College Composition Weekly: Summaries of research for college writing professionals

Read, Comment On, and Share News of the Latest from the Rhetoric and Composition Journals


Abba et al. Students’ Metaknowledge about Writing. J of Writing Res., 2018. Posted 09/28/2018.

Abba, Katherine A., Shuai (Steven) Zhang, and R. Malatesha Joshi. “Community College Writers’ Metaknowledge of Effective Writing.” Journal of Writing Research 10.1 (2018): 85-105. Web. 19 Sept. 2018.

Katherine A. Abba, Shuai (Steven) Zhang, and R. Malatesha Joshi report on a study of students’ metaknowledge about effective writing. They recruited 249 community-college students taking courses in Child Development and Teacher Education at an institution in the southwestern U.S. (89).

All students provided data for the first research question, “What is community-college students’ metaknowledge regarding effective writing?” The researchers used data only from students whose first language was English for their second and third research questions, which investigated “common patterns of metaknowledge” and whether classifying students’ responses into different groups would reveal correlations between the focus of the metaknowledge and the quality of the students’ writing. The authors state that limiting analysis to this subgroup would eliminate the confounding effect of language interference (89).

Abba et al. define metaknowledge as “awareness of one’s cognitive processes, such as prioritizing and executing tasks” (86), and explore extensive research dating to the 1970s that explores how this concept has been articulated and developed. They state that the literature supports the conclusion that “college students’ metacognitive knowledge, particularly substantive procedures, as well as their beliefs about writing, have distinctly impacted their writing” (88).

The authors argue that their study is one of few to focus on community college students; further, it addresses the impact of metaknowledge on the quality of student writing samples via the “Coh-Metrix” analysis tool (89).

Students participating in the study were provided with writing prompts at the start of the semester during an in-class, one-hour session. In addition to completing the samples, students filled out a short biographical survey and responded to two open-ended questions:

What do effective writers do when they write?

Suppose you were the teacher of this class today and a student asked you “What is effective writing?” What would you tell that student about effective writing? (90)

Student responses were coded in terms of “idea units which are specific unique ideas within each student’s response” (90). The authors give examples of how units were recognized and selected. Abba et al. divided the data into “Procedural Knowledge,” or “the knowledge necessary to carry out the procedure or process of writing,” and “Declarative Knowledge,” or statements about “the characteristics of effective writing” (89). Within the categories, responses were coded as addressing “substantive procedures” having to do with the process itself and “production procedures,” relating to the “form of writing,” e.g., spelling and grammar (89).

Analysis for the first research question regarding general knowledge in the full cohort revealed that most responses about Procedural Knowledge addressed “substantive” rather than “production” issues (98). Students’ Procedural Knowledge focused on “Writing/Drafting,” with “Goal Setting/Planning” in second place (93, 98). Frequencies indicated that while revision was “somewhat important,” it was not as central to students’ knowledge as indicated in scholarship on the writing process such as that of John Hayes and Linda Flower and M. Scardamalia and C. Bereiter (96).

Analysis of Declarative Knowledge for the full-cohort question showed that students saw “Clarity and Focus” and “Audience” as important characteristics of effective writing (98). Grammar and Spelling, the “production” features, were more important than in Procedural Knowledge. The authors posit that students were drawing on their awareness of the importance of a polished finished product for grading (98). Overall, data for the first research question matched that of previous scholarship on students’ metaknowledge of effective writing, which shows some concern with the finished product and a possibly “insufficient” focus on revision (98).

To address the second and third questions, about “common patterns” in student knowledge and the impact of a particular focus of knowledge on writing performance, students whose first language was English were divided into three “classes” in both Procedural and Declarative Knowledge based on their responses. Classes in Procedural Knowledge were a “Writing/Drafting oriented group,” a “Purpose-oriented group,” and the largest, a “Plan and Review oriented group” (99). Responses regarding Declarative Knowledge resulted in a “Plan and Review” group, a “Time and Clarity oriented group,” and the largest, an “Audience oriented group.” One hundred twenty-three of the 146 students in the cohort belonged to this group. The authors note the importance of attention to audience in the scholarship and the assertion that this focus typifies “older, more experienced writers” (99).

The final question about the impact of metaknowledge on writing quality was addressed through the Coh-Metrix “online automated writing evaluation tool” that assessed variables such as “referential cohesion, lexical diversity, syntactic complexity and pattern density” (100). In addition, Abba et al. used a method designed by A. Bolck, M. A. Croon, and J. A. Hagenaars (“BCH”) to investigate relationships between class membership and writing features (96).

These analyses revealed “no relationship . . . between their patterns knowledge and the chosen Coh-Metrix variables commonly associated with effective writing” (100). The “BCH” analysis revealed only two significant associations among the 15 variables examined (96).

The authors propose that their findings did not align with prior research suggesting the importance of metacognitive knowledge because their methodology did not use human raters and did not factor in student beliefs about writing or questions addressing why they responded as they did. Moreover, the authors state that the open-ended questions allowed more varied responses than did responses to “pre-established inventor[ies]” (100). They maintain that their methods “controlled the measurement errors” better than often-used regression studies (100).

Abba et al. recommend more research with more varied cohorts and collection of interview data that could shed more light on students’ reasons for their responses (100-101). Such data, they indicate, will allow conclusions about how students’ beliefs about writing, such as “whether an ability can be improved,” affect the results (101). Instructors, in their view, can more explicitly address awareness of strategies and effective practices and can use discussion of metaknowledge to correct “misconceptions or misuse of metacognitive strategies” (101):

The challenge for instructors is to ascertain whether students’ metaknowledge about effective writing is accurate and support students as they transfer effective writing metaknowledge to their written work. (101)



Leonard, Sandra. Plagiarism and Contingent Faculty. May TETYC, 2018. Posted 06/29/2018.

Leonard, Sandra M. “Plagiarism and Contingency: A Problem of Academic Freedom.” Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty 21.2 (2018): A1-A13. Print.

Writing in the May 2018 Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty, Sandra M. Leonard discusses the pressures placed on contingent writing faculty by the kinds of plagiarism policies she finds most commonly in place. Such policies, among them the approach endorsed by the 2016 Modern Language Association handbook, call for a no-tolerance approach to plagiarism, in Leonard’s view lumping a wide array of writing practices under “an all-inclusive definition” (A3). Leonard writes that while many full-time faculty may be empowered to revise such draconian definitions and develop teaching practices more in line with composition theory, contingent faculty are caught between their struggles to teach well and their need to observe institutional requirements (A4).

Leonard contests claims that plagiarism rarely occurs and that it can be handled with a standardized response. Citing the work of Rebecca Moore Howard and a New Zealand study reported by John Walker, Leonard notes that instances that meet strict definitions of plagiarism occur in a quarter to a third of sampled student work (A3). According to Leonard’s research, studies demonstrate that most instances involve “improper paraphrase,” designated as “patchwriting” by Howard (A3).

In this view, when inflexible policies fail to distinguish between such errors, which may be unintentional, and deliberate fraud, they risk punishing students for what Howard considers an important step in the learning process (A3-A4). Leonard contends that students who commit this infraction may not know they are using sources incorrectly and thus cannot be effectively deterred by blanket warnings and “integrity statements” (A4). She cites composition professionals who consider such missteps from students an opportunity to teach revision as well as to inculcate a deeper understanding of intellectual property issues (A9).

Leonard argues that inflexible language in institutional policies delivers mixed messages to contingent faculty, leaving them without resources to deal with such a complex pedagogical issue (A5). Required by policy to report all instances, faculty may find administrators bowing to concerns about students as “unhappy customers,” with the faculty member depicted as “harsh” for doing her job (A6-A7). Leonard cites cases of faculty whose careers were affected by addressing a plagiarism case (A6). She notes that contingent faculty are especially at risk because institutions are not required to explain why an instructor is not rehired (A6).

Leonard details the burdens imposed when contingent faculty attempt to address plagiarism, including the time to hold “highly sensitive” meetings, often without private office space, and fill out extensive paperwork (A5). She argues that charging a student with plagiarism results in stress and forces the faculty member to take on a “pseudo-legal” role as a “prosecutor,” positions far beyond either his expertise or level of compensation (A6). Moreover, Leonard writes, taking on a plagiarism charge can affect the mood of a class and lead to lower evaluations, which may then be used to justify “retaliation” (A6).

The author reports a number of effects on faculty agency as a result of plagiarism policies. A zero-tolerance policy removes teachers’ ability to make decisions about how to handle various levels of infractions (A7). Teachers may fall back on assignments they consider “plagiarism-proofing”: instructions so unique and precise that, ideally, students do not have a chance to plagiarize (A7). Leonard contends that students can still defeat these efforts; also, designing assignments for this purpose may preclude many of the pedagogical choices considered most valuable in process pedagogy, so that “preventing plagiarism” appears to be “more important than teaching course material” (A8). In such contexts, the option of  “low-stakes” assignments “has no meaning” if students can be punished for citation or paraphrase slips (A8). Further, she maintains that “plagiarism-proofing” in this way actually prevents students from learning how to negotiate intellectual property boundaries through practice and feedback (A8). In contrast to the ways other skills are taught, enacting zero-tolerance for paraphrase and citation errors means that students would have to demonstrate “perfection at every stage” despite being denied the learning inherent in making mistakes (A8).

Leonard notes that contingent faculty are especially likely to be “caught up in a fight of mixed messages” (A9) because so many of the issues involved occur in first-year writing, which is increasingly taught by part-time instructors (A10). In some cases, Leonard writes, instructors decide to ignore plagiarism altogether rather than risk the dangers involved (A8-A9). Others may rely on detection software despite opposition from scholars in the field; in some cases, institutional policy on the use of such software may leave faculty with no choice (A9).

In Leonard’s view, policies should specifically recognize faculty expertise and agency by granting the ability both to determine when a case merits punishment and to design a “successful in-house procedure for dealing with plagiarism that works for their class culture” (A10). Such policies would allow instructors to emulate creative solutions like those designed by Gerald Nelms and Kate Hagopian (A9, A10). Leonard stipulates that policies should ensure support for faculty who find that sanctions are in order as well as the legal and institutional guidance to manage such a complex and charged situation. This support, moreover, should “also incorporate plans . . . that do not draw on part-time faculty labor outside of contracted hours” (A10).

Leonard writes that, despite increasing awareness within composition of the challenges involved in dealing effectively with the many skills involved in successful use of outside material, institutional policies “haven’t caught up” (A10). She advocates for changes that will no longer “displace the stresses of academic dishonesty onto the most vulnerable faculty” (A10).

Leave a comment

Goldblatt, Eli. Expressivism as “Tacit Tradition.” CCC, Feb. 2017. Posted 03/15/2017.

Goldblatt, Eli. “Don’t Call It Expressivism: Legacies of a ‘Tacit Tradition’.” College Composition and Communication 68.3 (2017): 438-65. Print.

Eli Goldblatt explores what he considers the “subtle legacies” (442) of a “much maligned movement” in composition studies, expressivism (439). His locates his exigency in conversations about the value of a “literacy autobiography” he recently published. These discussions led him to believe that this form of writing did not meet his colleagues’ definition of respectable academic work (438-39).

For Goldblatt, expressivist tendencies may be rejected by theorists but persist in much recent work in the field, creating what Christopher Burnham and Rebecca Powell call a “tacit tradition” within the field (qtd. in Goldblatt 440). Goldblatt argues that recognizing the value and influence of expression will lead to a sense of writing that more fully integrates important aspects of what actually inspires writers.

Graduate students, he reports, often learn about expressivism via the scholarly debate between David Bartholomae and Peter Elbow in 1989 and 1991; such theoretical work cast personal expression as too grounded in the individual and “lacking in a political analysis of the composing situation in schools” (440).

Yet, Goldblatt observes, students often prefer “personal writing,” which they may consider “relatable” (439); his graduate students exhibit interest in the role of the personal in literacy activities in their own research (440). He posits, with Burnham and Powell, that the research from the 1970s by James Britton and his associates reveals “some sort of Ur-expressive drive [that] stands behind all writing” (440).

Goldblatt traces overt strands of expressivism through the work of such scholars as Sherrie Gradin and Wendy Bishop (440-41). He posits that some resistance to expressivism in composition may be traceable to concerns about the kind of research that would lead to tenure and promotion as the field began to define itself within departments heavily populated by literary critics (445). He notes “two stigmas” attached to expressivism: one is its centrality to high-school pedagogy; in its effort to establish itself as a respectable college-level endeavor, composition distanced itself from methods practiced in K-12 (446). Similarly, the field set itself apart from creative writing, in which, Goldplatt recounts, instruction in his experience emphasized “aesthetic achievement rather than self-actualization” (447).

Wendy Bishop, who characterized herself as “something-like-an-expressivist” (qtd. in Goldblatt 448), subsequently became CCCC chair. Goldblatt notes her defense of her pedagogy against the claim that expressivism

keep[s] students in a state of naiveté, [doesn’t] prepare them for the languages of  the academy, . . . and “emphasize[s] a type of self-actualization which the outside world would indict as sentimental and dangerous.” (Bishop, qtd. in Goldblatt 447-48; quoting from Stephen M. Fishman and Lucille Parkinson McCarthy)

Still, Goldblatt contends, her stance was “more admired than imitated” (448), doing little to recuperate expressivism within the field.

Despite his own commitment to poetry, Goldblatt acknowledges the importance of composition’s “social turn” and the power of the “social-epistemic rhetoric” promulgated by James Berlin and others. Still, he finds the rejection of expressivism problematic in recent movements in college writing such as the focus on transfer and the “writing about writing” program advocated by scholars like Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs. Goldblatt worries that too much emphasis on “school success and professional preparation” (441) undercuts “two  impulses” that he posits underlie the need to write: “the desire to speak out of your most intimate experiences and to connect with communities in need” (442).

Goldblatt examines “habits of mind” that he associates with expressivism in the recent work of four scholars who, he believes, would not explicitly call themselves expressivists (443). In Goldblatt’s view, Robert Yagelski’s Writing as a Way of Being “seems both anchored in and estranged from expressivism” (448). Yagelski’s focus on “the ‘writer writing’ rather than the ‘writer’s writing’” seems to Goldblatt a “phenomenological” approach to composing (448) that values the social impact of relationships at the same time it encourages individual self-actualization (448). Goldblatt compares Yagelski’s views to Ken Macrorie’s in his 1970 book Uptaught in that both reject “standardized instruction” in favor of “writing as a means to explore and enrich experience” (450), undoing a “false binary” between writing for the self and writing to engage with the world (448).

In Adam Banks’s Digital Griots, Goldblatt finds the personal entering through voice and style that both invoke the African-American tradition while “consciously modeling that social boundaries everywhere must be crossed” (451). Banks recounts “personal testimony” from young African Americans for whom individual storytelling establishes solidarity while creating connections with the past (452). Goldblatt notes that unlike early expressivists, Banks rejects the sense that “all expression is drawn from the same well” (453). Instead, he “remixes” many different individual voices to generate an implicit expressivism as “a deep and dialogic commitment to the individual within the swirl of events, movements, and economic pressures” (453-54).

Tiffany Rousculp’s Rhetoric of Respect recounts her creation and administration of the Community Writing Center at Salt Lake City Community College (454). Goldblatt finds Rousculp addressing tensions between progressive Freirean motives and her recognition that community members from a wide range of backgrounds would have personal reasons for writing that did not accord with the specific goals of the “sponsoring institution” (455). Although honoring these individual goals may seem antithetical to a social-epistemic approach, Goldblatt writes that the Center’s orientation remained deeply social because, in his view of Rousculp’s understanding, “individuals can only be seen within the web of their relationships to others” (456). Only when able to escape the constraints of the various institutions controliing their lives and select their own reasons for writing, Goldblatt posits, can individuals “exert agency” (456).

Sondra Perl’s On Austrian Soil depicts a teaching experience in which she worked with native Austrian writers to explore the legacy of the country’s Nazi past. Stating that he connects Perl not so much with early expressivism as with the origins of the process movement (458), Goldblatt notes her interest in the “personal, even bodily, experience of composing” (457). In his view, her experience in Austria, though painful in many ways, highlights the ways in which students’ emotional positioning, which can both inspire and limit their ability to write, must often become a teacher’s focus (458). Moreover, Goldblatt stresses, the learning both for individuals and the group arose from the shared emotions, as Perl connects what she called each student’s “wonderful uniqueness” (qtd. in Goldblatt 459) with “the socially oriented responsibility” of ethical behavior (459).

Goldblatt hopes for an understanding within composition of how a sophisticated approach to expressivism can infuse writing with the “intentionality, joy, seriousness, and intimacy available in the act of writing” (461). He worries that the writing-about-writing agenda “elevates the study of writing over the experience of writing,” an agenda perhaps appropriate for more advanced writing majors but complicit in what he sees as higher education’s current “hostility toward intellectual play and exploration” in the service of completely managed institutional priorities. He proposes that recognizing the power of expressivism can fuel compositionists’ hopes that students will embrace writing:

Without an urgency that is felt as personal, a writer will always be looking to the teacher, the boss, the arbiter for both permission to begin and approval to desist. (461)

1 Comment

McAlear and Pedretti. When is a Paper “Done”? Comp. Studies, Fall 2016. Posted 03/02/2017.

McAlear, Rob, and Mark Pedretti. “Writing Toward the End: Students’ Perceptions of Doneness in the Composition Classroom.” Composition Studies 44.2 (2016): 72-93. Web. 20 Feb. 2017.

Rob McAlear and Mark Pedretti describe a survey to shed light on students’ conception of “doneness,” or when a piece of writing is completed.

McAlear and Pedretti argue that writing teachers tend to consider writing an ongoing process that never really ends. In their view, this approach values “process over product,” with the partial result that the issue of how a writing task reaches satisfactory completion is seldom addressed in composition scholarship (72). They contend that experienced writers acquire an ability “central to compositional practice” of recognizing that a piece is ready for submission, and writing instructors can help students develop their own awareness of what makes a piece complete.

A first step in this pedagogical process, McAlear and Pedretti write, is to understand how students actually make this decision about their college assignments (73). Their article seeks to determine what criteria students actually use and how these criteria differ as student writers move through different levels of college writing (73).

McAlear and Pedretti review the limited references to doneness in composition scholarship, noting that earlier resources like Erika Lindemann and Daniel Anderson’s A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers and Janet Emig’s work suggest that the most important factors are deadlines and a sense that the writer has nothing more to say. The authors find these accounts “unsatisfying” (74). Nancy Sommers, they state, recognizes that writing tasks do end but does not explore the criteria nor the “implications for those criteria” (75). Linda Flower and John R. Hayes, in their cognitive model, suggest that endings are determined by a writer’s “task representation,” with solution of a problem the supposed end point. Again, the authors find that knowing how writers “defin[e] a problem” does not explain how writers know they “have reached an adequate solution” (75).

One reason doneness has not been explicitly addressed, McAlear and Pedretti posit, is its possible relationship to “products” as the end of writing. Yet, they argue, “one of the implicit goals of teaching writing as a process is to get better products” (76). In their view, interrogating how writers come to regard their work as finished need not commit scholars to a “Big Theory” approach; “completion,” like process, can be rhetorically focused, responsive to specific audiences and purposes (76).

The authors surveyed 59 students in four first-year and four second-year writing courses at a Midwest research institution (78). The survey consisted of ten questions; analysis focused on the first two, asking about the student’s year and major, and on two questions, Q5 and Q10, that specifically asked how students decided a piece was finished. Question 5 was intended to elicit information about “a cognitive state,” whereas Question 10 asked about specific criteria (78).

Coding answers yielded three strategies: Internal, Criteria, and Process. “Internal” responses “linked to personal, emotional, or aesthetic judgments, such as feeling satisfied with one’s work or that the paper ‘flowed’” (79). Answers classified under “Criteria” referenced “empirical judgments of completion” such as meeting the requirements of the assignment (79). In “Process” answers, “any step in the writing process . . . was explicitly mentioned,” such as proofreading or peer review (79). McAlear and Pedretti coded some responses as combinations of the basic strategies, such as IP for “Internal-Process” or PC for “Process-Criteria” (80).

Survey responses indicated that first-year students tended to use a single strategy to determine doneness, with Internal or Process dominant. Nearly half of second-year students also used only one marker, but with a shift from Internal to Criteria strategies (79-80). Students responding to Question 10 claimed to use more than one strategy, perhaps because an intervening question triggered more reflection on their strategies (80). However, the authors were surprised that 33% of first-year students and 48% of second-year students did not mention Process strategies at all (80). Overall, first-year writers were more likely to report Internal or Process options, while second-year writers trended more to external Criteria (80-81).

McAlear and Pedretti found that for first-year students particularly, “Process” involved only “lower-order” strategies like proofreading (81). The authors recoded references to proofreading or correctness into a new category, “Surface.” With this revision, first-year students’ preference for Internal strategies “become even more prominent,” while second-year students’ use of Process strategies other than “Surface” was highlighted (82).

Study results do not support what McAlear and Pedretti consider a common perception that correctness and page length dictate students’ decisions about doneness (84). The authors posit that “students may be relying on equally simple, but qualitatively distinct, criteria” (84). First-year students commonly pointed to “proofreading and having nothing more to say,” while second-year students expressed concern with “meeting the criteria of the prompt” (84).

McAlear and Pedretti note that even among second-year students who had been exposed to more than one writing class, these responses indicate very little “awareness of rhetorical situation” (84). Although responding to the rhetorical situation of a college classroom, McAlear and Pedretti argue, second-year students interpret the actual expectations of a writing class simplistically (85). Considerations that writing teachers would hope for, like “Is this portion of my argument persuasive for my audience,” were completely missing (84). Moreover, many second-year students did not note Process at all, despite presumably having encountered the concept often (85).

McAlear and Pedretti propose that the shift away from Internal, affective markers to external, criteria-focused, albeit reductive, strategies may reflect a “loss of confidence” as students encountering unfamiliar discourses no longer trust their ability to judge their own success (85-86). The authors suggest that, because students cannot easily frame a rhetorical problem, “they do not know their endpoint” and thus turn to teachers for explicit instruction on what constitutes an adequate response (87).

For the authors, the moment when students move to external criteria and must articulate these criteria is an opportunity to introduce a vocabulary on doneness and to encourage attention to the different kinds of criteria suitable for different rhetorical contexts (88). Instructors can use reflective activities and examination of others’ decisions as revealed in their work to incorporate issues of doneness into rhetorical education as they explicitly provide a range of strategies, from internal satisfaction to genre-based criteria (88-89). Students might revise writing tasks for different genres and consider how, for example, completion criteria for an essay differ from those for a speech (90).

The authors propose that such attention to the question of doneness may shed light on problems like “writing anxiety,  procrastination, and even plagiarism” (84). Ultimately, they write, “knowing when to stop writing is a need that many of our students have, and one for which we have not yet adequately prepared them” (90).


Leave a comment

Gallagher, Chris W. Behaviorism as Social-Process Pedagogy. Dec. CCC. Posted 01/12/2017.

Gallagher, Chris W. “What Writers Do: Behaviors, Behaviorism, and Writing Studies.” College Composition and Communication 68.2 (2016): 238-65. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

Chris W. Gallagher provides a history of composition’s relationship with behaviorism, arguing that this relationship is more complex than commonly supposed and that writing scholars can use the connections to respond to current pressures imposed by reformist models.

Gallagher notes the efforts of many writing program administrators (WPAs) to articulate professionally informed writing outcomes to audiences in other university venues, such as general-education committees (238-39). He reports that such discussions often move quickly from compositionists’ focus on what helps students “writ[e] well” to an abstract and universal ideal of “good writing” (239).

This shift, in Gallagher’s view, encourages writing professionals to get caught up in “the work texts do” in contrast to the more important focus on “the work writers do” (239; emphasis original). He maintains that “the work writers do” is in fact an issue of behaviors writers exhibit and practice, and that the resistance to “behaviorism” that characterizes the field encourages scholars to lose sight of the fact that the field is “in the behavior business; we are, and should be, centrally concerned with what writers do” (240; emphasis original).

He suggests that “John Watson’s behavioral ‘manifesto’—his 1913 paper, ‘Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It’” (241) captures what Gallagher sees as the “general consensus” of the time and a defining motivation for behaviorism: a shift away from “fuzzy-headed . . . introspective analysis” to the more productive process of “study[ing] observable behaviors” (241). Gallagher characterizes many different types of behaviorism, ranging from those designed to actually control behavior to those hoping to understand “inner states” through their observable manifestations (242).

One such productive model of behaviorism, in Gallagher’s view, is that of B. F. Skinner in the 1960s and 1970s. Gallagher argues that Skinner emphasized not “reflex behaviors” like those associated with Pavlov but rather “operant behaviors,” which Gallagher, citing psychologist John Staddon, characterizes as concerned with “the ways in which human (and other animal) behavior operates in its environment and is guided by its consequences” (242).

Gallagher contends that composition’s resistance to work like Skinner’s was influenced by views like that of James A. Berlin, for whom behaviorism was aligned with “current-traditional rhetoric” because it was deemed an “objective rhetoric” that assumed that writing was merely the process of conveying an external reality (243). The “epistemic” focus and “social turn” that emerged in the 1980s, Gallagher writes, generated resistance to “individualism and empiricism” in general, leading to numerous critiques of what were seen as behaviorist impulses.

Gallagher attributes much tension over behaviorism in composition to the influx of government funding in the 1960s designed to “promote social efficiency through strategic planning and accountability” (248). At the same time that this funding rewarded technocratic expertise, composition focused on “burgeoning liberation movements”; in Gallagher’s view, behaviorism erred by falling on the “wrong” or “science side” of this divide (244). Gallagher chronicles efforts by the National Council of Teachers of English and various scholars to arrive at a “détente” that could embrace forms of accountability fueled by behaviorism, such as “behavioral objectives” (248), while allowing the field to “hold on to its humanist core” (249).

In Gallagher’s view, scholars who struggled to address behaviorism such as Lynn Z. and Martin Bloom moved beyond mechanistic models of learning to advocate many features of effective teaching recognized today, such as a resistance to error-oriented pedagogy, attention to process, purposes, and audiences, and provision of “regular, timely feedback” (245-46). Negative depictions of behaviorism, Gallagher argues, in fact neglect the degree to which, in such scholarship, behaviorism becomes “a social-process pedagogy” (244; emphasis original).

In particular, Gallagher argues that “the most controversial behaviorist figure in composition history,” Robert Zoellner (246), has been underappreciated. According to Gallagher, Zoellner’s “talk-write” pedagogy was a corrective for “think-write” models that assumed that writing merely conveyed thought, ignoring the possibility that writing and thinking could inform each other (246). Zoellner rejected reflex-driven behaviorism that predetermined stimulus-response patterns, opting instead for an operant model in which objectives followed from rather than controlled students’ behaviors, which should be “feely emitted” (Zoellner, qtd. in Gallagher 250) and should emerge from “transactional” relationships among teachers and students in a “collaborative,” lab-like setting in which teachers interacted with students and modeled writing processes (247).

The goal, according to Gallagher, was consistently to “help students develop robust repertoires of writing behaviors to help them adapt to the different writing situations in which they would find themselves” (247). Gallagher contends that Zoellner advocated teaching environments in which

[behavioral objectives] are not codified before the pedagogical interaction; . . . are rooted in the transactional relationship between teachers and students; . . . are not required to be quantifiably measurable; and . . . operate in a humanist idiom. (251).

Rejected in what Martin Nystrand denoted “the social 1980s” (qtd. in Gallagher 251), as funding for accountability initiatives withered (249), behaviorism did attract the attention of Mike Rose. His chapter in Why Writers Can’t Write and that of psychology professor Robert Boice attended to the ways in which writers relied on specific behaviors to overcome writer’s block; in Gallagher’s view, Rose’s understanding of the short-comings of overzealous behaviorism did not prevent him from taking “writers’ behaviors qua behaviors extremely seriously” (253).

The 1990s, Gallagher reports, witnessed a moderate revival of interest in Zoellner, who became one of the “unheard voices” featured in new histories of the field (254). Writers of these histories, however, struggled to dodge behaviorism itself, hoping to develop an empiricism that would not insist on “universal laws and objective truth claims” (255). After these efforts, however, Gallagher reports that the term faded from view, re-emerging only recently in Maja Joiwind Wilson’s 2013 dissertation as a “repressive” methodology exercised as a form of power (255).

In contrast to these views, Gallagher argues that “behavior should become a key term in our field” (257). Current pressures to articulate ways of understanding learning that will resonate with reformers and those who want to impose rigid measurements, he contends, require a vocabulary that foregrounds what writers actually do and frames the role of teachers as “help[ing] students expand their behavioral repertoires” (258; emphasis original). This vocabulary should emphasize the social aspects of all behaviors, thereby foregrounding the fluid, dynamic nature of learning.

In his view, such a vocabulary would move scholars beyond insisting that writing and learning “operate on a higher plane than that of mere behaviors”; instead, it would generate “better ways of thinking and talking about writing and learning behaviors” (257; emphasis original). He recommends, for example, creating “learning goals” instead of “outcomes” because such a shift discourages efforts to reduce complex activities to pre-determined, reflex-driven steps toward a static result (256). Scholars accustomed to a vocabulary of “processes, practices, and activities” can benefit from learning as well to discuss “specific, embodied, scribal behaviors” and the environments necessary if the benefits accruing to these behaviors are to be realized (258).


Leave a comment

Geiger II, T J. “Relational Labor” in Composition. CS, Sept. 2015. Posted 11/23/2015.

Geiger II, T J. “An Intimate Discipline? Writing Studies, Undergraduate Majors, and Relational Labor.” Composition Studies 43.2 (2015): 92-112. Web. 03 Nov. 2015.

T J Geiger II examines undergraduate writing majors as sites in which “relational labor” forms a large part of faculty activities and shapes student perceptions. He considers the possibility that, despite the tendency to view dedicated writing majors as a step toward disciplinary status, the centrality of relational labor to writing instruction may undercut this status. Further, he addresses the concern that support for writing majors may devalue writing instruction itself (94). He focuses on “what the field learns” about these concerns when it listens to students in these programs (98).

Through surveys and interviews with undergraduate majors in “independent writing programs” at a “Private Research University” and a private “Liberal Arts College” (98), Geiger establishes “relational labor” as work done between faculty and undergraduate writing majors in which the personal connections formed contribute to the students’ representations of their learning. The students discussed and quoted consider their relationships with faculty crucial to their “personal development” (“Mark,” qtd. in Geiger 99), which Geiger characterizes in this student’s case “as synonymous with writing development” (99; emphasis original). He argues that faculty attentiveness to the affective components of writing instruction provides students with a sense of a caring audience interested not just in conveying the technical aspects of writing but also in fostering the growth of “unique” individuals through social encounters (102):

Interactions with faculty, part of the context for writing, encourage not only writing majors’ literacy acquisition, but also a sense of themselves as individuals who matter, which in turn can fuel their capacity to take rhetorical action. (99)

Geiger develops this picture of faculty engaged in relational labor against a range of scholarship that has expressed concern about “the ideological complex that figures the composition teacher as a maid/mother disciplinarian,” a characterization he attributes to Susan Miller’s 1991 critique (106). Similarly, he addresses Kelly Ritter’s critique of a “gendered ideology of ‘help'” that Ritter sees as potentially “counterproductive to the discipline of composition studies as a whole” (qtd. in Geiger 106).

Geiger detects justification for these concerns in students’ use of terms like “lovely,” “nice,” and “help” in describing their interactions with faculty (106). His question is whether accepting the role of empathetic helper or the centrality to writing instruction of affective responsiveness necessarily restricts the field’s focus to the “teaching of writing” rather than “teaching about writing” (96; emphasis original).

These concerns accord with those expressed in a larger debate about whether the field should “distance” itself from the constraints that some see as imposed by first-year writing courses, concerns that Geiger notes are themselves broached in affective terms of escape and freedom, indicating that attention to “feeling” permeates all levels of the field (96).

Among the specific concerns that Geiger explores are the ways in which intensive interpersonal investment in students and their work can intersect with professional exigencies. He notes the Modern Language Association’s 2006 report, “Still Standing;: The Associate Professor Survey,” which finds that women in the field report marginally less time spent on research and marginally more on teaching than men; these small differences seem to add up over time to a slower path to promotion for female faculty (107-08). In addition, he addresses the possibility that students who cast faculty as empathetic helpers downplay their role as experts with valuable knowledge to convey (106).

In Geiger’s view, the disciplinary promise of a focus on “teaching about writing” need not be at odds with a pedagogy that values developmental relationships between faculty and students (109). He cites student responses that express appreciation not just for the personal interaction but also for the access to professional expertise provided by faculty during the interactions: He quotes “Jeremiah,” for whom “faculty in the writing program understand themselves as not just research producers, but also as people working with their students” (qtd. in Geiger 102). Indeed, Geiger claims, “students recognize the need for informed care” (108; emphasis original). Such an understanding on the part of students, Geiger argues, demonstrates that investment in a writing major need not crowd out pedagogical value (102), while, conversely, focus on the teaching of writing through an ideology of “care” need not interfere with more intensive study of writing as disciplinary content (107).

Students interviewed do recognize the professional burdens with which faculty must contend and value the personal investment some faculty are still able to make in students’ individual projects and growth (104); Geiger advocates for ongoing consideration of how this ubiquitous and clearly valued kind of labor “is distributed within a program and a writing major” (108).

In addition, Geiger argues that developing as writers through close working relationships with faculty instills in students an understanding of writing as a rhetorical process:

situated, not context-free; social, not solely personal; collaborative, not entirely individual; and (though less often) explicitly politically implicated, not neutral. (108)

Building on the collection by Greg A. Giberson and Thomas A. Moriarty, Geiger urges composition professionals to attend not just to “what we are becoming” (108; emphasis original) but also to “who . . . writing majors (i.e., students) are becoming” (109; emphasis original). Attention to the students’ own perceptions, he contends, provides informative indications of these attainments (109).


Walters, Shannon. Valuing ASD Students. RTE, May 2015. Posted 06/23/15.

Walters, Shannon. “Toward a Critical ASD Pedagogy of Insight: Teaching, Researching, and Valuing the Social Literacies of Neurodiverse Students.” Research in the Teaching of English 49.4 (2015): 340-60. Print.

Shannon Walters examines the experiences of students with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS students) and students on the Autism Spectrum (ASD students) in college writing classes. (She notes that many autistic people prefer the “identity-first rather than person-first language” [357n4] and uses this nomenclature throughout her article.) Walters argues that many of the difficulties these students face derive from the failure of educators to listen to them and incorporate their insights about themselves into classroom practice. A more productive learning environment for these students, Walters contends, will involve rejecting stereotypes, not least by redefining what is accepted as “social.”

Walters sees current research on the effects of autism on college students’ experiences as sparse, with what does exist seldom including the points of view of the AS and ASD individuals being studied (340-41). Problematic approaches in the education literature include a tendency for teachers who believe they have encountered autistic students to engage in diagnosis and discussion of the students without engaging the students themselves in exploring their needs and perceptions (341):

Discussions about ASD become stories about how teachers heroically accommodate students perceived as on the spectrum, rather than about how self-identified ASD students navigate largely neurotypical writing classrooms in the face of unacknowledged challenges. (341)

To address the lack of research that takes into account the actual voices of these students, Walters conducted a case study of two self-identified AS students enrolled in first-year writing classes in the program in which Walters taught. Walters provides a detailed account of her study design, including semi-structured interviews and coding, and her role as a researcher guided by the tenets of critical disability studies, which recognizes disability as a source of possibility and requires the recognition of people with disabilities as crucial agents in policies and conversations about them (342, 345). Such an approach, Walters argues, can lead teachers to “value writing practices and pedagogies that encourage socially neurodiverse ways of writing” (342). Valuing neurodiversity, in turn, leads to a recognition of disability as a source of “insight” (342). In service of this goal, the case studies asked how the students “characterized themselves as writers inside and outside of the classroom,” how they perceived their first-year courses, and what the decision to foreground their insights could tell educators about pedagogical best practices (343).

Although Walters’s student participants, Jen and Jon, both enjoyed writing extensively outside of the classroom. they “struggled” in their first-year writing courses (347). Jen took her course in a summer session, while Jon, who had been homeschooled since third-grade, took his individually in a modified format with a university teacher (345). Walters records each student’s definitions of “language” and “normal,” as well as their definitions of AS, which they consciously chose in contrast to what Walters describes as the tendency of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to “subsume AS into the broader category of ASD” (346). The definition of neurodiversity as “social acceptance of neurological difference as part of the broad landscape of human diversity,” from the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN), highlights the view that adhering to rigid definitions of “normal” that define difference as deficit precludes valuing the possibilities inherent in difference (346).

In Walters’s view, the “process or stage writing model” accepted widely by composition teachers did not serve the two students well. Jen found the pace of the summer course troubling and fell behind, although she ultimately passed. Jon resisted writing about issues that did not interest him and “just filling in details” as required by mandated revision (347-49). Walters argues that the process model labels different ways that individual students work as abnormal (349). She posits that her participants’ difficulties “differed not necessarily in kind but in degree” from those most students face (349).

To emphasize the degree to which the process model affects neurodiverse students’ activities as writers, Walters contrasts their struggles in the courses with the writing they enthusiastically pursue outside of the classroom. In each case, Walters explores how the students’ preferred writing activities functioned as the kinds of critical and social literacies composition teachers hope to encourage. Jen hosted both a private and a public blog addressing different audiences, wrote extensive fan fiction, and had made considerable progress on a novel (351, 354). Jon, who planned to major in geography, developed diverse community contacts “on his own terms” in order to create a local history and branch into a piece of historical fiction (352). Walters finds that the kinds of writing in which these students chose to invest their efforts and at which they succeeded did not meet what she views as the limited definitions of “social” and “critical” that governed classroom assignments (353-54). For example, Jen did not feel as if topics like anime, science fiction, and fantasy in which she was interested qualified as suitable for a rhetorical analysis of popular culture (354). Jon’s “lists of dates and maps” inspired his more extensive writing but, in Walters’s view, would not have been accepted as valid activities in a first-year writing class (355).

Both students, she argues, lived in rich social worlds that simply differed from those built into a process-model classroom. Thus, the perception that ASD students are “unconnected and asocial” did not capture these students’ achievements or personas (354). Not only did the students’ activities define them as good writers and demonstrate that they could interact with a range of audiences, recognizing the different uses of writing in different situations, their work also revealed their critical engagement with the power relationships embedded in the public conversation about AS and ASD, the kind of engagement called for by writing pedagogy (354). Walters recommends supporting the diverse ways that neurodiverse students meet the expectations of college writing courses, for example by a range of adjustments to the typical curriculum and scheduling of process pedagogy. Writing communities like Jen’s fan-fiction communities can become topics of discussion and study for students for whom they offer a more receptive writing environment (356). Instead of assuming that ASD students are limited in their abilities to respond socially, teachers can develop their own social responsiveness through activities like “rhetorical listening” (Ratcliffe, cited in Walters 357), which will foster the “social acceptance of neurological difference” (ASAN, qtd. in Walters 351), valuing rather than reshaping the particular forms of interaction and creativity that such students bring to writing classes.