Paper #4: Theories and Methods: Crossing Boundaries, Finding Focus

The Problem with Theory?

Without going into deep explanation, as many thinkers and writers far greater than I already have, I will suffice it to say at the beginning of this post on theory and methodology, that thinking and writing on the former has been replete with controversy (and probably the latter has been too, but I am not as schooled in that area).  From my days, many moons ago, when working on my master’s degree and sitting in Composition Theory, I recall the first chapter of Sid Dobrin’s book Constructing Knowledges from the huge course pack—are those still around?—about the postmodern debate surrounding theory with a capital T vs theory with a small t.

Somehow, a simple case shift would symbolize complex concern around theory becoming less than localized, a universal truth that would create a master narrative and, to be metaphorical, enslave us all, but Dobrin’s piece offers one of many memorable nuggets worth repeating that helps balance this theorizing about theory (quite ironic, right?).


Theory helps weave together multiple threads, in an organic way, like this design by totusmel

He writes, [M]ost often theory is organic, receptive to new observations, additional facts, further speculation.  Theory accounts for experience and allows new experience to alter or contribute to the evolution of that theory” (8-9).

Transfer Theories: Boundary Crossing and Boundary Objects

With that type of evolution in mind, I enter this post knowing and being comfortable with the fact that my experience—praxis if you will—will probably re-inform my theories in the future, for even since writing my PABs last week, my thoughts have started to shift, to some degree, on writing transfer. For instance, in my post about many of the current theories on transfer, I mentioned that I was not fully invested in any one of the theories on transfer, but as even the most aloof readers could easily detect by the length I gave to Perkins and Salomon in my reflection, I was leaning toward their work on motivation and transfer, and I still hold on to their theories, for they appear to be some of the most prominent theoreticians with regards to transfer.  That tidbit aside, in my reflection, I completely ignored Akkerrman & Bakker’s (2011) theories on boundary crossing, which, in hindsight, is strange, since Tinberg in his study uses boundary crossing as a coding category.  Maybe this disregard of their work was an oversight, or perhaps my theorizing has evolved.

Well, not to bask too long on the metacognitive, but Akkerman and Bakker, especially after reading their article, offer theories that seemingly align well with my idea of digital learning objects (DLOs) helping with transfer.


Transfer over boundaries may be difficult. What boundary object can help us cross? Source: WikiMedia

Citing Engestrom et al. (1995), Akkerman and Bakker define boundary crossing as ability to “face the challenge of negotiating and combining ingredients from different contexts to achieve hybrid situations” (134).  An example of boundary crossing might be using genre knowledge on analysis writing learned in a first-year composition course to then analyze the mental state of a public figure in a future psychology course. Seemingly, however, boundary crossing is not always without a compliment.  It can have an object attached to it. As Star and Griesemer’s 1989 work points out, boundary crossing can incorporate boundary objects, which are “both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and the constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites” (qtd. in Akkerman and Bakker 134). To elaborate, Star and Griesemer expand on the work of sociological scholars, Bruno Latour and Michael Callon, and their Actor-Network Theory, more specifically interessement, which indicates “the translation of the concerns of the non-scientist into those of the scientists” (389). While Latour and Callon’s version of interessement has a more top-down approach, Star and Griesemer attempt to make translation—a moving from one passage to the next—more pluralistic through cooperation in the workplace. Particularly, Star and Griesemer discuss the establishing of a natural history museum in the first half of the twentieth century, the creating of a system that allowed for communication and translation, and ultimately the pulling together of divergent perspectives from each person involved in the process of categorizing disparate elements of natural history. Boundary objects are what aided in the translation and communication. In this case, Star and Griesemer consider the following as boundary objects: “specimens, field notes, museums and maps of particular territories,” and they remark that “their boundary nature is reflected by the fact that they are simultaneously concrete and abstract, specific and general, conventionalized and customized” (408). While this scenario speaks more directly to workplace or socio-cultural transfer, the boundary crossing and boundary object could be adopted as part of an academic situation, and couldn’t my DLOs take the place of the zoological specimens and maps?

Expanding Theory

To be honest, I was not fully convinced, at first, that turning DLOs into boundary objects kept with the letter of Star and Greiesmer’s work, but after completing more research, I fell upon the work of Alexandra Juhasz and Anne Balsamo, two “femtech” scholars, who take boundary objects one step further, directly arguing for learning objects (e.g., articles, video, images) as boundary objects with a slightly altered moniker (discussed below) as a way of communication, translation, and understanding (certainly keeping with the spirit of Star and Greisemer’s work). Juhasz and Balasmo write, “In FemTechNet we refer to the educational materials [. . . ] as ‘boundary objects that learn’ (BOTLs). The pedagogical objects or collections of objects that will be submitted by members of the network will be considered through these theoretical perspectives.”  Since I have not documented my struggle previously in seeking theory on how I might argue that DLOs would aid in transfer, it may not be completely apparent, here, that this theoretical discovery feels like a large “win” for me. My behind-the-scenes research has run the gamut, looking at studies outside of English Studies on transfer with DLOs or the like, and while some may exist, none have completely spoken to me as this discovery does here.

Lessons Learned About Theory Building 

So one lesson so far is that theory can propel and stall further practice and research on an object of study.  As Newton pointed out centuries ago, we stand on the shoulders of giants and can see further.  Likewise, the theory that precedes any of our research certainly informs how we might move  with more certainty (or not) into our work. Still, with all good scholarship comes the problemetizing of the object of study and that also includes the theories behind it, so sometimes we must also leap off the shoulders for a while to the ground below. After all, terra firma often offers more solid grounding that trying to balance on sinew and bone.


Now, I do not mean to short-shrift methods here, but theory is where I’ve placed most of my recent thoughts. That said, I have written extensively elsewhere on methods surrounding the study of writing transfer (see: Paper 3PAB #4.1; PAB #4.2).  To sum, methods from Wardle, Tinberg, and Yancey, et al include case studies of small populations (usually under ten students mentioned in the study), based on interviews and assessment of writing samples.  An additional number of students may be surveyed or assessed, but the deeper level of study falls on smaller populations.  Both Wardle and Tinberg engage in a naturalistic study, observing the environment in which they teach “as-is.”  Yancey, et al., however, creates a more controlled environment by narrowing the study to three courses, each with different content, to see if curriculum aids in positive transfer.

One takeaway I’ve had in examining the methods used to study transfer is that, in following Yancey, et al. and the narrowing of their study, I was thinking that what I haven’t seen so far in investigating transfer is study on specific skills that transfer within writing. Perhaps an approach that narrows the scope of study to specific items of concern, such as quality of research, process, or genre, might be more conducive. Performing a number of smaller focused studies may bear out different and missing results than what current scholarship now offers.

Works Cited

Akkerman, Sanne F., and Arthur Bakker. “Boundary Crossing and Boundary Objects”. Review of Educational Research 81.2 (2011): 132–169. JSTOR.  Web.  29 Oct. 2015.

Dobrin, Sidney I. Constructing Knowledges: The Politics of Theory-Building and Pedagogy in Composition. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997. Print.

Juhasz, Alexandra, and Anne Balsamo. “An Idea Whose Time is Here: FemTechNet – A Distributed Online Collaborative Course (DOCC).” da: a Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 1 (2012). Web. 29 Oct. 2015.

Perkins, D.N., and Gavriel Salomon. “Teaching For Transfer.” Educational Leadership 46.1 (1988): 22. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.

Star, Susan Leigh, and James R. Griesemer. “Institutional Ecology, ‘translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39”. Social Studies of Science 19.3 (1989): 387–420. JSTOR.  Web.  29 Oct. 2015

PAB #4.2: “Transfer, Transitions, and Transformation?”

Middleton, Howard, and L K. J. Baartman. “Transfer, Transitions, and Transformation?” Transfer, Transitions and Transformations of Learning, 2013. 1-11. Print.

Book Cover: Transfer, Transition and Transformation of LearningThe first chapter of this text, in outlining what to expect in the following chapters, provides a good overview of the theories behind transfer, which up until now, I have only discussed from a compositionist angle and not from a more psychological or social scientific one, so this chapter proves useful, as I examine some of the basic theories in transfer. This article cites the seminal studies of Thorndike and Woodworth in 1901 on how learning of one concept carries over to learning in another context.  By 1913, Thorndike concluded that transfer does not occur, that the mind learns “things separately and apparently in isolation” (1).  Of course, counterarguments exist concerning this theory.  Bransford and Schwartz in their 1999 study argue that Thorndike and partner were looking at transfer the wrong way: they were looking at in a sequestered problem solving (SPS) manner, which promoted that “subjects in transfer tests are kept isolated and have no access to texts, or the ability to try things out, receive feedback, or revise” (2).  As Bransford and Schwartz argue, this type of separation is not conducive to, what they call, preparation for future learning (PFL).  The difference between the two is that while SPS looks for direct application from one context to the next, Bransford and Schwartz offer “an alternative approach to understanding transfer,” where it is more appropriate to measure the degree to which particular learning prepares people for future learning (2).

In addition to Bransford and Schwartz, the article discusses Perkins and Salomon (2012), who argue that “motivation is a key factor in any explanation of transfer, both in terms of successful and unsuccessful instances of transfer” (3). This view actually plays off some of the work of Bransford and Schwartz who argue similarly but not in a deep way.  Rather, Perkins and Salomon put forward a “‘detect-elect-connect’ model where the three aspects of the model are described as ‘bridges’ [. . . .] to identify if the process of transfer is occurring” (3).  Detect is the moment where individuals become aware that they are in a situation where previously understood communication would apply to the current exigency.  Elect, then, in the model, is the actual decision to act on it, which Perkins and Salomon say is not as easy as it sounds due to the intellectual disturbances that “old learned practices and habits” pose (3).  The final step in the model, connect, makes a way for individuals, after detecting a possible relationship and electing to explore it [. . . ]go on to make the connection between the prior knowledge and the current situation” (3).

The chapter also discusses Marton’s (2006) work that says transfer needs to focus on differences and not similarities.  In Marton’s view, “transfer is regarded as a function of the perception of differences between learning and other situations, or put another way, between one context and another context” (4).  One of Marton’s examples, here, explains that if students learn addition by rote, then teachers do not know if they actually learned addition until they give them different tasks on addition.  The authors compare Bransford and Schwartz’s (1999) work to Marton’s, as the former also discuss “how experience with contrasting cases can affect what a learner notices about subsequent events and how the learner interprets them” (4), but the students would need to analyze the differences and similarities after the fact.

What’s more, the chapter authors discuss Overzealous Transfer (OZT) so labeled by Schwartz et al. (2012), which argues that transfer strategies can be overdone and “learning is overgeneralised and transferred into situations where it is inappropriate” (5). As example, Schwartz et al. says that 75% of the work on transfer in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) uses what are called tell or teach and practice routines, which, as pointed out, only allow for near transfer.  Schwartz et al (2011), says OZT “could be reduced by having students use a technique called inventing with contrasting cases, where they had to, in essence, invent a way to understand the learning material” (5). Another helpful way to work toward a more efficient level of transfer is to have students engage in learning material in different contexts.

Following OZT, this chapter turns to a section on Consequential Transitions Involving Transformation.  This area primarily follows the work of Beach (1999), which argues for a different approach to transfer, one that is based on consequential transitions through a sociocultural approach. The idea, then, is that “people generate knowledge across social activities rather than transfer it from one situation to another” (5).  Beach “argues that while transfer happens
in general life situations, intentional transfer, or facilitated transfer, as is assumed to occur as a result of formal learning, does not occur or occurs rarely” (6).

To bridge the gap, Beach argues for a different name for transfer.  He proposes transitions.  As such, the chapter turns to explain the different levels of transition discussed in Beach’s work, including lateral, collateral, encompassing, and mediational transitions.  Lateral transition is unidirectional, and as an example, the authors cite the transition of moving from school to work. Collateral transition is multidirectonal and provides less of a clear pathway since it deals with multiple ways of transfer, such as from one course to multiple courses in a curriculum.  Encompassing transition is when individuals engage in a social activity and the change happens within the actual activity.  Mediational transition happens in educational activities where students are uninitiated in the activity but have prior experiences to stimulate them “to move beyond their current point, to the developmental position they are working towards” (7).  Beach’s work also makes the point that transitions come with a struggle but lead to transformation.

The final area in the chapter is on Boundary Crossing and presents the work of Akkerrman & Bakker (2011).  Boundary crossing theory focuses “on the values of differences between learning settings and how to create possibilities for learning at the boundaries of diverse practices” (1).   Transfer in boundary crossing theory requires “‘letting go’ of previously held ideas and behaviours” (7), and, instead, individuals must affect a new attitude and “look critically at their
current knowledge and beliefs” (8).  Studies show that many establish boundaries between different situations, such as professions, because of “feelings of uncertainty or threat” (8).

Overall, this chapter helps compare and contrast theories on transfer as well as summarize the working body of theoretical knowledge in the area.  Additionally, the chapter leads to numerous studies on transfer and serves as a jumping off point for future research, if not reading of the entire book on the subject.

Reflections on PABs 4.1 & 4.2

So, as I look at both the chapter from Yancey et al. (2014) and the chapter from Middleton and Baartman (2013), I am presented with a number of methodologies and theories surrounding transfer.  Yancey et al. does not offer any different methodologies, per se, than Wardle (2007) or Tinberg (2015); rather, all focus on surveys, interviews, and case studies. This way to carry out research seems to be the norm in studying transfer. However, the one main difference–and what appears to be the most interesting about Yancey and her colleagues’ study–is their object of study.  Instead of studying just people and performance (like Wardle and Tinberg), they study content. What’s more, they set up this study with a type of experimental group  (i.e., TFT-designed course) vs. a control group (the expressivist-and-media-studies-designed courses). Interestingly, Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak make it a point to say that parity exists among all courses, but the reader can easily realize that the authors hope that the experimental group will demonstrate some new results. If I were to set up a research project on transfer, this chapter adds one more way to seek an object of study in investigating transfer. Also, it complexifies the way that one might setup a study in a more controlled way, rather than a naturalistic setting, such as those by Wardle and Tinberg.

Regarding Middleton and Baartman, I have yet to fully invest myself in any one theory on transfer that the authors reveal in their chapter.  My initial thoughts on transfer sided with Perkins and Salomon that motivation needs to be present for transfer to happen. I have yet to fully look at their work, but I was thinking about the object of study that I’ve played with for a while regarding aiding transfer with digital learning objects (DLOs) that trigger a buried memory after a first-year-composition (FYC) course, a digital (re)mediation of sorts; and I came upon the idea that motivation does not necessarily need to be intrinsic; rather, extrinsic motivation may be the most instructors/researchers can get (e.g., better writing transfer = better grades) , especially when talking about the dreaded process of writing, as it is often perceived. With all that in mind, this type of extrinsic motivation may be what leads students to a DLO in the first place, or perhaps, if the DLO offers some sense of motivation itself–I am thinking of some sort message that inspires or demystifies (and I know I’m talking vaguely here but actually more theoretically)–then perhaps Perkins and Salomon’s view is a largely viable option to consider.  

On other hand, I do like Beach’s idea of changing transfer to transition and transformation, but sometimes I feel those shifts are merely semantics. Wardle (2007) also wanted to make semantic shifts in discussing writing transfer, using the term generalization instead.  I do not know that Beach’s theories offer anything that makes for an eye-opening event for transfer within writing because he offers a more sociocultural approach.  Maybe if I were to look at the differences in writing transfer demographically, then perhaps so.  Certainly, I could go on to discuss other theories mentioned in Middleton and Baartman, but this post is getting overly long at this time, and to be honest, Marton (2006) and Bransford and Schwartz’s (1999) works are not as stand out (to me anyway) in my scenario of writing transfer as Perkins and Salomon; however, as Yancey et al. does, they attach theory to their study after discussing its outcomes, which means that the other theories I decline to discuss in detail here may have more meaning after a research study is carried out.  Conclusively, though, theory informs methodologies and vice versa.  

PAB #4.1: “Teaching for Transfer and the Role in Content Composition”

Yancey, Kathleen B, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak. “Teaching for Transfer (TFT) and the Role in Content Composition.” Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2014. 60-102. Print.


This book records and discusses the methodologies, theories, and findings from a study on writing transfer within first-year composition performed at Florida State University over the course of two semesters in fall 2009 an spring 2010.  Of particular note to the area of methodologies, my annotations here focus specifically on the third chapter that provides the background and setup for the study. Based on empirical research, the authors feel that transfer does happen, but they are “persuaded that there is a kind of writing knowledge articulated in the types of languages students did not use [in previous studies] and more particularly in the kinds of key terms characterizing expertise . . . that students need to develop” (63).  As such, Yancey et al. propose that they can improve transfer of learning into other rhetorical contexts from first-year composition through the creation of a Teaching for Transfer (TFT) course built on reflection and metacognition, or as they put it, a “curricular model [with] a very specific kind of reflection, one . . .  interwoven into the course as a regular, systematic, and knowledge-producing practice—indeed, as a kind of curriculum consistent with, current with, and integrated with the writing curriculum” (63).

With that in mind, the study follows three course designs in the second-year course of the first-year composition program (i.e., ENC 1102). The first course the authors mention, following Fulkerson’s (2005) labeling, is centered on Expressivist design, focusing “on the writer and the writer’s perspective” and dealing with “current social topics” with a creative writing slant, due to the instructor’s own interests (67).  The second design is a media and culture course, which focuses on the impact of media and culture on society with interpretation of the “impact of iconic images [and] many forms of media ”on culture (67).  The final course design is the Teaching for Transfer course already discussed.  The chapter also goes into significant detail about each of the instructors, all graduate teaching assistants, and each of the major writing assignments in the course (70-76).

The authors’ interests are clearly focused on the TFT course, as the full writing prompts for each assignment are included in the chapter (they do not do this for the other two), including bold print, that catches readers’ eyes, used on language around the final project, a “reflection-in-presentation” that explores five major points: the students’ theories of writing, the theories of writing students held previous to the course and any evolution they feel they have experienced since the course’s inception, definition of the greatest contributions to their theories of writing, the relationship between their theories on writing and how knowledge is created, and explanation of how their theories on writing can be applied to other writing situations (76).

The participants in each of the courses elected themselves. Surveys were sent out to eighteen sections of ENC 1102, and while initially there were 41 respondents, the number whittled down to a total number of seven.


Table shows study participants connected to FYC course design and post-FYC assignment analysis.  Click to enlarge

The distribution of the participants across the three course designs included two students (i.e. Emma and Glen) in the expressivist model course; two students in the media and culture studies design (i.e., Darren and Carolina) and three students in the TFT design course (i.e., Marta, Clay, and Rick).  These participants were interviewed three times in the first phase of the study (i.e., while taking ENC 1102). They were initially questioned on their knowledge of writing when entering the course; then, they were interviewed midway through the fall semester and at the end.  These other two sets of interviews were to determine their interpretations of the assignments for the course.  Following the fall semester, and continuing into the second phase of the study, the same seven students experienced “document-based interviews” as they took on writing assignments in other non-FYC courses. As the chapter notes, “In the interviews participants were asked to analyze their approach to writing and to identify connections made between the writing they did in FYC and their current writing” (66).  They were also asked to reflect on completed assignments in detail and discuss what they felt transferred and did not transfer from one writing context to the next.  The table, above, displays information related to the study, including the participant names in the first column, the specific course design of ENC 1102 that each student experienced in the center column, and the post-FYC assignments analyzed as part of the document-based interviews in the last column.

The chapter documents highlights of the results of the interviews with each of the participants (77-99), but because this PAB focuses on methodologies in particularly, I will not discuss each one; rather, here, seemingly of most import is the authors’ end comments that assures the readers that, although the TFT course was developed and piloted for the study and received what some might view as special treatment, equal tweaking and treatment were given to all course designs.  The authors also discuss the similarities among the instructors’ quality of teaching, labeling each of three as “good.”  The authors make the case that the curriculum design is the only difference in the study, and that is what makes the study so unique.


I reflect on both PABs #4.1 & #4.2 here

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.

PAB #3.2 Reconsidering Transfer


Professor and author Howard Tinberg studies student and faculty perceptions of writing transfer. See more about his scholarship at his page.

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.

While disagreement exists about transfer, including the argument that all knowledge is rhetorical and dependent on context (9), Tinberg says some argue that first-year composition should offer “a localized knowledge set that transfer to, and can be re-purposed for, different contexts . . .” (8).  As such, the central question is, then, “What exactly is it that students take from their required writing course that could enable success in those other domains” (8)?  Tinberg says this is a timely question what with the focus on persistence and completion in community colleges.   With that in mind, Tinberg leaps into discussion about research on transfer.  He explains the difference between near transfer (applying tasks in similar contexts) and far transfer (applying tasks in distinctly different contexts), and he provides background knowledge on transfer research, including work by Downs and Wardle; Donahue; Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak; and Adler-Kassner, all of whom promote the “metacognitive awareness that will enable students to re-purpose their knowledge in writing situation” (9).  Tinberg also discusses recent studies of transfer that look more closely as what goes on from first-year composition to other general education courses taken in the first two years of college.  While prior studies looking at writing transfer essentially among community college curriculum have demonstrated weakness in this area, they, too, point to “metacognition as a foundational step to transfer, and that faculty who assign writing in general education courses need to be cognizant themselves of what they and their colleagues value in student writing” (9).


A number of studies on transfer indicate the importance of metacognition related to writing.  Photo Credit:  Jack Lyons

With that background information in mind, Tinberg sets out to produce “a naturalistic study of transfer” at the institution where he teaches: Bristol Community College (10).  Borrowing from Wardle, he poses the same four questions as she does in her 2007 study (see PAB #3.1).  For his study, Tinberg ends up with 110 respondents for an online survey, out of an initial 3800+ contacted. These students are roughly in their sophomore year, having taken first-year composition and some general education requirements but not so many that they are almost graduating.  He also has five students, recommended by faculty, that like Wardle’s study, represent different disciplines across the curriculum through their majors but generally are homogeneous in gender (four are women).  Of course, because self-perception can sometimes not provide the clearest picture, Tinberg also sees fit, as part of his study, to review at least one sample of post-first-year-composition writing assignments from each of the five interviewees. Additionally, he interviews faculty about the values important to them in student writing and understanding.

First, let’s take a look at the results of his survey of 110 students regarding first-year composition and its impact on future studies and careers (see chart below for a break down of the questions and highest responses).  As Tinberg concludes from the survey, students who have progressed in their academic careers beyond composition class certainly have recognized first-year composition’s place as a boon to writing in college in general. Moreover, responses show that faculty still assign writing-intensive projects, which Tinberg says is in contradiction to anecdotal information at Bristol.  Then, in a small veering from the importance of first-year composition, responses to question three show that students feel they found new knowledge about writing in other courses, leading Tinberg to wonder what that new knowledge looks like. Tinberg admits some difficulty with question four’s phrasing, and again he calls into question the differences between writing in composition and other courses. Are the differences in style, genre, audience? And speaking of audience, the last question in the survey about workplace writing plays well to the community college audience, Tinberg says, because so many community college students–unlike those on a residential campus–work at least part-time. In addition, the legislative focus on workforce development in community college adds extra value to question five.


While the survey provides some perhaps interesting findings, the question of transfer is not immediately addressed in its Likert-scale results; however, one open-ended question at the end of the survey asking students what they learned in first-year composition that helped them in other courses is definitely telling.  The answers run the gamut, and Tinberg provides a chart categorized into 17 responses within the article.  The highest response, by far, is citation format at 56%, which is, Tinberg admits, alarming since researching, summarizing, evaluating, and integrating sources is a mere 16% of the results.  In addition to citations, the other leading responses (and note: multiple responses were allowed and coded, so the results don’t add up to 100%) side on what Tinberg labels as “formalistic concerns” and include grammar, diction, and mechanics (43%), structure and organization (43%), and formats of writing (35%).  Items such as critical reading and thinking, peer review, revision, expressiveness, and audience awareness fall in the single digits (these findings will be important when looking at faculty goals for student writing).  These responses lead Tinberg to question “whether students surveyed have the ability to articulate what Meyer and Land . . . . have called ‘troublesome knowledge’ or, more precisely, ‘threshold concepts’ . . . (15).

Turning to faculty interviews, Tinberg sets out to find out two things:

  1. What skills or knowledge sets do [faculty] assume students will have acquired from their ENG 101 course that might be useful in your course
  2. What new knowledge sets as expressed in [student] writing do [faculty] wish students to acquire in [their] own course?  (17)

After speaking with faculty, Tinberg codes their perceptions of what they value/expect in student writing into four different categories: formalistic, boundary crossing, critical, and expressive.  Formalistic, as mentioned, deals with conventions, citations, and structure; boundary crossing means writing in different contexts and genres; expressive relates to writing with feeling and confidence, summarizing and reflecting; and critical involves reading and writing deeply and intensively (19). Tinberg also interviews students and reviews their writing samples, coding them in the same way he does with faculty values or expectations with student writing.  Below, I provide a chart that combines two of Tinberg’s into one. FacultyExpectationsVsStudentPerceptionsofWritingThe differences between student perceptions and faculty expectations are stark, but they make apparent that faculty are “primarily to be taken by critical reading and writing” (20) while students, as Tinberg suspected would happen, “name surface features in their writing as evidence of achievement and transfer” (22).   Still, Tinberg–as well as his audience–should be struck by the second and third areas students show as signs of transfer: boundary crossing and critical reading and writing.  Perhaps boundary crossing gives at least a nod to rhetorical agency on the part of students, with their thinking about audience and context (Tinberg says he does teach rhetorical practices in his own courses); and the value on critical reading and writing speaks to realization of the need to be analytical.  The expressive category is an interesting one with faculty expectations skewing slightly higher than the students’ recognition of their achievement.  Regarding expressive writing, Tinberg says that faculty “spend a good deal of time finding ways to increase confidence” (20), and the value placed on expressive writing may very well indicate that goal as faculty get them to work with feelings around texts and events.

Tinberg concludes his study by offering a detailed assessment of two student writers’ works: Ann and Ash. Tinberg reviews Ann’s annotated bibliography for a sociology class and discusses it with her.  He notes the difficulty in which she depicts the genres in which she has written since composition class, and he identifies the absence of rhetorical analysis and source evaluation in her work. Tinberg sums up Ann’s work noting how she “spends more time in exposition than in critique of the argument or evidence, but the signs are clear that she is beginning to establish a critical presence as a writer and reader” (24).  That said, Ann does mention that she would like her instructors to challenge her more in her writing.

Tinberg, then, turns to Ash who also, when asked, struggles with genre, just ticking off paper formats, such as a research paper, but Ash does move to a deeper conversation about the requirement to adapt to “form” and “criteria” when writing for different classes. Tinberg thinks he might be on to a discussion about true transfer here, but he examines two of Ash’s writing samples to find evidence. One is a definition essay from composition class, where he defines faith by constructing “an audience that is both reasonable and open to faith” (26).  Tinberg calls this “a winning construction.”  The second piece of Ash’s work he reviews is, as the student defines it, “a non-research opinion paper about anything we consider to be a social problem” (26).  That said, the assignment still required students to cite five sources, although Ash cites mostly from popular press, rather than scholarly articles. The subject of the paper is the moral decline of America. Tinberg determines that while, in form, Ash begins with an abstract, like a scientific paper, he turns to more “glib and unexamined stereotypes” (27) and provides little support or qualifications.  Additionally, Tinberg questions if Ash gives any thought to the audience for his piece, despite his earlier comment about adapting.  Interestingly, Tinberg says, “In the end, Ash, like Ann, might very well welcome the challenge of complex and specialized reading and writing tasks and the chance to model their own writing on strong, scholarly work” (27).

So what are the implications of the study?  The good news, Tinberg says, is that students and faculty see first-year composition as critical to work done in future courses and in the workplace. In addition, it is heartening to know that students are able to articulate “a range of outcomes from ENG 101 that they view as transferable and useful in varied contexts” and that faculty value “thoughtful, critical reading” (27).

Unfortunately, however, Tinberg’s list of barriers to transfer at the community college level is much longer than the recognized achievements of composition. He identifies the lack of coordination among faculty about writing skills that might transfer from composition to future courses; the rise of contingent faculty teaching composition who have no interaction with other faculty or their curricula; the focus on “formalistic concerns” as what mostly transfers from composition to other courses; the dismissal of instruction in threshold concepts that affects “the kind of reading that students are given (mostly textbook reading) and the genres in which they are expected to write (nonspecific to the discipline)” (28); and students’ inability to articulate key concepts from their courses, focusing more heavily on formalistic matters.  Tinberg thinks these obstacles to identifying transfer are “especially challenging at community colleges–a point that transfer scholars in composition, whose gaze so often seems to be on universities and liberal arts colleges, overlook” (28).


Honestly, Tinberg’s findings do not surprise me at all. Having taught first-year composition for the past six years and having instructed students in both libraries and writing centers with a variety of writing-intensive assignments across the curriculum for the past seven years at a community college, I have seen first hand the absence of transfer of critical reading and writing skills, much less rhetorical analysis and adaptability, from first-year composition to other coursework.  Instead, as Tinberg identifies, formalistic concerns pervade the expectations and execution of assignments on the part of both faculty and students.

The most alarming concern has been how when students move into specialized programs, such as nursing, the largest focus for writing becomes citation. In fact, I have been privy to our health sciences librarians admonishing general education librarians about supposedly providing wrong advice on APA style, which resulted in upsetting both a student and faculty member. The argument I have heard about the focus on citation, especially as it is often associated with a puristic representation of the style manual (meaning un-checked citation generators are a no-no) is that when students become nurses or healthcare providers they will be expected to carry out detailed, meticulous work, and this type of formalistic concentration now forces them to get into that mindset for the future.

Personally, I find this formalistic philosophy difficult to swallow; rather, as our staff of tutors in the writing center have discussed numerous times, I would rather see higher order thought in their writing.  Perhaps ironically, our last  topic of the college’s quality enhancement program (we’ve passed the interim reporting period) was critical thinking, and the college worked diligently to implement assignments and practices in critical thinking across all curriculum.  It is odd how we say one thing but assess another, which to speak to that point is probably why citation is so heavily scrutinized, as it is far more black and white than the subjective complexity of critical thinking. Still, I also have to think outside the box here for a minute and ask: What’s the difference between formalistic concern related to writing conventions and citations and formalizing expression of thought, such as was encouraged by the whole critical thinking process?  Both seem to belittle the higher-level of thinking and, by virtue, writing that composition instructors might encourage and hope to see transfer to other courses; however, admittedly, we have to begin the conversation somewhere; it just shouldn’t end with a hurrah for formalistic constructs.

Clearly, studying transfer is nebulous, but Tinberg’s study gets at it much more than Wardle’s does, and it should open up further specialized investigations at transfer related to particular areas, such as Tinberg defines through his critical, expressive, boundary crossing, and formalistic labels.  One has to wonder if, like Berlin and his categorizations of rhetoric some thirty years ago, Tinberg’s coding will catch on with future scholars of transfer.  Groundbreaking or not, however, Tinberg’s gaze moves writing instructors, especially in community colleges, closer to understanding their own audiences and the value of their work within the college as a whole.

Connections to OoS

I would like to make an addendum here, connecting both Wardle and Tinberg’s studies to my object of study. I would like to sum up their investigations by saying that it seems that transfer can be approached in two ways: pedagogically and programmatically.  Now, certainly, there is crossover in those areas, but let me explain the details of each before seeing any intersections.  First, Wardle’s suggestions regarding a composition class that is more rhetorical and auto-ethnographic in nature prescribes a pedagogical approach to transfer.  Additionally, Tinberg’s findings that knowledge that transfers from first-year composition includes mostly lower order skills — or “formalistic concerns” as he refers to them — demonstrates a need for perhaps different pedagogical methods, especially as Tinberg’s study suggests that faculty are more concerned with critical reading and writing.  Now, on the programmatic side, I turn mostly to Tinberg, since his study is broader in scope. His recommendations about better sequencing of classes and greater coordination with other non-composition-faculty offer a programmatic approach to improving transfer.  Of course, as mentioned, pedagogy and programs are not un-linked and might intersect in the areas of technological and academic support.  Here, I am thinking about digital learning objects used both in the classroom and outside of it, as curated and/or created through a tutoring or library division with input from faculty and administrators.  I will suss out this intersection of ideas more in my actual paper, but these two studies have informed me significantly, although I still think transfer can be elusive as an object of study.

PAB #3.1 “Understanding ‘Transfer’ from FYC “

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.


Elizabeth Wardle is currently professor and chair of the writing and rhetoric program at University of Central Florida (UCF). During the time of the study presented here, she was assistant professor and director of writing programs at University of Dayton. Source: UCF

Summoning the work of Smit, Wardle posits that we know very little about “the transfer for writing-related skills from first-year composition to other contexts” (65).  While some research has weighed in with theoretical concepts, only three case studies, she says, discuss FYC writing-related transfer.   Despite the near ubiquity of FYC in higher education, we do not have any evidence that FYC facilitates transfer.

With all that in mind, Wardle first addresses, in a theoretical way, options for studying transfer.  She offers three definitions of transfer, including task, individual, and context conceptions regarding this point of study.  She further breaks down context conceptions into situated, which examines “patterns of participatory processes across situations” (67); sociocultural, which focuses on actions between people involved in constructing tasks; and activity-based, which not only examines interactions between learners and context but also expands transfer to “systematic activity of collective organizations” (68).  Wardle continues her discussion of theories related to transfer saying that “activity and sociocultural theorists avoid the term ‘transfer’ because of its association with task-and-individual-based conceptions”; instead, some, like Beach, use the term “generalization” (68).

For her pilot study, Wardle chooses to utilize the activity-based approach and associated language, choosing generalization as the term of choice instead of transfer.  She feels this approach best takes into account “the crucial relationships between persons and situations over time” (70).  That said, Wardle explains her longitudinal pilot study that commenced in fall 2004 with seven traditionally aged, first-year students—four females and three males representing four separate majors in the sciences and social sciences–from her honors FYC course at University of Dayton, a private Catholic, liberal arts school of about 10,000 students. This study sought to answer the following four questions:

  1. What do students feel they learned and did in FYC?
  2. What kinds of writing are students doing elsewhere?
  3. How do students perceive that writing and what strategies do they use to complete it?
  4. Do students perceive FYC as helping them with later writing assignments across the university? (70)

The way Wardle establishes the study is that she meets with the students either individually or as a group and reviewed their writing for their courses, coding “transcripts for themes stemming from [her] research questions, categorized the writing according to genre and purpose, and compared student comments about the writing to the writing itself” (71).  While Wardle details her findings, we can shorten them by saying that she found that students rarely generalized from FYC.  Moreover, her study bears out that for the first two years of college, “students rarely reported the need for writing-related knowledge and behaviors learned and used in FYC” (73).  They felt much of their writing was summary, and therefore, they did not perceive that they needed “to adopt or adapt most of the writing behaviors they used in FYC to other courses” (76).  The students in the study said they would only use the skills, such as process writing, from FYC when they were “engaged” by a writing assignment.  By that term, Wardle concludes that students refer to “difficult” or “challenging” writing assignments.  Speaking of which, in these “engaging” assignments, Wardle concludes that even if a new writing task mirrored earlier ones, students still needed “contexts-specific” support (79).  Mentioned supports include reading and writing in the discipline, talking with peers, and gaining feedback from teachers. Now, while generalization (or transfer) of FYC skills shows up rarely in her research, one area Wardle concludes that generalization does occur from one writing task to the next is in the ability for students to maintain a meta-awareness about writing (76).

So, what are the implications of the study?  Wardle conveys that if meta-awareness of writing is the most transferable skill, then students in FYC should be encouraged to “write rhetorical analyses of various types of texts across the university, as well as to complete auto-ethnographies of their own reading and writing habits . . . “ (82).  She also argues that this study demonstrates the importance of discussions with faculty members outside the disciplines of composition. She suggests collaborative research projects to “better understand what goals they do and do not share for assignments and outcomes and to closely examine how students interpret assignments from various courses” (83).


While I have to admit puzzlement by her study’s population, which, even by Wardle’s own admission, is largely limited, I still think her findings offer grist for valid discussion about writing transfer.  Her advocacy for a pedagogy focused on rhetorical analyses, which looks to gain awareness of and harness the discursive exigencies of the moment, perhaps piggybacks on Tinberg’s recommendations for less focus on formalistic concerns and more disciplinary discussions in non-first-year-composition courses about threshold concepts.  Those elements may not look immediately like they work together, but encouragement and application of rhetorical adaptability, as advocated by Wardle, should lead–students at least–to less concern about conventions and more involvement in contexts.  What’s more, a focus on rhetorical analyses in composition and other courses could open the doorway for greater talk about threshold concepts, if, as Tinberg seems to say, faculty tend to not engage with these difficult disciplinary questions because they are worried about building general student confidence. Here, I think, instead, about how rhetorical analysis gives language and substance that allows for sociology students, for instance, to act like sociologists (ethos), talk like sociologists (logos), and wrestle with sociological texts and concepts as they arise (kairos). Rhetorical analysis, to use the language of Meyer and Land, can certainly move students from a liminal state to a transformative understanding of the discipline. Is this not one of the highest forms of transfer obtainable?

Also, to comment on Wardle’s other recommendations based on her findings — the auto-ethnograpy about writing — I assume here that she is championing her other seminal work with Douglas Downs, Writing about Writingas a way for students to find the language to discuss their discourse. The Writing about Writing (WAW) movement dovetails nicely with understanding of threshold concepts, at least within first year composition, and it opens up student-writers to discussing their own strengths and weaknesses. Without a doubt, the task of student’s identifying language around writing has proven difficult. I can’t think of a more common clause from students when they come to me or the writing center than, “I need help with my grammar.” Grammar, of course, to them means almost everything.  In fact, in the writing center, we have sheets that ask students why they are visiting, in order to help them reflect a bit on their writing before just leaping into a review session, and I made sure when we put these sheets together that we did not include the word “grammar” because my experience informs me that they would choose it almost every time.  All that said, that’s why being able to talk about writing, especially as it relates to transfer, is so critical, and that’s the reason why Wardle’s study, although not demonstrating much occurrence in the area of transfer, still offers a powerful message in its recommendations for pedagogical strategies that are often so obvious that they are probably overlooked.

Connections to OoS

I connect PAB 3.1 & PAB 3.2 to my object of study here.

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.

PAB #2.2 “Transfer” from The End of Composition Studies

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 is author of the book The End of Composition Studies and faculty at KSU.

Smit is author of the book The End of Composition Studies and faculty at KSU. Source: KSU

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).


Learning to kick a soccer ball is not the same as learning to throw a football, although both are balls. Likewise, general writing instruction does not necessarily transfer from one context to another. Source: Michael Pardo (Public Domain)

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.