Blythe, Stuart, and Laura Gonzales. “Coordination and Transfer across the Metagenre of Secondary Research.” College Composition and Communication 67.4 (2016): 607-33. Print.
Stuart Blythe and Laura Gonzales describe a study of students’ writing practices using screencast videos to record their activities. They hoped to shed light on the question of whether students “transfer” their learning in first-year writing classes to other contexts.
Five researchers recruited students from multiple sections of a cross-disciplinary biology course that met a university-wide requirement (610). Coordinating with the professor in charge of a large lecture section, the researchers distributed index cards to students in the smaller discussion sections, instructing students willing to participate in the study to provide contact information (612). Ultimately twelve students agreed to take part (613).
Blythe and Gonzales review studies by multiple scholars that find little or no evidence of transfer of first-year writing content, supporting Doug Brent’s “glass half-empty” interpretation of the issue of transfer (608). Along with Elizabeth Wardle, as well as Linda Adler-Kassner, John Majewski, and Damian Koshnick, Blythe and Gonzales posit that the learning involved in writing is difficult to research because it is non-linear and, according to Joseph Petraglia, does not yield to “‘well-structured’ formulas or algorithms” (qtd. in Blythe and Gonzales 608). The authors also propose that researchers may be handicapped by their use of “a limited set of methods” such as interviews and focus groups (608).
Blythe and Gonzales contend that their use of screen-capture technology improves on interviews because, unlike an interview, this method does not rely on memory or the interaction between the interviewer and interviewee but rather reveals what actually happens “in that moment” of actual composition (Raul Sanchez, qtd. in Blythe and Gonzales 613). The authors also state that, unlike think-aloud protocols, screencast videos do not add an unfamiliar, distracting element to students’ processes; they note that many students “reported forgetting that their work was being recorded” (614).
Students were instructed to upload three fifteen-minute videos over the course of their composition process (613). Each student then joined a researcher in an “artifact-based interview” designed to overcome the failure of the screencast process to record the student’s reasons for various choices (614).
In choosing the biology course for study, the researchers expected to analyze genres such as lab reports, but were surprised to find that “students were being asked to write arguments using published sources,” specifically involving the use of DDT to control malaria (610).
Citing Michael Carter’s use of the term metagenre to denote “ways of knowing and doing that cross disciplines” (610; emphasis original), Blythe and Gonzales locate the biology assignment in such a metagenre. Following Carter, the authors distinguish between “knowing that,” which designates “unique sets of knowledge” specific to each discipline, and “knowing how,” indicating “share[d] ways of knowing” (610). In this view, these “ways of knowing” constitute metagenres (610). Four metagenres listed by Carter are problem-solving, empirical inquiry, research from sources, and performance (610-11). The biology assignment falls into the cross-disciplinary metagenre of “research from sources.”
The software allowed the researchers to code thirty-six videos capturing student composing processes and to generate “visualizations” or graphs that recorded student movement among the texts they worked with as they wrote (614. 616). Major patterns in student processes emerged from this coding and from the interviews in which students affirmed the categorizations recognized by the researchers’ analysis (614).
Three major conclusions resulted. First, “[s]tudents select sources rhetorically” (615). Specifically, students chose sources that they thought would meet their instructors’ approval (622). Although they used Google to generate ideas and plan, they cited only information from library databases and Google Scholar, as specified by the assignment (623). In conducting searches, the students did not venture beyond the first entry in a results list and thus often cited the same sources (624).
The authors remark that:
Students were not concerned with learning about DDT and malaria as intended by the assignment guidelines. Instead, students used sources to constantly ensure they were meeting the assignment requirements in a way that would please their instructor. (622-23)
Second, “[s]tudents coordinate multiple texts” (615). The screen captures revealed that students moved rapidly among six different kinds of texts, for example, from their drafts to websites found on Google to the assignment rubric (618). They spent an average of 12.14 seconds on each type of text (619). The preferred process was to paste text from sources into the paper, reword it, then cite, resulting, in one student’s example, in the construction of the paper “sentence by sentence” through the search for “necessary piece[s] of information” (620).
While Blythe and Gonzales agree that pasting and rewording might constitute what Rebecca Moore Howard terms “patchwriting,” they contend that using what Shaun Slattery refers to as “textual coordination” to “find bits of text from multiple sources and rework them into a new text designed for a particular purpose” resembles the process followed by professional writers engaging with a topic on which they lack expertise (627). They cite Howard’s claim that this writing technique can be useful in “finding a way into” a new discourse (qtd. in Blythe and Gonzales 627). The authors argue, though, that students lack the social and professional networks that scholars like Stacey Pigg and Jason Swarts find underpinning the work of professional writers. Students relied on the assignment rubric for their understanding of the purpose and possibilities of their task (628).
Third, students do not generally credit their college writing courses for teaching them the skills they deem important in crafting a paper. All students in the study stated that they used strategies learned in high school; Blythe and Gonzales found that many relied on “adjusting the same basic structures” like the five-paragraph theme (625). First-year writing, according to this study, served as “another space in which they get to practice the writing strategies they learned earlier in their academic careers” (626). Such practice, students seemed to believe, contributed to improvements in their writing, but interviews suggested that their sense of how these improvements occurred was vague (626).
The authors close with recommendations that first-year-writing instruction can usefully focus on “expand[ing] the resources and networks” that can contribute to students’ writing processes, introducing them to “specialized communities or connections” (629). Blythe and Gonzales further suggest that transfer studies might attend more carefully to what Elizabeth Wardle calls “meta-awareness” about writing, particularly awarenesses that students bring to writing classes from prior experience (630).
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