Student Athletes and Writing Transfer - National Council of Teachers of English
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Student Athletes and Writing Transfer

This post by NCTE member Michael Rifenburg first appeared 3/9/17. 



With 6 days left to the National Day on Writing, we’re sharing a series of reflections from members and professionals who demonstrate why writing is vital to everything we do.




When I stepped in my first-year writing classroom this year at the University of North Georgia, I found students separated into groups. Softball players to my right, baseball players in the room’s center, cross-country and soccer players to my left.

I have taught first-year writing courses for only a decade, but this semester I’m with a class populated much differently than others I have taught.

Twenty-five of my twenty-six students are student athletes.

It’s not by chance. I worked with the athletics department and the athletics advisor to fill my class. And I have a plan for how best to develop their writing skills.

I am using research on transfer, which conceptualizes how learners take knowledge from one context and apply it to another. Writing transfer research has gained traction recently, and I am structuring my course around prior knowledge and metacognition—both of which are central to successful writing transfer.

In 2006, Kathleen Blake Yancey and two co-researchers (all at Florida State) received a CCCC research grant to study transfer. A year later Yancey connected with two graduate students at Florida State, Liane Robertson and Kara Taczak. Shortly thereafter, Robertson and Taczak began dissertations on transfer. All three participated in the Elon University Research Seminar called Critical Transitions: Writing and the Question of Transfer and began moving toward a book-length study of transfer.

The three authored Writing across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing, which was recently awarded a CCCC Research Impact Award.

In their book, they sketch a curriculum called Teaching for Transfer (TFT), which connects with students’ prior knowledge and uses structured metacognitive assignments.

Prior knowledge and metacognition link with my research on student athlete literacy. For the past decade, I’ve worked with student athlete writers. My work culminated in a book, The Embodied Playbook: Writing Practices of Student-Athletes, forthcoming from Utah State University Press.

Sports require a high level of literacy, most clearly seen in how players learn and run scripted plays. Think about the sketching of football or basketball plays you might have seen, the lines, arrows, and shapes dictating physical action. When student athletes enter my class, they bring experience in engaging with this form of text. Transfer research asks me to leverage this form of prior knowledge into curricular work.

Additionally, student athletes refine their sports literacy through watching film on their performance and reflecting on successes and failures. I’ve sat in on numerous film sessions where coaches and players watched clip after clip in hopes of bettering subsequent performance. Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak believe this reflection is crucial to developing as a writer.

The TFT curriculum introduces students to eleven key terms; I adopted the eight found on our class website: genre, exigence, audience, rhetorical situations, reflection, context, discourse community, and knowledge. We began by looking at the first four terms. I moved students through a quick presentation I created titled “Athletics & Writing,” which includes images from my book: e.g., a defensive football play, a head basketball coach drawing a play. I showed commonalities between writing a play and writing an academic paper. Both are rhetorical situations reliant on audience, exigence, and genre.

I then brought students’ attention the first writing assignments: a 500-word mini-paper in which they pick one of the four key terms, explain how the term is defined in Keith Grant-Davie’s “Rhetorical Situations and Their Constituents”—anthologized in Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs’s Writing about Writing—and then state how understanding this term will help them in future writing contexts.

To scaffold into this assignment, students worked in groups. Together they answered the questions aloud; individually they composed their answers on a shared Google doc:

  • What is Grant-Davie’s most important point about exigence? About audience?
  • Think about competing in a game for your sport. Who are the different kinds of audiences watching and responding to how you compete? What expectations do these audiences have for how you compete?
  • Think about a paper you wrote for a class last semester. Now look at the three questions Grant-Davie gives [What is the discourse about? Why is the discourse needed? What is the discourse trying to accomplish?]. Answer these three questions in regard to your previous paper.

The initial question related to the mini-paper, the second called on student athletes’ prior knowledge about audience, and the third planted a seed for the second writing assignment, a 1,500-word rhetorical analysis of a previous writing assignment taken from Chapter 3 of Writing about Writing. The questions help student athletes see that both writing an essay and writing a sports play require writers to respond to ever-shifting rhetorical situations.

Our many, many students bring with them unique ways of knowing and being. When we work to connect with their prior knowledge of writing, whatever the context, and structure our curriculum with moments of reflection, we help develop them more fully as literate persons.

Michael Rifenburg is an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia. For the past decade, he has worked with and written about student athlete literacy at two different Division I schools and one Division II school.