The Centre for Writing and Communication at Ashoka University recently organised a two-day seminar on “Writing Education in India” in collaboration with it’s institutional partner, the University of Pennsylvania’s Critical Writing Program. The seminar featured Dr. Valerie Ross, Founding Director of the UPenn writing program, who delivered a lecture, “Why We Write: A Meditation on the History of Rhetoric”, to Ashoka students and conducted two pedagogy workshops, one with writing faculty from Ashoka University and Shiv Nadar University and the other with New Delhi-area school principals and English teachers.
In her workshop with University writing faculty, Ross discussed best practices in writing education in the US, which include a metacognitive approach to writing instruction and the ‘writing in the disciplines’ model. Ashoka’s writing programme, which works with the University’s undergraduate students (through the Critical Thinking sequence) and postgraduate Young India Fellows (YIFs), uses both practices. This year, it is also using another well-established writing model – ‘genre-based writing’ – with the YIFs.
The writing in the disciplines model – a cornerstone of UPenn’s writing pedagogy – recognises that students do not learn how to write unless they have something to write about. It regards students as ‘apprentice scholars’ in a discipline whose subject matter and writing conventions they gradually learn through the process of improving their own writing within that discipline’s parameters. (Ashoka’s Critical Thinking Seminars incorporate elements of this model.) The genre-based model recognises that genres are powerful tools for ‘knowledge transfer’: as per Anis Bawarshi, understanding “genre performance” enables students adroitly to negotiate new situations of knowledge and writing production.
Both models are under-girded by a meta-cognitive approach that seeks to develop critical thinkers – writers and readers – who are cognisant of and, consequently, empowered by the rhetorical and substantive choices they make in their own writing and detect in other writers. Relatedly, Ross spoke of the growing consensus around the importance of fostering “shared epistemic agency” in a writing classroom, such that teachers collaborate with students in “knowledge building” rather than implement a one-way model of “knowledge telling”.
Indeed, as Ross explained to high school faculty in her second workshop, “knowledge telling” and its associated understanding of writing “primarily as a way of displaying learning” (as Patrick Dias describes it), fails to understand writing as a “purposeful, social, genre- and knowledge-based system” with ‘real world’ usefulness. Echoing David Russell, Ross asked: how do writing experts, socialised as they are into critical reading and writing, acquire the vocabulary and methodology to explain writing so understood to novices? How do they help students navigate the journey from reading school textbooks where meaning is transparent to college-level texts where meaning must be discerned by reading between the lines?
Ross’s interactive workshops provided participants with specific tools in this regard: providing a shared writing vocabulary and set of concepts; developing scaffolded writing activities with the intention of gradually removing the scaffolding; moving to broader units of analysis (reasoning, rhetoric, genre, audience); explicit instruction and practice in how to make the knowledge transfer; providing students with manageable tasks and targeted feedback; and linking writing to wider social practices. As it works with school and university faculty in India to develop an indigenous writing pedagogy, Ashoka University is fortunate to benefit from its partnership with an expert in the field.
Article By: Ratna Menon, Associate Director, Centre for Writing and Communication, Ashoka University.