Academic journal article College English

Mutual Adjustments: Learning from and Responding to Transfer Student Writers

Academic journal article College English

Mutual Adjustments: Learning from and Responding to Transfer Student Writers

Article excerpt

First-year writing courses or programs at many universities are often founded on three related assumptions: a) the first-year composition (FYC) course(s) should be part of general education for all students; b) FYC courses will provide students with a common learning experience to support their academic writing in other courses; and c) FYC provides a foundation on which a program's upper-level writing courses build. These assumptions are embedded in institutional claims central to many FYC courses, as well as in documents like the WPA Outcomes Statement, which argues that "faculty in all programs and departments can build on [the] preparation" offered by outcomes of FYC.

Yet the model on which many FYC courses/programs is based-including our own at the University of Michigan-may be problematic in at least three regards. First, some researchers have questioned whether learning from FYC easily "transfers" into upper-division coursework (e.g., Smit). This has inspired a useful debate about transfer itself, with some scholars responding that more capacious, student-centered views of learning transfer might enable researchers to perceive the ways in which students apply knowledge or skills from academic writing courses to other contexts (e.g., Brent; Driscoll & Wells; Jarratt et al.; Nowacek). For us, Rebecca Nowacek's concept of agents of integration offers a particularly useful lens for understanding how students may be transferring learning in ways that are not always recognized or valued by instructors or researchers. Howard Tinberg's study of learning transfer among community college writers is likewise important to our thinking. However, as this paper will address, this emerging research and theoretical conversation has, to date, given scant attention to learning transfer across postsecondary institutions, in the post-transfer context-that is, learning transfer among transfer students.

Such an oversight suggests a second problem with the established course/ program model: the reality that students may have taken FYC at a different institution that may well have had different resources, curricula, pedagogical orientations, and valued constructs of writing. UM's writing program, for example, asserts that "[a]s a broad preparation for the range of writing tasks students will encounter at the University of Michigan and beyond, [FYC] courses emphasize evidenced, academic writing in a variety of genres and rhetorical situations. This course is foundational for students to master the kind of analysis and argumentation found in sophisticated academic writing" ("First-Year Writing Requirement"). While these guidelines articulate the program's valued construct of writing in fairly specific terms, they make no reference to how transfer students who do not complete FYC at UM might develop these writing capacities.

The specificity of UM's articulation of the goal for FYC points to a third problem area: the variety of ways FYC requirements can be fulfilled. Take articulation agreements across institutions, for example. We are keenly aware that linkages between community colleges and four-year institutions enable students to transfer as many credits as possible, but we also know that such articulation agreements rarely account for the ways that specific goals, curricular structures, and standards for evaluation differ from campus to campus. Similar problems are presented by AP credits, International Baccalaureate credits, and dual-credit programs in which high schools offer courses for college credit. Each of these programs operates on the convenient fiction that the learning goals of FYC courses are static and interchangeable; in reality, they vary widely, since each is institutionally created and enacted.

Larger trends in higher education lend further urgency to these issues. Declining state and national economies, ballooning student debt loads, and the growth of high school dual-enrollment programs are all leading more traditionalage students to begin their educations at community colleges before matriculating at four-year institutions. …

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