College Composition Weekly: Summaries of research for college writing professionals

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Del Principe and Ihara. Reading at a Community College. TETYC, Mar. 2016. Posted 04/10/2016.

Del Principe, Annie, and Rachel Ihara. “‘I Bought the Book and I Didn’t Need It’: What Reading Looks Like at an Urban Community College.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 43.3 (2016): 229-44. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.

Annie Del Principe and Rachel Ihara conducted a qualitative study of student reading practices at Kingsborough Community College, CUNY. They held interviews and gathered course materials from ten students over the span of the students’ time at the college between fall 2011 and fall 2013, amassing “complete records” for five (231). They found a variety of definitions of acceptable reading practices across disciplines; they urge English faculty to recognize this diversity, but they also advocate for more reflection from faculty in all academic subject areas on the purposes of the reading they assign and how reading can be supported at two-year colleges (242).

Four of the five students who were intensively studied placed into regular first-year composition and completed Associates’ degrees while at Kingsborough; the fifth enrolled in a “low-level developmental writing class” and transferred to a physician’s assistant program at a four-year institution in 2015 (232). The researchers’ inquiry covered eighty-three different courses and included twenty-three hours of interviews (232).

The authors’ review of research on reading notes that many different sources across institutions and disciplines see difficulty with reading as a reason that students often struggle in college. The authors recount a widespread perception that poor preparation, especially in high school, and students’ lack of effort is to blame for students’ difficulties but contend that the ways in which faculty frame and use reading also influence how students approach assigned texts (230). Faculty, Del Principe and Ihara write, often do not see teaching reading as part of their job and opt for modes of instruction that convey information in ways that they perceive as efficient, such as lecturing extensively and explaining difficult texts rather than helping students work through them (230).

A 2013 examination of seven community colleges in seven states by the National Center for Education and the Economy (NCEE) reported that the kinds of reading and writing students do in these institutions “are not very cognitively challenging”; don’t require students “to do much” with assigned reading; and demand “performance levels” that are only “modest” (231). This study found that more intensive work on analyzing and reflecting on texts occurred predominately in English classes (231). The authors argue that because community-college faculty are aware of the problems caused by reading difficulties, these faculty are “constantly experimenting” with strategies for addressing these problems; this focus, in the authors’ view, makes community colleges important spaces for investigating reading issues (231).

Del Principe and Ihara note that in scholarship by Linda Adler-Kassner and Heidi Estrem and by David Jolliffe as well as in the report by NCEE, the researchers categorize the kinds of reading students are asked to do in college (232-33). The authors state that their “grounded theory approach” (232) differs from the methods in these works in that they

created categories based on what students said about how they used reading in their classes and what they did (or didn’t do) with the assigned reading rather than on imagined ways of reading or what was ostensibly required by the teacher or by the assignment. (233).

This methodology produced “five themes”:

  • “Supplementing lecture with reading” (233). Students reported this activity in 37% of the courses examined, primarily in non-English courses that depended largely on lecture. Although textbooks were assigned, students received most of the information in lectures but turned to reading to “deepen [their] understanding ” or for help if the lecture proved inadequate in some way (234).
  • “Listening and taking notes as text” (233). This practice, encountered in 35% of the courses, involved situations in which a textbook or other reading was listed on the syllabus but either implicitly or explicitly designated as “optional.” Instructors provided handouts or PowerPoint outlines; students combined these with notes from class to create de facto “texts” on which exams were based. According to Del Principe and Ihara, “This marginalization of long-form reading was pervasive” (235).
  • “Reading to complete a task” (233). In 24% of the courses, students reported using reading for in-class assignments like lab reports or quizzes; in one case, a student described a collaborative group response to quizzes (236). Other activities included homework such as doing math problems. Finally, students used reading to complete research assignments. The authors discovered very little support for or instruction on the use and evaluation of materials incorporated into research projects and posit that much of this reading may have focused on “dubious Internet sources” and may have included cut-and-paste (237).
  • “Analyzing text” (233). Along with “reflecting on text,” below, this activity occurred “almost exclusively” in English classes (238). The authors describe assignments calling for students to attend to a particular line or idea in a text or to compare themes across texts. Students reported finding “on their own” that they had to read more slowly and carefully to complete these tasks (238).
  • “Reflecting on text” (233). Only six of the 83 courses asked students to “respond personally” to reading; only one was not an English course (239). The assignments generally led to class discussion, in which, according to the students, few class members participated, possibly because “Nobody [did] the reading” (student, qtd. in Del Principe and Ihara 239; emendation original).

Del Principe and Ihara focus on the impact of instructors’ “following up” on their assignments with activities that “require[d] students to draw information or ideas directly from their own independent reading” (239). Such follow-up surfaced in only fourteen of the 83 classes studied, with six of the fourteen being English classes. Follow-up in English included informal responses and summaries as well as assigned uses of outside material in longer papers, while in courses other than English, quizzes or exams encouraged reading (240). The authors found that in courses with no follow-up, “students typically did not do the reading” (241).

Del Principe and Ihara acknowledge that composition professionals will find the data “disappointing,” but feel that it’s important not to be misdirected by a “specific disciplinary lens” into dismissing the uses students and other faculty make of different kinds of reading (241). In many classes, they contend, reading serves to back up other kinds of information rather than as the principle focus, as it does in English classes. However, they do ask for more reflection across the curriculum. They note that students are often required to purchase expensive books that are never used. They hope to trigger an “institutional inquiry” that will foster more consideration of how instructors in all fields can encourage the kinds of reading they want students to do (242).


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Obermark et al. New TA Development Model. WPA, Fall 2015. Posted 02/08/2016.

Obermark, Lauren, Elizabeth Brewer, and Kay Halasek. “Moving from the One and Done to a Culture of Collaboration: Revising Professional Development for TAs.” Journal of the Council of Writing Program Administrators 39.1 (2015): 32-53. Print.

Lauren Obermark, Elizabeth Brewer, and Kay Halasek detail a professional development model for graduate teaching assistants (TAs) that was established at their institution to better meet the needs of both beginning and continuing TAs. Their model responded to the call from E. Shelley Reid, Heidi Estrem, and Marcia Belcheir to “[g]o gather data—not just impressions—from your own TAs” in order to understand and foreground local conditions (qtd. in Obermark et al. 33).

To examine and revise their professional development process beginning in 2011 and continuing through 2013, Obermark et al. conducted a survey of current TAs, held focus groups, and surveyed “alumni” TAs to determine TAs’ needs and their reactions to the support provided by the program (35-36).

An exigency for Obermark et al. was the tendency they found in the literature to concentrate TA training on the first semester of teaching. They cite Beth Brunk-Chavez to note that this tendency gives short shrift to the continuing concerns and professional growth of TAs as they advance from their early experiences in first-year writing to more complex teaching assignments (33). As a result of their research, Obermark et al. advocate for professional development that is “collaborative,” “ongoing,” and “distributed across departmental and institutional locations” (34).

The TA program in place at the authors’ institution prior to the assessment included a week-long orientation, a semester’s teaching practicum, a WPA class observation, and a syllabus built around a required textbook (34). After their first-year, TAs were able to move on to other classes, particularly the advanced writing class, which fulfills a general education requirement across the university and is expected to provide a more challenging writing experience, including a “scaffolded research project” (35). Obermark et al. found that while students with broader teaching backgrounds were often comfortable with designing their own syllabus to meet more complex pedagogical requirements, many TAs who had moved from the well-supported first-year course to the second wished for more guidance than they had received (35).

Consulting further scholarship by Estrem and Reid led Obermark et al. to act on “a common error” in professional development: failing to conduct a “needs assessment” by directly asking questions designed to determine, in the words of Kathleen Blake Yancey, “the characteristics of the TAs for whom the program is designed” (qtd. in Obermark et al. 36-37). The use of interview methodology through focus groups not only instilled a collaborative ethos, it also permitted the authors to plan “developmentally appropriate PD” and provided TAs with what the authors see as a rare opportunity to reflect on their experiences as teachers. Obermark et al. stress that this fresh focus on what Cynthia Selfe and Gail Hawisher call a “participatory model of research” (37) allowed the researchers to demonstrate their perceptions of the TAs as professional colleagues, leading the TAs themselves “to identify more readily as professionals” (37).

TAs’ sense of themselves as professionals was further strengthened by the provision of “ongoing” support to move beyond what Obermark et al. call “the one and done” model (39). Through the university teaching center, they encountered Jody Nyquist and Jo Sprague’s theory of three stages of TA development: “senior learners” who “still identify strongly with students”; “colleagues in training” who have begun to recognize themselves as teachers; and “junior colleagues” who have assimilated their professional identities to the point that they “may lack only the formal credentials” (qtd. in Obermark et al. 39). Obermark et al. note that their surveys revealed, as Nyquist and Sprague predicted, that their population comprised TAs at all three levels as they moved through these stages at different rates (39-40).

The researchers learned that even experienced TAs still often had what might have been considered basic questions about the goals of the more advanced course and how to integrate the writing process into the course’s general education outcomes (40). The research revealed that as TAs moved past what Nyquist and Sprague denoted the “survival” mode that tends to characterize a first year of teaching, they began to recognize the value of composition theory and became more invested in applying theory to their teaching (39). That 75% of the alumni surveyed were teaching writing in their institutions regardless of their actual departmental positions reinforced the researchers’ certainty and the TAs’ awareness that composition theory and practice would be central to their ongoing academic careers (40).

Refinements included a more extensive schedule of optional workshops and a “peer-to-peer” program that responded to TA requests for more opportunities to observe and interact with each other. Participating TAs received guidance on effective observation processes and feedback; subsequent expansion of this program offered TAs opportunities to share designing assigning assignments and grading as well (42).

The final component of the new professional-development model focused on expanding the process of TA support across both the English department and the wider university. Obermark et al. indicate that many of the concerns expressed by TAs addressed not just teaching writing with a composition-studies emphasis but also teaching more broadly in areas that “did not fall neatly under our domain as WPAs and specialists in rhetoric and composition” (43). For example, TAs asked for more guidance in working with students’ varied learning styles and, in particular, in meeting the requirement for “social diversity” expressed in the general-education outcomes for the more advance course (44). Some alumni TAs reported wishing for more help teaching in other areas within English, such as in literature courses (45).

The authors designed programs featuring faculty and specialists in different pedagogical areas, such as diversity, as well as workshops and break-outs in which TAs could explore kinds of teaching that would apply across the many different environments in which they found themselves as professionals (45). Obermark et al. note especially the relationship they established with the university teaching center, a collaboration that allowed them to integrate expertise in composition with other philosophies of teaching and that provided “allies in both collecting data and administering workshops for which we needed additional expertise” (45). Two other specific benefits from this partnership were the enhanced “institutional memory” that resulted from inclusion of a wider range of faculty and staff and increased sustainability for the program as a larger university population became invested in the effort (45-46).

Obermark et al. provide their surveys and focus-group questions, urging other WPAs to engage TAs in their own development and to relate to them “as colleagues in the field rather than novices in need of training, inoculation, or the one and done approach” (47).