College Composition Weekly: Summaries of research for college writing professionals

Read, Comment On, and Share News of the Latest from the Rhetoric and Composition Journals


Leave a comment

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).


Leave a comment

Zuidema and Fredricksen. Preservice Teachers’ Use of Resources. August RTE. Posted 09/25/2016.

Zuidema, Leah A., and James E. Fredricksen. “Resources Preservice Teachers Use to Think about Student Writing.” Research in the Teaching of English 51.1 (2016): 12-36. Print.

Leah A. Zuidema and James E. Fredricksen document the resources used by students in teacher-preparation programs. The study examined transcripts collected from VoiceThread discussions among 34 preservice teachers (PSTs) (16). The PSTs reviewed and discussed papers provided by eighth- and ninth-grade students in Idaho and Indiana (18).

Zuidema and Fredricksen define “resource” as “an aid or source of evidence used to help support claims; an available supply that can be drawn upon when needed” (15). They intend their study to move beyond determining what writing teachers “get taught” to discovering what kinds of resources PSTs actually use in developing their theories and practices for K-12 writing classrooms (13-14).

The literature review suggests that the wide range of concepts and practices presented in teacher-preparation programs varies depending on local conditions and is often augmented by students’ own educational experiences (14). The authors find very little systematic study of how beginning teachers actually draw on the methods and concepts their training provides (13).

Zuidema and Fredricksen see their study as building on prior research by systematically identifying the resources teachers use and assigning them to broad categories to allow a more comprehensive understanding of how teachers use such sources to negotiate the complexities of teaching writing (15-16).

To gather data, the researchers developed a “community of practice” by building their methods courses around a collaborative project focusing on assessing writing across two different teacher-preparation programs (16-17). Twenty-six Boise State University PSTs and 8 from a small Christian college, Dordt, received monthly sets of papers from the eighth and ninth graders, which they then assessed individually and with others at their own institutions.

The PSTs then worked in groups through VoiceThread to respond to the papers in three “rounds,” first “categoriz[ing]” the papers according to strengths and weaknesses; then categorizing and prioritizing the criteria they relied on; and finally “suggest[ing] a pedagogical plan of action” (19). This protocol did not explicitly ask PSTs to name the resources they used but revealed these resources via the transcriptions (19).

The methods courses taught by Zuidema and Fredricksen included “conceptual tools” such as “guiding frameworks, principles, and heuristics,” as well as “practical tools” like “journal writing and writer’s workshop” (14). PSTs read professional sources and participated in activities that emphasized the value of sharing writing with students (17). Zuidema and Fredricksen contend that a community of practice in which professionals explain their reasoning as they assess student writing encourages PSTs to “think carefully about theory-practice connections” (18).

In coding the VoiceThread conversations, the researchers focused on “rhetorical approaches to composition” (19), characterized as attention to “arguments and claims . . . , evidence and warrants,” and “sources of support” (20). They found five categories of resources PSTs used to support claims about student writing:

  • Understanding of students and student writing (9% of instances)
  • Knowledge of the context (10%)
  • Colleagues (11%)
  • PSTs’ roles as writers, readers, and teachers (17%)
  • PSTs’ ideas and observations about writing (54%) (21)

In each case, Zuidema and Fredricksen developed subcategories. For example, “Understanding of students and student writing” included “Experience as a student writer” and “Imagining students and abilities,” while “Colleagues” consisted of “Small-group colleagues,” “More experienced teachers,” “Class discussion/activity,” and “Professional reading” (23).

Category 1, “Understanding of students and student writing,” was used “least often,” with PSTs referring to their own student-writing experiences only six times out of 435 recorded instances (24). The researchers suggest that this category might have been used more had the PSTs been able to interact with the students (24). They see “imagining” how students are reacting to assignments important as a “way [teachers] can develop empathy” and develop interest in how students understand writing (24).

Category 2, “Knowledge of Context as a Resource,” was also seldom used. Those who did refer to it tended to note issues involving what Zuidema and Fredricksen call GAPS: rhetorical awareness of “genre, audience, purpose, and situation of the writing” (25). Other PSTs noted the role of the prompt in inviting strong writing. The researchers believe these types of awarenesses encourage more sophisticated assessment of student work (25).

The researchers express surprise that Category 3, “Colleagues,” was used so seldom (26). Colleagues in the small groups were cited most often, but despite specific encouragement to do so, several groups did not draw on this resource. Zuidema and Fredricksen note that reference to the resource increased through the three rounds. Also surprising was the low rate of reference to mentors and experienced teachers, to class discussion, activities, and assignments: Only one participant mentioned a required “professional reading” as a resource (27). Noting that the PSTs may have used concepts from mentors and class assignments without explicitly naming them, the authors note prior research suggesting that reference to outside sources can be perceived as undercutting the authority conferred by experience (27).

In Category 4, “Roles as Resources,” Zuidema and Fredricksen note that PSTs were much more likely to draw on their roles as readers or teachers than as writers (28). Arguing that a reader perspective augured an awareness of the importance of audience, the researchers note that most PSTs in their study perceived their own individual reader responses as most pertinent, suggesting the need to emphasize varied perspectives readers might bring to a text (28).

Fifty-four percent of the PSTs references invoked “Writing as a Resource” (29). Included in this category were “imagined ideal writing,” “comparisons across student writing,” “holistic” references to “whole texts,” and “excerpts” (29-31). In these cases, PSTs’ uses of the resources ranged from “a rigid, unrhetorical view of writing” in which “rules” governed assessment (29) to a more effective practice that “connected [student writing] with a rhetorical framework” (29). For example, the use of excerpts could be used for “keeping score” on “checklists” or as a means of noting patterns and suggesting directions for teaching (31). Comparisons among students and expectations for other students at similar ages, Zuidema and Fredricksen suggest, allowed some PSTs to reflect on developmental issues, while holistic evaluation allowed consideration of tone, audience, and purpose (30).

Zuidema and Fredricksen conclude that in encouraging preservice teachers to draw on a wide range of resources, “exposure was not enough” (32), and “[m]ere use is not the goal” (33). Using their taxonomy as a teaching tool, they suggest, may help PSTs recognize the range of resources available to them and “scaffold their learning” (33) so that they will be able to make informed decisions when confronted with the multiple challenges inherent in today’s diverse and sometimes “impoverished” contexts for teaching writing (32).