Response to Downs and Wardle and Their Critics

Response to Downs and Wardle and Their Critics:

Reframing Conversations about FYC Approaches

Tara Boyce

Douglas Downs and Elizabeth Wardle’s article “Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning ‘First-Year Composition’ as ‘Introduction to Writing Studies’” proposes and advocates for a new approach to teaching first-year composition (FYC)—an “Introduction to Writing Studies” approach—which has prompted serious and continual response since it was first published in 2007. That the article has sparked such interest and debate among composition scholars is not too surprising, given the contested history of FYC since it began in the nineteenth century. From early critics like Lounsbury, who attacked the institution of FYC altogether (“Freshmen are inept! They have nothing to contribute and they waste prestigious professors’ time!”), to literature advocates like Osgood, who pushed for a literature-based composition course (“Because literature is above composition, of course”), to alternativists like Eurich, who advocated instead for Writing Across the Curriculum programs, to contemporaries who emphasize anything from cultural studies to expressivism to rhetoric (Roemer et al.), you can see why, in the first month of survey reading for my graduate seminar on teaching composition at Brigham Young University, I kept asking myself, Wait, wait, wait, so what are we supposed to be teaching?

Roemer et al., who survey the history of debate on first-year composition, describe FYC as central to the field of writing studies since it’s “what we study, teach, argue about the most” (377). But what are we arguing about, and what are we arguing for? In reading recent conversations centered on Downs and Wardle’s controversial article, I’ve come to accept what Richard Fulkerson asks us to consider of composition philosophies in the conclusion of his “Composition at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century”:

  1. Our axiology. What do we want our students to achieve in writing? This is our “theory of value” in writing.
  2. Our process. What “moves” do we think students need to learn? More generally speaking, how do we believe written texts “come into existence”?
  3. Our pedagogy. How will we conduct our classes to enable the process to achieve our goals—our axiology? (657–58, 679–80)

Fulkerson explains that how we answer these questions will “depend in part on [our] epistemolog[ies]” (680), or the assumptions we make in our beliefs about teaching, learning, and writing (658). Unlike Fulkerson, however, I do not promote a singular approach to teaching FYC. After all, I agree with Andrea Lunsford, who applauds composition studies as “a postmodern discipline” that incorporates “reaching across the boundaries of traditional disciplines” (qtd. in Roemer et al. 391). Instead, I promote Fulkerson’s process of analysis in our own analyses and discussions of each other’s FYC courses. What concerns me in reading debates about these courses has been the tendency to argue the validity or invalidity, the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of different pedagogies or epistemologies through different perceptions and paradigms of composition axiologies. For example, to analyze Downs and Wardle’s proposed course from a teaching-the-rhetorical-situation-through-genre paradigm, as Miles et al. do at one point in their response, is to attack a methodology without understanding the axiology, which, quite literally, misses Downs and Wardle’s point. While reading these interchanges, I found myself continually asking what I ask my first-year writing students on the first day of class: “So how do we get on the same page?”

In this paper, I’d like to focus on Fulkerson’s idea of axiology and apply it to conversations about FYC. However, instead of using the term “axiology” to describe a general “theory of value” in writing, I would like to adapt this ideology to conversations about FYC approaches, where the term “axiology” embodies the theoretical framework in which an FYC course is designed—“the theory of value” behind the course, or, in other words, the goal of the course. Hence, this paper will (1) analyze the theoretical framework—the “axiology”—of Downs and Wardle’s Introduction to Writing Studies course and (2) explore the pedagogical practices and epistemological assumptions within that framework. In doing so, I hope not only to offer a fair and productive response to Downs and Wardle’s proposal but also to demonstrate how analyzing proposed FYC courses within the paradigm of the author(s) may further stimulate not only our own understanding of each other’s work but also aid in refining our axiologies and processes and how we talk about them.

The Axiology: What do Downs and Wardle want their students to achieve?

I will begin by analyzing the theoretical framework Downs and Wardle propose in their alternate approach to teaching FYC: teaching about writing in an Introduction to Writing Studies course. Though critics like Miles et al. have misinterpreted the purpose of this course as an “Introduction to [a] Writing Studies [major]” (Downs 173), Downs and Wardle, in their original article published in College Composition and Communication, explain that this course aims to “improve students’ understanding of writing, rhetoric, language, and literacy” as a general education requirement (“Teaching about Writing” 553, emphasis mine). They continue, describing more of what this “understanding” is for in the following passage:

The course is forthcoming about what writing instruction can and cannot accomplish; it does not purport to ‘teach students to write’ in general nor does it purport to do all that is necessary to prepare students to write in college. Rather, it promises to help students understand some activities related to written scholarly inquiry by demonstrating the conversational and subjective nature of scholarly texts. In this course, students are taught that writing is conventional and context-specific rather than governed by universal rules—thus they learn that within each new disciplinary course they will need to pay close attention to what counts as appropriate for that discourse community. (559–60)

Again, we see here an emphasis on understanding in hopes that this understanding of writing as situational, particularly in academic fields, will transfer to understanding of writing and its context beyond the classroom, even beyond the university, into whatever discourse community students become a part of.

Since the publication of their first article, Downs and Wardle have compiled a college reader, Writing about Writing, which further demonstrates the purpose of the Introduction to Writing Studies course as understanding, or what they describe as conscious awareness. Downs and Wardle write in the preface of the reader, “One of the major goals of the writing course, as we see it, is to move students’ ideas about language and writing from the realm of the automatic and unconscious to the forefront of their thinking” (v). Downs and Wardle imply that awareness is critical for students’ future development as writers. I emphasize here “future development” since Downs and Wardle advocate for later disciplinary writing courses. In this way, the proposed FYC course becomes the groundwork for future disciplinary writing. After all, Downs and Wardle oppose teaching FYC as a “how-to-write-in-college” course since, they explain, more than twenty years of research and theory demonstrate that a unified academic discourse does not and cannot exist (553). Downs and Wardle further argue that in attempting to teach a unified academic discourse, “FYC teachers are thus forced to define academic discourse for themselves (usually unconsciously) before they can teach it,” which tends to favor “humanities-based and more specifically English studies-based” discourse because most FYC teachers come from humanities or English department backgrounds (556). The Introduction to Writing Studies course, then, as I interpret it from this information, becomes a solution to teaching writing as a general education course insomuch that it differs from traditional “academic discourse” courses: the course teaches awareness of writing as a subject and process instead.

The outcomes of the two case studies included in Downs and Wardle’s article further demonstrate the axiology of this proposed course as conscious awareness of writing and its processes. Both Jack, described as a disadvantaged writer upon entering the course, and Stephanie, described as a more advanced writer, become “successes” in terms of their abilities to benefit from Introduction to Writing Studies “by changing the ways they understand themselves as writers and imagine the project of writing” (568). This reiterates that the purpose, the axiology for Downs and Wardle, is awareness; however, this awareness is self-centered (I don’t mean this in the selfish use of the term, but in the literal “I”-as-writer sense) as it applies to the integration of this awareness into personal practice. Awareness that influences personal practice and benefit in writing becomes the central goal—the axiology—of the course.

To discuss the basic axiology of Downs and Wardle’s course may seem almost redundant and unnecessary; yet responses like Joshua P. Kutney’s “Will Writing Awareness Transfer to Writing Performance?” though persuasive in questioning the effectiveness of awareness on performance in general, fail to acknowledge Downs and Wardle’s axiology, which articulates writing awareness—as opposed to writing performance—as the outcome. In the conclusion of his response, Kutney writes, “While First-Year Composition may not do much to develop the writing abilities of students, Downs and Wardle offer no reason to think that Introduction to Writing Studies, a course that does not purport to teach writing, will do more” (279). Here Kutney analyzes Downs and Wardle’s Introduction to Writing Studies course within the paradigm of his own axiology—that of writing performance—rather than the one proposed by Downs and Wardle. Ignoring Kutney’s refusal to articulate and define for us his meaning of “writing performance” (this is debatable in and of itself—how do you define writing performance generally without place or context and specifically when Downs and Wardle have taken such precautions to argue against any kind of universal discourse?), Kutney’s response on a foundational basis exemplifies a problem within conversations centered on proposed FYC courses. If we can’t agree on a single purpose of FYC courses, let us at least agree to acknowledge and analyze each other’s courses within the perspective framework in which these courses are offered. While I do not mean to suggest that we must accept others’ axiologies in order to critically think through their processes and pedagogical choices—sometimes we reject an axiology altogether based on our own understandings and beliefs of writing, learning, and FYC—meaningful and productive responses should at least acknowledge and critically analyze the proposed course through the axiological framework in which it is given. In doing so, experimental thinkers like Downs and Wardle and those who may adopt their ideas can receive the kind of valuable feedback necessary for the better development of their intended courses. This especially applies if we are to refute proposed course ideas, for we demonstrate to the author(s) and those who might adopt such methods the dissonance or incongruities between their own axiologies and pedagogical procedures. This kind of feedback can help us better define and refine our own axiologies and processes and pedagogies, for as we analyze others’, we in turn provide opportunities to consider and reevaluate our own.

The Pedagogy: How do Downs and Wardle conduct their class to achieve their goals?
And The Epistemology: What are their assumptions and beliefs about awareness?

Now that I’ve discussed the axiology of Downs and Wardle’s course, as well as the theoretical framework behind my analysis of their course, I will explore the pedagogical methods Downs and Wardle use that help students achieve an axiology of writing awareness. In addition to these methods, I would like to comment on the assumptions behind those pedagogical choices and any concerns those assumptions might raise.

In their article “Teaching about Writing,” Downs and Wardle describe their pedagogy for achieving awareness as exposing students to reading and writing “scholarly inquiry . . . [which] encourag[es] more realistic understandings of writing” (553). Reading and writing responses explore the following three questions:

  1. How does writing work?
  2. How do people use writing?
  3. What are problems related to writing and reading, and how can they be solved? (558)

Incorporating these themes, students participate in the following assignments:

  1. Read writing research
  2. Conduct reading and writing autoethnographies or literacy narratives
  3. Identify writing-related problems that interest them
  4. Write reviews of the existing literature on their chosen problems
  5. Conduct their own primary research
  6. Report findings both orally and in writing. (558)

With this understanding of the course in mind, the question remains: Will these reading and writing assignments make students aware that “writing is conventional and context specific Boyce 18 rather than governed by universal rules” (559–60), and will they be able to transfer this awareness of writing as procedural and situational beyond the classroom?

Downs and Wardle propose that understanding rhetorical situations and discourse communities as procedural and situational comes from the content reading of the course— readings that discuss and demonstrate writing as procedural and situational (See Chapter 1 in Writing about Writing: “Texts/Constructs: How Do Readers Read and Writers Write?” for reading examples on awareness of rhetorical situations or Chapter 2: “Writing Processes: How Do You Write?” for examples on writing processes)—and writing responses, either in formal papers or journal responses, to these readings that require students to reflect on their own experiences with these concepts. But does this kind of awareness influence practice or decision making in the writing process? Take, for example, Downs and Wardle’s autoethnography assignment proposed in their “Teaching about Writing” article and further outlined in their reader:

The purpose of this assignment was for you to try to learn some things about your actual writing practices that you might not have been aware of, and to reflect on what you learned using the terms and concepts you’ve read about in this chapter [brainstorming, researching, analyzing, planning, drafting]. Does your paper demonstrate that this purpose was achieved? (Writing about Writing 325)

As we see in this example (and this is just one of many similar writing assignments), “awareness of” is the prompt of this writing assignment. We assume with Downs and Wardle that students will, indeed, become aware of their own habits as they write about them (since they have to), but this does not necessarily suggest that students will also “become aware of” their weaknesses and strengths and ways they might enrich, improve, or change their habits during the course (while they conduct primary research and write their research papers, for example) or in the future. Is it possible to advocate awareness without specifying what kind? If Downs and Wardle want to incorporate Perkins and Salomon’s ideal conditions of transfer, that of “self-monitoring” and “mindfulness,” perhaps they would benefit from better directing students to what that awareness should be and how that awareness will benefit them in the future (“Transfer of Learning”). This, consequentially, requires and challenges teachers using this approach to become mediators for that “high road transfer” to take place (“Teaching for Transfer” 25–6). Teachers wanting to promote any kind of awareness might consider outlining lesson plans to introduce awareness objectives at the beginning of class, incorporate lesson activities that allow for significant learning experience (see L. Dee Fink’s Creating Significant Learning Experiences for further instruction on this), and conclude lessons by discussing and demonstrating how lesson activities promote the specific outcomes discussed at the beginning of class. A more specific awareness doesn’t guarantee students will utilize that awareness in future writing practices, but it does offer students a more focused direction if they decide to make it a priority.

Another concern I have with the proposed Introduction to Writing Studies course is the vast content of the course and how that might affect student awareness. The Writing about Writing reader consists of a variety of rich and influential texts important to emerging and experienced writers, which discuss—in addition to rhetorical situations and writing processes— literacy, writing research, discourse communities, writing authority, and so on. Questioning this content results mainly from my own experience teaching awareness of rhetoric in order to help my students analyze rhetorical situations in a variety of contexts. Using only three major writing assignments (an opinion editorial, a rhetorical analysis of a newspaper or magazine article, and an argument-based research paper) and reading assignments from a Writing and Rhetoric reader edited by Brett McInelly and Brian Jackson, I found it necessary for my students’ learning to reiterate certain rhetorical principles, such as audience, for example, in in-class discussions, journal writing assignments, and take-home responses before students began to firmly develop an awareness for their own audiences and for themselves as audience members from their readings. Of course, my writing courses are only one semester long, compared to the year-long course offered by Downs and Wardle, but I spend an entire semester on one chapter of the Writing about Writing reader and feel that “to move students’ ideas about language and writing from the realm of the automatic and unconscious to the forefront of their thinking,” as Downs and Wardle aim to do, requires repeated exposure to and reflection on these ideas and concepts. How do Downs and Wardle spend time teaching and reinforcing these ideas and concepts, and how do they justify time spent on each idea? I wonder, in a course like Downs and Wardle’s, whether long-term and short-term awareness have been considered in the teaching of these principles and how any instructor might better structure and implement reading and writing assignments and activities for long-term awareness? Perhaps further research in this area would be beneficial, particularly to Downs and Wardle, since their axiology consists entirely of awareness.

Elizabeth Wardle’s follow-up pilot study further demonstrates some of the complications of having awareness of writing as procedural and situational knowledge as the axiology of an FYC course. After following the writing experiences of seven students from Downs and Wardle’s Introduction to Writing Studies course for two years, Wardle reports that students “repeatedly mentioned skills, lessons, and abilities they felt they had gained in FYC, but students perceived that those were almost never required to successfully complete writing assignments in other courses” (74). Most students reported that they did not incorporate writing processes and principles learned in their Introduction to Writing Studies course into future writing (75); however, they were still aware of those processes and principles. Wardle’s conclusion that it “was not due to lack of ability, learning, or knowledge about how to improve, but rather to the nature of the educational activity system, time constraints, and the student’s priorities—in [one student’s] case the weight and importance placed on major versus non-major courses” (76). These results suggest that though students were aware of writing principles and procedures, for a variety of reasons, including a lack of motivation (75), they did not feel this awareness was useful to them in their own practices.

The findings of this study, though minimal in its scope, suggest a number of implications that are important to the purpose of this paper. Wardle’s follow-up study demonstrates that students, having read and written about writing in their FYC course, remained, two years later, aware of their writing processes and situations and in doing so, achieved one aspect of the Introduction to Writing Studies axiology, that of awareness, specifically of writing processes. Though students’ lack of application of this awareness to future writing practices (for example, some students writing papers the night before they are due because they can “get away with it”) might imply that the Introduction to Writing Studies course may have failed in some way to transfer knowledge to practice, it is important to consider that this was a two-year pilot study, which means students were in their junior year and perhaps not yet emerged in courses that required (through challenging content) extensive procedural and situational skills. Perhaps as students advance in their core curriculum courses, they might apply, as they admitted to Wardle, some of this awareness of writing to their future writing experiences as it proves necessary and beneficial to them. Still, we must wonder why these students didn’t feel, even in their lower-level classes, that what they learned in their FYC course—self-awareness of writing practices and situations—helped them beyond their first classroom. This may be a situation in which those who will want to apply these principles for greater outcomes will, and those who do not, won’t, and Downs and Wardle’s course gives students the awareness of that choice. As Downs and Wardle revise and adapt their pedagogical choices, perhaps they can take into consideration how to better help students understand the implications of that choice; although, without cooperation from other departments and courses across the institution in how to measure and promote excellence in writing, the incentive for students might never be there. However, because Wardle, in her article, fails to measure the awareness reported by students, these results are somewhat complicated and we should approach the assumption that students remain aware with caution. For example, is it enough for students to say that they are aware of writing ideas and concepts without some way of measuring that awareness? Of course, then, the question remains for Downs and Wardle: How do you measure awareness?


In the conclusion of his article on composition studies in the twenty-first century, Fulkerson writes, “It’s easy to create a course that is self-contradictory and thus baffling to students. We may teach one thing, assign another, and actually expect yet a third” (680). In my attempt to help Downs and Wardle avoid this kind of confusion in their approach to teaching FYC, I have attempted to analyze their course within the axiological framework it has been given. Establishing the axiology of Downs and Wardle’s Introduction to Writing Studies course as awareness of writing practices and procedures, I have thus been able to analyze the course’s methodological and pedagogical choices for teaching that awareness in order to provide potentially helpful feedback. I have mentioned and described possible complications and further implications in current pedagogical approaches for the Introduction to Writing Studies course, including the following: What kind of awareness do Downs and Wardle look for, and how do they frame lesson plans in order to create specific awareness outcomes? How do Downs and Wardle expose students to theoretical and practical writing concepts, and how often do they do this in order to insure long-term awareness? How might Downs and Wardle measure awareness aside from students’ reflection responses? In examining the epistemologies behind these pedagogical choices, I have called further attention to the assumptions Downs and Wardle make about reading and writing about scholarly inquiry—how awareness of writing processes and situations transfers to writing practices. Wardle’s follow-up study demonstrates some of the misconceptions in these assumptions, suggesting that students, though aware of and capable of implementing awareness into writing practices, most often do not. The question remains in how to adapt pedagogy to achieve this awareness and how to measure that achievement.

In analyzing Downs and Wardle’s FYC course through their own axiology, I have attempted to converse in a way that might prove beneficial to them as they continue to revise and develop their course to better fit their purpose of awareness. In doing so, I have also attempted to model how we might frame future debate about approaches to teaching FYC, a frame that places the author’s axiology (as opposed to our own) at the forefront of our conversations.



Works Cited

Downs, Douglas. “Response to Miles et al.” College Composition and Communication 60.1 (2008): 171–75. Web. 12 August 2012.

Downs, Douglas, and Elizabeth Wardle. “Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning ‘First-Year Composition’ as ‘Introduction to Writing Studies.’” College Composition and Communication 58.4 (2007): 552–84. Web. 12 August 2012.

—. Writing about Writing. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. Print.

Fulkerson, Richard. “Composition at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century.” College Composition and Communication 56.4 (2005): 654–87. Print.

Kutney, Joshua P. “Will Writing Awareness Transfer to Writing Performance? Response to Douglas Downs and Elizabeth Wardle, ‘Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions.’” College Composition and Communication 59.2 (2007): 276–79. Web. 12 August 2012.

Miles, Libby, et al. “Thinking Vertically.” College Composition and Communication 59:3 (2008): 503–11. Web. 12 August 2012.

Perkins, David N. and Gavriel Salomon. “Teaching for Transfer.” Educational Leadership 46 (1988): 22–32.

—.“Transfer of Learning.” International Encyclopedia of Education. 2nd ed. Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1992. Print.

Roemer, Marjorie, et al. “Reframing the Great Debate on First-Year Writing.” College Composition and Communication 50.3 (1999): 377–92. Web. 12 August 2012.

Wardle, Elizabeth. “Understanding ‘Transfer’ from FYC: Preliminary Results of a Longitudinal Boyce 25 Study.” WPA: Writing Program Administration 31.1–2 (2007): 65–85. Web. 12 August 2012.