An Empathetic Approach: Reframing Common Composition Practices as Risk-Taking

An Empathetic Approach:

Reframing Common Composition Practices as Risk-Taking

Summer Weaver

In their essay “The Emotional Work of Revision,” Bruce Ballenger and Kelly Myers demonstrate how emotions are closely linked to writing, and therefore should especially be considered during a student’s revision process. The link between emotion and writing is clear to any student “who has felt despondent and embarrassed about a failed draft, struggled with feelings of incompetence, or felt unmotivated to do work that just yesterday seemed exciting” (594). These are emotions frequently felt by writing students, and not just in the revision process. Ballenger and Myers have entered the conversation on emotions in the classroom by exploring the emotions associated with revision, but the conversation has yet to be expanded to other stages of the writing process, or even other common pedagogical practices. By reframing these activities frequently used in the first-year writing classroom as risk-taking, instructors can better understand the emotional weight students bear with each new assignment.

Several scholars have employed terms that imply this idea of risk-taking but have yet to be defined as such, perhaps because the connotations around risk-taking tend to be negative. I use the phrase “risk-taking” to include those productive learning strategies which promote growth, in the same sense that students are encouraged by teachers to try new approaches to writing that may be outside of their comfort zones. There are several examples of common pedagogical practices that promote productive risk-taking. In this paper I will propose a rereading of writing studies scholarship to encourage a more empathetic approach to the teaching of writing that acknowledges the risks we commonly ask students to take. As instructors, we often fail to recognize how pedagogical practices—even effective and important ones—can feel risky for students. Just as Ballenger and Myers reveal the emotional work of a practice (revision) that is universally accepted as beneficial, I will similarly apply a risk-taking lens to other common pedagogical approaches. Specifically, I will touch upon Kara Tazcak and Liane Robertson’s work on reflection, Carolyn Miller’s essay “Genre as Social Action,” Mary Reiff and Anis Bawarshi’s terms “boundary crossers” and “boundary guarders,” Rebecca Nowacek’s essay on recontextualization, and Nancy Sommers and Laura Saltz’s classification of students as either “experts” or “novices,” among others. By viewing these terms or practices as risk-taking, first-year composition instructors can be more sensitive to the emotional work each item involves, ultimately leading to a safer and more productive learning environment.

I will also propose various strategies for incorporating this more empathetic view of risk-taking into a first-year composition classroom. Each of these strategies come with their own risks to students, but my intentional framing invites students to view them as opportunities for growth rather than threats to their identities as writers. The teaching strategies I propose are meant to strengthen the teacher-student relationship and ease students into their roles as communicators with real social consequences for their actions. By acknowledging the risks first-year writers are taking and the vulnerability that inevitably comes with writing, instructors can frame their assignments and activities to better engage students in the learning process and invite them to become lifelong mindful communicators.

Reflection as Risk

In their essay on reiterative reflection, Kara Tazcak and Liane Robertson outline the following four types of reflection: looking outward, inward, forward, and backward (46). They assert that students need not just reflective assignments and reflective activities in order to use reflection in an effective way, but also a comprehensive understanding of reflective theory. According to their article, a knowledge of key terms is necessary in order for students to obtain a definition of reflection and an understanding of why reflection is important. In addition to the common practices of reflecting forward and backward, both outward and inward reflection can be crucial in an instructor’s efforts to encourage high-road transfer from students. High-road transfer, as defined by David Perkins and Gavriel Solomon, occurs when there is “deliberate, mindful abstraction of skill or knowledge from one context for application to another” (25). Alternatively, low-road transfer is simply the “automatic triggering of well-practiced routines” in circumstances which share considerable similarities with “the original learning context” (25). When students situate themselves as authors among other theoretical discourse, they are practicing Tazcak and Robertson’s method of reflecting outward. This practice will encourage them to try new strategies and explore new conversations, while simultaneously asking them to theorize about their identity as writers. Reviewing the current writing situation they are working on (in other words, reflecting inward) will promote a critical look at how their writing works and if new strategies could be applied to strengthen the piece as a whole.

Both of these practices, reflecting outward and reflecting inward, should be acknowledged by teachers as a risk for the student. When instructors ask students to frame their own writing within the critical conversation of published scholars, while admittedly beneficial, it is often an intimidating task. Many students tend to be critical of their own work and this act of comparison is conducive of such self-criticism, especially when the comparison regards their identity, not just the text they have produced. Likewise, asking students to reflect on their writing during the process requires them to view their work as imperfect and in need of improvement, which is a risk in itself. By viewing these two practices through a lens of risk-taking, instructors can be more sensitive to the emotional work they require of the students. Risk-taking can promote productive growth for a writer, but it does not come naturally to most students.

Risk taking can feel so unnatural to students, in fact, that they might view it as a threat to their identity. In Rebecca Nowacek’s essay “Transfer as Recontextualization,” she asserts the importance of understanding writer identity as it relates to transfer. She expands on Neil Gross’s work on “intellectual self-concept,” explaining that each student comes to the classroom already having an “understanding of his or her role, capacities, affiliations, and worth in a given social context” (24). This previously established sense of self can be both helpful and harmful when it comes to first-year composition. In one sense, knowing one’s identity can allow a student to belong to multiple groups and feel passionate about certain discourses. On the other hand, students will undoubtedly see risk-taking as a threat to this established identity, and therefore will be less likely to try a new writing strategy, like reflection, or fully engage in a difficult writing task. Because of this, instructors have a responsibility to understand the emotional work involved with encouraging students to take productive risks. It is possible for students to take risks in the classroom and still preserve their sense of self, but only if instructors frame reflective assignments in such a way as to promote gradual growth rather than sudden change.

An example of a mindful reflective assignment that takes these points into account can be as simple as a written reflection in the middle of a unit, rather than simply at the end. By asking students to pause and reflect on their essays while still in the process of writing them, an instructor invites them to be mindful of the strategies they are using and how these influence the way they feel about their product so far. Rather than asking for an open-ended reflection, instructors can ask guiding questions that lead students to consciously reflect on their writing process. While reflections written after a final draft are productive for forward transfer into future assignments, reflections written during the revision process require students to look at the risks they are taking[1] and evaluate the effectiveness of those risks. By incorporating this reflection assignment in the revision process, instructors open the door for students to share their struggles and concerns with their draft in a safe format, thus strengthening the teacher’s potential for empathy and allowing for more catered instruction in the final stages of the unit.

“Boundary-Crossing” as Risk

Some of the most important writing concepts that deserve to be reread as risk-taking are Mary Reiff and Anis Bawarshi’s well-known term “boundary-crossers” and Nancy Sommers and Laura Saltz’s classification of students as “novices.” According to Sommers and Saltz, those students who approach a writing class accepting their novice status “make the greatest gains as writers,” while those set in an expert mindset are less likely to progress (124). In Reiff and Bawarshi’s study, these same novice-type students who felt less confident when encountering a new genre were more likely to engage in high-road transfer. Because of their lack of experience, they felt obligated to rely on different writing strategies that cross genre boundaries, whereas the more confident “expert” students stayed within the genre conventions they already knew. When reflecting on their observations, Reiff and Bawarshi write, “comfort with reformulating and transforming existing resources may serve students well in accessing and adapting to future writing contexts. In other words, ‘crossing’ may be a key element of transforming knowledge and learning” (330). These “boundary-crossing” students can be seen as risk takers. They are using a transfer of knowledge to try something new in their writing, and, as Reiff and Bawarshi explain, this has the potential to be a beneficial practice for their long-term learning. Because boundary crossing is risk-taking, it should be taught and encouraged with the same sensitivity as the inward and outward reflection discussed previously. It has the potential to allow for student growth, but only if those students are willing to take the necessary risks to cross those genre boundaries. Not all students feel inclined to take such risks, which is why the instructor’s role in framing the situation safely is so crucial.

An example of boundary-crossing in a first-year composition classroom can be seen in the conference paper genre. This genre, which essentially includes research papers written to be presented in an academic conference, is introduced most effectively when instructors frame the assignment with a hypothetical call for papers, with each student preparing their essay as a presentation which would supposedly be read aloud to a live audience of undergraduates attending the conference. This framing, however, involves a risk. The majority of students have experience with classic written assignments that are read silently by a single instructor. The thought of writing for the purpose of speaking is unfamiliar and oftentimes overwhelming. The students who feel confident in classic writing assignments may choose to conform this new genre to their tried-and-true practices of organization and voice by writing for readers, not listeners, thus avoiding the risk inherently found in the conference paper genre. Those “novice” students who are less comfortable with writing to begin with may be more willing to explore a new writing voice, one that comes across as engaging and understandable for listeners, not just readers. These students may draw from their previous experience of listening to speeches or podcasts to know a comfortable style in which to write. Now, how can instructors encourage the first group of students to boundary-cross the way these “novice” students might? Listening to a famous speech in class and evaluating the speaker’s language is one way, while peer review is another. Inviting students to participate in a peer review in which they read their papers out loud may frame the revision process in a way that encourages both boundary-crossing and risk-taking. By reading their paper out loud to a partner, a student may notice what sentences are awkward to say or what words are repetitive. Similarly, their partner may observe parts in which the paper’s natural cadence slows down or speeds up, or parts which may cause confusion for an auditory audience. This exercise, while requiring many students to step outside of their comfort zones, encourages them to acknowledge the uniqueness of this genre and adapt their writing strategies to work within it. Every student can become a boundary-crossing student when given opportunities by their instructor to learn a new genre and revise their strategies accordingly. Instructors can directly acknowledge the risks they are asking students to take with this exercise and engage in a class discussion afterward that reflects upon the experience. Openness and communication between students and the instructor is key to framing risk-taking in a positive light.

Genre as Risk

The inherent risk in crossing genre boundaries is magnified when one views genre itself as risky for a student. Carolyn Miller’s essay “Genre as Social Action” provides a definition of genre that emphasizes the need for genre to be viewed through a risk-taking lens. Miller states that “…a rhetorically sound definition of genre must be centered not on the substance or the form of discourse but on the action it is used to accomplish” (151). This definition of genre is applicable to this paper because the view of genre as being useful for taxonomy purposes only does not acknowledge the type of experimentation or risk-taking that trying a new genre requires. Finding, as Miller suggests, a “…connection between genre and recurrent situation and the way in which genre can be said to represent typified rhetorical action” can help students understand the importance of genre, but it also carries with it emotional work for the student (151). The very nature of writing something in a new genre can be viewed as “risky” by a student, but framing genre as a mechanism for social action adds an additional level of intensity for a novice learner. If genre is social action, and instructors are asking students to learn new genres, it implies that any enactment of a genre has consequences. Therefore, asking students to use a new genre is asking students to inevitably take a risk. When teachers acknowledge these consequences of the social action and address them in the classroom, it can make students more comfortable with the new concepts.

The opinion editorial genre is one that, because of its publication space in popular news sources, has evident consequences of social action. As a result, it is important for instructors of first-year composition who assign this genre to acknowledge these consequences and clearly address them in the classroom. Rather than disregarding the risk of writing an Opinion Editorial, instructors should frame this risk in a way that allows students to view it as an exciting opportunity rather than a daunting requirement. Giving students the chance to choose their own topics for this assignment is one way in which an instructor can allow for the excitement of social action to be clear throughout the writing process. Rather than simply setting students loose to write on any subject, however, instructors can carefully coach their students through various topic ideas by holding one-on-one topic conferences. When made available, these individual conferences give students the opportunity to explore their personal exigence, while allowing the instructor to frame the chosen topic through its potential social actions. After reading real examples of opinion editorials in class and discussing the exigence and purpose of each piece, students can see their own potential to write on a topic of importance to them and their community. Giving students the freedom to choose their own topic is one way in which an instructor can introduce the concept of genre as social action without overwhelming students with the riskiness of entering a real and current conversation.

Further Research

With all of these common terms and practices reframed as risk taking, composition studies has need for further research regarding how exactly instructors can ask students to take risks without compromising their comfort or sense of self. Just as Bruce Ballenger and Kelly Myers examined ways in which instructors can be aware of the emotional work (or risk) of revision, so too should scholars explore the other areas outlined in this essay as risk-taking. If practices like reflection and writing in new genres involve taking risks, how then can instructors be sensitive to the challenges they pose to students? How can risk-taking in the classroom be reframed as beneficial rather than destructive? The strategies I have outlined are simply starting points, for there is so much more that instructors could do to ease the burden of risk-taking for their students. We are asking our students to enter into real-world conversations, and though we have given them tools to become effective communicators, we must also be empathetic to the challenges this emergence brings.

Almost all writing requires some vulnerability, as it involves transferring private thought into concrete, written language. The amount of vulnerability students put into their writing depends upon the risks they are willing to take in the writing process. Before instructors can work toward encouraging risks, the first step is to become aware of the emotional work these risks require of each student. Having an empathetic understanding of this difficult work can strengthen the teacher-student relationship and allow for greater student growth, since risks are often required in order for change to occur.


[1] As a note with all of the strategies I propose, instructors should feel comfortable discussing risk-taking in the classroom with their students, as making them mindful of these risks can further their potential for growth throughout the course.


Works Cited

Ballenger, Bruce and Kelly Myers. “The Emotional Work of Revision.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 70, no. 4, 2019, pp. 590-614.

Engle, Randi A., et al. “How Does Expansive Framing Promote Transfer? Several Proposed Explanations and a Research Agenda for Investigating Them.” Educational Psychologist, vol 47, no. 3, 2012, 215-231, DOI: 10.1080/00461520.2012.695678.

Haskell, Robert E. “Transfer of Learning: What it is and Why it’s Important.Transfer of Learning: Cognition, Instruction, and Reasoning, edited by Robert E. Haskell, Academic Press, 2001, pp. 23-39.

Nowacek, Rebecca S. “Transfer as Recontextualization.” Agents of Integration: Understanding Transfer as a Rhetorical Act, Southern Illinois University, 2011, pp. 10-34.

Perkins, D.N. and Gavriel Salomon. “Teaching for Transfer.” Educational Leadership, vol. 46, no. 1, 1988, pp. 22-32.

Reiff, Mary Jo and Anis Bawarshi. “Tracing Discursive Resources: How Students Use Prior Genre Knowledge to Negotiate New Writing Contexts in First-Year Composition.” Written Communication, vol. 28, no. 3, 2011, pp. 312-337.

Sommers, Nancy and Laura Saltz. “The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshmen Year.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 56, no. 1, 2004, pp. 124-149.

Tazcak, Kara and Liane Robertson. “Reiterative Reflection in the Twenty-First-Century Writing Classroom: An Integrated Approach to Teaching for Transfer.” A Rhetoric of Reflection, edited by Kathleen Blake Yancey, 2016, pp. 42-63.