process is implemented through the three perspectives he sees in composition studies.

Fulkerson breaks out how process is implemented through the three perspectives he sees in composition studies.

Besides the type of axiom that everyone teaches process but no one fully agrees on how to teach it, another almost universal notion about research regarding process in composition studies, at least since the cognitivist work of folks like Flower and Hayes in the 1980s, is that writing is non-linear and recursive. The prewrite-write-rewrite model has not held up; rather, researchers often regard the recursive process as “mainly a series of problem-solving tasks” (Pritchett and Honeycutt 277).

As one might expect, writing instruction around process is difficult to study and pin down because practitioners implement the teaching of process in such a wide variety of ways.  That said, I am intrigued by the theory of process, and if interested, readers can view my thoughts on how process has a sort of kairic nature—a working with the time, place, situation, or audience—to it in my analysis from Paper #1.

Another idea I would like to touch on, however, from a pedagogical standpoint regarding process is how to know when an instructor has clung too much to process.  For instance, although I teach and often design courses around a model of exploring, prewriting, drafting, editing/revising—given students four weeks usually to write an essay—I have noted a number of students who grow weary by the process, especially as deliverables are due with each step.  Based on that experience, questions certainly arise in my mind. For example, does such length of process from start to finish actually better the end product, or is the process in place just a matter of making students do something that I know if left to their own devices they will not do?  If the former is true, I should certainly search for greater reassurances, but as mentioned, process is difficult to study and pin down.  If the latter is true, I cannot help but to think about hegemony in the classroom.

What type of

What type of “becoming” happens if process is disciplined into students?  Credit: Sid Mosdell

Thinking about the latter, I have to admit that I find some cognitive dissonance surrounding the notion of process, as it is attached to the philosophical ideal of “becoming “(Seibt), often equated with the beauty of transformation, such as that which happens with a butterfly or flower. With that in mind, is it not ironic that disciplining–to use the Foucauldian term–students into the mode of process would somehow subvert the beauty of becoming?  I certainly could expand further with this philosophical riddling, but I will suffice it to say that these questions and junctures that loom around process are what makes it such a major point of inquiry within composition studies.

Speaking of major points in the field, transfer, or the carryover of knowledge or skill–in this case, writing–from one situation to the next, is another large subject of inquiry in composition studies. In fact, Smit calls transfer “the heart of the matter in
learning to write” (119). That said, it is also tricky to measure transfer because of the vast and varied ways that transfer would happen (or not) from those who were initially concerned about its persistence. For instance, the first-year composition instructor, who wants to know if her work with students on comparison and contrast pays off, would find it hard to follow and assess her students level of transfer on such a skill because they disperse to so many different courses after hers. Certainly, measurement can be done, but, as Smit points out, it has not been done much–at least as the literature bears out–except in professional writing; however, in his chapter, Smit does relay a study by Walvoord and McCarthy on transfer of writing that reviews the work of students across four disciplines of study.  While the study found “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” (Smit 128-9), it also points out a large number of examples where difficulties with transfer take place.  You can read more about this study in PAB #2.2 Transfer from The End of Composition Studies.

To reflect on transfer and Smit’s glass-is-half-empty approach to its study, I started to think about the process of moving knowledge and skills, and arrived at the question: What if intervention strategies were involved to aid the transfer?  Since among my professional responsibilities I direct one, I thought about writing centers and their place in transfer.


Like Bo-Peep, some think transfer comes back with no help. Credit: Carlos

Can a tutor aid the memory of a student from what s/he learned in, say, an introductory course?  And taking the individual out of it, what about digital learning objects?  Could they possibly help create a return to the mind of a buried memory? I performed some research on this area of intervention, especially the digital portion, and I have not found much study on writing transfer in that area, but I did find a solid quote from a digital handout, of all places, stemming from a workshop at East Carolina University, which appears to be about writing across the curriculum and related transfer. In the handout, my idea about intervention and transfer is represented at the very end called “The Bo-Peep Theory of Transfer”; that is, like Bo-Peep expected of her sheep, some expect transfer just to come back with no help at all.  Borrowed from Perkins and Salomon (1988), the quote states, and I will leave my kind readers with this, as I now have some supporting foundation for my next post about an object of study: “Educators . . .  treat transfer as if it will take care of itself. But, it does not” (“Transfer of Writing Skills”).

Works Cited

Bloodgood, Janet W. “Quintilian: a Classical Educator Speaks to the Writing Process. “Reading Research and Instruction. 42.1 (2002): 30-43. Web. 30 Sept. 2015.

Fulkerson, Richard. “Composition at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century.” College Composition and Communication 56.4   (2005): 654-87. Web. 22 Sept. 2015.

Pritchard, Ruie, J., and Honeycutt, Ronald L.  “The Process Approach to Writing Instruction: Examining Its Effectiveness.”   Handbook of Writing Research. Ed. MacArthur, Charles A, Steve Graham, and Jill Fitzgerald. New York: Guilford Press,     2006. 276-290. Web. 26 Sept. 2015

Seibt, Johanna. “Process Philosophy.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Edward N. Zalta. 2013. N. pag. U of   Stanford. Web. 1 Oct. 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.

“Transfer of Writing Skills.” Writing Across the Curriculum. East Carolina University, 2014. Web. 26 Sept. 2015.

Wardle, Elizabeth. “Understanding ‘Transfer’ from FYC: Preliminary Results of a Longitudinal Study.” Journal of the Council of Writing Program Administrators 31.1/2 (2007): 65-85. Web. 1 Oct. 2015.

Winterowd, W R, and Jack Blum. A Teacher’s Introduction to Composition in the Rhetorical Tradition. Urbana, Ill: National Council of Teachers of English, 1994. Web. 30 Sept. 2015.

Paper #1: A Weasel, A Whale, and A Watershed Conference: The History of Rhetoric & Composition

Although initially separate in both their historical and pedagogical nature, rhetoric and composition found a commingling in the twentieth century, leading to the creation of a sub-discipline within English Studies that has gained strength especially over the past fifty years within the university setting.

FDR signing GI Bill - 1944

The GI Bill encouraged veterans to go to college, which in turn, led to English Studies’ focus on writing. Source: FDR Library

Whereas, over the centuries, literary studies predominated the greater part of English studies, leading to countless positions on critiquing literature, from the works of Horace to Harold Bloom, the post-World War II generation saw an emergence of American scholars “disillusioned by humanistic values ability to save the world,” who sought to educate the middle class, especially as the GI Bill offered to pay veteran men and women to attend colleges and universities (McComiskey 24).  These scholars, according to Connors in his Writing The History of Our Discipline, realized that this new class of degree-seeking individuals brought new ideas and expectations to the English classroom, resulting in professors embracing the once departmentally marginalized composition studies and unwavering in their determination to “study composition, analyze it, and try to do it as best it could be done” (qtd. in McComiskey 25).

Lauer’s narrative regarding the particulars of combining rhetoric with composition studies indicates that interest in returning rhetoric’s connection to writing in the 1960s came out of the founding of the interdisciplinary Rhetoric Society of America and the organization’s discussion about rhetoric’s connection to composition among some of its members, such as Edward Corbett, Ross Winterowd, Richard Young, Janice Lauer, and Richard Larson (McComiskey 109). Additionally, she highlights Robert Gorrell’s meeting with like-minded educators at the 1964 Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) to discuss the “new interest in rhetoric and its linkage with composition” (McComiskey 108).

Bob Gorrell, Author of

University of Nevada Professor Bob Gorrell described rhetoric as both a weasel and a whale in his 1965 article. Source: University of Nevada Libraries

To demonstrate the determination of the CCCC’s group on this subject, a look at Gorrell’s account of the conference meeting, found in his 1965 article “Very Like a Whale—A Report on Rhetoric,” describes rhetoric as a “weasel” since the group meeting at the CCCC found it difficult to nail down a firm definition—it is, after all, at once both a “theory of communication” and a “body of precepts and advise” (140)—but he concludes that although full of blubber, rhetoric is solid, “very like a whale,” and  “deserves more emphasis in the training of teachers . . . [and] that graduate students should have work in rhetorical theory as well as practice in writing” (143).  Lauer expands on this “watershed event” regarding rhetoric and composition’s new found marriage, commenting on the involved scholar’s goals to reconnect rhetoric’s ancient roots to composition studies. That is, she writes, they aimed to teach students to apply ethos, pathos, topics, and status within discovering rhetorical situations; employ “informal enthymemes and examples” in lieu of syllogisms; and understand kairos (McComiskey 108).

Seemingly, after the growing initiative in the 1960s to infuse rhetoric into composition studies, scholarship burgeoned in the late 1960s through the early 1980s, giving rise to rhetoric and composition as a formal discipline within the university, including degree programs at University of Michigan and courses at Ohio State, followed by doctoral programs in the late 1970s at the University of South California, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and University of Louisville (McComiskey 110). Nystrand and colleagues detail this rise of the discipline, discussing the field’s co-opting of cognitivism and constructivism in the late 1960s through the early 1980s.  The works of Moffett, Britton, Emig, Flower, HayesFish, and Chomsky proved hallmarks for the constructivist view, which situates writing and reading as “dynamic processes of constructing meaning”; orders language and “gives shape and thus meaning to experience”; and validates “the role of mind in shaping human experience” (Nystrand, Greene, and Wiemelt 285).

Then, in the 1980s, social constructionism influenced rhetoric and composition through the work of linguists William Labov, Dell Hymes, and John Searle.  Following suit, composition research from the likes of Shaughnessy, Bruffee, Bizzell, and Bartholomae enlightened this social constructionist epistemology within rhetoric and composition, and terms and ideas, such as writing as social act, writing across the curriculum, and discourse communities, became popular (Nystrand, Greene, and Wiemelt 285).

In the 1990s, theory in rhetoric and composition shifted from structuralism to post-structuralism. Dialogism, rooted in the work of Bakhtin, gained strong footing with scholars in the field, focusing on how “meaning of any utterance is always relative to other utterances” in a dialog of sorts (Nystrand, Greene, and Wiemelt 296).

Bakhtin's dialogism

Bakhtin’s dialogism influenced post-structuralism in rhetoric and composition. Source: Amazon

Important theorists, such as Barthes, Brodkey, Derrida, and Foucault  “come out of this wave of thought and argue that knowledge and meaning are socially constructed, context dependent, political and historical—and therefore unstable, partial and multiple” (Nystrand, Greene, and Wiemelt 300).

The post-structuralist movement, running parallel with postmodernism, also produced the theory of post-process within rhetoric and composition.   About this theory, Breuch writes that the “dominant contention of post-process scholars is that process has come to represent Theory with a capital ‘T'” (119), and, therefore, in a good postmodernist view, which denies absolutes, process in writing, then, becomes a meta-narrative of sorts.

To reflect on this theory, post-process does seems rather unmanageable, especially in relation to first-year composition in a community college setting.  Honestly, as I have examined the various schools of thought that make up the history of rhetoric and composition as an academic discipline, I cannot help but to (sadly) think that I am, in the classroom, often caught in that current-traditional model, that prescriptive mode of the five-paragraph theme, where pulling together paragraphs and catching catachresis can end up being the lesson or assessment of the day. Strangely, I am not necessarily a current traditionalist by choice, but it seems to be where the students need me to be.

Certainly, I teach that writing is messy, non-linear, and often un-formulaic, but by the same token, I often teach first-year college students the basic process of exploring the topic, pre-writing, drafting, and revising and editing.

Process still seems an important part of first-year composition.

Process still seems an important part of first-year composition. Source: Author’s

In fact, I just finished developing a Quality Matters course for first-year composition (that many faculty will be required to use), and that process is exactly how each unit is set up. Does this make me an educator that’s out of touch with the current trends in the field?  I mean; that’s not honestly how I approach writing myself, and my personal worldview has a postmodern lilt to it. So, who exactly is the audience for this post-process, post-structural, postmodern way of teaching? Is it for the bourgeois intellectuals who are post-everything? Or could it be that, ironically, even good rhetoricians do not always know their audience, or at least they do not fully state it?

All that said, I continue to ponder my pedagogy and theories of approaching rhetoric and composition, and, like Gorrell’s weasel, it sometimes eludes me. Likewise, like his whale, I find the discipline’s epistemology often solid but sometimes full of blubber.  Now, if I could just fit a wallaby in there somewhere to keep with the alliterative animal metaphors.

Works Cited

Breuch, Lee-Ann M Kastman. Post Process ‘ Pedagogy’: A Philosophical Exercise.” jac 22.1 (2002): 119-150. Web. 15 Sept. 2015.

Gorell, Robert. “Very Like A Whale–A Report on Rhetoric.” College Communication and Composition 16.3 (1965): 138-43.   Web. 17 Sept. 2015.

McComiskey, Bruce. English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s). Urbana, Ill: National Council of Teachers of     English, 2006. Print.

Nystrand, Martin, Stuart Greene, and Jeffrey Wiemelt. “Where Did Composition Studies Come From? An Intellectual   History.”Written Communication 10.3 (1993): 267-333. ERIC. Web. 10 Sept. 2015.