Chapter 1: Introduction

1.1 Introduction to “writing about writing”

Julie Townsend

Introduction to “writing about writing” and writing studies

At Cleveland State University, the First-Year Writing Program is moving towards a “writing-about-writing” approach (Downs and Wardle 2005, 2007; Bird, 2008) to teaching College Writing I and II. This approach asks first-year college writers to look at communication as if they were writing researchers and investigate writing in contexts that they are interested in. Using a writing studies “lens,” writers will be able to learn more about activities that they care about, whether that involves their major, a desired career they want to pursue, hobbies, or a full-time or part-time job that they have. Writers will work from research questions like: What kinds of reading, writing, communication, and/or education take place in this context? With careful observations of reading, writing, and communication, paired with academic research on their topics, writers will be able to learn more about the activities that they care about.

For example, the topic communication as a nurse in a hospital is a great way for future nurses to learn more about their desired profession and to also learn about writing and communication in a nursing context. While nursing students will certainly learn and use medical terminology and get hands-on experience involving patient care, research, technology, and service in their major classes, students may not have an opportunity to focus specifically on the communication that is required for successful nurses. This course will give writers an opportunity to explore details about communication, reading, and writing in specific contexts fully.

Continuing with the communication as a nurse topic, some writers may build on experience working in a medical office, and others may want to draw on their own experience of being a patient or having family members who are patients in hospitals. How did different healthcare workers communicate with each other? How did they communicate with you or your family members? What kinds of writing did you see healthcare professionals doing? What kinds of documents or signs did you read in the hospital? What existing knowledge did you have to make sense of your situation and was it enough to fully understand the medical condition and how to recover? These kinds of questions can help writers begin to investigate contexts as writing studies researchers would, and while writers may not be interested in becoming writing researchers, they should choose a context to study that they are interested in learning more about. Reading, writing, communication, and education are essential to human activities and getting work accomplished across all activities, including majors, careers, hobbies, and languages.

This collection of undergraduate texts joins existing conversations in New Literacy Studies (NLS) (Gee, 1989; Gee, 2012; Carter, 2007; Mirabelli, 2007). As a collection, these texts ask: how do people communicate, use reading, use writing, and use technology across different contexts? In summary, this collection of student texts (and also open education resources) shows how first-year writers can become writing researchers and use the tools of writing researchers to study contexts in which they are interested.

What is an academic lens?

Even though most college writers have taken an English class every year they have been in school, they have not been exposed to writing studies and the lenses within the discipline. An academic lens refers to a way of seeing the world that is accepted by a discipline of study. For instance, “constructionist lens”, “genre theory lens”, “health equality lens”, and “ethnomethodological lens” are in the top Google Scholar results for “academic lens” searches when limited to 2020 and 2021. Different disciplines of study have different theories, approaches, and methodologies they use to make sense of the world. A “lens” is another way of saying viewpoint, but it is more academic.

What are some writing studies lenses?

What does a writing studies lens entail? Writing studies is a big field with numerous methodologies and theories. Writing studies scholars (and other disciplines in the humanities) can add the word lens after following terms: critical race theory, English for specific purposes (ESP), writing across the curriculum (WAC), feminist, activity theory, actor-network theory (ANT), genre theory, and constructionist. This is not an exhaustive list but is meant to give a sample of diverse kinds of academic lenses relevant to writing studies. Researchers using those lenses investigate a specified context following the established conventions defined by the existing academic literature. Each of those approaches to understanding writing has publications on the topic. Some publications are more important than others for multiple reasons. One reason may be that a publication is the first to use or propose the lens. Another reason may be that the publication is highly cited in other writer’s works.

Understanding literacy through a “discourse” lens

Most students in first-year writing are not English majors, nor are they interested in deeply understanding humanities lenses that are mainly relevant to graduate students and professors. This textbook aims to introduce first-year writers to a writing studies lens based on Gee’s (1989) definition of literacy, which can be applied to understanding communication in any context involving human communication. The goal of this textbook is to give first-year writers the tools to understand how literacy works in their lives.

Communities, whether they are academic, social, online, political, or based on any other kind of category, have their own discourses. As students go through their lives, complete coursework, and work at different jobs and internships, they will be introduced to new discourses. The discourses that students learn throughout their lives are called “secondary discourses” (Gee, 1989, p. 21). Literacy is the compilation of discourses (p. 23). This course allows students to explore discourses in their own lives. After students investigate communication and culture in specific contexts, they will be able to be more productive and aware of how learning, reading, writing, and communication work in different contexts.

The difference between this course and other English classes

Carter (2007) points to Royster (2002) who captures one of the biggest differences between English classes that students have likely taken so far and how this text encourages writers to investigate language in this class. Royster says writing is a “people-oriented enterprise” (qtd. on Carter, p. 6). This way of thinking about writing is starkly different from the way most students study English in K-12 classrooms. Most first-year writers may have experienced English classes through reading and writing about novels, short stories, plays, and poems that are in the English literature cannon. The only “people-oriented” part about the way students may have read and wrote about literature in the past may include learning about authors’ lives or how writing reflects historical issues and events. The way most students have studied writing in high school is text oriented, not people oriented. They might have read The Great Gatsby, Romeo and Juliet, Of Mice and Men, Tuesdays with Morie, or To Kill a Mockingbird. These typical kinds of English classes that are based on canonical literature are focused on the text and the meaning of the text, making these classes text oriented, as opposed to oriented towards people’s experiences with and uses of texts. 

What does writing is a “people-oriented enterprise” mean?

However, what does Royster mean when she says writing is a “people-oriented enterprise”? Carter (2007) again highlights Royster (2002) with another key aspect of writing studies: without people to read the texts, the texts are without meaning and purpose (p. 6). In some ways, this course might be closer to a sociology course than the previous text-based English classes students may have taken in the past. Writing studies is interested in how people use texts in the context of their lives and how writing circulates and is used to get work done, to learn, and to educate.

Using this textbook

This text is divided into thematic sections: Literacies at work, for fun, and at school; Literacies across the disciplines; Convincing discourses; African American English and the communities it influences; 21st century media and issues; English and the global perspective; and COVID and learning. Each section introduces the topic with introductory content and provides student examples that are published in the order of the essay sequence at Cleveland State University (College Writing I: summary, rhetorical analysis, research essay and College Writing II: argument from experience, research synthesis, prospectus, and research essay). The text invites writers to think beyond the existing categories and add new perspectives to the existing contexts in this collection with their own writing.


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