Extensive and Reflexive: Writing to Learn and Communicate

keyboardFrom Dan Martin —

When I teach students the difference between extensive and reflexive thinking and writing, my objective is to demonstrate that we think and write better from a reflexive mindset, so we need to learn how to move extensive information into reflexive knowledge. We discuss different methods for achieving this objective, but it’s a difficult concept for students to understand. After reading Teaching Writing Across the Curriculum by Art Young, and thinking more critically about writing-to-learn and writing-to-communicate, I noticed connections between these WAC theories and my objectives for teaching students about extensive and reflexive writing that can help frame our class discussions and activities. Young asserts that “Writing-to-learn privileges the learner’s language and values. Writing to communicate privileges the reader’s language and values” (10). Writing-to-learn allows writers an opportunity to use writing as a tool to explore their ideas, to create “Shitty First Drafts,” to journal, or to “Make a Mess” before they need to shape and polish that writing for a writing-to-communicate situation.

Writing-to-communicate assumes someone has something to say to a very specific audience, and for a specific objective. This is a different approach to writing than a writing-to-learn approach. Writing-to-learn creates the materials, notes, drafts, and ideas that can and should find their way into writing-to-communicate drafts and final products. Teaching students how to distinguish between writing-to-learn and writing-to-communicate can improve their understanding of the writing process, discourse communities, and rhetorical situations. I ask students to think about learning new material or content as a process of moving from an extensive mode of thinking to a reflexive state of mind, using writing-to-learn to generate ideas that could lead to the completion of a writing-to-communicate project. WAW emphasizes learning the writing process in a similar way, teaching students how to use writing-to-learn to move toward a final portfolio that contains some level of writing that communicates. But WAW’s focus is primarily on the writing process and not the product, so some deeper, more intense, aspects of what it means to writeto-communicate are not taught in WAW because those aspects are difficult to teach outside of a specific discipline or discourse community.

WAW concentrates on learning about how writing works more than on creating polished products, even though there are several opportunities for students to use their work from WAW to publish in journals like Stylus and/or other student publication outlets. Many of our Composition II courses end with students attempting to complete more complex writing-to-communicate assignments that they could present at the Knights Write Showcase. Our upper division courses are now places where students are completing more writing-to-communicate projects. We can always have writing-to-learn without writing-to-communicate, but we can’t have writing-to-communicate without writing-tolearn—especially if we want polished and well structured writing-to-communicate.


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