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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).


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Lawrence, Ann M. Teacher-Educator Identity Work in Doctoral Programs. RTE, Nov. 2017. Posted 01/04/2017.

Lawrence, Ann M. ‘(Dis)identifying as Writers, Scholars, and Researchers: Former Schoolteachers’ Professional Identity Work during Their Teaching-Education Doctoral Studies.” Research in the Teaching of English 52.2 (2017): 181-210. Print.

Ann M. Lawrence reports a longitudinal study of the ways in which teacher-education doctoral students specializing in language, literacy, and/or literature education at a Midwestern research university constructed identities as writers, scholars, and researchers. Lawrence’s fieldwork over 16 consecutive semesters (185) gathered data from doctoral students who were previously PreK-12 schoolteachers (189) working toward professional positions as “university-based teacher educators” (182; emphasis original). Lawrence’s research suggested that these students were reluctant to accept the identities of writer, scholar, or researcher for themselves.

Lawrence investigated the process of identity formation in two contexts, the doctoral program itself and extracurricular writing groups. Her data consisted of narratives on the semester evaluation forms for the writing groups, which she facilitated as “writing coach” (195). She focused particularly on “quick-write[s],” which she defines as “10 minutes of continuous, stream-of-consciousness writing” in response to the terms “writer,” “scholar,” and “researcher” and the question, “What criteria are you using to evaluate your writing/research?” (190). The prompts were designed to avoid “assuming connections between participation [as writers, scholars, and researchers] and identification” (190). Follow-up interviews and conversations also supplied data.

An important concept to Lawrence’s theoretical design was that of “figured worlds,” a term drawn from the identity-formation work of D. Holland, W. Lachicotte, D. Skinner, and C. Cain (183-84). In such worlds, participants identify “figuratively in terms of “available cultural associations with the personas” involved in that world, as well as “idealized versions of those characters and familiar plots of their activities” (183; emphasis original). For example, “academia” is a figured world; Lawrence casts the doctoral program and the writing-group environment as “localized figured worlds” in which

particular characters and actors [were] recognized, significance [was] assigned to certain acts, and particular outcomes [were] valued over others. (Holland et al., qtd. in Lawrence 184; emendations in Lawrence)

Both Holland et al. and Lawrence integrate this concept with Bakhtin’s theory that “authoritative discourses” can become “internally persuasive” as people develop identities voa the discourses, which direct activities and perceptions within figured worlds (Bakhtin, qtd. in Lawrence 184).

Lawrence notes that in both the doctoral program and the writing groups, participants produced academic research writing, in many cases successfully submitting to conferences, journals, and books—even “compet[ing]” with faculty mentors (189). She reports that in the doctoral-program figured world, the participants were cast as students under the directorship of an authoritative faculty supervisor. In contrast, in the voluntary writing groups, which met both face-to-face and online, participants were considered colleagues and collaborators (184, 187).

Comprehensive tables track the shifting identifications of the participants across semesters as they worked on a variety of scholarly and professional products. Lawrence’s analysis of the quick-writes of the 10 woman and single man in the study revealed “a genre of (dis)identification narrative recounted by the women” but not by the man (194).

The narrative, Lawrence writes, developed through three “plot points” (195). The women recognized the “figural” personas associated with the terms writer, scholar, and researcher: “literary authors, discerning individuals, and meticulous investigators” (196). In the second plot move, the women distanced themselves from such figures, whom they saw as hierarchical and elite, characterized by “exclusiveness” and, in the depiction of one student, “superiority” (197). Finally, the women “revised their initial images of writers, scholars, and researchers to evoke more of their own values, practices, and goals,” creating

a revised figurative identity that did not require publication, privileged the self as audience, and promoted the aesthetic experience of “spontaneous” composing, rather than adherence to genre “conventions.” (quotations from study participant in Lawrence 197)

In Lawrence’s view, with these moves, the women recognized “figurative identities” affiliated with the figured world of academia but refused “positional” identifications that would have required them to accept the relations of power, authority, and privilege associated with their perceptions of these figures (196). The women opted to recreate the figures into “amalgams” with limited expertise and authority that they were then willing to claim (197).

In contrast, the male participant aligned himself with the conventional academic identities, displaying little of the conflict evident in the women’s narratives (200-01). However, he subsequently revealed to Lawrence that his portrayal of himself concealed responses similar to those of the women that he had felt “inhibited from sharing” because of “sociocultural norms” dictating masculine expressions of weakness or doubt (202).

Lawrence indicates that the voluntary writing groups introduced many of the skills necessary to successful academic research and publication, but that the study participants struggled to accept the role of authoritative colleague that these groups offered, opting more often for the role of “student’ encouraged by the doctoral figured world (202-03), thus, in Bakhtin’s terms, finding the “schoolishness” (A. E. Whitney, qtd. in Lawrence 206) of the program’s “authoritative discourses” more “internally persuasive” (203). For Lawrence, these choices may be related to an “imposter syndrome” derived from the widespread lack of authority granted to schoolteachers and even to teacher-researchers in general, especially to the women who most often occupy these roles (204-05).

Lawrence stresses the importance of teacher-education programs that encourage developing faculty to recognize and act on their authority as researchers and colleagues. She notes that in later correspondence, her participants reported that their tendency to avoid these roles affected their ability to earn promotions and assert their expertise in their later careers (204-05).

In her discussion, Lawrence explores how the figured worlds of the writing groups and the more formal doctoral program might work together more effectively to encourage professional identity formation among students like her participants. Because the groups, as voluntary and extracurricular activities, did not command the “institutional authority” of the program itself, their influence on identities may have been undercut (206).

Lawrence suggests that program faculty might become more proactive as participant-facilitators in these groups by acting as colleagues rather than supervisors and sharing their own experiences as writers and researchers (207). Although faculty might fear “potential risks to faculty authority” (207), Lawrence argues that such roles can lead faculty to explore their own roles as educators and allow group members, including faculty, to analyze their trajectories through different identities, including that of “schoolteacher,” which Lawrence sees as an important springboard for the study of writing education (182). Such interaction, Lawrence contends, can make the doctoral program itself more conducive to collegial interaction (206-07). Lawrence urges more research into the development of faculty identity with attention to gender and to the productive intersection of possible figured worlds (205-06).