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Cunningham, Jennifer. African American Digital Language. C&C, June 2018. Posted 06/07/2018.

Cunningham, Jennifer M. ‘“wuz good wit u bro’: Patterns of Digital African American Language Use in Two Modes of Communication.” Computers and Composition 48 (2018): 67-84. Web. 30 May 2018.

Jennifer M. Cunningham reports a study of three male African American college students living in Ohio as they communicated with each other via text messages (73). Cunningham analyzed the messages for features of digital language (DL), African American language (AAL), and digital African American language (DAAL). She compared the results with those from a 2014 study of 100 comments posted by 19 African American college students on My Space (72). Her goal was to determine whether the features of the three language classes remained consistent across the different purposes, audiences, and platforms. In her view, consistency across these different contexts indicate the degree to which a form of language use is a stable, rule-governed literacy (72).

The author contends that efforts within writing pedagogy to build on languages with which students are familiar and in which they are already accomplished in order to build a bridge to Standard American English can benefit from learning more about how people communicate outside of the classroom (82). Cunningham reports research showing that text messaging is a favored form of communication among both adolescents and college students (68). She argues that studies of digital communication provide a view of how literacies are used for “authentic communicative purposes in . . . non-academic spaces” (67), and, as such, offer important lessons for writing pedagogy.

Cunningham reviews work by scholars who have examined and classified features of DL and AAL language groups. However, her previous study of DAAL is unique in that, except for her work, “there are no existing theoretical frameworks or coding categories that specifically address AAL as it is used to communicate in a digital environment” (73). As a result, for coding, she drew on tables she developed for her 2014 My Space study (73-74).

The author notes that in some views, digital language is considered a substandard form of communication with deleterious impacts on the literacy of users (68, 70). Scholars, however, have argued that the ability to exploit “textisms” like “initialisms” (e.g., “lol”), “letter/number homophones” (e.g., “b4”), and various forms of “shortenings” or “deletions” indicates a larger language-use repertoire rather than a deficit (68). Research suggests that fluidity in the “code-meshing” (69) involved in DL correlates with better reading skills (68, 82).

Cunningham writes that, similarly, African American Language has been labeled “an inferior form of communication that can negatively affect literacy” (69). Scholarship has recognized AAL as a “rule-governed language and literacy” with West-African roots and an English vocabulary (69). Cunningham discusses use patterns in AAL that demonstrate the affinity of AAL with West-African grammar and phonology, including “zero copula,” which occurs because in these language families there is “no form or conjugates of ‘to be’” and the conversion of “th” sounds, which do not occur in the African phonologies, to various alternatives such “d” sounds (71).

She explains her coding process for analysis of 380 messages consisting of 3136 words (73-74). “Open coding” classified the 3136 “instances” into “one of eight DL subcategories, one of six AAL phonological subcategories, and/or one of eight AAL grammatical subcategories” (73). In both the text messages and the social-network posts, Standard American English (SAE) accounted for most of the instances, (54.9% and 59.1%, respectively), but “SAE was not further coded” in the study (73).

In each subcategory, Cunningham reports substantial consistency between the text messages and the My Space posts. She notes some areas of difference. For example, in the subcategory DL, punctuation tended to be missing in the text messages but “excessive” in the social media posts (e.g., !!!) (75).

Some differences could be attributed to specific word choices by participants. In the AAL phonological subcategories, the two sets of texts differed considerably in the feature Cunningham designates as “Syllables”: “Unstressed syllables may be omitted and two pronounced words in AE may become one construction in AAL” (76). The more prominent occurrence of this feature in the text messages may have resulted from the three men’s regular use of “ight” to mean “all right” (76). Similarly, the verbal choices of “specific interlocutors” accounted for a disparity in the use of “Replacement th” in which the “th” sound is replaced with “d”; “several participants” in the social-media posts tended to use a particular example of this construction (76-77).

The author analyzes the degree to which the features she examined affected “functionality” (78). DAAL appeared designed to “creat[e] concise words, phrases, and sentences that are noticeably different from SAE while also approximating spoken AAL” (78). Writing that AAL is already “a more concise language” (78) and “a pragmatic language” (81), Cunningham contends that DL as used by African American speakers reflects these tendencies.

The author examines scholarship that contends that DL itself is “a hybrid between speech and writing,” creating “a new linguistic system” (69). Cunningham contends that the combination of DL and AAL creates a literacy, DAAL, that employs representations that differ from Standard American English both visually and by “approximating spoken AAL” (78). She found that the features of AAL that were incorporated into DAAL were more consistent across the two corpora than were the DL constructions, suggesting that DL is evolving as it is used in different contexts while “AAL is a more established and less fluctuating form of communication” (80).

In her view, her results reveal DAAL to be a hybrid practice with features that are consistent across contexts and therefore can be identified as a literacy in which users “follow innate and learned linguistic and paralinguistic rules to compose consistent and somewhat predictable written messages” (81). She argues that as an example of enhanced “heteroglossia” and as a way for students to “combine, alter, and mesh” both academic and non-academic language forms in response to differing contexts (81), DL and DAAL should be valued not only as stable, rule-governed linguistic practices but as contributors to “rhetorical awareness and writing ability” (82).


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Vetter, Matthew A. Editing Wikipedia as Pedagogy for Cultural Critique. CE, May 2018. Posted 05/22/2018.

Vetter, Matthew A. “Teaching Wikipedia: Appalachian Rhetoric and the Encyclopedic Politics of Representation.” College English 80.5 (2018): 397-422. Print.

Matthew A. Vetter writes about a study in a junior-level rhetoric and writing course in which he used Wikipedia as a focus for the course and as a primary teaching tool (399). He argues that designing a curriculum in which students actively participate in Wikipedia editing can serve dual goals of meeting general education and composition learning outcomes while also introducing students to cultural critique (400).

The course, which took place in a university in a region of Ohio that is considered part of Appalachia, used depictions of Appalachia in media and in Wikipedia to introduce issues of cultural representation while also allowing students to gain from the particular affordances Wikipedia offers (399).

Vetter notes that while Wikipedia is often excoriated by college and university instructors, scholarship in composition has credited the project with important qualities useful for teaching writing (397, 402). Scholars claim that Wikipedia provides an “authentic” writing environment that engages students with real, potentially responsive audiences in the collaborative construction of knowledge (397). Students working in this environment can “deconstruct authority in public and ‘published’ texts” and can gain firsthand experience in the process of editing and revision (397).

Vetter recounts as well critiques that challenge Wikipedia’s claim to provide “universal access and representation” (398). He cites statistics indicating that the “editorship” is “overwhelmingly make and homogenous” (398). Further, the site marginalizes certain geographic and cultural locations and issues through lack of representation and often through representation from an “outsider perspective” (398).

For Vetter, this disparity in representation affects the ways Wikipedia addresses marginalized areas of Western culture, such as Appalachia. Involving students with Wikipedia’s depiction of Appalachia, in Vetter’s view, gives them access to the ways that representation functions through media and rhetoric and allows them to see their ability to intervene through writing as a potential force for change (399).

Vetter found that a significant minority of his students considered themselves connected to Appalachia (407); 17 students participated in the study (401). The course design allowed all students to engage both with the issue of representation of Appalachia in media and with the rhetorical nature and “cultural politics” of Wikipedia as a source of information (416), with implications for how rhetoric and writing construct realities.

Students began by examining depictions of Appalachia in mainstream media, moved on to group genre analysis of Wikipedia articles, and finally chose Wikipedia pieces on Appalachia to edit, drawing on their research as well as their personal experiences as residents of an Appalachian region (400). Students also wrote two in-class “process logs,” one asking them to reflect on what they had learned about rhetorical treatment of Appalachia and one calling for consideration of how their engagement with Wikipedia had changed as a result of the course (401). Coding of the process logs allowed Vetter to detect themes shared across many responses.

Vetter explores scholarship on teaching with Wikipedia within composition studies, finding an interest in the ways using Wikipedia as a site for writing can enable a shift from consumption to production (403). He argues that Wikipedia is an example of a “[c]ommunity-based pedagog[y]” that, by offering “exposure to multiple authorities and audiences,” contributes to students’ rhetorical knowledge (403). In Vetter’s view, scholarship has tended to focus on the contribution to general learning outcomes enabled by Wikipedia-based assignments; he contends that this focus “should be expanded” to exploit what the site can teach about the rhetorical nature of representation and about the processes that result in the marginalization of “cultures and identities” (404).

The first class project, examining representations of Appalachia in mainstream sources, asked students to examine Appalachia as a “social invention” created through writing (404). This “symbolic construction” (404) of the region, Vetter argues, shifts attention from the “material realities” experienced by inhabitants (405). Study of these material realities, Vetter contends, can lead to more nuanced awareness of the diversity of the region and to a greater appreciation of a range of literacies that characterize individuals (405-06). Vetter’s course and study transcend the “denaturalization” that scholarship begins by encouraging a “method of critical praxis that contributes to the reshaping of cultural narratives” as students not only study how stereotypes are created and persist but resist these stereotypes by actively editing Wikipedia’s Appalachia sites (406).

Analysis of the first process log revealed that students recognized the effects of problematic representation of Appalachia; 88% also noted “the social-epistemic functions of rhetoric and writing” (408, 409). Their study of media depictions of the region also emphasized for students how reliance on outsiders for representation erased the realities experienced by people closer to the region (411).

Vetter notes that developers in Wikipedia are aware that work remains to be done to improve the depiction of Appalachia. Wikiprojects, “dedicated task forces” that strive to improve Wikipedia, list “more than 40 articles in need of development or major reorganization” within Wikiproject Appalachia (412). Students were able to draw on these articles and on resources and support provided in the Wikiproject’s “talk” page to meet the course requirements (412-13). Vetter discusses the need to move beyond word counts in order to assess student work, because Wikipedia encourages concision and because students must collaborate with other editors to have their work included (413).

The second process log suggested that genre analysis and exposure to Wikipedia itself had given students better understanding and familiarity with the exigencies of working in the site. Some students wrote that professors in earlier classes who had imposed “outright bans” on the use of Wikipedia for research failed to understand how a critical understanding of the site could make it a productive research source (415-16). Vetter contends that a more nuanced understanding of Wikipedia and a well-structured curriculum using the site could allow academics to encourage the kinds of improvements they believe Wikipedia needs, including an increase in the diversity of contributors (416).

Three of the 17 students reported difficulty getting their edits accepted, reporting that experienced editors served as gatekeepers on “popular” topics while more marginalized topics were hard to research because of a lack of well-documented information. Vetter contends that Wikipedia’s insistence on “published and verifiable sources” will always tend to exclude the important insights that come from the direct experience of those familiar with a region or topic (419). While the “distributed model” of “Commons-Based Peer Production” in place at Wikipedia does allow many users to “come together to collaboratively and incrementally build a global knowledge source,” this model simultaneously “deemphasize[s] and devalue[s] the place of local knowledge production” (419).

In Vetter’s view, student engagement with Wikipedia can alert them to the ways that various types of representation can misinform while empowering them to recognize their own writing and rhetoric as interventions for change.


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Salig et al. Student Perceptions of “Essentialist Language” in Persuasive Writing. J of Writ. Res., 2018. Posted 05/10/2018.

Salig, Lauren K., L. Kimberly Epting, and Lizabeth A. Rand. “Rarely Say Never: Essentialist Rhetorical Choices in College Students’ Perceptions of Persuasive Writing.” Journal of Writing Research 93.3 (2018): 301-31. Web. 3 May 2018.

Lauren K. Salig, L. Kimberly Epting, and Lizabeth A. Rand investigated first-year college students’ perceptions of effective persuasive writing. Triggered by ongoing research that suggests that students struggle with the analytical and communicative skills demanded by this genre, the study focused on students’ attitudes toward “essentialist” language in persuasive discourse.

The authors cite research indicating that “one-sided” arguments are less persuasive than those that acknowledge opposing views and present more than one perspective on a issue (303); they posit that students’ failure to develop multi-sided arguments may account for assessments showing poor command of persuasive writing (303). Salig et al. argue that “the language used in one-sided arguments and the reasons students might think one-sidedness benefits their writing have not been extensively evaluated from a psychological perspective” (304). Their investigation is intended both to clarify what features students believe contribute to good persuasive writing and to determine whether students actually apply these beliefs in identifying effective persuasion (305).

The authors invoke a term, “essentialism,” to encompass different forms of language that exhibit different levels of “black-and-white dualism” (304). Such language may fail to acknowledge exceptions to generalizations; one common way it may manifest itself is the tendency to include “boosters” such as ‘“always,’ ‘every,’ and ‘prove,’” while eliminating “hedges” such as qualifiers (304). “Essentialist” thinking, the authors contend, “holds that some categories have an unobservable, underlying ‘essence’ behind them” (304). Salig et al. argue that while some subsets of “generic language” may enable faster learning because they allow the creation of useful categories, the essentialist tendency in such language to override analytical complexity can prove socially harmful (305).

The investigation involved two studies designed, first, to determine whether students conceptually recognized the effects of essentialist language in persuasive writing, and second, to assess whether they were able to apply this recognition in practice (306).

Study 1 consisted of two phases. In the first, students were asked to generate features that either enhanced or detracted from the quality, persuasiveness, and credibility of writing (307). Twenty-seven characteristics emerged after coding; these were later reduced to 23 by combining some factors. Features related to essentialism, Bias and One-sidedness, were listed as damaging to persuasiveness and credibility, while Refutation of Opposition and Inclusion of Other Viewpoints were seen as improving these two factors. Although, in the authors’ view, these responses aligned with educational standards such as the Common Core State Standards, students did not see these four characteristics as affecting the quality of writing (309).

In Phase 2 of Study 1, students were prompted to list “writing behaviors that indicated the presence of the specified characteristic” (310). The researchers developed the top three behaviors for each feature into sentence form; they provide the complete list of these student-generated behavioral indicators (311-14).

From the Study 1 results, Salig et al. propose that students do conceptually grasp “essentialism” as a negative feature and can name ways that it may show up in writing. Study 2 was designed to measure the degree to which this conceptual knowledge influences student reactions to specific writing in which the presence or absence of essentialist features becomes the variable under examination (314-15).

In this study 79 psychology students were shown six matched pairs of statements, varying only in that one represented essentialist language and the other contained hedges and qualifiers (315). In each case, participants were asked to state which of the two statements was “better,” and then to refer to a subset of the 23 features identified in Study 1 that had been narrowed to focus on persuasiveness in order to provide reasons for their preference (316). They were asked to set aside their personal responses to the topic (318). The researchers provide the statement pairs, three of which contained citations (317-18).

In Likert-scale responses, the students generally preferred the non-essentialist samples (319), although the “driving force” for this finding was that students preferring non-essentialist samples rated the essentialist samples very low in persuasiveness (323). Further, of the 474 choices, 222 indicated that essentialist examples were “better,” while 252 chose the non-essentialist examples, a difference that the researchers report as not significant (321).

Salig et al. find that the reasons students chose for preferring essentialist language differed from their reasons for preferring non-essentialist examples. Major reasons for the essentialist choice were Voice/Tone, Concision, Persuasive Effectiveness, One-sidedness, and Grabs/Retains Attention. Students who chose non-essentialist samples as better cited Other Viewpoints, Argument Clarity/Consistency, Detail, Writer’s Knowledge, Word Choice/Language, and Bias (322).

Participants were divided almost equally among those who consistently chose non-essentialist options, those who consistently chose essentialist options, and those whose chose one or the other half of the time (323). Correlations indicated that students who were somewhat older (maximum age was 21, with M = 18.49 years) “were associated with lower persuasiveness ratings on essentialist samples than younger students or students with less education” (324). The authors posit that the second study examined a shift from “conceptual to operational understanding” (324) and thus might indicate the effects either of cognitive development or increased experience or some combination in conjunction with other factors (325).

In addition, the authors consider effects of current methods of instruction on students’ responses to the samples. They note that “concision” showed up disproportionately as a reason given by students who preferred essentialist samples. They argue that possibly students have inferred that “strong, supported, and concise arguments” are superior (326). Citing Linda Adler-Kassner, they write that students are often taught to support their arguments before they are encouraged to include counterarguments (326).The authors recommend earlier attention, even before high school, to the importance of including multiple viewpoints (328).

The study also revealed an interaction between student preferences and the particular sets, with sets 4 and 5 earning more non-essentialist votes than other sets. The length of the samples and the inclusion of citations in set 4 lead the researchers to consider whether students perceived these as appropriate for “scholarly” or more formal contexts in comparison to shorter, more emphatic samples that students may have associated with “advertising” (327). Sets 4 and 5 also made claims about “students” and “everybody,” prompting the researchers to suggest that finding themselves the subjects of sweeping claims may have encouraged students to read the samples with more awareness of essentialist language (327).

The authors note that their study examined “one, and arguably the simplest, type” of essentialist language. They urge ongoing research into the factors that enable students not just to recognize but also to apply the concepts that characterize non-essentialist language (328-29).


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Shepherd, Ryan. Digital Writing and Transfer. C&C, June 2018.

Shepherd, Ryan P. “Digital Writing, Multimodality, and Learning Transfer: Crafting Connections between Composition and Online Composing.” Computers and Composition 48 (2018): 103-14. Web. 4 Apr. 2018.

Ryan P. Shepherd conducted a survey and interviews to investigate the relationship between multimodal writing students did outside of school and the writing that they did for their classes. Shepherd focuses on students’ perceptions as to what constitutes “writing” and whether they see their out-of-school work as “writing.” He argues that these perceptions are important for transfer of in-school learning to new contexts (103).

He notes that scholars in the field have argued for the importance of drawing on students’ past writing experiences and their knowledge of those contexts to enhance their classroom learning (104). Some scholarship suggests that students do not see a relationship between the writing they know how to do for social media and school assignments. This scholarship indicates that one implication of this disconnect is that students may not apply the knowledge they accumulate in the classroom to the broader range of their writing activities (104).

Shepherd sent survey links to composition instructors and received 151 replies from first-year-writing students. He reports that the responses were skewed toward larger, doctoral-granting schools (104-05). In choosing 10 students from among 60 who were willing to be interviewed, Shepherd included Research 2 and Masters 1 institutions but found his population did not fully represent a diverse range of students (105). Interviews took place in Shepherd’s office or on Skype.

A principle question in both the survey and interviews was students’ definition of “writing.” Shepherd notes an emphasis on “expression” and “creativity” in these definitions, with 25% referring explicitly to the use of “paper” (105). In contrast, of the 132 definitions of writing in the surveys, only five brought up “digital” or “computer” and all five also included the word “paper” (106). The word “digital” did not occur in the definitions provided in the interviews.

At the same time, 92% of survey responses indicated experience with social media and 99% had used email (106). Forty-six percent of survey respondents had posted on four digital platforms: Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter, while only 5% had not posted to any of these venues and “only one participant had not written on social media at all” (106).

Similarly, interviewees reported extensive experience with social media. Students on both the surveys and in the interviews reported that they wrote “as much or more” outside of school than in class (107). In addition, students seemed uncertain as to whether they had done multimodal writing for school, “sometimes saying they ‘might’ have used images or charts and graphs with their writing at some point” (107).

Shepherd concludes that the students he studied did not connect the multimodal writing they commonly did outside of school with their schoolwork and did not include this use of social media in their definitions of writing. However, when encouraged to think about the relationship between the two kinds of writing experiences, “students were quick to make connections without prompting” (107).

For Shepherd, these finding impact recent discussions in composition studies about the transfer of academic knowledge to other contexts. He contends that many uses of the “transfer” metaphor do not completely or accurately capture what compositionists would like to see happen (108). This “incomplete” metaphor, he argues, implies that knowledge acquired in one place is simply carried to a new place. Thinking this way, Shepherd maintains, echoes the “banking model” of education in which knowledge is something teachers have provided that students can subsequently “withdraw” (108).

More appropriate, Shepherd writes, is the idea of transfer as a “bridge or connection between one area of knowledge and another inside of the learner’s mind” (108). He uses an analogy of knowing how to drive a car and later having to drive a “large box truck.” He posits that using prior knowledge in this new situation involves “generaliz[ing] the knowledge” by “creat[ing] a larger theory of ‘driving’” that encompasses both experiences (108-09). This re-theorization, he states, does not involve transporting any knowledge to a new place.

Shepherd reviews theories of transfer, arguing that similarity between two experiences is central to successful transfer. The comparison between driving a car and driving a truck is an example of “low-road transfer,” in which the two situations are easily seen to be similar (109).

Many kinds of transfer, in contrast, are “high-road transfer” in which the similarity is not necessarily obvious. Shepherd develops an example of relating knowing how to drive to learning how to ski. Theories suggest that in order to see connections between disparate activities like these, learners need to apply what Gavriel Salomon and David N. Perkins call “mindful abstraction” (109). According to Shepherd, related terms used by compositionists include “reflection” and “metacognition” (109). Shepherd argues that what matters is not so much whether or not the activities are clearly similar but rather the degree to which learners can come to perceive them as similar through metacognitive reflection (109).

In this reading, high-road transfer consists of “backward-“ and “forward-reaching” efforts. “Backward-reaching” transfer involves drawing on past experience in new contexts; Shepherd argues that composition uses this form less than “forward-reaching” transfer, which encourages students to think of how they can use classroom learning in the future (109-10). Shepherd maintains that his study supports the claim that both kinds of transfer are “quite difficult”; students need to develop a more complex “theory of writing” to see the necessary similarities and may require guidance to do so (110).

Shepherd suggests that theory-building can begin with students’ own definitions; they can then be challenged to explain why specific modes of communication, for example in social media, do not fit their definitions (111). Teachers can also ask students to teach kinds of writing in which they may be skilled but may not recognize as writing (111). Throughout, teachers can press for “guided reflection” (111) and “mindful abstraction” (112) in order to foreground connections that students may not see as self-evident.

In introducing students to multimodal work in the classroom, Shepherd suggests, teachers can show students that these kinds of assignments are actually familiar and that the students themselves “might already be experts” (112). To design curricula that facilitates the creation of these connections across writing contexts, Shepherd writes, research needs to address “two key areas”: “what students know” and “what students need to know” (112). More attention to the kinds of literacies that students practice outside of the classroom, Shepherd concludes, can equip teachers to apply this kind of research to teaching for more productive transfer.

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Kolln and Hancock. Histories of U. S. Grammar Instruction. English Teaching: Practice and Critique (NZ), 2005. Posted 04/22/2018.

Kolln, Martha, and Craig Hancock. “The Story of English Grammar in United States Schools.” English Teaching: Practice and Critique 4.3 (2005): 11-31. Web. 4 Mar. 2018.

Martha Kolln and Craig Hancock, publishing in English Teaching: Practice and Critique in 2005, respond in parallel essays to what they consider the devaluation of grammar teaching in United States schools and universities. English Teaching: Practice and Critique is a publication of Waikato University in New Zealand. The two essays trace historical developments in attitudes toward grammar education in U. S. English language curricula.

Kolln’s essay reports on a long history of uncertainty about teaching grammar in United States classrooms. Noting that confusion about the distinction between “grammar” and “usage” pervaded discussions since the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Kolln cities studies from 1906 and 1913 to illustrate the prevalence of doubts that the time needed to teach grammar was justified in light of the many other demands upon public-school educators (13).

Citing Richard Braddock, Richard Lloyd-Jones, and Lowell Schoer’s 1963 Research in Written Composition to note that “early research in composition and grammar was not highly developed” (13), Kolln argues that the early studies were flawed (14). A later effort to address grammar teaching, An Experience Curriculum in English, was advanced by a 1936 National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) committee; this program, Kolln writes, “recommended that grammar be taught in connection with writing, rather than as an isolated unit of study” (14). She contends that the effort ultimately failed because teachers did not accept its focus on “functional grammar” in place of “the formal method [they] were used to” (14).

In Kolln’s history, the hiatus following this abortive project ended with the advent of structural linguistics in the 1950s. This new understanding of the workings of English grammar was originally received enthusiastically; Harold B. Allen’s 1958 Readings in Applied English Linguistics drew on nearly 100 articles, including many from NCTE (12). This movement also embraced Noam Chomsky’s 1957 Syntactic Structures; the NCTE convention in 1963 featured “twenty different sessions on language, . . . with 50 individual papers” under categories like “Semantics,” “Structural Linguistics for the Junior High School,” and “the Relationship of Grammar to Composition” (14-15).

Excitement over such “new grammar” (15), however, was soon “swept aside” (12). Kolln posits that Chomsky’s complex generative grammar, which was not meant as a teaching tool, did not adapt easily to the classroom (15). She traces several other influences supporting the continued rejection of grammar instruction. Braddock et al. in 1963 cited a study by Roland Harris containing “serious flaws,” according to two critics who subsequently reviewed it (16). This study led Braddock et al. to state that grammar instruction not only did not improve student writing, it led to “a harmful effect” (Braddock et al., qtd. in Kolln and Hancock 15). Kolln reports that this phrase is still referenced to argue against teaching grammar (15).

Other influences on attitudes toward grammar, for Kolln, include the advent of “student-centered” teaching after the Dartmouth seminar in 1966 , the ascendancy of the process movement, and a rejection of “elitist” judgments that denigrated students’ home languages (16-17). As a result of such influences and others, Kolln writes, “By 1980, the respected position that grammar had once occupied was no longer recognized by NCTE” (17).

Addressing other publications and position statements that echo this rejection of grammar instruction, Kolln writes that teacher education, in particular, has been impoverished by the loss of attention to the structure of language (19). She contends that “[t]he cost to English education of the NCTE anti-grammar policy is impossible to calculate” (19).

She sees shifts toward an understanding of grammar that distinguishes it from rote drill on correctness in the creation of an NCTE official assembly, The Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar (ATEG). Several NCTE publications have forwarded the views of this group, including the book Grammar Alive! A Guide for Teachers, and articles in English Journal and Language Arts (20). Kolln urges that grammar, properly understood, be “seen as a legitimate part of the Language Arts curriculum that goes beyond an aid to writing” (20).

Hancock frames his discussion with a contemporaneous article by R. Hudson and J. Walmsley about trends in grammar instruction in the U.K. He sees a consensus among educators in England that “an informed understanding of language and an appropriate metalanguage with which to discuss it” are important elements of language education (qtd. in Kolln and Hancock 21). Further, this consensus endorses a rejection of “the older, dysfunctional, error-focused, Latin-based school grammar” (21-22).

In his view, the grounds for such widespread agreement in the United States, rather than encouraging an appreciation of well-designed grammar instruction, in fact lead away from the possibility of such an appreciation (22-23). He sees a U. S. consensus through the 1960s that literature, especially as seen through New Criticism, should be the principle business of English instruction. The emphasis on form, he writes, did not embrace linguistic theory; in general, grammar was “traditional” if addressed at all, and was seen as the responsibility of elementary schools (22). Literature was displaced by Critical Theory, which challenged the claim that “there is or should be a monolithic, central culture or a received wisdom” in the valuation of texts (22).

Similarly, he maintains that the advent of composition as a distinct field with its focus on “what writers actually do when they write” led to studies suggesting that experienced writers saw writing as meaning-making while inexperienced writers were found to, in Nancy Sommers’s words, “subordinate the demands of the specific problems of the text to the demands of the rules” (qtd. in Kolln and Hancock 23). Downplaying the rules, in this view, allowed students to engage more fully with the purposes of their writing.

In Hancock’s view, language educators in the U.S. distanced themselves from grammar instruction in their focus on “‘empowerment’ in writing” in order to address the needs of more diverse students (24). This need required a new acknowledgment of the varying contexts in which language occurred and an effort to value the many different forms language might take. Recognition of the damage done by reductive testing models also drove a retreat from a grammar defined as “policing people’s mistakes” (24-25).

Hancock argues that the public arena in which students tend to be judged does not allow either correctness or grammar to “simply be wished away” (25). He suggests that the “minimalist” theories of Constance Weaver in the 1990s and linguists like Steven Pinker are attempts to address the need for students to meet some kinds of standards, even though those standards are often poorly defined. These writers, in Hancock’s reading, contend that people learn their native grammars naturally and need little intervention to achieve their communicative goals (25, 27).

Hancock responds that a problem with this approach is that students who do not rise to the expected standard are blamed for their “failure to somehow soak it up from exposure or from the teacher’s non-technical remarks” (25). Hancock laments the “progressive diminution of knowledge” that results when so many teachers themselves are taught little about grammar (25): the lack of a “deep grounding in knowledge of the language” means that “[e]diting student writing becomes more a matter of what ‘feels right’” (26).

As a result of this history, he contends, “language-users” remain “largely unconscious of their own syntactic repertoire” (26), while teachers struggle with contradictory demands with so little background that, in Hancock’s view, “they are not even well-equipped to understand the nature of the problem” (29). He faults linguists as well for debunking prescriptive models while failing to provide “a practical alternative” (26).

Hancock presents a 2004 piece by Laura Micciche as a “counter-argument to minimalist approaches” (28). Hancock reads Micciche to say that there are more alternatives to the problems posed by grammatical instruction than outright rejection. He interprets her as arguing that a knowledge of language is “essential to formation of meaning” (28):

We need a discourse about grammar that does not retreat from the realities we face in the classroom—a discourse that takes seriously the connection between writing and thinking, the interwoven relationship between what we say and how we say it. (Micciche, qtd. in Kolln and Hancock 28)

Hancock deplores the “vacuum” created by the rejection of grammar instruction, a undefended space into which he feels prescriptive edicts are able to insert themselves (28, 29). Like Kolln, he points to ATEG, which in 2005-2006 was working to shift NCTE’s “official position against the teaching of formal grammar” (28). Hancock envisions grammar education that incorporates “all relevant linguistic grammars” and a “thoughtfully selected technical terminology” (28), as well as an understanding of the value of home languages as “the foundation for the evolution of a highly effective writing voice” (29). Such a grammar, he maintains, would be truly empowering, promoting an understanding of the “connection between formal choices and rhetorical effect” (26).


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Bowden, Darsie. Student Perspectives on Paper Comments. J of Writing Assessment, 2018. Posted 04/14/2018.

Bowden, Darsie. “Comments on Student Papers: Student Perspectives.” Journal of Writing Assessment 11.1 (2018). Web. 8 Apr. 2018.

Darsie Bowden reports on a study of students’ responses to teachers’ written comments in a first-year writing class at DePaul University, a four-year, private Catholic institution. Forty-seven students recruited from thirteen composition sections provided first drafts with comments and final drafts, and participated in two half-hour interviews. Students received a $25 bookstore gift certificate for completing the study.

Composition classes at DePaul use the 2000 version of the Council of Writing Program Administrators’ (WPA) Outcomes to structure and assess the curriculum. Of the thirteen instructors whose students were involved in the project, four were full-time non-tenure track and nine were adjuncts; Bowden notes that seven of the thirteen “had graduate training in composition and rhetoric,” and all ”had training and familiarity with the scholarship in the field.” All instructors selected were regular attendees at workshops that included guidance on responding to student writing.

For the study, instructors used Microsoft Word’s comment tool in order to make student experiences consistent. Both comments and interview transcripts were coded. Comment types were classified as “in-draft” corrections (actual changes made “in the student’s text itself”); “marginal”; and “end,” with comments further classified as “surface-level” or “substance-level.”

Bowden and her research team of graduate teaching assistants drew on “grounded theory methodologies” that relied on observation to generate questions and hypotheses rather than on preformed hypotheses. The team’s research questions were

  • How do students understand and react to instructor comments?
  • What influences students’ process of moving from teacher comments to paper revision?
  • What comments do students ignore and why?

Ultimately the third question was subsumed by the first two.

Bowden’s literature review focuses on ongoing efforts by Nancy Sommers and others to understand which comments actually lead to effective revision. Bowden argues that research often addresses “the teachers’ perspective rather than that of their students” and that it tends to assess the effectiveness of comments by how they “manifest themselves in changes in subsequent drafts.” The author cites J. M. Fife and P. O’Neill to contend that the relationship between comments and effects in drafts is not “linear” and that clear causal connections may be hard to discern. Bowden presents her study as an attempt to understand students’ actual thinking processes as they address comments.

The research team found that on 53% of the drafts, no in-draft notations were provided. Bowden reports on variations in length and frequency in the 455 marginal comments they examined and as well as in the end comments that appeared in almost all of the 47 drafts. The number of substance-level comments exceeded that of surface-level comments.

Her findings accord with much research in discovering that students “took [comments] seriously”; they “tried to understand them, and they worked to figure out what, if anything, to do in response.” Students emphasized comments that asked questions, explained responses, opened conversations, and “invited them to be part of the college community.” Arguing that such substance-level comments were “generative” for students, Bowden presents several examples of interview exchanges, some illustrating responses in which the comments motivated the student to think beyond the specific content of the comment itself. Students often noted that teachers’ input in first-year writing was much more extensive than that of their high school teachers.

Concerns about “confusion” occurred in 74% of the interviews. Among strategies for dealing with confusion were “ignor[ing] the comment completely,” trying to act on the comment without understanding it, or writing around the confusing element by changing the wording or structure. Nineteen students “worked through the confusion,” and seven consulted their teachers.

The interviews revealed that in-class activities like discussion and explanation impacted students’ attempts to respond to comments, as did outside factors like stress and time management. In discussions about final drafts, students revealed seeking feedback from additional readers, like parents or friends. They were also more likely to mention peer review in the second interview; although some mentioned the writing center, none made use of the writing center for drafts included in the study.

Bowden found that students “were significantly preoccupied with grades.” As a result, determining “what the teacher wants” and concerns about having “points taken off” were salient issues for many. Bowden notes that interviews suggested a desire of some students to “exert their own authority” in rejecting suggested revisions, but she maintains that this effort often “butts up against a concern about grades and scores” that may attenuate the positive effects of some comments.

Bowden reiterates that students spoke appreciatively of comments that encouraged “conversations about ideas, texts, readers, and their own subject positions as writers” and of those that recognized students’ own contributions to their work. Yet, she notes, the variety of factors influencing students’ responses to comments, including, for example, cultural differences and social interactions in the classroom, make it difficult to pinpoint the most effective kind of comment. Given these variables, Bowden writes, “It is small wonder, then, that even the ‘best’ comments may not result in an improved draft.”

The author discusses strategies to ameliorate the degree to which an emphasis on grades may interfere with learning, including contract grading, portfolio grading, and reflective assignments. However, she concludes, even reflective papers, which are themselves written for grades, may disguise what actually occurs when students confront instructor comments. Ultimately Bowden contends that the interviews conducted for her study contain better evidence of “the less ‘visible’ work of learning” than do the draft revisions themselves. She offers three examples of students who were, in her view,

thinking through comments in relationship to what they already knew, what they needed to know and do, and what their goals were at this particular moment in time.

She considers such activities “problem-solving” even though the problem could not be solved in time to affect the final draft.

Bowden notes that her study population is not representative of the broad range of students in writing classes at other kinds of institutions. She recommends further work geared toward understanding how teacher feedback can encourage the “habits of mind” denoted as the goal of learning by the2010 Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing produced by the WPA, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project. Such understanding, she contends, can be effective in dealing with administrators and stakeholders outside of the classroom.

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Mays, Chris. Fact and Fabrication in Creative Nonfiction. Mar. 2018. Posted 04/04/2018.

Mays, Chris. ‘“You Can’t Make This Stuff Up’: Complexity, Facts, and Creative Nonfiction.” College English 80.4 (2018): 319-41. Print.

Chris Mays explores the creation of meaning in writing through an examination of the relationship between “fact” and “fabrication” in the genre of creative nonfiction (321). He links this analysis to a 1985 article by Jim W. Corder arguing that adherence to the “narrative” each of us creates to structure our lives makes it difficult to “accommodate . . . differences” we encounter with others’ narratives (319). Mays finds an illustration of this difficulty in debates over factual accuracy in creative nonfiction.

Mays argues that writing in general excels in giving an impression of representing facts in “straightforward” ways, often appearing most praiseworthy “when a writer ‘just tells it like it is’ . . . or writes in ‘plain language’” (320). Any “simplicity” thus created, Mays contends, masks writing’s “own incredible complexity” (320). Ultimately, in Mays’s view, the power of writing to make the meaning it creates appear straightforward and uncontestable, while hiding the process through which that meaning was produced, leads to the kind of insularity Corder describes (321, 337).

Mays approaches the issue of meaning in writing through genre theory. He reports scholarship on genre that depicts genre as a categorization that “organizes writing into recognizable forms” (326); quoting Carolyn R. Miller, he portrays genre as the “form” of writing that “shapes the response of the reader or listener to substance by providing instruction . . . about how to perceive and interpret” (qtd. in Mays 324). Genres, he writes, tend to look “stable” but are actually in constant flux, with the result that readers respond to representations of facts differently when they encounter them in different genres, which themselves are responsive to different contexts (325):

[F]acts emerge out of genres, and how the boundary lines of fact and fiction are drawn is dependent on the genres in which one is observing the facts. (325)

For Mays, looking at creative nonfiction as a contextualized, fluid genre illuminates how genre assumptions affect attitudes toward facticity particularly because the history of this genre reveals ongoing tensions over the degree to which authors of creative nonfiction deal with “facts” versus “subjective experience” (321). Mays finds that, even though writers in the genre acknowledge the subjectivity introduced by literary techniques, definitions of creative nonfiction emphasize its allegiance to facts (321, 324). He argues that the tension inherent in the genre is especially useful in revealing how concerns about the facticity of writing “shift the focus away from the complex mechanism by which all facts are created and maintained” (326), thus illustrating an important feature of writing itself.

To explore these issues, Mays dissects controversy over the use of facts in the satire of David Sedaris. He analyzes the critique of Alex Heard, who condemns Sedaris’s use of elaboration and apparent invention as violations of what Heard sees as a sacrosanct obligation of writers of creative nonfiction: not to “make things up” (qtd. in Mays 329). Other respondents defended Sedaris as engaged in telling stories in which fabrications lead to “composite truths” valuable in themselves (328, 335). Mays’s interest revolves around the degree to which the criteria applied to Sedaris are “extremely passionate” (328) and “rigid” (327). He argues that the negative critics of Sedaris create inviolate genres that they believe are stable and judge the handling of facts by these rules (330). “Observers” of the creative-nonfiction genre, he writes,

often just do not perceive that there are different ways of drawing genre boundaries and intensely defend the singularity of their views. (328)

For Mays, this reaction to fact within the genre, which he depicts as widespread (321), sheds light on the tendency to forget that writing as writing is always, in Kenneth Burke’s terms, both a “selectio[n]” and a “deflection of reality” (qtd. in Mays 338; emendation in Mays). Mays contends that writing disguises the process of selection that generates a multiplicity of “facts” (329).

Mays further argues for the contextual nature of facts by noting that although “community influence” (330), for example that of the community of creative nonfiction writers, may affect decisions about what counts as an acceptable allegiance to facts, even writers within the community still generate bounded genres that drive their attitude toward the representation of their material. Writers in the genre may contend that Sedaris’s exploitation of subjectivity shirks what Heard calls the “ethical requirements” of fidelity to reality in order to sell more effectively (qtd. in Mays 330), yet Mays also cites memoirist William Bradley, whose criteria recognize “different kinds of truths” (331), and the controversy surrounding Mike Daisey’s depiction of working conditions at Apple facilities in China. Daisey asserted that his genre was “theater,” not “journalism,” and thus his problematic representation of the conditions he reported was justified (333-34).

Mays ties the question of how facts are made to the classroom by referencing “the oft-made demand for a focus on plain facts in first-year writing” (336). This demand, in his view, can be attributed to an ongoing hope for “perfect writing” that fully represents reality (337). For Mays, such writing can never exist because “writers will never be able to fully control or stabilize what is truth, fact, or fabrication in their writing” (336). In his view, complexity theory suggests that problems arise because one’s construction of reality precludes the ability to perceive what is left out of that construction (332). The act of writing in itself creates complexity, which imbues writing with this characteristic blindness (332, 335). Thus, a section title asserts, “All Writing is Dishonest (and Honest)” (333).

Citing Bronwyn T. Williams to note that some reliance on facts is necessary for day-to-day living (325), and recognizing the challenge of a “workable” acceptance that all facts are contextual (332), Mays agrees with Jane Bennett that “recognit[ion] that . . . other divergent configurations exist, even if we cannot perceive them,” is “an ethical necessity” (333). He concludes that Corder’s exhortation to extend our awareness beyond our own narratives inevitably encounters the degree to which the creation of those narratives generates the very conditions that make moving beyond them so difficult (337). Mays argues for intensified awareness of the partiality of any written truth and of the degree to which a rigid insistence on facts can limit our appreciation of different kinds of writing and what this diversity can achieve (338).