Am I Ever Going to Use This Stuff? Transfer and College Writing

Adam R. Pope is the current interim director of Composition at the University of Arkansas, where he also directs the Graduate Certificate in Technical Writing and Public Rhetorics. 

Adam Pope
Image Credit: Adam Pope

As a technical writer who also happens to currently be the director of Composition at an institution serving over 6,000 students annually in the writing classroom, the idea of transfer between courses comes to my mind on a fairly regular basis. 

Writing happens everywhere, but the artificial constraints of our classrooms often end up prompting students to ask whether anything they’re learning is going to actually matter outside of Composition 1 or 2. In short, students are concerned that the content they’re learning may not transfer or translate to other contexts. To be honest, they’re right to be concerned!  

We know many of our students arrive to our courses thinking that writing is an unpleasant task, perhaps because of an emphasis on grammar in previous experiences—educational or otherwise. In fact, as someone who went through most of his undergraduate career seldom making an “A” in my English courses because I used too many colloquialisms and wrote in the style of my speech, I have lived that very dread. But it doesn’t have to be like that.  

Some people focus only on grammar out of a need to stabilize writing as a knowable quantity.  Maybe they want to know the right rules, be able to follow those rules, and then be done with the whole mess. The problem with this position—besides giving these rules an unreasonable amount of power over any and all students who don’t speak Standard American English—is that it doesn’t align with how writing actually works!   

 Writing is intensely contextual and rhetorical, but it isn’t regular. Students are right to suspect that their writing knowledge won’t transfer if all they’re taught are the idiosyncratic ways that our own fields and organizations write—or if they are only exposed to one standardized set of grammar rules that they see some people break with impunity, while others break those rules and receive an immediate rebuke.   

What do we do then? Instead of focusing on a durable set of rules that never change, and instead of focusing on trying to provide a “works every time” approach to writing, we need to embrace the situatedness of how we communicate if we want skills to transfer.  

How do we do that? I’ve found a few exercises are helpful in guiding students into seeing writing as a process that responds to context rather than a rigid set of guidelines you’ll follow ’til the end of time. Usually, these exercises revolve around tackling the same subject matter from contrasting points of view and within contrasting rulesets.  

For example, you might have your students read a short academic article or news piece on a given study or event. Once they’re done with that work, have them write a brief summary of the content in that document to share with a workplace supervisor. Ask them as they prepare to write: What do you think a supervisor needs to know? What won’t they need to know or won’t they care about? Have them keep this context in mind as they write.  

When they’re done, flip things around. Ask them to take this existing text and translate it to a new audience or a new medium. The greater the distance from the original context, the better! You want your students to see just how malleable a message can be, just how much translation happens when you’re communicating information to different audiences. If you’re adventurous, you might have them compose a TikTok or Instagram Reel of their piece. You might have them write their piece as a power ballad. You might just ask them to write it to explain to a class of third graders. Regardless of where you go, focus on the same questions as above of their audience: What will the supervisor need to know? What will not be cared about?  

When we shift the conversation of our classrooms away from rules and toward dialogues about analyzing and responding to a situation or audience(s), we can start to get at transfer in a meaningful way. No single way that you teach a student to write for a particular situation is going to stand the test of time, but introducing students to the art and skill of analyzing situations and then crafting appropriate responses to a variety of audiences will transfer.  

The closer we get in our classrooms to how writing and communication actually work, the closer we get to giving our students a durable set of skills they can use outside the constraints of our courses.

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