I.02 “The Things They Carry: First-Year Composition and the Quest for Transferability”
Reviewed by Meghan A. Sweeney (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Chair: Suzanne Lane, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge
Scott Stevens, University of Redlands, CA, “Change We Can Believe In: Transfer of Learning from Baristas to Biologists”
Brett Flehinger, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, ““I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means”: High Road Transfer and Writing in Disciplinary Courses”
Suzanne Lane, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, “Transfer across Platforms: Do Any Lessons Transfer from Feedback on an Online Essay Assessment?”
Mary Boland, California State University, San Bernardino, “Passport Pedagogies: Why Packing for the Hinterlands is (Still) Hard”
At this year’s Conference on College Composition and Communication, the focus on writing transfer was unmistakable. As a graduate student working on dissertation research studying threshold concepts of reading, I attended most of the presentations on transfer at this year’s CCCC (especially since panels about post-secondary reading were nearly non-existent this year). Most of these panels shared findings from robust studies with a blend of qualitative and quantitative data. Some of these presentations were so popular I found myself sitting on the floor.
In the I.02 session “The Things They Carry: First-Year Composition and the Quest for Transferability,” the story was similar in that people were standing in the back of the room, unable to find a seat (even though there was an empty one next to me). However, unlike many of the other presentations, this well-attended panel presentation, chaired by Suzanne Lane from MIT, complicated the concept of transfer, in ways that I found illuminating. Together, they challenged the assumptions that currently guide the research we do on transfer, pushing back against what one presenter called the obsession with the ideal learning experience (Stevens) and what another referred to as the fetishizing of “did she” or “didn’t she” transfer (Boland). Overall, it was a panel presentation that complicated research findings delivered in other panel presentations, offering the diversity of thought that makes the Conference on College Composition and Communication so invigorating.
In the following sections, I summarize the main arguments of each presentation with a focus on how each one complicates our assumptions of transfer.
Scott Stevens from University of Redlands presented “Change We Can Believe In: Transfer of Learning from Baristas to Biologists.” As a long-time Writing Program Administrator, Stevens is interested in how learning moves. However, like other scholars on the panel, Stevens was concerned that the ideal reflective learning experience has replaced our discipline’s previous obsession with the ideal text. In this presentation, he argued that expanding our view of how we see transfer will offer us new ways of understanding how it happens, ultimately suggesting that high road transfer may occur through accumulation of lower transfer transformations.
To prove this claim, Stevens began with the traditional view of transfer, which takes us from learning to growth to development to agency to change. Christina Haas’s article “Learning to Read Biology: One Student’s Rhetorical Development in College” shows this change occurring in the student, Eliza, but Stevens noted that it was more about reading than writing. So what constitutes writing transfer?
Stevens then explored transfer that regards self, with concepts of deliberate mindful abstraction, dispositions, and theories of metacognition. However, Stevens complicated this focus on transfer as habit, or “The Road is Too Damn High,” with a look at the importance of emotional regulation and resilience or persistence. Studies have found that self-discipline predicted academic performance more robustly than IQ. But willpower is not an infinite resource; it leads to exhaustion. In an unexpected move, Stevens looked to Starbucks, a company that trains 1500 employees a week. They have the employees script out how they would deal with difficult moments in the store. Because rational control methods fail in stressful moments, this helps the baristas in those moments. This change is not huge, and Stevens suggested that we need to shrink the change we are looking for in transfer, because the high road transfer may just occur through the accumulation of lower transfer transformations. His argument, much of it based on Eflkides’s important work on metacognitive experience, got many of us questioning the value we place on high road transfer, a value that may be misplaced.
The second speaker, Brett Flehinger, a lecturer on History at Harvard, offered a different perspective on issues of transfer in his presentation titled “'I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means': High Road Transfer and Writing in Disciplinary Courses.” In case you don’t get the reference, Flehinger’s presentation title used the joke about “inconceivable” from The Princess Bride. This idea of words not meaning the same thing among disciplines, or among kidnappers in cult classics, set up the main problem of transfer for Flehinger: We think students know the terms, but they may not know what the words we use mean. As a lecturer in History, Flehinger is in a prime position to notice this issue of transfer. He claimed that in historical writing, the way a thesis is written is not as overt as how we teach it in composition and rhetoric. It’s more artistic. As well, evidence is different. Most of us talk about evidence as information, primary versus secondary, but in history evidence is the method. A person could write an entire master’s thesis by just framing a newly discovered document.
Because of these difficulties, Flehinger destabilizes his students and has them go through the deliberative process of “uncovering” how they know. This process improves metacognition and is the focus in his History 1433 class “American Populisms.” Flehinger then shared some of ways he writes assignments now. His assignments support the students in uncovering, by having them start with a topic or a source and explore. (He also showed some former assignments that did not do that.) Ultimately, Flehinger argued that we often ask “what transfers,” but need to recognize that the responsibility is also on the other end to receive. Receipt is crucial. For those instructors who teach students after composition courses, they should keep these issues in mind.
The third presentation by Suzanne Lane was titled “Transfer across Platforms: Do Any Lessons Transfer from Feedback on an Online Essay Assessment?” As the Director of Writing Across the Curriculum and First-Year Writing at MIT, Lane was interested in what might transfer from their placement process. First, a bit of background: Before getting to MIT, students write two 1000 word essays, an analytical summary and an argument. These are done online and receive written response. These responses are discussed with freshman advisors and are used to place students in the first-year writing program. It is believed that it is not just a sorting process but rather an instructional event. To discover whether or not that is a valid claim, Lane created a survey to try to see transfer.
The results of the survey showed that the majority of students read comments immediately; the majority found them extremely or very informative; and 57% of students discussed them with their advisors. As well, they studied what students remember from the comments on their essays. They were put into the following categories:
- Strategy/Concepts (how they interpret data, consider audience, topic sentences)
- Self-Efficacy (students take an evaluative memory with them like “promising”)
- Strategy/self-efficacy (students combine the two saying things like “provide better analysis”)
Lane closed her presentation with further questions:
- Does the form of how students remember comments matter for transfer, and if so, how?
- Does the form in which we write feedback determine how they remember lessons?
- Does the context in which we ask them to remember affect what they remember?
The final presentation, “Passport Pedagogies: Why Packing for the Hinterlands is (Still) Hard,” was by Mary Boland from California State University, San Bernardino. The context for her presentation comes from a writing awards ceremony for students in CSUSB’s stretch writing program. Winning writers in the program had the opportunity to respond to questions from the audience about their writing. Boland wondered whether the way they responded to questions would reflect the way they conceptualize writing in the program. The answer was a definitive "no." These students did not use the language of the program.
Boland claimed that some would suggest these students experienced negative transfer, but it did not lead to a failure, so that does not seem accurate. So she asked: How can we understand this in terms of transfer? Boland looked to identity formation and subjectivity, arguing that in considering transfer we are not looking at discourse and subject transformations enough.
Turning to Gee, Boland argued that apprenticeship is needed for transfer, but disciplinary practice is often invisible because of enculturation. This has implications for how we understand transfer. For that reason she argued that we should recognize that discourse and subjectivity point to the fact that students should not acculturate into all disciplines; we should reach out to faculty to understand the difference between writing-to-learn versus writing-to-become; and we should realize that studies that ignore the role of (D)iscourse in subject formation fetishizes “did she” or “didn’t she” transfer. Ultimately, Boland argued that we need to create language in transfer studies that allows for discursive processes in sponsoring students to become part of the university: we should see failure as unsponsored writers.
Together, these panelists complicated the ways we are conceiving of transfer: Stevens suggested we look to a series of culminating smaller moments of transfer; Flehinger suggested we consider more the receipt of transfer; Lane suggested we examine more fully how written feedback affects transfer; and Boland suggested we consider more the sponsorship of student writers in the apprenticeship of disciplines. I am still reflecting on these powerful conclusions written by teachers and administrators and the ways in which they suggest we adjust our research designs.