Reflections on Lifespan Approaches to Writing (J. Clary-Lemon)

All Lifespan Collaborators have been invited to reflect on “Towards an Understanding of Writing Development Across the Lifespan,” co-authored by the Lifespan Development Group (see RTE’s “Taking the Long View”). We’ve been asked to focus primarily on how long view principles about writing reflected in those pieces converge in our own work, and other principles we might consider in addition to the ones we read there.

As someone hesitant to add more threshold concepts to a field burgeoning with threshold concepts (indeed, I’ve just seen a CFP that calls for a follow-up book to Wardle and Adler-Kasner’s Naming What We Know), I’m not going to add any more principles to the excellent and well-researched ones that the Lifespan Development Group has already conceived. Instead, I’ll reflect a bit on the ways that I see my past and present work attending to some of the principles forwarded in their work, which seem to converge most around two of the eight principles.

  • Writing development is complex because writing is complex.

I just put in for this year’s CCCC as part of a panel that looks at the ways in which graphical practices in writing, often  taken up among K-12 scholars and teachers (Zoss, Siegesmund, & Patisaul, 2010; Newkirk, 1989; Dyson, 1999), has lost potency for novice writers as they mature, often leaving college-level academic writing a scene bereft of visual experimentation and guided, generative graphical practices.  Such a panel, which explores inquiries into specific uses of drawing, simple visual models, and illustration to augment senses of relationship, connection, and support in lower- and upper-division writing classes and in TA training, seems to connect both to issues of genre awareness and multimodal meaning making. To ask students to engage in graphical practices alongside/interwoven/networked with written texts suggests 1) that pedagogically, we are asking them to engage with new and multiple genres; and 2) multimodal production, two tenets of the complexity of writing tasks.

  • Curriculum plays a significant formative role in writing development.

I’m sure that most of us in this group, trained as teachers, will see our work reflecting this principle. I can think of three projects that have sustained the idea that curricular practices (rich with the cultural history of institutions) enable and constrain what writers can do over time.

The first is a three-year study that I’ve worked on with a Chemistry professor here at the University of Winnipeg, Devin Latimer. We’ve taken as our point of departure the desire to move beyond the lab report as “school genre,” and report on the choice of developing a staggered approach to chemical experimentation and lab writing. We’ve spent time redesigning curriculum with collaborative interventions that blend science and humanities knowledge: focusing on explicit instruction in scientific writing in labs, training lab instructors to accommodate best writing practices, giving lab time to peer review, and providing writing centre support to offer measurable, beneficial outcomes in student education, engagement, and research output in scientific inquiry at the second-year level. Together we’ve encountered the difficulty of speaking to/with/for humanities and science-based stakeholders, acknowledged the connection between the philosophy of science and the elimination of the lab report, and explored the promise of writing centres in supporting WAC initiatives. I see this project as one that supports a Lifespan view that “needs to support learning in specific disciplines and for specific purposes” (15).

 The second was a talk I gave at the 2015 Canadian Association for the Study of Discourse and Writing that reflected on the changing educational financial landscape and its impact on Canadian writing centres. The move to close down writing centres, or shift their administration to those who aren’t trained in teaching writing seems to fit with the assertion that “a curriculum ignorant of the students it is encountering will be counter-developmental” (“Towards” 16). In taking the position of Kurt Bouman, who argued that we need to shift the attention “to the ‘where’, the ‘why’, the ‘when’, and the ‘how’ of our work, we can make a stronger case… for the importance of a strong, stable, and disciplinarily grounded academic and professional home within our institutions,” I see also the importance of locating writing practices specifically and concretely in institutions so that curricula maintains a responsiveness to “the changing cultural, social and technological environments in which students live” (“Towards” 16).

 In that same vein, I’m currently in the final stages of an interview-based project that sought out a review of the writing program at the University of Winnipeg based on its historical development. I draw on the work of Louise Wetherbee Phelps, who notes the “institutional tension between access and excellence” in which  “access”  is positioned within a “service” mission to teaching underprepared writers, “while ‘excellence’ is attributed to the ideals for scholarship and knowledge-making embodied in the major, graduate studies, and faculty publication” (14). In situating histories of “access” as they have played out in the institution’s past and talking with faculty instrumental in building and evaluating the department’s programs over time, I see this project as one that commits to the idea that in order for writing curricula to be responsive to changing student needs, it needs to assess institutional tensions about writing that emerge over time.

 Bazerman, Charles, et al. “Taking the Long View on Writing Development.” Research in the Teaching of English 51.3 (February 2017): 351-360.

 Bouman, Kurt. “Re: Reporting Structure Problem/Writing Center Scholarship.” WCenter Listserv. 20 May 2015. Retrieved from

 Lifespan Development Group. “Towards an Understanding of Writing Development Across the Lifespan.” Unpublished document. 2017.

 Phelps, Louise Wetherbee. Liminal Practice in a Maturing Writing Department. Fulbright Project Report. 2011.