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Schey and Blackburn. Queering Normative Literacy. RTE, Aug. 2019. Posted 10/16/2019.

Schey, Ryan, and Mollie Blackburn. “Queer Ruptures of Normative Literacy Practices: Toward Visualizing, Hypothesizing, and Empathizing.” Research in the Teaching of English 54.1 (2019): 58-80. Print.

Ryan Schey and Mollie Blackburn discuss a study of their students in an “arts-focused charter high school in a Midwestern city” (64) as the students responded to Steve Brezenoff’s novel Brooklyn, Burning. The course was an “LGBTQ-themed” (58) literature course for juniors and seniors (64). The authors argue that the book created “ruptures” of normative literary practices, highlighting how readers’ responses to these ruptures could either shut down discussion or provide opportunities for learning (59).

Schey and Blackburn detail their research methodology, in which they combined ethnography and teacher research (63). Schey acted as participant-observer while Blackburn conducted “practitioner inquiry,” designing curriculum and assessment procedures (64). Materials for analysis included curriculum documents and student work, as well as field notes, audio and video recordings, and entrance and exit interviews (67). Thirteen of the fourteen enrollees in the course participated. Schey positions himself as a “white straight cis man” and Blackburn identifies as a “white queer cis woman” (66). Both have extensive experience working in support of LGBTQ groups.

The authors differentiate between LGBT scholarship and queer theory. The former, they write, “tend[s] to characterize sexuality and gender as stable, using positivist and modernist lenses” (60). In contrast, queer studies “destabilize fixed notions of gender and sexuality” (60). The authors review a number of studies that they feel can endorse not only “heteronormativity” but also “homonormativity,” when “binary framings” lead to “oversimplification” of students’ perceptions of sexuality and gender (61).

Literacy, for these writers, is itself ideological, influenced by context and extant power relations; they discuss how differently a student might read a text with friends as opposed to under the scrutiny of teachers (61). Classroom power relations make some forms of literacy response “normative and dominant”; queer theorists like those reviewed by Schey and Blackburn attempt to disrupt such processes and open the way for alternatives (62).

Reading experiences that confront students with ruptures in their normalized expectations, in the authors’ view, force them to attend to inherent possibilities that are otherwise obscured (63). Rather than addressing confrontations with such ruptures as “individual cognitive experiences,” the authors argue for a perspective contextualized within a social environment, an approach that they write requires more attention to race than is often provided (62). They turn to R. A. Ferguson as a scholar who, by “vehemently den[ying] the discreteness of any category such as gender, sexuality or race” offers a lens through which students can encounter generative ruptures (63).

Arguing for their ethnographic approach as a means to address “oppressive power relations,” the authors write that of their thirteen students, one was “white and Asian,” while the rest were white (64). A chart classifies the students, with a caveat that the students’ gender and sexual identities were “mulitiple, variable, and fluid,” with some changing after the study ended. Five were straight and cis gendered; a gay trans man was not named in the study, while another woman identified as queer and another as a lesbian (65). Three of the named students are listed as fluid in gender.

Brezenoff’s book, Ryan and Blackburn contend, functions as queer in that the “ruptures” it creates resist normative modes of literacy. They follow a brief plot summary with the statement that the novel “queers gender . . . but it also queers sexuality, families and homes, and time” (66). The gender of two of the main characters cannot be ascertained, nor can their sexuality. The novel contrasts the heteronormative contexts from which these characters emerge with a context in which characters play changing roles as partners and caregivers; moreover, an unusual chronology defies attempts to impose “order and stability” (66).

In the introduction to the article, Brezenoff suggests that his work reacts to attempts to assign fixed gender and sexuality through stereotypical, sexist characteristics; the authors write that his refusal to gender the two characters “destabilized not only sexist practices and ideologies but also those grounded in cisnormativity” (59).

The authors recount classroom discussions in which students grappled with “seeing” versus “visualizing,” “understanding” versus “hypothesizing,” and “connecting” versus “empathizing.” Some students expressed frustration that Brezenoff’s handling of characters made it hard to “gaze directly at the characters and find them legible according to [their] normative definitions of gender and sexuality” (69). The authors contrast other students who used the textual ambiguity to “visualize alongside” the characters, as if “looking over [their] shoulders,” thereby adopting new perspectives (69). Ambiguity, one student suggests, invites more readers to identify with the characters because they can imagine different characteristics.

Similarly, some students wanted to understand definitive answers to questions raised by the text, such as the cause of a fire (71). The authors contrast this need with the willingness of other students to “hypothesize” alternatives in which concrete characteristics were seen as contextual and fluid rather than fixed in specific bodies (72). According to the authors, the need to reduce ruptures to “fixed, stable, and singular knowledge” cast ruptures as “problems” rather than as “expanded epistemological practices” that invited “different ideas through different pathways” (76).

The authors recount a single mention of race as a rupture students struggled to address. One of the more resistant students said that he could not deal with ambiguity in race along with his uncertainties about gender and sexuality (72-73). Other students explored various ways of finding empathy across what the authors see as “white homonormative interpretations” (73), but the bell rang and ended the discussion. In contrast, the authors argue that the book’s depiction of a character’s addiction encouraged students to visualize the addiction as only one part of the character’s situation, thus allowing them to empathize in ways a narrower portrayal would have curtailed (74-75). Schey and Blackburn contend that the ability of several students to connect with characters with addictions but not people of color reflects national attitudes that equate addiction with criminality in Black people but with illness in need of care in whites (76).

In the authors’ view, presenting students with texts that create ruptures in their normal reading processes imposes risks, but that such ruptures can become “opportunities” rather “obstacles,” means, they contend, that “reading with ruptures is a risk worth taking” (77).


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King, Carolyne M. Reading as Embodied Practice. Comp Studies, Spring 2019. Posted 09/16/2019.

King, Carolyne M. “The Reader in the Texbook: Embodied Materiality and Reading in the Writing Classroom.” Composition Studies 47.1 (2019): 95-115. Web. 09 Sept. 2019.

Carolyne M. King argues for increased attention to the material aspects of student interaction with texts as they read. In her view, helping students understand how their situated physicality shapes the reading experience will enhance their ability to create meaning (97). She contends that writing pedagogy, particularly as it addresses reading in a pair of widely used readers, takes only “limited” account of the material process of reading (96).

Examining references to reading in a range of textbooks, King notes that they encourage activities such as underlining and highlighting, as well as marginal annotation, but states that attention to the “bodily involvement” and “sensory aspects” of these behaviors is nonexistent (98). She maintains that the textbooks fall short, as well, in considering how different media affect students’ ability to follow standard advice about effective reading; even when new media are addressed, attention to these experiences “largely focuses on changing technologies, . . . subtly giv[ing] agency to literacy tools as they act upon the body” (98) rather than on how students’ meaning-making activities change.

King draws on research by Christina Haas, Kristie Fleckenstein, and Sondra Perl to ground the claim that context and physical involvement, such as Perl’s “felt sense,” affect how readers respond to and make use of texts (97). Disability studies extend this understanding by illustrating, in King’s view, how classroom practice often advances what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson calls a “normate,” defined in King’s words as “the physical manifestation of the collective, un-stigmatized characteristics of a culture” (101). Normates provide expectations about what students should be able to do with a text without regard for the differences in the lived experience of individual readers, for example projecting a textbook as “an object that all students can carry, hold, and read” (101). King finds textbooks a rich area for study of these expectations because they purport to “describe what students should do when reading” (101).

King develops her argument by analyzing two textbooks that focus on reading but are widely assigned in writing classes (102), Ways of Reading by David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky (Ways) and The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty, by Mariolina Salvatore and Patricia Donahue (Elements). As sources of “authoritative instruction in how students should read,” these books, in King’s view, provide opportunities to investigate how they further a normate treatment of the material features of reading (99; emphasis original).

An illustration demonstrates that the two books provide closely spaced text with narrow margins and minimal white space (103). King argues that such formatting choices make assumptions about a reader’s ability to focus on small text and discourage interaction other than underlining and highlighting (103). The texts do not suggest anticipation of a reader who might need a magnifying glass, for example, and could not take in the page “holistically,” as this format invites (104). King suggests that variations in font, unlike the uniform features of these texts, might encourage student awareness of how such features affect their engagement with a text (104).

For King, the metaphors the books use to describe reading also pay inadequate attention to the embodied aspects of interaction with a text. Ways calls reading a “conversation,” but, King argues, does not envision how different bodies might understand or participate in conversation differently and thus respond differently to the metaphor (105). Elements offers a “transaction” as its metaphor, using the embodied language of “voice” but, King contends, focusing on thinking, stating that “reading involves . . . thinking the thoughts of another, inhabiting someone else’s mind” (qtd. in King 105). King writes that readers cannot inhabit the minds of others whose minds may have been shaped by different material experiences (106). Both texts, she argues, portray a sense that “the body can be transcended” and that thinking can exist outside of situated individual realities (106).

She critiques the books’ use of “a real—not hypothetical—student to exemplify their ideal reading process and outcome” (106). The student narrative in Ways “is intended to describe the embodied experience of the common student,” but in order to do so, the authors refrain from naming the student or providing any physical detail of the student’s appearance or of his activities as he enacts the ideal process (107). Similarly, Elements presents a successful student who is given a name but no other identifying details, such as age, race, or college status; according to King, the student’s actual successful strategies are not shared (108).

King draws on other critiques of these narratives to argue that the students in question are presented as having successfully modeled “teacher-sanctioned practices” (108) that they found accessible because “the material conditions of their prior existence most closely align with the classroom” (109). King argues that differently embodied students might interact with the two texts very differently than the “idealized” students in the narratives (107); their different responses, attributable to their different lived realities, risk falling outside the normate established by the texts.

Contending that for students, “the body houses their sociocultural identity,” King suggests principles and strategies for making students more aware of how they physically interact with texts. Encouraging “multiple ways of knowing” (110) and a range of modes and physical activities such as playing with visual elements and fonts (111), King writes, can raise students’ awareness of how different texts make them feel and act, and help them locate their own most effective strategies for reading (112).

When our textbooks privilege a version of reading that is not embodied and which does not emphasize the materiality of reading, our classrooms actively construct barriers for students whose embodied, material realities do not reflect an assumed norm. (112)

 


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Worthy et al. Teacher Educators’ Perspectives on Dyslexia. RTE, Nov. 2018. Posted 01/05/2019.

Worthy, Jo, Catherine Lammert, Stacia L. Long, Cori Salmerón, and Vickie Godfrey. “‘What If We Were Committed to Giving Every Individual the Services and Opportunities They Need?’ Teacher Educators’ Understandings, Perspectives, and Practices Surrounding Dyslexia.” Research in the Teaching of English 53.2 (2018): 125-48. Print.

Jo Worthy, Catherine Lammert, Stacia L. Long, Cori Salmerón, and Vickie Godfrey discuss a study on approaches to dyslexia in teacher education. The authors note that while research has not been able to clearly define dyslexia or agree on an ideal intervention, many states are passing legislation that treats dyslexia as a specific condition with specific treatment protocols (125).

Worthy et al. address the discourse surrounding dyslexia through the Bakhtinian categories of “ideological becoming” and “internally persuasive discourse” as opposed to Bakhtin’s understanding of “authoritative discourse” (AD) (126). “AD” consists of dicta handed down by those claiming expertise; it tends to take over conversations and silence those it does not credential to speak (127). In the authors’ view, AD surrounding dyslexia is based on a medical model in which dyslexia is a narrowly defined “deficit,” which is described in medical terms and which can only be treated by those specifically trained to do so (127). This discourse, the authors state, views educators as inadequately informed and unqualified to deal with students diagnosed with the condition (130).

The authors, in contrast, address the issue through the “field of disability studies in education,” which sees “variation among learners as natural,” as well as “socially constructed” and influenced by “context and social interactions, as well as social, political, and historical systems and discourse” (127). “DisCrit” scholars or those practicing “disability critical race studies” further note the degree to which matters of “race, class, privilege, and power” affect how labels are assigned and addressed (126; 127-28).

Surveying research in dyslexia studies, the authors note that none of the “top 10 most published authors, . . . none were educators” (126). According to Worthy et al., research has failed to find any specific causal or measurable factor that separates students believed to be dyslexic from other students in the reading continuum (128). Brain imaging studies have thus far been inconclusive (129).

Worthy et al. report consensus that “there is no best method for teaching reading” (128), yet many state legislatures have mandated specific treatments like the Orton-Gillingham program (O-G), even though its “multisensory” processes have not been shown to be effective (130). Programs that focus primarily on decoding, the authors state, also show little effect in themselves (130) and should be part of, rather than the core of, “comprehensive, meaning-based reading instruction” (129).

Worthy et al. position themselves as experienced public-school teachers and teacher-educators who began to question the current discourse on dyslexia when it failed to jibe with their own experiences. They began to find similar discomfort with the AD surrounding dyslexia among students and colleagues (130-31). For their study, they recruited 21 women and 4 men from a range of universities in Texas; the participants, who had many levels of experience both as teachers and as teacher-educators, engaged in semi-structured interviews (131). The authors explain their coding process, which yielded three “a priori” categories and three “inductive” categories (132).

“A priori” categories were “definitions and understanding about dyslexia”; “compliance with dyslexia policies”; and “confidence about dyslexia” (132). The researchers found that their interview subjects reflected the conflict between the AD of dyslexia and a more questioning stance that recognized that research did not provide the same degree of certainty as the prevalent AD (133). The participants reported increased official attention to the question of dyslexia and increased oversight of curricula (134). They reported complying with mandates but, in some cases, “present[ing] the state’s information about dyslexia with a broader discussion of struggle and literacy, where they could contextualize and complicate it” (134).

Participant response regarding “confidence about dyslexia” varied, with five of the educators “express[ing] unqualified confidence” in their ability to address the condition. The authors characterize the “remaining educators” as questioning their own experience in light of the dominant discourse (135); these teacher-educators “stopped short” of claiming they were prepared to work with students identified with the condition (135).

“Inductive analysis” of the interviews (136) led to three categories: teacher-educators’ expertise in teaching reading; their responses to AD; and their use of “critical perspectives” (132). Participants shared a belief that teaching reading should be an observation- and assessment-based, individualized process (136-37). In this view, decoding was important but only as part of a curriculum that engaged students in the whole process of reading (136). New teachers, the educators agreed, would benefit from a “more nuanced perspective” that would allow them to recognize their own ability to teach reading across many skills levels (137).

Participants challenged “the vague definition and subjective identification procedures” (137) that most felt led to “overidentification” and to early labeling that called for unnecessary interventions (138). Some felt that the dyslexia label could remove a stigma from reading difficulties; others saw being labeled as conveying a judgment of “something wrong” (138). The teacher-educators questioned the efficacy of programs like the O-G method that foreground “skill work” and interventions that remove students from classrooms to receive instruction characterized by “a lack of alignment” with classroom work (140). The authors note that these views accord with DisCrit analysis that favors “inclusion” rather than “segregation,” which AD seems to advocate (140).

Challenges to the exclusion of educator voices informed participants’ critical perspectives, with one respondent calling the medical community’s adherence to medical models “cult-like” (“Patrice,” qtd. in Worthy et al. 141). Participants noted that the problematic claim that dyslexic readers were highly creative and intelligent has actually made the label desirable for more affluent parents, with dyslexia “the socially acceptable learning disability” (141) that can shield children from “probable consequences of low achievement” (142). According to “Marty,” discrimination in labeling results in the view that “White kids are dyslexic. Black kids are stupid” (qtd. in Worthy et al. 142).

The authors argue that despite being positioned by the current AD as unqualified to teach students with identified reading disabilities, the teacher-educators they surveyed “are more than qualified—by virtue of their preparation and experience—to teach reading to all children” (142). They advocate for the role these educators can play in helping their preservice teaching students negotiate the rigid political landscape they will encounter when they take their knowledge about teaching reading into the schools (143).

Worthy et al. also recommend that proponents of critical perspectives adjust their use of jargon to communicate with wide audiences rather than falling back on a “righteous authority” of their own (144). Their hope is that research and practice in teaching reading can align more comprehensively, drawing on the contributions of classroom educators to complicate what they see as an ineffective, limited approach to the wide range of variation in children’s paths toward reading skill.


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Sweeney, Meghan A. Audience Awareness as a Threshold Concept. RTE, Aug. 2018. Posted 09/18/2018.

Sweeney, Meghan A. “Audience Awareness as a Threshold Concept of Reading: An Examination of Student Learning in Biochemistry.” Research in the Teaching of English 53.1 (2018): 58-79. Print.

Meghan A. Sweeney presents a case study of a basic-writing student, “Bruce,” who grapples with a composition “threshold concept,” audience awareness. The study tracks Bruce across a three-course composition sequence in his first semester, then through his second-semester work in a research-based composition course as well as biochemistry and chemistry classes in support of his planned major, anesthesiology (64). Sweeney argues that Bruce moved from a “pre-liminal” through a “liminal” phase to end with a “post-liminal” relationship to the concept of audience awareness.

The composition sequence emphasized college reading, which Sweeney finds to be undertheorized in writing instruction (58). Sweeney explores scholarship in disciplinarity to suggest that the development of effective reading practices is important to students’ ability to move beyond the writing classroom and enter “communities of practice,” which P. Prior defines as “a continual process whereby newcomers and old-timers reproduce and produce themselves, their practices, and their communities” (59).

J. Lave and E. Wenger, studying these phenomena, see them “as a set of relations among persons, activity, and world, over time and in relation to other communities of practice” (qtd. in Sweeney 61). Lave and Wenger propose the category of “legitimate peripheral participation” to characterize how students begin their acculturation into such disciplinary sociocultural environments (61).

In studying Bruce’s progress as he approaches the community of practice he intends to enter, Sweeney also draws on the “academic literacies approach,” which emphasizes the ways in which entry into a community of practice involves changes in identity as students begin to see themselves as members of new groups (60). Among the challenges this shift entails are those of transferring practices and concepts from more general academic work to the specialized requirements of the new environment (60-61).

Sweeney’s study examines how such foundational concepts function as students carry them beyond composition. She discusses “threshold concepts” as those that are “potentially transformative” in that, once students grasp them, they begin to think in new ways characteristic of the community of practice in question (63). She gives “opportunity costs” as an example of such a concept in economics (63), advocating more attention to how students introduced to composition’s threshold concepts use these concepts as they transfer their learning into new communities (63).

At the large public research university in the western U.S. where the study was conducted, students deemed underprepared take a semester-long three-course integrated reading and writing combination including “a three-unit composition intensive,” a reading course, and an editing-for-style course (64) before moving on to a second-semester composition course. Sweeney characterizes Bruce, a first-generation Korean American student from a working-class background, as “highly motivated” (64). She quotes B. Flyvbjerg to argue that an atypical subject like Bruce may “reveal more information because they activate more actors and more basic mechanisms in the situation studied” (qtd. in Sweeney 64).

Sweeney observed both Bruce’s second-semester writing course and two sessions of his lecture-style chemistry class, taking notes on Bruce’s involvement and on the ways in which the professors presented the material relevant to their fields (65). Her data collection also included “four semi-structured” interviews in which Bruce provided insights into his reading practices and use of rhetorical concepts across the different classes (65).

Data from Bruce’s work in the first-semester composition combination leads Sweeney to argue that when he entered the sequence, he limited his reading response to summary, failing to engage with audience questions (66). She writes that as the semester progressed, he encountered discussions and readings about how writers differ depending on their situated practice and membership within a field. This exposure, Sweeney writes, triggered Bruce’s deepening attention to audience, and by the end, he

had begun to visualize other readers of his texts, to expect writers to influence others through rhetorical choices, and to expect audiences to keep an open mind while still maintaining an awareness of the choices made. (67-68)

The author describes Bruce’s progress to this point as a transition from “a pre-liminal space” in which the “troublesome” threshold concept of audience awareness posed challenges (67) to a “liminal” phase (68) in which a learner recursively “engages with [the] threshold concept but oscillates between old and emergent ideas” (62).

Sweeney contends that in his second semester, Bruce’s experiences in chemistry and biochemistry classes completed his movement into a “post-liminal” engagement with audience awareness in his new community of practice and with the identity formation involved in this engagement (68). Noting that Bruce learned quickly what information was important to the professor and adjusted his reading strategies accordingly, Sweeney records such moves as the professor’s references to “we” in lecturing, inviting students to see themselves as community members (69).

In biochemistry, Bruce worked with a lab mentor; Sweeney finds it crucial that Bruce recognized that he was not the audience for the technical papers he was asked to read. That realization pushed him to do independent research on Google and other less-advanced sources to develop his acculturation into “biochem jargon” (69).

Sweeney draws on Bruce’s final paper for the course as evidence of his post-liminal growth: she indicates that his exposure to audience awareness in his composition class meant that he “expected a critical reader” (71) and paid attention to the details that would demonstrate to the professor that he had been a strong participant in the class. At the same time, Sweeney notes, Bruce saw the details as “necessary for other scientists who might want to replicate his experiment” (72). Thus he was writing for “dual audiences” but with full awareness of his own standing as a peripheral participant (72). In Sweeney’s view, Bruce’s transformational relationship with audience was further evinced by his assertion that even experts did not read as doubters when encountering new information, and that therefore his strategy of reading new material for comprehension rather than as a critic was appropriate for his early work in science (70).

Sweeney’s study suggests that for students like Bruce who have been deemed underprepared, awareness of audience may drive them to accept this designation (74). She proposes that for Bruce, his struggles to enter the biochemistry community in the light of this designation may have been “generative” because they pushed him to assert agency by developing effective personal reading strategies (76). She argues that actively teaching audience awareness in early composition courses, in contrast to models that assume students will acquire disciplinary identities through “apprenticeship,” can give students a more productive understanding of how they can begin to relate to the communities of practice they hope to enter (75).


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Del Principe and Ihara. Reading in Community Colleges. TETYC, Dec. 2017. Posted 01/25/2017.

Del Principe, Annie, and Rachel Ihara. “A Long Look at Reading in the Community College: A Longitudinal Analysis of Student Reading Experiences.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 45.2 (2017): 183-206. Print.

Annie Del Principe and Rachel Ihara conducted a longitudinal study of students’ reading experiences in a community-college setting from spring 2011 to spring 2013 (186). Their goal was to understand what kinds of reading students encountered in the community college and how the students responded to and negotiated the reading requirements.

Del Principe and Ihara compare their study with the longitudinal study detailed in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roska. Arum and Roska examined student experiences at four-year colleges, contending that students showed very little intellectual growth through their college careers (183). Del Principe and Ihara note that rather than address intellectual issues, questions about the community-college experience are more often framed around “numerical” concerns such as retention and graduate rates. In contrast, they intend their study to address the “quality” of the two-year-college experience as illuminated through students’ reading practices (183).

The authors summarize findings of three other longitudinal studies focusing on reading, all done at four-year institutions. Two examined reading trajectories of single students at private institutions, both researchers finding that the students’ reading strategies became more “sophisticated” as they advanced in specific majors (184). A study of two students at a public research university captured these students’ experiences in “a variety of humanities classes,” revealing that the students lacked the preparation and guidance to manage the “prodigious reading required” in this environment (185). Both of these subjects dropped out of college (186).

In comparison, Del Principe and Ihara studied five students who, while similar demographically and in terms of academic background to the general community-college population, were “fairly successful students by most academic measures,” four of them completing associates’ degrees within three years; all transferred to four-year colleges (187). The authors collected “many pages of artifacts” from these students and conducted 23 hours of semi-structured interviews across the students’ entire career at their large East-Coast institution (185), using D. Jean Clandinin and F. Michael Connelly’s “narrative inquiry” method to assess how the students’ stories of their experiences changed over time (187).

Originally Del Principe and Ihara recruited ten students, four who tested into developmental sections and six who were placed into Composition I. However, five students, including three of the developmental recruits, failed to complete the study. The authors note, therefore, that because only one of the remaining students began with remedial coursework, they were unable to build a representative picture of the community-college population and consequentially limited their claims (187). They do contend that their subjects were “not exceptional students” and that their accounts of their reading experiences shed light on the practices of students who do successfully negotiate the community-college environment (187).

Del Principe and Ihara report the individual “reading narratives” of their five subjects, framing them with claims by Arum and Roska that in four-year institutions, the “selectivity” of the institution seemed to affect whether or not students did extensive or demanding reading (185). Further, the authors invoked data from a study by the National Center for Education and the Economy that found that in two-year colleges, reading and writing requirements were “not very cognitively challenging,” and expectations for student performance, including the ability to analyze and evaluate information, were low (185).

In order to interpret their data against these claims, Del Principe and Ihara drew on “[John] Dewey’s concepts of continuity and interaction of experience,” which defined “continuity” as the way that an experience related to other experiences that occurred before and after, and “interaction” as the nature of the context in which the specific experience occurred (188; emphasis original). According to Del Principe and Ihara, this theoretical framework allows an investigator to determine whether a set of experiences “promote[s] and open[s] up new possibilities for growth . . . rather than distort[s] and shut[s] down growth” (189). The authors contend that educators have the obligation to attend to, in Dewey’s words, “what attitudes and habitual tendencies are being created” in order to choose pedagogies that promote growth (qtd. in Del Principe and Ihara 189).

The reading narratives indicate that many teachers assigned reading and required textbooks, but most supplied PowerPoint notes, tested mainly on material covered in class, and did not follow up or assess students’ reading. The narratives led the authors to claim that “often reading isn’t truly ‘required’ in [the] classes and it’s possible for a student to get by, even succeed . . . without doing any/much assigned reading” (200-01). Two of their study students wished for more rigorous reading, while the other three, in two cases because of taxing work schedules, “were often relieved rather than disappointed,” to find that they didn’t have to read (201).

Del Principe and Ihara contrast what they found to be “practical and reasonable reactions” to the community-college environment with the trajectories of the private-institution students studied by other researchers; the four-year students, Del Principe and Ihara report, improved as readers as they advanced in their majors, while the community-college students improved in that they “develop[ed] more appropriate, efficient, and effective ways of reading” that allowed them to apportion their time more strategically (201).

The analysis suggests that students tend to take reading somewhat more seriously in courses in their majors than they do in required general education courses (202). Moreover, the narratives indicate that the only courses in which reading was consistently valued and assessed were the composition courses; the authors posit that the “content” instructors may have prioritized other components of the courses (204).

In their cross-case analysis the authors posit that some factors in the community-college environment limit instructors’ ability to focus on reading. Lower reading proficiency in the student population might mean that basing grades on careful reading would affect retention rates (202). Furthermore, assessing reading skills may be prohibitively time-consuming in an environment in which instructor workloads are already high, especially in content courses with high enrollment caps (204).

Borrowing Jean Anyon’s idea of a “hidden curriculum” that students absorb through the way a class is conducted, the authors return to Dewey’s concept of continuity in learning to maintain that students are acquiring “attitudes and habitual tendencies” that are not conducive to growth as Dewey defined it (203). Del Principe and Ihara’s discovery that the attention to reading that occurs early in students’ academic careers in their composition classes is “not continuous with the arc of students’ reading experiences” as they continue their community-college careers (205). In their view, composition scholars might usefully ask “whom and what we intend to serve by teaching reading” in an environment in which the hidden curriculum defines reading as an unnecessary skill (205; emphasis original).


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Del Principe and Ihara. Reading at a Community College. TETYC, Mar. 2016. Posted 04/10/2016.

Del Principe, Annie, and Rachel Ihara. “‘I Bought the Book and I Didn’t Need It’: What Reading Looks Like at an Urban Community College.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 43.3 (2016): 229-44. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.

Annie Del Principe and Rachel Ihara conducted a qualitative study of student reading practices at Kingsborough Community College, CUNY. They held interviews and gathered course materials from ten students over the span of the students’ time at the college between fall 2011 and fall 2013, amassing “complete records” for five (231). They found a variety of definitions of acceptable reading practices across disciplines; they urge English faculty to recognize this diversity, but they also advocate for more reflection from faculty in all academic subject areas on the purposes of the reading they assign and how reading can be supported at two-year colleges (242).

Four of the five students who were intensively studied placed into regular first-year composition and completed Associates’ degrees while at Kingsborough; the fifth enrolled in a “low-level developmental writing class” and transferred to a physician’s assistant program at a four-year institution in 2015 (232). The researchers’ inquiry covered eighty-three different courses and included twenty-three hours of interviews (232).

The authors’ review of research on reading notes that many different sources across institutions and disciplines see difficulty with reading as a reason that students often struggle in college. The authors recount a widespread perception that poor preparation, especially in high school, and students’ lack of effort is to blame for students’ difficulties but contend that the ways in which faculty frame and use reading also influence how students approach assigned texts (230). Faculty, Del Principe and Ihara write, often do not see teaching reading as part of their job and opt for modes of instruction that convey information in ways that they perceive as efficient, such as lecturing extensively and explaining difficult texts rather than helping students work through them (230).

A 2013 examination of seven community colleges in seven states by the National Center for Education and the Economy (NCEE) reported that the kinds of reading and writing students do in these institutions “are not very cognitively challenging”; don’t require students “to do much” with assigned reading; and demand “performance levels” that are only “modest” (231). This study found that more intensive work on analyzing and reflecting on texts occurred predominately in English classes (231). The authors argue that because community-college faculty are aware of the problems caused by reading difficulties, these faculty are “constantly experimenting” with strategies for addressing these problems; this focus, in the authors’ view, makes community colleges important spaces for investigating reading issues (231).

Del Principe and Ihara note that in scholarship by Linda Adler-Kassner and Heidi Estrem and by David Jolliffe as well as in the report by NCEE, the researchers categorize the kinds of reading students are asked to do in college (232-33). The authors state that their “grounded theory approach” (232) differs from the methods in these works in that they

created categories based on what students said about how they used reading in their classes and what they did (or didn’t do) with the assigned reading rather than on imagined ways of reading or what was ostensibly required by the teacher or by the assignment. (233).

This methodology produced “five themes”:

  • “Supplementing lecture with reading” (233). Students reported this activity in 37% of the courses examined, primarily in non-English courses that depended largely on lecture. Although textbooks were assigned, students received most of the information in lectures but turned to reading to “deepen [their] understanding ” or for help if the lecture proved inadequate in some way (234).
  • “Listening and taking notes as text” (233). This practice, encountered in 35% of the courses, involved situations in which a textbook or other reading was listed on the syllabus but either implicitly or explicitly designated as “optional.” Instructors provided handouts or PowerPoint outlines; students combined these with notes from class to create de facto “texts” on which exams were based. According to Del Principe and Ihara, “This marginalization of long-form reading was pervasive” (235).
  • “Reading to complete a task” (233). In 24% of the courses, students reported using reading for in-class assignments like lab reports or quizzes; in one case, a student described a collaborative group response to quizzes (236). Other activities included homework such as doing math problems. Finally, students used reading to complete research assignments. The authors discovered very little support for or instruction on the use and evaluation of materials incorporated into research projects and posit that much of this reading may have focused on “dubious Internet sources” and may have included cut-and-paste (237).
  • “Analyzing text” (233). Along with “reflecting on text,” below, this activity occurred “almost exclusively” in English classes (238). The authors describe assignments calling for students to attend to a particular line or idea in a text or to compare themes across texts. Students reported finding “on their own” that they had to read more slowly and carefully to complete these tasks (238).
  • “Reflecting on text” (233). Only six of the 83 courses asked students to “respond personally” to reading; only one was not an English course (239). The assignments generally led to class discussion, in which, according to the students, few class members participated, possibly because “Nobody [did] the reading” (student, qtd. in Del Principe and Ihara 239; emendation original).

Del Principe and Ihara focus on the impact of instructors’ “following up” on their assignments with activities that “require[d] students to draw information or ideas directly from their own independent reading” (239). Such follow-up surfaced in only fourteen of the 83 classes studied, with six of the fourteen being English classes. Follow-up in English included informal responses and summaries as well as assigned uses of outside material in longer papers, while in courses other than English, quizzes or exams encouraged reading (240). The authors found that in courses with no follow-up, “students typically did not do the reading” (241).

Del Principe and Ihara acknowledge that composition professionals will find the data “disappointing,” but feel that it’s important not to be misdirected by a “specific disciplinary lens” into dismissing the uses students and other faculty make of different kinds of reading (241). In many classes, they contend, reading serves to back up other kinds of information rather than as the principle focus, as it does in English classes. However, they do ask for more reflection across the curriculum. They note that students are often required to purchase expensive books that are never used. They hope to trigger an “institutional inquiry” that will foster more consideration of how instructors in all fields can encourage the kinds of reading they want students to do (242).


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Sweeney, Meghan A., and Maureen McBride. “Difficulty Papers” as Insights into Students’ Reading Practices. CCC, June 2015. Posted 07/06/2015.

Sweeney, Meghan A., and Maureen McBride. “Difficulty Paper (Dis)Connections: Understanding the Threads Students Weave between Their Reading and Writing.” College Composition and Communication 66.4 (2015): 591-614. Print.

Meghan A. Sweeney and Maureen McBride, collaborating as teacher-researchers, explain the use of “difficulty papers” to investigate the problems students experience as they try to read complex materials. Designed by Carnegie Scholar Mariolina Salvatori, the difficulty-paper assignment asks students to explore in writing the components of the reading experience that interfered with their comprehension and engagement. Sweeney and McBride posit that the “mismatch” (595) between what students are told about effective writing in their writing courses and the practices of the writers of the “difficult” essays leads to struggles as the students try to navigate the complex texts.

Sweeney and McBride note a movement toward reconsidering reading as it affects writing in composition studies (391). In their book The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty, Salvatori and co-author Patricia Donahue propose that uniting attention to reading and writing through students’ self-reflection on their own experiences will increase “metacognitive reading awareness” (593). Sweeney and McBride contend that such practices will give teachers insight into better methods for encouraging critical reading (593).

They used the assignment in a “new critical reading course at a midsize four-year public university,” where students also took a course in composition and one in “editing-for-style” (593). The authors share the reading-course outcomes, which centered around developing students’ abilities to interact productively with a range of texts; the course textbook, M. Neil Browne and Stuart Keeley’s Asking the Right Questions, addressed various aspects of critical thinking. The authors used “grounded-theory method” to assess 209 difficulty papers over two years. This methodology involved withholding the development of a theory until data had been collected, coded, and categorized. Reading and rereading the papers and discussing their process, Sweeney and McBride reduced the categories of student comments from fifteen to five to one: “mismatch between expectations of readers and writers” (595; emphasis original). They found that two of the readings, Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker essay “Offensive Play” and Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” yielded the “strongest examples and individually highlighted certain subcategories of difficulties” (595). The students’ difficulty papers addressed their experiences reading these texts (593-95).

In reading the Gladwell essay, which discussed brain trauma in football through analogous discussions of dogfighting, students reported that the characteristics of the essay that most impeded their understanding and engagement were Gladwell’s nonlinear organizational strategy, his failure to make his thesis explicit, and his inclusion of extensive detail. The students expected clear, visible transitions explaining the connections between paragraphs and topics ( 596-98); they expressed “anxiety” when they couldn’t immediately discern the purpose of the article (598-99); and in their words, found the supporting “statistics and facts” both “boring” and “off topic” (599-600).

Students responding to “A Modest Proposal” struggled with vocabulary, finding that having to look up words distracted them and that using context to define words was problematic (601-02). Swift’s use of satire also stymied students, who tried to draw on their own experiences to understand Swift’s purpose (602-03). The clash with the instruction they had previously received and were receiving in writing classes led to problems negotiating Swift’s organization: Students tended to read the essay as a model and tried to align it with schemas with which they were familiar, becoming frustrated as well because Swift’s punctuation practices did not match what they had come to see as correct (603-04). In analyzing their problems engaging with the text, the students revealed expectations that, in the words of one, “The story’s job is to captivate the reader, and make them interested as the story goes on” (605). Similarly, objections to the length of the piece led Sweeney and McBride to conclude that students’ classroom experiences had led them to believe that reading should be easy, and that making it easy is the writer’s task (606). Students came to the reading experience with the impression that writing and reading should function similarly, with reading not imposing any additional challenges (606, 607).

In their discussion, Sweeney and McBride highlight the difficulties students faced in trying to make “cultural connection[s]” with readings that did not immediately resonate with their worlds or selves. This difficulty persisted despite class discussion of the context and history reflected in the pieces. They emphasize again that students assess what they read in light of the instruction that they have received as writers, sometimes taking on a teacherly tone in advising the authors about their perceived weaknesses (607). An important recommendation that emerges from the study is the need for teachers to explain much more clearly why students are being asked to read a particular piece and how that reading experience will relate to their own writing (608). Teachers can also be more alert to the tensions set up by different reasons for reading: rhetorical analysis, critical analysis, or “reading-to-write,” and can clarify what to ask students to attend to (608). They contend that the insights provided by the “difficulty paper” assignment allow them to share with students more fully the complexities of the writer/reader relationship as students compose different kinds of writing (609-10); the exercise enabled them, as teachers, to recognize the need for more explicit guidance as they ask students to engage with unfamiliar, complex texts.