Tinberg, Howard. “Reconsidering Transfer Knowledge at the Community College: Challenges and Opportunities.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 43.1 (2015): 7-31. Web. 3 Nov. 2015.
Howard Tinberg argues for the value of studying “transfer” from first-year writing (FYW) to future academic work and career, particularly at the community-college level. He acknowledges the impediments to fruitful study of this phenomenon while demonstrating what he learned through a “naturalistic” study of transfer at the community college where he teaches (10). Among his findings is the conclusion that community-college curricula may not provide students with opportunities to engage in the kind of complex writing, including metacognitive components, that will serve them well in more advanced college work and in the workplace.
Tinberg reviews scholarship on the function of FYW and on transfer, noting that the course is often assumed to provide “generalized writing skills” that will be useful in a variety of contexts (7). Skeptics referenced by Tinberg claim that it is impossible to assume that such a thing as transfer exists because the specificity of each writing experience requires learning completely new practices (9).
Tinberg argues that such skepticism, which dismisses the possibility of explicit instruction for transfer, must fall back on “‘[t]he Bo Peep’ theory of transfer: somehow, as if by magic, knowledge needed to address tasks will ‘come home’ to assist students” (9). In Tinberg’s view, such hopes are not realistic for the community-college population. Encouraging transfer is especially important as pressure mounts to increase retention and to demonstrate learning (10, 28).
Tinberg reports that studies have urged attention to “metacognition as a foundational step to transfer” for both students and faculty (9). He cites scholarship that urges composition specialists to see the FYW course as delivering “rhetorical dexterity” (Shannon Carter, qtd. in Tinberg 9) and “rhetorical adaptability” (Holly Hassel and Joanna Baird Giordano, qtd. in Tinberg 9).
In his study, Tinberg surveyed students at the college who had taken the required ENG 101 “at least a semester before the fall of 2014” and who had been at the college at least a year but not more than two years (12). Of the nearly 4000 students invited to take the survey, 110 completed it, with 80 responding to an open-ended question (12). Tinberg interviewed and solicited writing samples from five students with varied interests and majors; he also interviewed four faculty members, all full-time (16); sixty-six percent of the ENG 101 sections are taught by part-time instructors (12). Faculty areas of those interviewed were psychology, history, economics, and human services (10-11).
The surveys indicated that a large majority of students believed that they had benefited from FYW, that they wrote a lot in subsequent courses, that subsequent courses introduced “new knowledge about writing,” and that writing would be important in the workplace (12). Open-ended responses indicated that the gains students reported most often from their FYW experience were formalistic: citation formats, formats for genres, organization, and grammar and mechanics (16). Tinberg speculates that the lack of a well-developed vocabulary made it difficult for students to interpret or articulate the contributions of their FYW classes and the differing requirements of courses in the disciplines. He posits that “new knowledge about writing” may suggest simply “more writing” rather than specific attention to writing processes or practices (13-14).
Tinberg’s goal in the faculty interviews was to determine what teachers in the disciplines hoped students would bring from ENG 101 and “[w]hat new knowledge sets as expressed in their writing” they hoped to see in their own courses (17). He presents two assignments from the psychology instructor and one from the history instructor.
This component of the study suggests to Tinberg that teachers in the disciplines have an attenuated sense of the content and purpose of FYW, seeing it as primarily focusing on such skills as “proofreading” (17); one instructor, however, mentioned the ability to evaluate sources, while one with writing-center experience “touched upon rhetorical understanding as transferable from ENG 101” (17).
The assignments demonstrate to Tinberg that some, though not all, instructors in subsequent courses design pedagogies to impart concepts important to their fields. These assignments also suggest that critical reading is a central concern to these teachers and that some embed metacognitive awareness in their coursework (19-21). Although Tinberg’s coding of instructor values indicates that “expressive” writing is less privileged than critical reading and writing, “concern with form,” and “adaptability” across situations (20-21), he notes a focus in some assignments on linking coursework to students’ personal experiences, “emphasiz[ing}. . . students’ affective response to the reading . . . rather than deep, exploratory examination of disciplinary concepts and methods” (19).
Student interviews generally bore out Tinberg’s expectation that students would most often cite formalistic concerns in discussions of what they considered transferable knowledge; however, “the need to be analytical and critical readers” and the importance of “writing in different contexts other than ENG 101” also earned support. Students generally did not value the “expression of one’s own feelings” (22).
The article discusses two student interviews and writing samples in detail. In each, Tinberg detects both struggles with adequate vocabulary to describe learning from ENG 101 and how it intersects with later learning and evidence of analytical and rhetorical thinking. Without being able to name genres, “Ann” characterizes writing in English as related to students’ personal experiences and writing in other courses as more content-based (23). The student expresses a wish that her teachers would “push” her more (“Ann,” qtd. in Tinberg 23). Similarly, Tinberg posits from interview and writing samples that the other student, “Ash,” “might very well welcome the challenge of complex and specialized reading and writing tasks,” but “is not being given the opportunity” (27).
Arguing for the importance of such study, especially in the community-college environment, Tinberg reports that teachers and students value ENG 101 and that faculty value critical reading (27). But faculty ignorance about the content of the FYW course, “exacerbated by the increasing reliance on part-time faculty,” means that “bridging” between ENG 101 and other courses “is not explicitly and knowingly done” (28). Tinberg’s research points to a tendency of faculty in the disciplines to advance a “generalized” curriculum (26, 28) that subordinates discipline-specific concepts to efforts to efforts to engage students through personal, affective connections (26).
Tinberg urges support for writing-in-the-disciplines initiatives at community colleges, less focus on moving students rapidly through the curriculum, less reliance on part-time faculty, and broader “cross-disciplinary conversations about transfer knowledge” (28-29).
December 23, 2015 at 9:35 am
Thanks so much for this helpful and precise summary of my article. As I state in the piece, significant obstacles to transfer present themselves at the community college, not least of which is the lack of understanding among non FYC faculty as to what is being taught in ENG 101. But the deficit works both ways, too: FYC faculty seem to know precious little about the knowledge sets required to write in gen ed courses other than English.
December 24, 2015 at 8:26 am
Thank you for highlighting those points. Would you say that they make a strong case for well-supported WAC and WID programs? Or are there better ways to support part-time faculty in gaining more knowledge about writing in other fields? I wonder whether rhet/com grad programs can address this need better as well. Happy holidays!