Consider for a moment the instances in your life when you were lost. Perhaps anxiety heightened your feelings of being lost and originated from events personal, professional, or academic. Perhaps you were faced with a decision to write a memoir, to start a new job, or to stand on your own in front of a class as a teacher for the first time. How did you see your way forward? How did you cross the divide?
Many writers in a first-year composition class find themselves similarly positioned. Financial stress, psychological stress, personal stress, and academic rigor all act as agents challenging persistence in their new academic life. These writers access many tools in order construct the support – or bridges – that facilitate transfer across the divide.
Engagement and a strong self-concept may be two of the most important factors determining resilience and persistence, and self-concept is directly affected by the social support we have around us. One of my goals at the University of Arizona in working with fellow writers is to help them believe that they do belong, that they are supported, and that they can develop agency in accessing support.
Oberg’s Theory of Culture Shock posits that the more unfamiliar a culture is to a newcomer, the more stressful it will be, and Oberg suggests a traveler in a foreign country will pass through stages: 1) the honeymoon stage, 2) adoption of a hostile and aggressive attitude, 3) endurance, then 4) crisis (to leave) or acceptance (to stay) in the new country.
Two points I’d like to make drawing from Oberg:
- Writers new to college find themselves similarly positioned.
- Writers navigating new genres find themselves similarly positioned.
Genres function in ways not dissimilar to culture. They’re constantly in flux while at the same time possessing conventions and expectations that locals recognize and understand. Further, genres function to stratify locals and non-locals. If you speak the language, the locals more readily accept you (a pathway to social support). If you don’t, those same locals will view you with a skeptical eye (if not outright reject you).
For writers, the closer a new genre is to a familiar genre, the easier it is to transfer knowledge from previous experience toward understanding the new genre. The further apart the new genre is to past genres with which we are familiar, the more difficult it will be to write in the new genre. I consider this the genre divide.
In writing classes, one of my goals is to provide writers with the tools to construct bridges between existing knowledge they have and new forms of knowledge they need. I strive to make them aware of such bridging tools. And there are many.
In An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing, one bridging tool we emphasize is the rhetorical context. An example that came up in class this past week was from our Applied Fields chapter. I asked my fellow writers to draft a nursing discharge plan, a genre of which most were unfamiliar. Many approached this assignment by largely mimicking the conventional organizational structures of the example included in the book. In class, however, I recognized the language many writers used in their discharge plan suggested they thought I was the audience. So I challenged them to think about who the author of a nursing discharge plan was, who the audience was (i.e., patients), what the purpose was, and what the topic was of their discharge plan.
In that moment their metacognitive awareness became heightened toward the agency such bridging tools afford. That is, many recognized, “Oh, snap, there are tools I can use to make sense of this new, foreign genre!” There are tools they can use to construct a bridge across the genre divide of past knowledge and new writing contexts.
As first-year writing teachers, we often scaffold assignments in a sequence to construct such bridges for our fellow writers. And in a university with a strong Writing Across the Curriculum program, considerable institutional resources can be applied to help writers persist beyond the borderlands of FYW as they engage more fully in their second, third, and fourth years. Vygotskian scaffolding is well-established pedagogy. However, I’m less certain composition scholars have connected Vygotsky to institutional theory in making the case for Writing Across the Curriculum in higher education.
In the writing classroom, Genre Bridge Theory aligns Wittgenstein’s concept of language games with Vygotsky’s zones of proximal development. One potential critique in so doing is a tendency toward “performativity” of genre conventions rather than truth. My argument would be that truth arises by accessing bridging tools when writers achieve insight, realize the power of their own agency, and visualize and create something wholly original.
In conclusion, I should acknowledge my bias toward process. Rationalists view the purpose of writing as production. They would like to see students write a “perfect” sentence or paper that meets their (i.e., faculty) expectations and the expectations other faculty have of writing. I find rationalist views of teaching writing extraordinarily oppressive as they subordinate truth in favor of performance. Instead I focus my emotional labor toward heightening my fellow writers’ awareness of their own processes so that when they write in unfamiliar genres where they may feel lost, they can draw metacognitively from bridging tools to make sense of the new terrain, to navigate, and to find their way—ideally toward originality, insight, and truth.