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Donahue & Foster-Johnson. Text Analysis for Evidence of Transfer. RTE, May 2018. Posted 07/13/2018.

Donahue, Christiane, and Lynn Foster-Johnson. “Liminality and Transition: Text Features in Postsecondary Student Writing.” Research in the Teaching of English 52.4 (2018): 359-381. Web. 4 July 2018.

Christiane Donahue and Lynn Foster-Johnson detail a study of student writing in the “liminal space” between a “generic” first-year-writing course and a second, “discipline-inspired” first-year seminar (365). They see their study as unusual in that it draws its data and conclusions from empirical “corpus analysis” of the texts students produce (376-77). They also present their study as different from much other research in that it considered a “considerably larger” sample that permits them to generalize about the broader population of the specific institution where the study took place (360).

The authors see liminal spaces as appropriate for the study of the issue usually referred to as “transfer,” which they see as a widely shared interest across composition studies (359). They contend that their study of “defined features” in texts produced as students move from one type of writing course to another allows them to identify “just-noticeable difference[s]” that they believe can illuminate how writing develops across contexts (361).

The literature review examines definitions of liminality as well as wide-ranging writing scholarship that attempts to articulate how knowledge created in one context changes as it is applied in new situations. They cite Linda Adler-Kassner’s 2014 contention that students may benefit from “learning strategy rather than specific writing rules or forms,” thus developing the ability to adapt to a range of new contexts (362).

One finding from studies such as that of Lucille McCarthy in 1987 and Donahue in 2010 is that while students change the way they employ knowledge as they move from first to final years of education, they do not seem fully aware of how their application of what they know has changed (361-62). Thus, for Donahue and Foster-Johnson, the actual features detectable in the texts themselves can be illuminating in ways that other research methodologies may not (362, 364).

Examining the many terms that have been used to denote “transfer,” Donahue and Foster-Johnson advocate for “models of writing knowledge reuse” and “adaptation,” which capture the recurrence of specific features and the ways these features may change to serve a new exigency (364).

The study took place in a “selective” institution (366) defined as a “doctoral university of high research activity” (365). The student population is half White, with a diverse range of other ethnicities, and 9% first-generation college students (366). Students take either one or two sections of general first-year writing, depending on needs identified by directed self-placement (366), and a first-year seminar that is “designed to teach first-year writing while also introducing students to a topic in a particular (inter)discipline and gesturing toward disciplinary writing” (365). The authors argue that this sequence provides a revealing “’bridge’ moment in students’ learning” (365).

Students were thus divided into three cohorts depending on which courses they took and in which semester. Ninety percent of the instructors provided materials, collecting “all final submitted drafts of the first and last ‘source-based’ papers” for 883 students. Fifty-two papers from each cohort were randomly chosen, resulting in 156 participants (366-67). Each participating student’s work was examined at four time points, with the intention of identifying the presence or absence of specific features (368).

The features under scrutiny were keyed to faculty-developed learning outcomes for the courses (367-68). The article discusses the analysis of seven: thesis presence, thesis type, introduction type, overall text structure, evidence types, conclusion type, and overall essay purpose (367). Each feature was further broken down into “facets,” 38 in all, that illustrated “the specific aspects of the feature” (367-68).

The authors provide detailed tables of their results and list findings in their text. They report that “the portrait is largely one of stability,” but note students’ ability to vary choices “when needed” (369). Statistically significant differences showing “change[s] across time” ranged from 13% in Cohort 1 to 29% in Cohort 2 and 16% in Cohort 3. An example of a stable strategy is the use of “one explicit thesis at the beginning” of a paper (371); a strategy “rarely” used was “a thesis statement [placed] inductively at the middle or end” (372). Donahue and Foster-Johnson argue that these results indicate that students had learned useful options that they could draw on as needed in different contexts (372).

The authors present a more detailed examination of the relationship between “thesis type” and “overall essay aim” (374). They give examples of strong correlations between, for example, “the purpose of analyzing an object” and the use of “an interpretive thesis” as well as negative correlations between, for example, “the purpose of analyzing an object” and “an evaluative thesis” (374). In their view, these data indicate that some textual features are “congruen[t]” with each other while others are “incompatible” (374). They find that their textual analysis documents these relationships and students’ reliance on them.

They note a “reset effect”: in some cases, students increased their use of a facet (e.g., “external source as authority”) over the course of the first class, but then reverted to using the facet less at the beginning of the second class, only to once again increase their reliance on such strategies as the second class progressed (374-75), becoming, “‘repeating newcomers’ in the second term” (374).

Donahue and Foster-Johnson propose as one explanation for the observed stability the possibility that “more stays consistent across contexts than we might readily acknowledge” (376), or that in general-education contexts in which exposure to disciplinary writing is preliminary, the “boundaries we imagine are fuzzy” (377). They posit that it is also possible that curricula may offer students mainly “low-road” opportunities for adaptation or transformation of learned strategies (377). The authors stress that in this study, they were limited to “what the texts tell us” and thus could not speak to students’ reasons for their decisions (376).

Questions for future research, they suggest, include whether students are aware of deliberate reuse of strategies and whether or not “students reusing features do so automatically or purposefully” (377). Research might link student work to particular students with identifiers that would enable follow-up investigation.

They argue that compared to the methods of textual analysis and “topic-modeling” their study employs, “current assessment methods . . . are crude in their construct representation and antiquated in the information they provide” (378). They call for “a new program of research” that exploits a new

capability to code through automated processes and allow large corpora of data to be uploaded and analyzed rapidly under principled categories of analysis. 378


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Brearey, Oliver. Two-semester Sequence for FYW. TETYC, March 2015. Posted 05/12/15.

Brearey, Oliver. “Understanding the Relationship between First- and Second-Semester College Writing Courses.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 42.3 (2015): 244-63. Web. 23 Apr. 2015.

Oliver Brearey contends that escalating pressures from such initiatives as competency-based education and the Common Core State Standards risk putting composition scholars and instructors in a “reactionary position” (245); proponents of such initiatives propose standardizing college writing and linking it with outcomes developed outside the university, forcing writing professionals to defend the diverse practices and structures that currently characterize college writing curricula (244-45). For Brearey, clarifying the relationship between first-year writing and writing at other academic levels can allow compositionists to demonstrate the coherence of and need for college writing curricula designed in the service of a rhetorical education as imagined by David Fleming in his 2003 essay, “Becoming Rhetorical: An Education in the Topics” (257).

Brearey especially focuses on the two-semester first-year sequence. His article examines the relationship between these two courses, culminating in proposed “composite description and competency documents” for first- and second-semester writing courses that can serve as “a set of reference materials” for faculty and administrators who may find that broad guidelines help them locate their own local curricula in a broader context (247). This need is particularly intense, he contends, for two-year colleges, which may feel especially strong pressure to streamline their curricula in the name of efficiency (245).

Brearey sees the NCTE/NWP “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing” and the “WPA Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition” as initial steps in responding to such pressures, but feels that they, as well as the extant literature on outcomes and writing curricula, fall short of providing the necessary guidance for programs developing a two-course FY sequence and needing to demonstrate the efficacy of such a sequence. Such documents, Brearey contends, see responsibility for designing and articulating the courses as a local responsibility and thus fail to specify how the outcomes can be effectively achieved through choices in course design (248). Other sources similarly fail to offer adequate blueprints for how concepts and learning activities can be ordered and articulated (248). A comprehensive overview of how the two first-year courses can complement each other, moreover, allows educators to tie such introductory courses into “vertical curricula” of writing courses beyond first-year writing. Brearey finds that extant literature on “advanced writing courses” fails to account for the relationship of these later courses to the first-year sequence (249). The literature he examines promotes “theoriz[ing] the design of composition course sequences” but provides no “practical approaches” to doing so (249).

In moving toward his recommendations, Brearey proposes that the terms “horizontal expertise” and “generalization” supplement the idea of a vertical curriculum (250). He argues that, while a second-semester first-year courses is often seen as more advanced or more difficult than the earlier course, the reality is that the relationship between the content of the two courses functions more nearly in “parallel,” with similar abilities developed at different levels of priority through different sets of applications. He writes that generalization does not mean that students “transfer” skills from semester 1 to semester 2; rather, they apply them in new contexts that broaden the concepts’ meaning and rhetorical usefulness (250-51).

To develop his composite curricula for first- and second-semester first-year sequences, Brearey gathered course descriptions, competency documents, and syllabi from “the six highest-enrollment two-year colleges in the U.S.” (252). He coded the language in these documents by comparing it to the language of the NCTE “Framework,” and the “WPA Outcomes Statement,” as well as to language delineating the structure and outcomes of two “vertical curricula”: Appalachian State’s award-winning “WAC Vertical Model for Writing Skills” and IUPUI’s “Goals for the IUPUI’s Writing Courses” (252). Four tables result. Table 1 compares the course materials from the community colleges to the Framework/Outcomes Statement. One finding from this comparison is that the outcomes are similar in the two courses, but vary in the priority the two courses assign to them. Brearey calculates how often an outcome appears in the course materials; he finds that, while the outcome of “[d]eveloping critical thinking through writing, reading, and research” is mentioned most often in both the S1 and S2 course, it is mentioned much more often (39.2 to 62.1%) in the S2 course. In the S1 course, the next most frequently cited outcome is “[d]eveloping flexible writing process,” while in the S2 course this outcome is mentioned by only 6.1% of the documents, and “[d]eveloping rhetorical knowledge” becomes the primary means by which the critical thinking outcome is met. These data ground Brearey’s claim that the tasks of the two courses are not different in kind but rather are practiced and reinforced with different emphases and applications (253-54).

Tables 2 and 3 examine the relationship between outcomes for first-year courses and those for upper-level writing curricula at Appalachian State and IUPUI, respectively. Brearey argues that the outcomes in these “vertical curricula” closely parallel those in the Framework/Outcomes Statement documents; the upper-level courses mirror the S2 curricula he finds in the course materials in significant ways. This finding again demonstrates that more advanced writing classes expand on the range of contexts and the level of detail included in course activities (255-56). Drawing on Fleming, Brearey contends that showing how students’ facility with the concepts develops through the extended practice afforded by a two-course sequence helps to

justify two-year colleges’ S1 and S2 FYW courses not only as discrete entities but also as a two-semester curriculum that emphasizes the development of novice students’ writing and rhetorical abilities. (257-58)

Such justification, he writes, is needed to sustain the authority of writing professionals to design effective writing curricula (257). His composite models include outcomes, methods for achieving those outcomes, and a framework of goals for each part of a two-semester first-year sequence (258-60).