My Resistance to Transfer Theory

Ok, of all of our topics, I had the hardest time writing this blog post. I’m trying to figure out why that is. Perhaps it is because transfer is such an important topic (the elephant in the room, really), but is also boring to me. We wish it just happened—we want to believe it does just happen naturally. To face that it does not is so disappointing.

As I was reading Yancy, Robertson, and Taczak’s Writing Across Contexts, I could definitely see why the Teaching for Transfer (TFT) class was more effective at helping students transfer their writing knowledge to new experiences, but maybe I just felt disappointed that this was the case. In chapter 1, I was rooting for the expressivist composition class or the cultural studies class to win (5), even though I guess based on the set-up of the book, I knew they wouldn’t. Is it moments like these that I must confront the fact that I’m really more of a humanities instructor than a composition instructor? (Indeed, my degree is in humanities, not even English.) I’m worried that’s perhaps the case. I do not deny the importance of transfer from one context to another, but I think this is where I have to be honest about what I think is most important to transfer. Am I most interested in students transferring writing skills; or critical thinking skills, cultural awareness, sensitivity to power structures, etc.? In terms of where my interests lie, I know the answer is the latter. But should I then be admitting I shouldn’t really be teaching composition?

In “Rocky Roads to Transfer,” Salomon and Perkins talk about the low road of culture transfer: “women’s expectations for lesser social roles, absorbed from years of gender-specific socialization, are often automatically transferred even to new situations” (121). It is this automatic transfer of assumptions about the world that I want my students to confront in my class, and then, using high-road transfer, I want them to get in the habit of continually confronting assumptions. (As I write this I know it: I sound like a philosophy professor.)

I think part of my concern about the TFT class is this: while the course is focusing so much energy on reflection, is there enough time to introduce and analyze interesting content, engaging students’ curiosity and getting them hooked enough into a topic that they really have something they want to say about it?

My concerns about the boringness of focusing on just the process, while divorcing it from the content, is something I grappled with a lot while teaching reading in the traditional skills-based way. As I was reading Salomon and Perkins, I was thinking about the difference between language immersion (or “whole language” at the lower level) pedagogies versus skills-based (“phonics” at the lower levels) pedagogies. The language immersion/whole language approach seems to be utilizing a low road approach: expose students to many varied texts over a long period of time, and enmesh the students in a literacy community (see Frank Smith’s Joining the Literacy Club), and they will develop literacy skills that allow them to navigate a wide array of texts. The skills-based/phonics approach seems to be looking for a high-road shortcut, but I’m not sure it works. It seems to me that what reading or writing textbooks that break down texts into generalizable units (like “main ideas” and “details”; or modes like “process essay”) are attempting this high-road transfer, but fail because the “instructor or text serves up ‘ready-made’ abstractions [which] typically offers but a single path” (127). These textbooks and lesson plans were designed with the best of intentions: save some time and remediate students by revealing the generalizable structures of texts right out of the gate, but the problem is that students need to confront varied texts and then distill the patterns (with scaffolding and teacher support) and then discern the generalizable patterns for themselves. Then be mindful of these, and then try to apply them in new settings: “active learning wherein people achieve abstractions by themselves, although not necessarily producing better learning outcomes, facilitates farther transfer than so-called passive reception” (Soloman and Perkins 126). Read: students who learn this way will not necessarily do better on tomorow’s standardized exam, but they will be able to transfer their skills. (What? We don’t test far-reaching transfer? So there’s no motivation to teach for far-reaching transfer? Hmm… fascinating…

The stupidity of our standard testing culture aside, all is not lost. I do think there is a middle ground. As I write the above, there’s a lot in what I wrote that I think is probably very similar to the TFT model of having students create their own theory of writing… so maybe I’m not so against it after all. I was still rooting for the expressivist and cultural studies class… but I realize now why I LOVE teaching integrated reading and writing: it provides the space and time to do both. It allows us to use a double class period to explore a theme along with dissecting writing and reading—letting students get exposure to a variety of texts, and then use these texts to build their own reading and writing theories. This allows for the best of both worlds.

I guess my question becomes, in situations where we are not able to have the double period to explore both thematic content (and the critical thinking that it takes to interrogate that content) along with helping students develop theories of writing, where is the compromise?

A second, somewhat unrelated question is this: if we teach students to focus on writing itself, divorced from authentic communication acts, are we encouraging the kind of inauthenticity we rail against when students focus on structure (I *will* have three points so I can write a five paragraph essay!) rather than on authentically conveying ideas? That is, is there actually a danger in focusing too much on the medium (writing) rather than the message?

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