Academic Exchange Quarterly
Summer 2003: Volume 7, Issue 2
To cite, use print source rather than this on-line versions.
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
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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