21st Century Literacies & Writing Studies

Writing Studies is an academic discipline grounded in the humanities and education rather than STEM. Some theorists and researchers in Writing Studies have shared the STEM community’s curiosity about the role of intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies in writing processes.

Back in the 1980s, for instance, writing theorists such as Robert Boice wrote beautifully on the psychology of writing. And the creative writing community has long since been fascinated with the writer’s character, or psyche. Since the 1950s, the The Paris Review, has published numerous interviews of writers, asking them to talk about ways they leverage self-regulation, emotion, and experience.

Cognitive Competencies

Cognitive competencies involve thinking, reasoning, and related skills.

When asked to reflect on their composing processes, professional writers often say that writing is a powerful tool for learning:

  • Writing and learning and thinking are the same process.  William Zinsser
  • Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers. Isaac Asimov
  • For me writing is foremost an act of thinking and when it works well, an act of discovery. Joseph Epstein
  • How do I know what I think till I see what I say? E.M. Forster

At first glance, it’s pretty obvious to just about everyone that success as a writer is largely shaped by cognitive competencies. For instance, writing requires a combination of (1) domain knowledge about Writing Studies and (2) reasoning skills. Knowledge of writing and reasoning competencies are intertwined organically as writers

  • identify a thesis or research question
  • recognize when claims need support (anecdotes, theories, empirical data)
  • conduct strategic research
  • synthesize data and literature, etc.
  • appeal appropriately to logos, pathos, ethos, kairos
  • weave sources into your text to support claims

But how does thinking work?  How can you become more effective thinker?

Reasonable experts in Writing Studies would most likely answer this question differently given that writing is such a complex, organic, recursive, rhetorical, psychosocial process. 

That qualifier aside, we believe language and writing are interwoven; that writing is thinking. 

Knowledge of the domain of Rhetoric plays a King Kong-sized role in critical thinking. Whether you want to sell a used car, write a federal proposal to obtain $5M in funding, or pitch a business case study to get a job at McKinsey, a consulting firm, you need to analyze the rhetorical situation, conduct pertinent research, craft appeals to logos, pathos, and ethos, organize the document to emphasize your thesis or research question, to shape your focus and research methods.

Intrapersonal Competencies 

Being a successful writer involves more than intelligence and knowledge. You also need to develop your intrapersonal competencies, including

  • hard work and persistence;
  • a growth mindset;
  • metacognitive skills;
  • self-regulation skills.

The great news here is that writing both requires and strengthens intrapersonal competencies

And! And! And! Writing enhances your agency as a human being. . .

Here, by agency we are referencing your personal power. By this we don’t mean the idea that you will be a Machiavellian sort of character who bends other people to your will nor do we mean you’ll always get what you want. Rather, we mean that by knowing your inner self you are in a better space to know what you want with your life.

Writing requires intrapersonal competencies
To complete writing tasks, writers need the behaviors and dispositions that constitute intrapersonal competencies: 

  • Growth Mindset
    Rather than assume that writers are born and not made, empower yourself by adopting a positive attitude about writing.
  • Metacognition
    When writers are revising documents or planning ways to get the work done, they are engaged in metacognition–thinking about thinking. To evolve as a writer, to filter through critical feedback, you need to honestly assess your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Openness
    Being open to new knowledge, diverse opinions, and new composing strategies are important dispositions and strategies, particularly if you are engaged in collaborative work or working with clients/readers who have different values, priorities, and goals.
  • Resilience
    Writing well is founded on hard work and persistence. Researching, weaving sources into the text to support your position, and prioritizing critical feedback can be extremely demanding–timewise and personally. Getting tough feedback can be emotionally draining. Plus, you may work really hard on a task and still fail, despite  your best evidence. So, you have to learn from failure, to make lemons into lemonade.
  • Self-Regulation
    Ultimately, just as we are born alone and die alone, we write alone. You are the architect of your success or failure as a writer (see Work Ethic & Project Management).

Whether U.S. employers are justified in their impression that college graduates lack strong intrapersonal competencies is certainly open for debate. These sorts of competencies are extremely hard to assess (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2017). That said, it is our view as teachers, researchers, and writing program administrators in college and university settings that many of our students possess deep intrapersonal competencies.

Even so, we acknowledge there are cultural forces that impede self-reflection and the development of intrapersonal competencies, including the 24 hour news cycle, social tools like Twitter or Instagram, and the lack of long-form writing in high school and university settings.

In summary, writing regularly presents ample opportunities to develop your intrapersonal competencies. Writing daily is like going to the gym every day: it strengthens the grit within you, the capacity to face obstacles, to recognize that seemingly insurmountable problems can be overcome, one day at a time.

Interpersonal Competencies 

“Interpersonal competencies involve expressing information to others”
(National Research Council 2012).

Okay, so writing is thinking. Nothing helps develop your cognitive competencies so much as working through a complicated problem in writing (or using mathematical symbols or musical symbols to solve math or musical scores). Regarding cognitive competencies, we explored how it’s useful to distinguish declarative knowledge from procedural knowledge

Second, we affirmed the role of intrapersonal competencies. Writing is invariably challenging and emotionally exhausting. Other people and life experience may endeavor to wear you down. Invariably writers face adversity (e.g., the difficulty of expressing complex concepts, expressing ideas in ways readers can understand, and dealing with the negativity of critics). Hence, we have argued you should embrace your birthright: 

you are a creative, smart person.

By adopting a Growth Mindset, you can maximize your potential. Now, this doesn’t mean we can all be William Shakespeare, but it certainly means that we can be expressive, creative, smart, competitive.

Now, we aim to address the third and perhaps the most important 21st century competency: interpersonal competencies.

So, why do view interpersonal competencies to be so important?

One cynical answer is that everyone is smart in the knowledge economy. If you are smart, presumably, you can compete with others around the world. Cognitive skills are assumed as prerequisites in the knowledge economy. Likewise, the ability to set goals, to have grit in the face of adversity (i.e., intrapersonal competencies) is a presumed pre-requisite competency to be competitive..

What isn’t necessarily presumed is a somewhat new, emerging competency: the ability to work with teams, often virtually. 

The modern-day workplace has supplanted the ingenuity of the individualist pioneer. Nowadays, rather than Sergio and Page working away in their garage to create Google, there are teams of engineers, program managers, designers, and creative people working in team settings on new technologies. Presumably, right now the big arms race is 5G.

Here, we are not saying that the will of the individual is no longer important. Rather, we are saying the will of the individual is actualized, turbocharged, by collaborative tools that enable the individual to speak from the one to the many.

Based on our experiences as teachers, we are familiar with the groans of students who complain about group projects. Until recently, well, ok, even now, our society has prized individual performance. At least in the U.S., test scores and individual grades, not contributions to the teams, define access to opportunity.

Nonetheless, the future is collaboration. Hence, Collaboration at Writing Commons explores

  • the competency to provide and receive critique in productive ways;
  • the competency to make decisions and work as a leader;
  • the competency to negotiate Peer Review processes;
  • The competency to coordinate work in teams, i.e., Project Management

Related Resources

Education for Life and Work represents a major effort on the part of STEM scientists, cognitive-development theorists, and learning theorists to develop a competency-based model of 21st Century literacies.

Education for Life and Work was researched and written by experts from the National Research Council, the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education; Board on Testing and Assessment; Board on Science Education; Committee on Defining Deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills. The community of researchers followed publication of Education for Life and Work with numerous additional publications, including Supporting Students’ College Success: The Role of Assessment of Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Competencies in 2017.

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