People learn in weird places.

The word “learning” typically conjures up images of classrooms, curricular materials, and teachers. Similarly, the word “literacy” may bring to mind images of alphabets, books, and traditional composing technologies such as pencils, typewriters, word processors, etc.

However, like many other scholars of literacy, composition, rhetoric, and learning, I contend that more often than we realize, learning happens in weird places. We are always learning, and in a world that is increasingly connected through networked composing environments, the learning that happens outside of the classroom is increasingly challenging to perceive, measure, and track as it moves across contexts.

In my dissertation, “That’s Just a Different Brain”: Feminist College Students’ Writing Knowledge Transfer Across Academic and Social Media Domains, written under the direction of Anne Ruggles Gere and Melanie Yergeau, I explore how feminist college students at a Midwestern research university engage with writing in (and across) academic and social media contexts. Following the tradition of learning transfer research in composition studies and education, I consider how these students make decisions about integrating (or, in many cases, not integrating) learning from one context while facing rhetorical or literate challenges in another context.

Contrary to prior research, my two sets of findings suggest that students do transfer writing knowledge between these domains, and that they do so in both directions. First, I found that participants transfer knowledge from academic contexts to social media, but that their ability to do so is largely dependent on readily discernible similarities between contexts. For example, study participants would leverage academic genre knowledge when composing longer online genres such as blog posts, but not when composing shorter genres such as Tweets. This reveals that formal writing instruction does cultivate transferable knowledge that prepares students to write for publics beyond our classroom, and it highlights areas where we might more effectively prime students to perceive potential connections across domains as a means of fostering widely applicable rhetorical agility.

Second, I found that participants cultivated specialized content knowledge about intersectional feminism through their online reading practices, which they would subsequently leverage as a strategy for approaching open-ended writing assignments in unfamiliar disciplines. This research provides insights that may enable writing instructors to 1) recognize students’ prior knowledge and the transfer in which they are likely already engaging, and 2) encourage instances of transfer that are less likely to naturally occur. As a result, it has direct implications for not only the study of digital literacies, but also for other areas concerned with students’ efforts to write in new contexts, such as WAC/WID and professional writing.