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Cope, Emily Murphy. Evangelical Identities and First-Year Writing. RTE May 2020. Posted 08/17/2020.

Cope, Emily Murphy. “Compartmentalizing Faith: How Three First-Semester Undergraduates Manage Evangelical Identities in Academic Writing.” Research in the Teaching of English 54.4 (2020): 367-91. Print.

Emily Murphy Cope studied how students identifying as evangelicals addressed the requirements of their first-year academic writing courses at “a large, public university located on an urban campus in the southeastern United States” (372). From the original ten students, she chose three to discuss for this article, in order to investigate the phenomenon of “compartmentalization” as a strategy for handling faith in an academic setting (368).

Cope discusses efforts to define “evangelicals,” noting that while this subset, estimated at 25% of the U.S. population, is “not a monolith,” research suggests that members share beliefs in “personal conversion and transformation, the Bible’s authority over Christian life, and the importance of enacting faith in ‘the world’” (368). Cope writes that scholars name such enactment “activism”; she differentiates between “service-oriented activism” addressing social needs and “evangelism-oriented activism” focused on conversion efforts (368).

Research on identity suggests that evangelicals, like other members of the current undergraduate population, construct identities that are “fluid” and “hybrid” and are often adjusted according to context (369). Cope’s larger study spoke to this finding in that all ten original students reported in interviews that their faith was important and “relevant” to their coursework, but in her analysis of their papers, she found that “evangelical identities were mostly invisible on the page” (370). She finds a “gap” in research in that many studies address students’ efforts to express their religious beliefs in their academic writing, but fewer examine situations like that of the three students she assesses, who find strategies for separating their religious and academic selves (370).

Cope sees these strategies as important for writing pedagogy because, in her view, writing instructors often aim to create a “cosmopolitan” discourse experience, in particular, one of “ethical cosmopolitanism”; drawing on S. S. Choo, she defines this stance as embracing “other-centered orientations and dialogic practices” (369). She cites M. M. Juzwik and C. McKenzie’s concern that evangelicals may not espouse these inclusive values (369). On the other hand, J. M. Ringer argues that some “enact a set of values that align with the civic goals of rhetorical education,” including an openness to “communication across differences” (qtd. in Cope 369). Scholars of identity formation, Cope posits, can learn much from such students’ efforts to “bridge multiple identities, interests, and languages” (369).

Her analysis of the interviews with the original ten students revealed three strategies: obscuring faith, which “cloak[s]” religious elements; compartmentalizing faith, in which students deliberately choose options that they see as unrelated to their faith; and integrating values, in which students look for ways to mesh their religious beliefs and those of other contexts (370-71).

She combines these data with strategies discussed in “social identity complexity theory” (SICT), advanced by S. Roccas and M. Brewer. This theory proposes that people align with many groups but that the identities practiced within these contexts may conflict with each other. The theory presents ways in which people may respond to this dissonance. The strategy of “Intersection” results in alignment only with others who “share all salient identities,” while “dominance” leads to subsuming multiple identities under one overarching choice. Choosing “compartmentalization” allows people to sustain separate identities that they “do not activate . . . simultaneously.” Finally, “Merger” involves “preserv[ing] both differentiation and integration in an inclusive social identity” (Roccas and Brewer, qtd. in Cope 371).

Cope discusses the role of positionality in her study. An early attempt to recruit evangelical students failed, but when she referred to herself as a “Christian researcher,” she found students willing to participate. One of the ten identified as “a Middle eastern kid”; the others, though white, did not all claim this identity. Cope lists a number of identities salient to the students, including “Southern” and “fans of athletic teams” (373). Cope asked students to submit all papers written up to that point; she received 195 writing samples. She coded both her hour-long interviews and the documents using a number of methods (374).

Interview questions asked what faith and Christianity meant to each student, then explored the experience of being a college writing student. For the documents, Cope asked for “the story of writing this paper,” then closed by asking whether, in the student’s view, “your faith affects your writing for college” (373-74). Charts and appendices report data on these analyses.

For the article itself, Cope focused on three students whose strategy of choice was compartmentalization. One of these, “Joe,” was the only student of the original ten who, when asked if his faith impacted his college writing, responded “Not a whole lot. No.” (qtd. in Cope 378). Interviews indicated that Joe’s on-campus identity was largely that of a university student and his writing reflected his willingness to adopt what he considered the most effective moves to earn a good grade (381). Cope notes that when he was having a hard time coming up with a suitable topic, he considered incorporating the experience of a mission trip but rejected it as “personal” and inappropriate for the assignment. However, Cope writes, Joe was willing to incorporate personal reactions when they did not deal with religion. She disputes that the suggestion that his choices marked him as less religious than other students, writing rather that his evangelical identity “was not ‘activated’” in college settings (381).

In contrast, Cope writes that the other two students, “Leesa” and “Will,” wanted “to enact faith via academic writing, but hadn’t yet figured out how” (381). Both wanted to engage in evangelical activism and saw communicating outside of their religious group important, but neither reported acting on this intention (384). According to the interviews, these students struggled to find topics where discussing their faith would be appropriate given their conviction that academic writing did not involve “personal” matters like religion (383). Leesa was able to bring up her faith in a paper devoted to researching her major, religious studies (383). Will mentioned being concerned about endorsing evolution in a lab report; Cope notes he indicated this discomfort by attributing claims to scientists rather than to himself (384). But on the whole, these students chose topics where faith was not an issue for them (386).

Cope argues that perceptions that academic writing cannot be personal coupled with “secularization,” which “differentiates and privatizes religion” (388; emphasis original), are detrimental to writing teachers’ efforts to help students communicate across difference. Students who choose compartmentalization miss opportunities to practice “hybridized identities that can engage in cosmopolitan dialogue and civic discourse” (388). Cope suggests that teachers who resist the public/private binary and what K. Hyland calls “the myth of impersonality” can work to help religious students “integrat[e] values” rather than compartmentalizing them (387).