Bastian, Heather. “Student Affective Responses to ‘Bringing the Funk’ in the First-Year Writing Classroom.” College Composition and Communication 69.1 (2017): 6-34. Print.
Heather Bastian reports a study of students’ affective responses to innovative assignments in a first-year writing classroom. Building on Adam Banks’s 2015 CCCC Chair’s Address, Bastian explores the challenges instructors may face when doing what Banks called “bring[ing] the funk” (qtd. in Bastian 6) by asking students to work in genres that do not conform to “academic convention” (7).
According to Bastian, the impetus for designing such units and assignments includes the need to “prepare students for uncertain futures within an increasingly technological world” (8). Bastian cites scholarship noting teachers’ inability to forecast exactly what will be demanded of students as they move into professions; this uncertainty, in this view, means that the idea of what constitutes writing must be expanded and students should develop the rhetorical flexibility to adapt to the new genres they may encounter (8).
Moreover, Bastian argues, citing Mary Jo Reiff and Anis Bawarshi, that students’ dependence on familiar academic formulas means that their responses to rhetorical situations can become automatic and unthinking, with the result that they do not question the potential effects of their choices or explore other possible solutions to rhetorical problems. This automatic response limits “their meaning-making possibilities to what academic convention allows and privileges” (8-9)
Bastian contends that students not only fall back on traditional academic genres but also develop “deep attachments” to the forms they find familiar (9). The field, she states, has little data on what these attachments are like or how they guide students’ rhetorical decisions (9, 25).
She sees these attachments as a manifestation of “affect”; she cites Susan McLeod’s definition of affect as “noncognitive phenomena, including emotions but also attitudes, beliefs, moods, motivations, and intuitions” (9). Bastian cites further scholarship that indicates a strong connection between affect and writing as well as emotional states and learning (9-10). In her view, affect is particularly important when teachers design innovative classroom experiences because students’ affective response to such efforts can vary greatly; prior research suggests that as many as half the students in a given situation will resist moving beyond the expected curriculum (10).
Bastian enlisted ten of twenty-two students in a first-year-writing class at a large, public midwestern university in fall 2009 (11). She used “multiple qualitative research methods” to investigate these first-semester students’ reactions to the third unit in a four-unit curriculum intended to meet the program’s goals of “promot[ing] rhetorical flexibility and awareness”; the section under study explored genre from different perspectives (11). The unit introduced “the concept of genre critique,” as defined by the course textbook, Amy J. Devitt et al.’s Scenes of Writing: “questioning and evaluating to determine the strengths and shortcomings of a genre as well as its ideological import” (12).
Bastian designed the unit to “disrupt” students’ expectation of a writing class on the reading level, in that she presented her prompt as a set of “game rules,” and also on the “composing” level, as the unit did not specify what genre the students were to critique nor the form in which they were to do so (12). Students examined a range of genres and genre critiques, “including posters, songs, blogs, . . . artwork, poems, . . . comics, speeches, creative nonfiction. . . .” (13). The class developed a list of the possible forms their critiques might take.
Bastian acted as observer, recording evidence of “the students’ lived experiences” as they negotiated the unit. She attended all class sessions, made notes of “physical reactions” and “verbal reactions” (13). Further data consisted of one-hour individual interviews and a set of twenty-five questions. For this study, she concentrated on questions that asked about students’ levels of comfort with various stages of the unit (13).
Like other researchers, Bastian found that students asked to create innovative projects began with “confusion”; her students also displayed “distrust” (14) in that they were not certain that the assignment actually allowed them to choose their genres (19). All students considered “the essay” the typical genre for writing classes; some found the familiar conventions a source of confidence and comfort, while for others the sense of routine was “boring” (student, qtd. in Bastian 15).
Bastian found that the degree to which students expressed “an aversion” to the constraints of “academic convention” affected their responses to the assignment, particularly the kinds of genres they chose and their levels of comfort with the unusual assignment.
Those who said that they wanted more freedom in classroom writing chose what the students as a whole considered “atypical” genres for their critiques, such as recipes, advertisements, or magazine covers (16-17). Students who felt safer within the conventions preferred more “typical” choices such as PowerPoint presentations and business letters (16, 22). The students who picked atypical genres claimed that they appreciated the opportunity to experience “a lot more chance to express yourself” (student, qtd. in Bastian 22), and possibly discover “hidden talents” (22).
The author found, however, that even students who wanted more freedom did not begin the unit with high levels of comfort. She found that the unusual way the assignment was presented, the “concept of critique,” and the idea that they could pick their own genres concerned even the more adventurous students (18). In Bastian’s view, the “power of academic convention” produced a forceful emotional attachment: students “distrusted the idea that both textual innovation and academic convention is both valid and viable in the classroom” (20).
Extensive exposure to critiques and peer interaction reduced discomfort for all students by the end of the unit (19), but those who felt least safe outside the typical classroom experience reported less comfort (23). One student expressed a need to feel safe, yet, after seeing his classmates’ work, chose an atypical response, encouraging Bastian to suggest that with the right support, “students can be persuaded to take risks” (23).
Bastian draws on research suggesting that what Barry Kroll calls “intelligent confusion” (qtd. in Bastian 26) and “cognitive disequilibrium” can lead to learning if supported by appropriate activities (26). The students reported gains in a number of rhetorical dimensions and specifically cited the value of having to do something that made them uncomfortable (25). Bastian argues that writing teachers should not be surprised to encounter such resistance, and can prepare for it with four steps: ‘openly acknowledge and discuss” the discomfort students might feel; model innovation; design activities that translate confusion into learning; and allow choice (27-28). She urges more empirical research on the nature of students’ affective responses to writing instruction (29).