Anson, Chris M. “The Pop Warner Chronicles: A Case Study in Contextual Adaptation and the Transfer of Writing Ability.” College Composition and Communication 67.4 (2016): 518-49. Print.
Chris Anson presents a case study of an expert writer, “Martin,” attempting to “transfer” his extensive writing experience to the production of seventy-five-word “game summaries” for his son’s Pop Warner football team. The study leads Anson to argue that current theory on transfer does not fully account for Martin’s experiences working in a new genre and advocates for a “more nuanced understanding of existing ability, disposition, context, and genre in the deployment of knowledge for writing” (520).
Martin wrote the summaries to fulfill a participation requirement for families of Pop Warner players (522). He believed that the enormous amount of writing he did professionally and his deep understanding of such concepts as rhetorical strategies and composing processes made the game-summary assignment an appropriate choice (522). The summary deadline was the evening of the Sunday after each Saturday game; the pieces appeared in a local newspaper each Thursday (523).
Martin logged his writing activities during a twelve-week period, noting that he wrote multiple genres, both formal and informal, for his academic job (520). For the game summaries, he received verbal and emailed guidance from the team coordinator. This guidance allowed him to name the genre, define an audience (principally, team families), and recognize specific requirements, such as including as many players as possible each week and mentioning every player at least once, always in a positive light, during the season (523-24). Martin learned that the team coordinator would do a preliminary edit, then pass the summaries on to the newspaper editors (524).
Anson writes that Martin’s first challenge was to record the games through extensive notes on a legal pad, matching players against a team roster. When Martin sat down on the Sunday following the game to write his first summary, he was surprised to find himself “paralyzed” (526). The effort to be accurate while making the brief account “interesting and punchy” took much longer than Martin had anticipated (526-27). Moreover, it earned only derision from his two sons, primarily for its “total English professor speak”: long sentences and “big words” (528).
On advice from his wife, Martin tightened the draft, in his view “[taking] the life completely out of it” (528). When the summary appeared in the newspaper, it had been further shortened and edited, in ways that made no sense to Martin, for example, word substitutions that sometimes opted for “plain[er]” language but other times chose “fancier” diction (530). He notes that he was offered no part in these edits and received no feedback beyond seeing the final published version (529).
Martin experienced similar frustration throughout the season, struggling to intuit and master the conventions of the unfamiliar genre. His extensive strengths were “beside the point” (531); faced with this new context, a “highly successful writer” became “a ‘struggling’ or ‘less effective’ writer” (531-32).
Anson draws on Anne Beaufort’s model of discourse knowledge to analyze Martin’s struggles. He reports that Beaufort lists five “knowledge domains” that affect the ability to write in a particular context:
writing process knowledge, subject matter knowledge, rhetorical knowledge, and genre knowledge, all of which are enveloped and informed by knowledge of the discourse community. (532; italics original)
In his analysis of Martin’s situation, Anson contends that Martin possessed the kind of reflective awareness of both writing process knowledge and rhetorical knowledge that theoretically would allow him to succeed in the new context (533). He notes that some scholarship suggests that such knowledge developed over years of practice can actually impede transfer because familiar genres are in fact “overpracticed,” resulting in “discursive entrenchment,” for example when students cannot break free of a form like the five-paragraph theme (533). Anson argues, however, that because of his “meta-level awareness” of the new situation, Martin was able to make deliberate decisions about how to address the new exigencies (533-34).
Anson further maintains that, as a reasonably attentive sports fan, Martin possessed sufficient subject-matter knowledge to comprehend the broad genre of sports reporting into which the game summaries fell (534-35).
Anson finds genre knowledge and knowledge of the discourse community central to Martin’s challenge. Martin had to accommodate the “unique variation” on sports reporting that the summaries imposed with their focus on children’s activities and their attention to the specific expectations of the families and the team coordinator (535).
Moreover, Anson cites scholarship challenging the notion that any genre can be permanently “stabilized” by codified, uniformly enforced rules (536). On the contrary, this scholarship posits, genres are “ever changing sets of socially acceptable strategies that participants can use to improvise their responses to a particular situation” (Catherine E. Schryer, qtd. in Anson 536), thus underscoring Beaufort’s claim that the nature of the relevant discourse community “subsumes” all other aspects of transfer, including genre knowledge (536).
In Anson’s analysis, the discourse community within which Martin functioned was complex and problematic. Far from unifying around accepted norms, the community consisted of a number of “transient” groups of families and officials who produced unstable “traditions”; moreover, Anson posits that the newspaper editors’ priorities differed from those of the team coordinator and families (537).
The study leads Anson to propose that external factors will usually override the individual strengths writers bring to new tasks. He notes agreement among scholars that “[t]ransfer theories are always ‘negative’,” recognizing that transfer always requires “significant cognitive effort and some degree of training” (539). Anson argues that Martin’s experiences align with theories of “strong negative transfer,” which state that writers will always struggle to adjust to new tasks and contexts (539-40).
Anson urges scholarship on transfer to apply a “principle of uniqueness” that recognizes that each situation brings together a unique set of exigencies and abilities. While noting that Martin is “qualitatively different” from writers in composition classrooms (541), Anson contends that students face similar struggles when they are constantly routed across contexts where genre rules change radically, often because of the preferences of individual instructors (541-42). A foundational course alone, he states, cannot adequately nurture the flexibility students need to navigate these landscapes, nor is there adequate articulation and conceptual consensus across the different disciplines in which students must perform (541). Moreover, he claims, students seldom receive the kind of mentoring that will enable success even when they import strong skills.
In a twist at the conclusion of the article, Anson reveals that he is “Martin” (544). The existence of such a genre-resistant article itself, he suggests, illustrates that his full understanding of the discourse community engaged with a composition journal like College Composition and Communication provided him with “the confidence and authority” to “strategically deviate from the expectations of a genre” in which he was an expert (544). In contrast, in his role as “Martin,” interacting with the Pop Warner community, he lacked this confidence and authority and therefore felt unable “to bend the Pop Warner summary genre to fit his typical flexibility and creativity” (543-44). This sense of constraint, he suggests, drove his/Martin’s search for the “genre stability” (543) that would provide the guidance a writer new to a discourse community needs to succeed.
Thus the ability to mesh a writer’s own practices with the requirements of a genre, he argues, demands more than rhetorical, genre, subject-matter, and procedural knowledge; it demands an understanding of the specific, often unique, discourse community, knowledge which, as in the case of the Pop Warner community, may be unstable, contradictory, or difficult to obtain (539).