Introducing: Micro-Composition

Introducing: Micro-Composition

Chanel Earl

We seem to agree that genre awareness should have a place in the first-year composition (FYC) classroom. And although genre scholars continue the debate about how to best prepare students to compose the genres of the academy (Wardle), it seems a consensus has been reached as to the accepted definition of genre. We no longer see genre only as “recurring types of writing identifiable by distinctive features of structure, style, document design, approach to subject matter, or other markers” (Bean 46), but more specifically—as stated by Carolyn Miller—as “typified rhetorical actions based on recurrent situations” (see also Bazerman, Dewitt, Medway).

How students transfer genre knowledge from high school to college writing courses has been a hot research topic since this consensus was reached. Among the approaches to genre research, scholars have looked at what genres high school students are writing (Langer and Applebee, 2011; Scherff and Piazza), what genres and skills students call to mind as they complete their FYC writing assignments (Rieff and Bawarshi), what vocabulary they use when talking about their high school writing genres and experiences (Hannah and Saidy), and even how standardized testing has shaped the genres that high school students are most often asked to write (Powell).

Throughout this research, there is one aspect of student genre knowledge and experience that seems to appear again and again but has not yet attracted much attention. I propose that the research contains an overwhelming body of evidence that high school students are quite adept at writing in an often-overlooked genre I will call micro-composition, a genre which I will define as short responses to questions and prompts. I will then argue that micro-composition should be given the same pedagogical care and attention often given to other genres of the academy. Lastly, I will propose that micro-composition offers FYC instructors an authentic genre to build upon as they teach genre theory and transfer.


Micro-Composition in Secondary Education Research

Before I offer a more complete definition of micro-composition and its uses, it is useful to look at the research that led to it. Across the board, research into student writing in high school reveals that students are writing a lot of short answers and paragraphs in response to questions and prompts from their teachers. In their survey of 1200 language arts, social studies and science teachers, Kiuarha, Graham, and Hawken report that, “By far the most common writing activities used by teachers were short answer response to homework, response to material read, completing worksheets, and summary of materials read” (140).

Other research shows that up to 81 percent of student writing—across all subjects—is shorter than a paragraph (Langer and Applebee, 24). Or that the writing activity high school students did the most was “responding to literature” (Scherff and Piazza, 285). In their research, Hannahand Saidy talk about the term “bellwork,” which is used as a “catch-all term used to describe short writing assignments that teachers use to begin class or that students should be doing when the bell rings,” and the idea of  SAPs or “summary analysis paragraphs” that are often required writing for high school students (135).  These and other research studies (see also Stumpf, Rousnaville), have shown that high school students spend a lot of time answering questions and responding to prompts.

Interestingly, these short assignments are given across the curriculum, in math classes and history classes, English classes and science classes, and every class in-between. It is one of the main ways that teachers of every subject assess their students’ understanding of content and gauge their students emotional and intellectual responses to what is happening in the course.

It is important to admit that some of the related research doesn’t mention these short assignments at all. I believe that when micro-composing is left out of these studies, it is because students do not consider these short forms as real writing, and that the scholars who are performing the study also don’t think to ask about or measure the amount of time students spend micro-composing. In my research, I repeatedly ran into the attitude that this sort of assignment does not really count as writing. Langer and Applebee even described this sort of writing as “writing without composing” (15). This may well be true in the case of fill-in-the-blank or other writing exercises that require nothing more than a single word or phrase; however, as I am asserting that micro-composition deserves the study and attention that we have given to other genres of the academy, it must also be the case that micro-composition deserves a name that warrants that respect and attention. Which is why I chose to include the word composition in the name of this genre nomenclature. I call these short answers micro-compositions in order to make a statement that these paragraphs and sentences are not throw-away pieces of writing, but examples of a genre of composition.


Micro-Composition Defined

In proposing that we look at micro-composition as a defined genre, I would like to provide some context as to what it is, and why I believe that it qualifies as a genre of its own. Genre theory has proposed several definitions of genre, the first being that genre is both social and cognitive. It is created not only as a text but also in response to a social, recurrent situation (Bazerman, 1997). Micro-composition certainly has a clear situational exigence, and in attempting to better define and explain the boundaries and rhetorical situation of micro-composition, I will look at the five principles proposed by Carol Berkenkotter and Thomas N. Huckin, who argue that genres are “dynamic rhetorical structures” that are situated within disciplinary activities (477). I will argue that micro-composition fits into the theoretical framework that Berkenkotter and Huckin propose (478).

  1. Micro-composition is a dynamic rhetorical form. The recurrent situation that leads to the production of micro-composition is a question or prompt that students are assigned to respond to in writing. As pedagogies change—for example, as students progress from one grade to another, or move from one subject to another—the form also changes in response to the needs of the instructors and students.
  2. Micro-composition is situated. It is created as students participate in classroom activities, complete their homework and assignments, and follow the instructions of their teacher, all common activities in the modern classroom. Students develop a greater knowledge of the genre of micro-composition as they participate more and more in their coursework.
  3. Micro-compositions have patterns in form and content. Just like in any genre, there are variations in the way micro-compositions are composed. And specifically, responses to questions or prompts will vary depending on the specifics of the assignment. But most micro-compositions follow one of two forms. The first is a simple text that demonstrates student understanding of a topic. It is direct and may follow a pattern such as RACE (restate, answer, cite and explain), one of several mnemonics created to help students perform well when writing micro-compositions (Powell 67). The second form is a personal response, where students write their own thoughts in a sort of free-write or journal entry. I also expect these responses to have trends in form and content that include referencing the prompt or reading, and then talking about the reading experience or another personal experience that is related to it. More research could reveal how rigid the form and content of this genre actually are.
  4. Micro-composition has duality of structure. It is certainly a genre that both shapes social structures and is shaped by them. Changes in the social and technological contexts of the classroom both have an influence on micro-composition and at the same time are influenced by the way that participants are using micro-composition. The dual structure then emerges as students and teachers respond to and shape the genre.
  5. Micro-composition is owned by the community/ies that use it. ownership. The genre conventions of micro-composition are guarded by the teachers who grade them. These teachers take ownership of the genre and ensure that micro-compositions follow the community’s norms.

There is more work to be done here. Although micro-composition clearly fits into the framework, its boundaries are not yet defined. Research could reveal more about how rigid the genre is within the various disciplines and levels. Scholars could explore the extent to which instructors educate their students as to the conventions of micro-composition, and even how many different distinct genres exist as a response to these academic exigences. Once we more fully understand this genre, we will be able to use it more effectively as a teaching tool.


How Micro-composition can be Used When Teaching Genre Awareness and Transfer

            Having established that micro-composition fits into the accepted framework and qualifies as a genre, we can now look at why this genre matters and how it can be useful in composition classrooms.

Elementary and secondary educators already give pedagogical attention to micro-composition in their classrooms, mainly as a response to the testing culture. Rebecca Powell explains that “standardized testing encourages writing in genres specific to the testing context,” which leads to explicit instruction as to how to best answer test questions and write short essays. This is why the mnemonics such as RACE are taught, and explains why many assignments found in secondary writing classrooms are short responses to readings(67). It also explains why this practice is seen so widely across the curriculum.

Another of secondary educators’ pedagogical purposes for micro-composition centers on community and identity. In an EdSurge research series, High School teacher Brian Christopher writes about how “micro-writing” is making a “macro impact” in his classroom. He persuasively argues that “low-stakes, shareable writing assignments” help his students overcome their fears of writing and “develop and strengthen their identities” as writers. He also encourages his students to share the micro-compositions that they complete, which helps to create a safe community for his students, a place where they feel valued and understood.

            College educators don’t give the same pedagogical attention to micro-composition, perhaps because they are not required to teach to “the test” in the same way that high school educators are required to. The longer, more prestigious genres of the academy have taken priority in college composition classrooms. However, college educators still use micro-composition regularly. In my experience the most common writing assignments in many FYC classrooms are often rush-writes, journals or free-writes—where students compose short, usually paragraph-length responses to questions, readings or prompts—or short posts and responses in online forums often discussing topics covered in class. Other micro-compositions in FYC include short answer responses to peer writing, short answers in response to readings or discussions, short answers written after completing various learning modules, exercises, activities, and even exit slips that students use to list concerns, questions and suggestions addressed to their instructor.

It is important to note that beyond its use in the classroom, micro-composition is used ubiquitously in the greater world. Short answers are often required when applying for a job, filling out a medical history, completing the myriad surveys that are asked of us, or even posting and commenting on online forums. Although there is little pedagogical purpose in these situations, every piece of writing still fulfils a rhetorical purpose, and comes in response to a real-world exigence.

Micro-compositions serve as useful and adaptable pedagogical tools in nearly every subject and at nearly every level, and they are also an ever-present genre in the workplace as well as in everyday life situations. Their uses are clearly not strictly limited to secondary education, but we seem to have forgotten that these sort of everyday writing tasks are, yes, still composition. They are still responses to rhetorical situations that require thought and analysis, and short compositions in response to these sorts of questions can still be more or less effective than others.


Micro-composition and Genre Transfer

Currently, micro-composition is most often used to assess knowledge and foster writing communities, but another pedagogical purpose emerges when we recognize micro-composition for the genre that it is. Although research will be needed to determine the effectiveness of these methods, I would like to propose that students’ expert knowledge of micro-composition and its short length make it an excellent candidate to help instructors teach genre awareness, and that it can also serve as a bridge to longer genres of writing. Each of these claims is speculative, but they are also informed by available research in genre studies.

  1. Introducing genre awareness. In her years of research, Ann Johns has concluded that the main purpose of beginning literacy courses should be teaching students the skills necessary to negotiate and produce the genres that will be required of them (1997).  As students enter FYC with prior knowledge and experience with micro-compositions, that makes micro-composition an excellent genre to use to introduce the concepts of genre awareness and the rhetorical situation. When introducing these concepts, examples of micro-compositions are not only familiar to our students but are also short enough that they can be written during a 50- or 75-minute class period. Using micro-genres in this way is familiar and efficient. It also shows students that we are aware of their expertise and experience.
  2. Providing authentic genre experiences. Elizabeth Wardle has given a name to genres taken out of context—such as a conference paper written outside of the conference context, perhaps only for practice in a classroom. She calls them “mutt genres” and argues, with research to back it up, that because “the rhetorical situations of FYC courses around the country do not mirror the multiple, diverse, and complex rhetorical situations found across the university in even the most basic ways[, t]ransfer to such varied situations is not easily accomplished” (766). Broadly speaking, it can be argued that micro-compositions are a genre designed in and for the classroom. They are authentic genres, not attempted copies of the real thing. Because of this, working with micro-genres in the classroom allows students to produce examples of the genre in real life, not just pretend that they are writing a genre or attempting to write one for practice.
  3. Teaching for transfer. Transfer can be defined as “students’ ability to effectively apply their learning to a variety of new situations” (Stumpf, 5). “Low-road” transfer is automatic and obvious. It happens when students see situations as very similar and easily apply old knowledge without thought or difficulty (Perkins and Salomon, 22). One good example of low road transfer in FYC is the conventions of standard written English. Students don’t typically ask questions like, “Do we need to put periods at the end of our sentences in this class?” They just transfer their punctuation knowledge naturally, assuming that they rules they learned ages ago haven’t changed. “High-road” transfer is more abstract and cerebral. It requires students to reflect and work in abstractions. It occurs when students mindfully seek for connections that are not obvious, and then implement them (Perkins and Salomon 25). This would happen when a student writes a source analysis using the same types of analytical skills they learned about when they wrote a genre analysis, even though the assignment sheet doesn’t mention those particular ideas.

Students don’t need as much help with low-road transfer because they do it automatically. However, high-road transfer can be more difficult. One reason that micro-composition can work to encourage high-road transfer is that it is so different that many of the longer academic genres required of our students. As students learn to analyze the rhetorical moves required to answer a question from their teacher, moves that they have made for years without giving them much thought, and then see those same skills of analysis applied to longer and more prestigious genres, their experience with high-road transfer will be increased. Transferring knowledge from micro-composition to other required genres will always require what Rebecca S. Nowacek calls “Recontextualization,” which is, as it sounds, taking knowledge from one context and then applying it in another. Recontextualizing long-held skills developed through repeated creation of micro-composition leads to high-road transfer, and modelling that transfer in class can help develop that skill.

  1. Using micro-composition to build longer genres. In order to help students write in longer forms, I suggest breaking these longer genres into bite sized pieces for student construction. Often, students who have no trouble writing a paragraph—or even an entire page—during class as a response to an instructor’s prompt have a difficult time seeing a way to write the increasingly complex genres of the academy. If instructors can name and discuss micro-composition with their students, then teach them how to write it effectively, it is a small leap to then show students how a research paper is merely a set of micro-compositions strung together to form a greater whole. Instructors might ask students to create their own lists of questions, similar to the ones they have encountered in tests or in the classroom, then answer them, and organize these answers into a cohesive argument, report or narrative.


Call for Further Research

I have listed only four possible ways that micro-composition could be used pedagogically in FYC. There are certainly many more, but before we can truly study and develop research-based tools and strategies we need to name and acknowledge that micro-composition is a genre, and a valuable one. Ann M. Johns astutely writes that “unfortunately, student-produced genres in academic contexts are much more casually named by their instructors than are respected academic genres, probably because student texts have little or no prestige in academic communities” (2008, 240). We are all requiring micro-composition from our students. If we want to use it well, we need to first consider, research and study it in the same way that compositionists have studied essays, research papers and other genres of the academy.

One research direction is that of student attitudes toward micro-composition. Do they see it as writing? Do students who excel at these types of tasks consider themselves writers? Good writers? Do students give thought to how they compose these answers, or do they mostly write from habit? Do they think of longer pieces of writing as a series of shorter micro-compositions? Would discussions of that sort help them feel less intimidated by longer genres?

Teacher familiarity and attitudes could also be explored. Do higher education professors see micro-composition as college writing? How do they use it in the classroom? What sort of preparation do instructors have that enables them to use these micro-compositions well?

Pedagogically, can micro-compositions really encourage transfer? Would students respond positively to the pedagogies I have suggested in this article? Could micro-compositions serve as intermediary genres? (Tachino). Or could they be used to encourage uptake of the other academic genres that are required of them? (Bawarshi). How do micro-compositions work in conjunction with other genres in genre colonies? (Bhatia).

These are only some of the questions about micro-compositions that could be explored, and exploring them—taking seriously this form of writing that we, and our students, perform almost daily—would help our students develop genre awareness and learn to transfer their prior knowledge to the genres of the academy.


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