Academic Exchange Quarterly Summer 2003: Volume 7, Issue 2

Editors' Choice
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Why Teachers Should Also Write
Kate Kiefer, Colorado State University

Kate Kiefer, Ph.D., is professor of English and a teacher of composition and writing theory. 
Her special interests include computers and writing, WAC, and writing about science.

Teachers are not simply transmitters of disciplinary information but veterans 
initiating outsiders into disciplinary ideas and ways of thinking and communicating. 
After examining two alternative approaches to a constructivist model of instruction, 
this paper argues that teachers in all disciplines can act as insiders in helping 
students to write more effectively within academic contexts. Teachers who write are 
even more effective in this instructional role because they actively reflect on their 
writing experiences and processes. 

			  * * *
Teachers who write bring expert knowledge (of content and language) from tacit to 
conscious awareness and thus more effectively engage both insider (teacher) and 
outsider (student) in the teaching exchange.

In recent work on the effectiveness of writing-across-the-curriculum (WAC), Hilgers 
et al. (1999) found that over 90% of their student interviewees believe that “writing 
about something leads to learning.” Almost 50% believe that “writing is the best way 
for them to learn.” Unfortunately, traditional attitudes among teachers in some 
disciplines, even among teachers involved in WAC, posit that writing “leads to 
learning” only for students. Why do teachers see writing as an important learning 
tool for students but not for themselves? 

Part of the problem arises from accepted notions of expertise. The WAC instructors 
I work with, for instance, think of themselves as experts in nutrition, history, 
psychology, pathology, philosophy, and economics. Another part of the problem comes 
from thinking about writing as an endeavor separate from the research and teaching 
these faculty members take for granted. We need to challenge these notions to explore 
an instructional model that characterizes teachers not so much as transmitters of 
disciplinary information but as veterans initiating outsiders into disciplinary ideas 
and ways of thinking and communicating. Let me present two approaches to such a model 
before I take up what the model implies about teacher roles and rewards.

One approach to a model of instruction
Think about the ways you've learned new skills as an adult. For instance, I'm 
learning to do some rudimentary home carpentry. My mentor tells me the names of 
tools and gives advice. Then he shows me how to do certain parts of the process. 
After I watch once or twice, I start to practice with him watching and guiding my 
hands or giving more advice as he talks me through the process. Finally, he walks 
away to let me work on my own until I run into a situation we haven't talked about. 
I'll ask for help and he'll respond by asking what I think will work. Before I make 
a costly mistake, he'll step in, but he mainly lets me learn from minor mistakes 
and from the small successes that accumulate as we go through this process. Could 
my mentor install a chair rail in 20% of the time it takes me? Sure, but after we 
go through this process we both know what he's learned through his long experience 
and what I could now pass along to others who want to learn these carpentry skills 
from me.

As I write out this process of guided practice or apprenticeship, I'm reminded of 
other situations in which I learned to sew, cook, bake bread, crochet, even ice 
skate. For me, learning all these skills started when I worked closely with a 
knowledgeable "insider" who explained the process, positioned my body, answered 
questions, and stood ready to intervene as I moved from initial tentative steps into 
new territory with my new understanding and growing skill.

Writing, like the skills noted above, has a physical component, but most of our 
students don't need guidance about how to hold a pen and form letters, and most 
would be appalled to have someone position their bodies in front of a keyboard as 
my typing teacher did over 30 years ago. Rather, what our writing students need 
falls more into the category of cognitive apprenticeship for advanced thinking 
(Brown et al., 1989; Collins, et al., 1989). In addition to the physical skills 
required of the ice skater, cognitive skills draw much more on habits of mind than 
body. Writers need to draw on what they already know about the language to craft 
both grammatical sentences and coherent, genre-appropriate texts. Writers need to 
draw on what they know about communication more generally to fill in how rhetorical 
context shapes their writing. Writers need to know how to draw on their past 
experiences that might be appropriate as content for their texts as well as any 
reading they could use as source material.  Juggling all these cognitive constraints 
makes writing every bit as cognitively demanding as performing an axle on ice skates 
is physically demanding. 

An alternative approach to a model of instruction
Many literacy theorists, however, would argue that writing doesn't fit smoothly into 
the model of cognitive apprenticeship because, unlike the problem-solving model that 
applies to other disciplines accepted in the cognitive apprenticeship model, writing 
isn't guided by a search for the right answer or for the best resource-management 
solution. Instead, writing falls much more into the realm of human interaction and 
communication, and problem-solving is not a particularly good model for understanding 
language processes. Rather, other theoretical perspectives on language point toward 
normalized and marginalized discourse as more appropriate explanations of how and why 
we use language. (See, for instance, Bazerman, 1985; Berkenkotter & Huckin, 1995; 
Egan-Robertson, 1998; for different theoretical perspectives on learning as socially 
or culturally constituted.) Although theorists disagree about the underlying 
principles that govern language use—power, gender, identity—many do agree that 
cultural context plays a far more important role than individual cognition. For 
example, a conversation among friends around a dinner table typically drifts from 
topic to topic over time, but no one person can jump into an animated conversation 
with a brilliant but unrelated insight and expect others at the table to view the 
insight as anything other than a disruption. No matter how stunning the individual 
insight, cultural convention demands turn-taking; changing topics abruptly violates 
this cultural principle.

We learn the cultural conventions through acculturation, a process by which we 
discover through observation, trial-and-error, and even punishment where the center 
and margins of the culture are. (Think about the child whose interruptions at the 
dinner table lead to being taken away from the table. Only when the child can 
“behave” by not interrupting does she return to sit with the adults.) Adults who 
push the margins or boundaries may be hailed as visionaries or madmen, but we assume 
that children and adolescents just don't know the conventions yet. Disruptive 
comments from children are typically ignored, not brought into the center of the 
conversation. However, as children "mature," they become acculturated and adopt 
conventional behavior. Eventually, conventional behavior, now completely normalized, 
becomes the unquestioned standard, and "insiders" see the differences between the 
avant-garde and the insane. 

Under this approach, writing skills develop as students move from basic 
understandings of sentences and paragraphs into more sophisticated uses of discipline 
specific jargon and formats through sustained interaction with an insider who can 
reinforce conventional usages and discourage unconventional or disruptive 

Building a learning environment from the approaches 
Clearly, both approaches I’ve described above favor collaborative and constructive 
principles. Moreover, I've used "insider" when talking about both approaches for a 
reason. Although the traditional model of apprentice/journeyman/master would 
undoubtedly identify the skilled guide as an expert, I prefer to use "insider" to 
tie the two theoretical approaches more closely together. An insider might not be 
consciously aware of what he or she knows. For instance, when I ask my mentor why he 
makes certain moves as a carpenter, he often has to stop and puzzle out the reason 
because acting in a certain way has become so ingrained as to need no conscious 
justification. Similarly, how many of the friends and family that I had dinner with 
last Christmas could consciously articulate the conventions of conversational 

But "insider" is a better term than expert for a much more powerful reason. Although 
few of us claim to be expert writers, all of us who have experience as readers and 
writers in academic contexts become increasingly comfortable as insiders the longer 
we use that academic discourse. Consider, for example, the parallel discourse of 
"fan fics." Fans who watch a particular television show or read other pop-culture 
fictions create their own fictions about established characters. Some of the 
electronic bulletin boards that host these fan fics have editorial boards that 
review submissions and post the "best" ones, according to criteria the board agrees 
on. Other bulletin boards allow all the participants to review each other's postings 
and comment about how successful the "fics" are. When writers violate the 
unarticulated conventions of the fan fic insiders, their postings can be thoroughly 
trashed by other posters. And even though most of the postings are anonymous, fan 
fic readers and writers will avoid reading the work of someone with a signature 
characteristic in their fan fics.  In short, insiders who "know" the conventions of 
normalized discourse or insiders who "know" how to write fan fics can powerfully 
shape the work of any newcomers to the context by telling them how to write more 
successfully or even by punishing those who violate conventions too radically.

My point is that English teachers are not the only ones who can act as insiders in 
helping students to write more effectively within academic contexts. Everyone who 
knows how to read can bring that knowledge of language to a useful exchange with a 
writer looking for reactions to the effectiveness of a text. And teachers across 
the curriculum who participate in WAC programs know far more than simply how to 
read: they know the discipline itself from the inside as well as the disciplinary 
conventions for talking about its work—what kinds of evidence are most commonly 
accepted, how citations of authorities are incorporated into texts, how texts can 
look, i.e., the balance of text and graphical information, the typical length of 
paragraphs, the use of standard sections and headings, and so on.

If WAC teachers are already insiders who can work with students not only on 
disciplinary content and on discipline-specific writing skills, then why do they 
need to think of themselves as writers? To answer this question, we need to turn to 
a particular use of writing for reflective practice.

What teachers as writers gain from writing
In The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, Donald Schön notes 
	When we go about the spontaneous, intuitive performance of the actions of 
	everyday life, we show ourselves to be knowledgeable in a special way. 
	Often we cannot say what it is that we know. When we try to describe it we 
	find ourselves at a loss, or we produce descriptions that are obviously 
	inappropriate. Our knowing is ordinarily tacit, implicit in our patterns of 
	action and in our feel for the stuff with which we are dealing. (49)

Schön goes on to explain that we can challenge our tacit knowledge by reflecting on 
the both the situations in which we perform and the know-how we use to perform. In 
particular, reflection can be triggered by surprise, that is, by a situation or an 
experience that jars us into realizing that we are acting in usual or scripted ways. 
He argues that “a practitioner’s reflection can … surface and criticize the tacit 
understandings that have grown up around the repetitive experiences of a specialized 
practice” (61). Clearly, the relatively routine act of teaching disciplinary 
knowledge can lead to that teaching becoming a practice capturing multiple layers 
of tacit knowledge. When teachers in all disciplines challenge their thinking by 
actively reflecting on that thinking and knowledge, they bring to the surface not 
only what they know but how they know it. In effect, reflective writing can help 
teachers understand why students might not interpret lecture material as clearly as 
the teacher believes they should be able to or why a particular assignment failed 
in its goal. 

And when teachers move beyond reflective writing focused on their tacit disciplinary 
knowledge or their teaching practices into writing for audiences other than the self, 
then they are much more likely, I believe, to begin challenging other conventional 
or tacit knowledge about writing itself. Teachers engaged in writing—even writing 
not destined for publication—will become much more aware of their own writing 
processes and strategies so that they can model these for students (or at least be 
able to help students see alternatives to their own preferred and tacit processes 
and strategies). Writing itself can become the jarring or surprising experience 
that breaks teachers out of routine thinking about the disciplinary content and 
students’ grasp of it.

In the collaborative learning environment I outlined above, writing can be an 
instructional tool for both the expert and novice, insider and initiate. Certainly 
students learn disciplinary knowledge when they research a topic and write about 
that new knowledge in an academic setting. They also learn from feedback that each 
discipline values certain kinds of evidence structured in conventional ways. But 
teachers who write also learn (or re-learn, if you will) about their tacit knowledge 
of disciplinary principles, data, and processes. More important, when they write, 
they learn or re-examine tacit knowledge about disciplinary conventions for shaping 
discourse. Schön argues that reflective professionals become better teachers, more 
able participants in the collaborative learning environments of our classrooms. I 
believe we can go further: all writing—reflective and outward-directed—brings expert 
knowledge (of content and language) from tacit to conscious awareness and thus leads 
to more effective engagement by both insider and outsider in the teaching exchange.

Bazerman, C. (1985).  Physicists reading physics:  Schema-laden purposes and 
	purpose-laden schema.  Written Communication, 2(1), 3-24.
Berkenkotter, C., & Huckin, T.N. (1995). Rethinking genre from a sociocognitive 
	perspective. In C. Berkenkotter and T. N. Huckin (Eds.), Genre Knowledge in 
	Disciplinary Communication: Cognition/Culture/Power, pp. 1-25. Hillsdale, NJ: 
	Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 
Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989).  Situated cognition and the 
	culture of learning.  Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32-42.
Collins, A., Brown, J.S., & Newman, S.E. (1989). Cognitive apprenticeship: 
	Teaching the crafts of reading, writing, and mathematics. In L.B. Resnick (Ed.), 
	Knowing, Learning, and Instruction: Essays in Honor of Robert Glaser, pp. 453-494. 
	Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Egan-Robertson, A. (1998). Learning about culture, language, and power: 
	Understanding relationships among personhood, literacy practices, and 
	intertextuality. Journal of Literacy Research 30(4), 449-487.
Hilgers, T.L., Hussey, E.L., & Stitt-Bergh, M. (1999). “’As you’re writing, you 
	have these epiphanies’: What college students say about writing and learning 
	in their majors.”
	Written Communication, 16(3), 317-339.
Schön, D. (1983).  The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. 
	New York: Basic Books.

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March 2003