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Because of something I’m writing about which I hope to be able to share more soon, I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about “transfer.”

Most recently, I’ve been digging through Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing by Kathleen Yancey, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak, which covers an overview of various theories of composition transfer and then discusses case studies meant to assess how effective different approaches may be in inducing learning transfer.

Transfer has long been the central goal of my first-year writing course. In my course policies, for a decade now I’ve stated that the goal is to help students become “self-regulating writers.”

But transfer is hard and some of the things I’ve tried (which Writing Across Contexts covers) actively worked against transfer, even though I had the best of intentions. There is something reassuring about seeing others struggle with the same problems I’ve confronted.

I outlined some frustrations with transfer and strategies for addressing these problems in bridging the gap between first-year writing courses and writing in other academic disciplines 18 months ago. 

My thinking holds up pretty well, if I dare say so myself. I remain convinced that a key, maybe the key to the transfer of writing skills is in helping students acquire “genre awareness” rooted in the rhetorical situation, most specifically the dimensions of an audience’s needs, attitudes, and knowledge.

But it remains difficult to put theory and practice together in a way that gets students over the hurdle. Expecting it to happen in a semester seems pretty foolish. At best, I can leave students armed with a way of thinking about writing and a handful of tools to solve “writing-related problems” that may come their way. Ultimately, how much transfer happens is up to students.

I think the hurdle for transfer is higher than I previously believed, though in hindsight, I’m not sure why I would’ve believed it wasn’t all that high.

Tressie McMillian Cottom offers a perfect illustration of this in writing at her own domain about what it took to move from completing a dissertation to writing her extremely well received general interest book, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges.

As she notes, “Dissertations are their own genre.” They are, for sure, not books meant for general audiences. After completing her dissertation, she was left with the question, “How to write a book from all this data I had.” In her own words, “The first draft didn’t go well.”

The second didn’t either and she decided to delay the book by a year in an effort to “forget everything I knew about the topic.”

The remainder of the post discusses the specifics of the way she solved the problem of her book and I recommend it for those who have read Lower Ed, particularly those who are working on books of their own. It’s an example of how books get pieced together, each one a custom job reflective of its subject and its author. I wouldn’t say there’s a universal lesson in Prof. Cottom’s method, other than as a reminder that something that seems not possible can suddenly seem possible when even just a small part of the solution presents itself.

Prof. Cottom experienced was the authors of Writing Across Contexts would call “negative transfer,” in this case, “dissertation brain” clouding her ability to see a different way through the material.

One of the things I do on occasion is consult with academics who wish to publish their scholarly work to broader audiences. I see a similar difficulty in transfer as I relentlessly strip background and context out of the piece, reminding them that the public is only interested in the cool results. This is deeply uncomfortable for people who know that their credibility is built on the background and context, but in the general public, that “Prof.” at the front of the name carries a lot of weight.

Time has caused me to forget my own difficulties with transfer when I first started blogging for Inside Higher Ed, but almost six years ago, when I first started, it would take me a week to conceive and draft a single post. The hardest part was figuring what to write about. My closest experiential model were essays which had required significant planning, a desire to know my “point” before starting the piece. That “point” might shift in the doing, but without at least a theoretical destination, I couldn’t get started.

Over time I learned to write from a “notion,” a single interesting bit that lodged in my brain. I discovered that starting with a notion I found interesting and writing into and through that notion conjured additional material and I began to worry less about a unity of message and embrace an exploratory mode that allows me to make discoveries for myself in the hopes those discoveries resonate with others.

This has allowed me to develop a measure of “expertise,” and yet, I hesitate to lay claim to being “expert.” To me, “expert” suggests a kind of infallibility, an attitude at odds with the approach that allows for exploration. If have everything figured out, what am I going to discover? How is the act going to stay interesting to me?

In Writing Across Contexts, the authors discuss the importance of adopting a “novice” attitude when it comes to developing as a writer and enacting the transfer of writing knowledge. Outside of their case studies, which provide compelling evidence, this strikes me as true to my own experience.

I have heard many successful novelists talk about how each new book requires a return to a kind of primeval state. The author knows they’re capable of writing a novel, but have not yet proven capable of writing this novel.

Tressie McMillian Cottom’s experience seems to speak to this as well. She had to forget the expertise of a dissertation completer to return to the appropriate novitiate state.

Maybe the best thing I can do for students is admit to and remind them of how this stuff is hard and it’s unreasonable to expect it all to lock into place in a semester’s (or even four year’s) time.

It seems to take a combination of persistence and naïveté, self-belief, and a willingness to be adrift until you catch a glimpse of shore. 



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