CCCC 2014 Reviews

M.25, “A Second Wave: Metawriting in the Composition Classroom”

Reviewed by Brian Hendrickson (bhendric@unm.edu)

Chair: Nicholaus Baca, Bowling Green State University, OH

Martha Townsend, University of Missouri, Columbia, “The Effect of Metacognition and Kinesthetic Knowledge on Student-Athletes’ Academic Performance”
Dan Bommarito, Arizona State University, Tempe, “Metawriting: Writing-about-Writing Students Write about Their Writing”
Brent Chappelow, Arizona State University, Tempe, “Metawriting: Writing-about-Writing Students Write about Their Writing”
Leslie Akst, St. John’s University, Queens, NY, “It’s Not a Writing Class until Somebody Cries—The Emotional Implications of Critical Pedagogy in the Composition Classroom”

Saturdays are my favorite day at CCCC. I’ve been lucky these past few years to have presented early in the conference, so the pressure is off by Saturday, and by Saturday I have succeeded in meeting with everyone who needed meeting with, planned everything that needed planning, and attended all the happenings that needed attending. Saturday at CCCC is my day to just be present. Reflective. And it must be that way for others, too, because there is a palpable sense of calm attentiveness among the audience at sessions on Saturday, an effortless presence that reminds me of riding in a johnboat just after you have cut the motor and lifted the propeller to coast through the shallows toward the shore. It is no surprise, then, that I found the Saturday sessions I attended to be some of the most riveting. And maybe because I was finally in a reflective mood myself, I particularly enjoyed A Second Wave: Metawriting in the Composition Classroom, a session of what I assume were individually proposed presentations assembled around the connections between writing, learning, and reflecting.

Dr. Martha Townsend was the first to present, with “The Effect of Metacognition and Kinesthetic Knowledge on Student-Athletes’ Academic Performance.” Townsend related the preliminary results of an ongoing qualitative study of an entire cohort of football players who graduated from a major research university within the five-year period of eligibility designated by the NCAA. As it turns out, such a feat is unheard of in the realm of big-time college football, raising the question, "How in the world did every single player pull this off?"

Before getting into her findings, Townsend recounted some of the typical pejorative depictions of athletics in higher education, and of the students who participate in them, in order to contrast these stereotypes with her study’s all-star participants and their associated athletic program. What one might expect is that such high-value students would fare well in their studies given that they are likely to have access to a level of academic advisement and coaching unparalleled among the remainder of the student body, even if in every other way they receive no preferential treatment of the sort unearthed over the last several years at UNC-Chapel Hill. But the focus of the presentation was less on the services that likely bolstered the success of student athletes and more on the potential for curricular success embodied in the reflective aspect of athletic training.

Townsend found that the student athletes were constantly reflecting on their performances in a previous game and they applied the knowledge they gained through reflection to improve their performance in the next game. And it appeared that these high-performing students were aware that the same reflective capacity that improved their performance on the field also improved their performance off of the field. Townsend’s study therefore contributes to a growing body of research indicating that the stronger and more transparent the connections between students’ curricular and extracurricular literacies, the better students perform in class. Moreover, Townsend’s work highlights the significance of reflection both as the conduit and object of transfer: students learn in the classroom by learning to reflect in the classroom, which they in turn learn from reflecting on what they do beyond the classroom.

Having heard Townsend deliver a keynote related to the same study at an earlier stage of its completion, I was interested to see how her work had progressed and was excited to notice this metacognitive angle of her inquiry come into starker focus, but I was also drawn to this session by Dan Bommarito and Brent Chappelow’s delightfully tongue-in-cheek presentation title, “Metawriting: Writing-about-Writing Students Write about Their Writing.” Amusing as it is, I knew their presentation would have substance since the two had won a 2014 CCCC Graduate Student Travel Grant from CWPA and WPA-GO for their presentation proposal. I was not disappointed.

Bommarito and Chappelow presented on part of an ongoing study of two sections of first-year composition (FYC) they designed from a Writing about Writing (WAW) pedagogical perspective. Though the larger study includes statistical comparison between the attitudes of students enrolled in the WAW course and those enrolled in other, pop-culture-based sections of FYC, Bommarito and Chappelow focused in their presentation on a more qualitative component of their research, which examines the ways in which the WAW students assert their expertise in their end-of-semester reflections.

Because I am currently working on my own WAW study, I was particularly interested in Bommarito and Chappelow’s coding methodology, the first two levels of which consisted of identifying knowledge-exhibiting statements, then categorizing them according to Anne Beaufort’s (2007) taxonomy of discourse community knowledge, but with an added category of “identity,” which I understood as a way to account for the manner in which students’ reflections evidenced a knowledge of writing as an internal process of identity formation. The third level of coding then assigned statements to subcategories within each of the six categories of genre, rhetorical situation, writing process, subject matter, discourse community, and identity. I appreciated the rigor of their methodology, the value of which exceeds the study itself, for as a member of the audience pointed out, developing a common set of coding criteria for WAW research would allow scholars to begin assessing gains in areas such as knowledge exhibition across contexts and among larger populations. I therefore hope that Bommarito and Chappelow have a further opportunity to share their methodology with the rest of us conducting similar research.

Furthermore, Bommarito and Chappelow discussed that models of expertise might need to account for the shifting nature of students’ identities. It has often seemed to me that our models of expertise tend toward the overly clinical, and just as the social turn in composition studies complicated overly simplistic and rigid notions of expert writing processes, it is possible that the somewhat nebulous concept of identity that appears to emerge from Bommarito and Chappelow’s research—not quite constructivist or expressivist, but possibly a dialectical synthesis of the two—will complicate in exciting ways contemporary cognitivist theories of writing expertise. Immediately the notion of threshold concepts comes to mind. I can imagine that the idea of identity as a more fluid factor in the development of writing expertise might complicate any attempt to pin down any linear taxonomy of concepts, that a writer must embrace one after the other to pass on to the next level of expertise—not unlike the hero of some arcade-style video game.

Townsend, Bommarito, and Chappelow were obviously directly examining metacognition in their presentations, but it was not immediately obvious to me how Leslie Akst’s presentation would coalesce with the previous two. Of course this is no fault of her own—I have cringed to see the kind of awkward assemblages my own individually proposed presentation has found itself a party to—but I was pleasantly surprised when I began to notice the connections emerge from her presentation, “It’s Not a Writing Class Until Somebody Cries—The Emotional Implications of Critical Pedagogy in the Composition Classroom.” In it, Akst relates the findings from her autoethnographic dissertation research, with particular focus on one student’s “big breakup,” a term Akst uses to refer to a student dropping out of class or school altogether—a sort of falling out with the institution and the ideology it represents to him or her. What made this one particular student’s “big breakup” so troubling was that she was high achieving, even cocky about her aptitude for succeeding in community college. Why hadn’t the student ever finished her research paper, Akst wondered? It was not until her post-semester interview with the student that Akst discovered the answer: the topic, which Akst had helped the student derive from the subject of a previous memoir assignment, ended up being too personal to research.

I was struck by this finding, as we tend to think of research papers as impersonal and unemotional, certainly more so than memoirs, even though I know from my own teaching experience that this is not in fact true. However, my hesitancy to accept that research papers can be as, if not more, emotionally taxing than memoirs on the same subject has likely led me to be insensitive at best, and at worst entirely inhibitive in what the student likely interprets as my role as arbiter of the writing process and written product, regardless of how much freedom I attempt to give students in choosing their topics and angles.

However, it was what Akst discovered next that held the greatest implication for how we use reflection in the classroom. It turned out that the student had actually discussed her struggles in a reflection written in class on the last day, an assignment Akst had only reviewed cursorily while grading, then again to prepare for the interview. I certainly do not blame Akst for missing a detail included in a low-stakes reflection written at the very end of the semester. Low-stakes reflections are not really the kind of thing one ought to be grading anyway, and besides, feedback on a low-stakes assignment is likely to go unread if returned to students after the end of the semester. What I find significant here is the possibility that foregrounding reflection by making it the focus of instructor evaluation and feedback throughout the semester, more so than attention to the memoir and research paper themselves, might have helped the student in question communicate her anxieties to her instructor earlier in the writing process, and it might have helped Akst better coach her student through to the other side.


Beaufort, Anne. (2007). College writing and beyond: A new framework for university writing instruction. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Writing about writing. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved August 5, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Writing_about_Writing


CCCC 2014 Reviews

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