College Composition Weekly: Summaries of research for college writing professionals

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Estrem et al. “Reclaiming Writing Placement.” WPA, Fall 2018. Posted 12/10/2018.

Estrem, Heidi, Dawn Shepherd, and Samantha Sturman. “Reclaiming Writing Placement.” Journal of the Council of Writing Program Administrators 42.1 (2018): 56-71. Print.

Heidi Estrem, Dawn Shepherd, and Samantha Sturman urge writing program administrators (WPAs) to deal with long-standing issues surrounding the placement of students into first-year writing courses by exploiting “fissures” (60) created by recent reform movements.

The authors note ongoing efforts by WPAs to move away from using single or even multiple test scores to determine which courses and how much “remediation” will best serve students (61). They particularly highlight “directed self-placement” (DSP) as first encouraged by Dan Royer and Roger Gilles in a 1998 article in College Composition and Communication (56). Despite efforts at individual institutions to build on DSP by using multiple measures, holistic as well as numerical, the authors write that “for most college students at most colleges and universities, test-based placement has continued” (57).

Estrem et al. locate this pressure to use test scores in the efforts of groups like Complete College America (CCA) and non-profits like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which “emphasize efficiency, reduced time to degree, and lower costs for students” (58). The authors contrast this “focus on degree attainment” with the field’s concern about “how to best capture and describe student learning” (61).

Despite these different goals, Estrem et al. recognize the problems caused by requiring students to take non-credit-bearing courses that do not address their actual learning needs (59). They urge cooperation, even if it is “uneasy,” with reform groups in order to advance improvements in the kinds of courses available to entering students (58). In their view, the impetus to reduce “remedial” coursework opens the door to advocacy for the kinds of changes writing professionals have long seen as serious solutions. Their article recounts one such effort in Idaho to use the mandate to end remediation as it is usually defined and replace it with a more effective placement model (60).

The authors note that CCA calls for several “game changers” in student progress to degree. Among these are the use of more “corequisite” courses, in which students can earn credit for supplemental work, and “multiple measures” (59, 61). Estrem et al. find that calls for these game changers open the door for writing professionals to introduce innovative courses and options, using evidence that they succeed in improving student performance and retention, and to redefine “multiple measures” to include evidence such as portfolio submissions (60-61).

Moreover, Estrem et al. find three ways in which WPAs can respond to specific calls from reform movements in ways that enhance student success. First, they can move to create new placement processes that enable students to pass their first-year courses more consistently, thus responding to concerns about costs to students (62); second, they can provide data on increased retention, which speaks to time to degree; and finally, they can recognize a current “vacuum” in the “placement test market” (62-63). They note that ACT’s Compass is no longer on the market; with fewer choices, institutions may be open to new models. The authors contend that these pressures were not as exigent when directed self-placement was first promoted. The existence of such new contexts, they argue, provides important and possibly short-lived opportunities (63).

The authors note the growing movement to provide college courses to students while they are in high school (62). Despite the existence of this model for lowering the cost and time to degree, Estrem et al. argue that the first-year experience is central to student success in college regardless of students’ level when they enter, and that placing students accurately during this first college exposure can have long-lasting effects (63).

Acknowledging that individual institutions must develop tools that work in their specific contexts, Estrem et al. present “The Write Class,” their new placement tool. The Write Class is “a web application that uses an algorithm to match students with a course based on the information they provide” (64). Students are asked a set of questions, beginning with demographics. A “second phase,” similar to that in Royer and Gilles’s original model, asks for “reflection” on students’ reading and writing habits and attitudes, encouraging, among other results, student “metaawareness” about their own literacy practices (65).

The third phase provides extensive information about the three credit-bearing courses available to entering students: the regular first-year course in which most students enroll; a version of this course with an additional workshop hour with the instructor in a small group setting; or a second-semester research-based course (64). The authors note that the courses are given generic names, such as “Course A,” to encourage students to choose based on the actual course materials and their self-analysis rather than a desire to get into or dodge specific courses (65).

Finally, students are asked to take into account “the context of their upcoming semester,” including the demands they expect from family and jobs (65). With these data, the program advises students on a “primary and secondary placement,” for some including the option to bypass the research course through test scores and other data (66).

In the authors’ view, the process has a number of additional benefits that contribute to student success. Importantly, they write, the faculty are able to reach students prior to enrollment and orientation rather than find themselves forced to deal with placement issues after classes have started (66). Further, they can “control the content and the messaging that students receive” regarding the writing program and can respond to concerns across campus (67). The process makes it possible to have “meaningful conversation[s]” with students who may be concerned about their placement results; in addition, access to the data provided by the application allows the WPAs to make necessary adjustments (67-68).

Overall, the authors present a student’s encounter with their placement process as “a pedagogical moment” (66), in which the focus moves from “getting things out of the way” to “starting a conversation about college-level work and what it means to be a college student” (68). This shift, they argue, became possible through rhetorically savvy conversations that took advantage of calls for reform; by “demonstrating how [The Write Class process] aligned with this larger conversation,” the authors were able to persuade administrators to adopt the kinds of concrete changes WPAs and writing scholars have long advocated (66).


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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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Jensen and Ely. An “Externship” for Teaching at Two-Year Colleges. TETYC, Mar. 2017. Posted 04/06/2017.

Jensen, Darin, and Susan Ely. “A Partnership Teaching Externship Program: A Model That Makes Do.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 44.3 (2017): 247-63. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.

Darin Jensen and Susan Ely describe a program to address the dearth of writing instructors prepared to meet the needs of community-college students. This program, an “externship,” was developed by the authors as an arrangement between Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Nebraska (MCC), and the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) (247).

The authors write that as full-time faculty at MCC, they were expected to teach developmental writing but that neither had training in either basic-writing instruction or in working with community-college populations (247). When Ely became coordinator of basic writing, she found that while she could hire instructors with knowledge of first-year writing, the pool of instructors adequately prepared to teach in the particular context of community colleges “did not exist” (248).

This dearth was especially concerning because, according to a 2015 Fact Sheet from the American Association of Community Colleges, 46% of entering students attend community colleges, while a 2013 report from the National Conference of State Legislatures notes that more than 50% of these students enroll in remedial coursework (250). Community colleges also serve the “largest portion” of minority, first-generation, and low-income students (250-51).

Jensen and Ely attribute much of this lack of preparation for teaching developmental writing to the nature of graduate training; they quote a 2014 report from the Modern Language Association that characterizes graduate education as privileging the “‘narrow replication’ of scholars” at the expense, in the authors’ words, of “more substantive training in teaching” (249). Such a disconnect, the authors contend, disadvantages both the undergraduate students who need instructors versed in basic writing and the graduating literacy professionals who lack the preparation for teaching that will ensure them full-time employment (248). They quote Ellen Andrews Knodt to note that the emphasis on teaching needed to serve community-college students suffers “almost by definition” from an “inferior status” (qtd. in Jensen and Ely 249).

Jensen and Ely’s research documents a lack of attention to teacher preparation even among resources dedicated to community colleges and basic writing. Holly Hassel’s 2013 examination of Teaching English in the Two-Year College from 2001 to 2012 found only “8 of 239 articles” that addressed teacher preparation (249). In 2006, Barbara Gleason “found fewer than twenty graduate courses in teaching basic writing across the country” (250). The authors found only one issue of TETYC, in March 2001, dealing with teacher preparation, and Gleason found only two issues of the Journal of Basic Writing, from 1981 and 1984, that focused primarily on professional development for teaching this student population (250).

Given these findings and their own experiences, Jensen and Ely designed a program that would be “activist in nature” (248), committed to the idea, drawn from Patrick Sullivan, that community-college teaching participates in “the noble work of democratizing American higher education” (249).

Jensen and Ely chose Gregory Cowan’s 1971 term “externship” over “apprenticeship” because of the latter’s “problematic hierarchical nature” (251). They abandoned a preliminary internship model because the graduate students were “not really interns, but were student teachers” and did not produce traditional papers (251). Subsequent iterations were structured as independent studies under Dr. Tammie Kennedy at UNO (251).

The authors explain that neither institution fully supported the project, at least partly, they believe, because the “low value” of community-college teaching makes it “a hard sell” (252). Dr. Kennedy earned no compensation and had no clear understanding of how the work counted in her career advancement (251-52). The authors received no reassigned time and only a $500 stipend. They emphasize that these conditions “demonstrate the difficult realities” of the kind of change they hoped to encourage (252).

Students in the program committed to eighty hours of work during a spring semester, including readings, partnering on syllabus and course design, student-teaching in every community-college course meeting, participating in planning and reflections before and after the classes, and attending a collaborative grading session (252). The externship went far beyond what the authors consider typical practica for teaching assistants; it more nearly resembled the K-12 preservice model, “provid[ing] guided practice and side-by-side mentoring for the novice teacher,” as well as extensive exposure to theoretical work in serving community-college populations (252). The graduate students developed a teaching portfolio, a teaching philosophy for the community-college environment, and a revised CV (251).

The authors share their reading lists, beginning with Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary and Burton R. Clark’s “The ‘Cooling-Out’ Function in Higher Education,” which they value for its “counterpoint to the promise of developmental education in Rose’s books” (252). Works by Ilona Leki, Dana Ferris, and Ann Johns added insight into ESL students, while Adrienne Rich’s “Teaching Language in Open Admissions” spoke to the needs of first-generation students (253). The authors drew from Susan Naomi Bernstein’s Teaching Developmental Writing in the first year; readings on the politics of remediation came from Mary Soliday and Patrick Finn ((253).

The program emphasized course design beyond the bare introduction offered in the graduate practicum. Themed courses using “an integrated reading and writing model” involved “vocabulary acquisition, close reading, summary, explicit instruction, and discussion” (254). Jensen and Ely stress the importance of “writ[ing] with our students” and choosing texts, often narratives rather than non-fiction, based on the need to engage their particular population (255).

Another important component was the shared grading process that allowed both the authors and the graduate students to discuss and reflect on the outcomes and priorities for community-college education (255). The authors “eschew[ed] skill and drill pedagogy,” focusing on “grammar in the context of writing increasingly complex summaries and responses” (255). Though they state that the time commitment in such sessions makes them impractical “on a regular basis,” they value them as “an intense relational experience” (255).

Throughout, the authors emphasize that working with the graduate students to refine pedagogy for the community college allowed them to reflect on and develop their own theoretical understanding and teaching processes (254, 255).

The graduate students participated in interviews in which they articulated a positive response to the program (256). The authors report that while the four students in their first two years constitute too small a sample for generalization, the program contributed to success in finding full-time employment (257).

Jensen and Ely conclude that the current structure of higher education and the low regard for teaching make it unlikely that programs like theirs will be easy to establish and maintain. Yet, they note, the knowledge and professional development that will enable community-college teachers to meet the demands forced on them by the “persistence and completion” agenda can only come from adequately supported programs that offer

a serious and needed reform for the gross lack of training that universities provide to graduate students, many of whom will go on to become community college instructors. 257