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Donahue & Foster-Johnson. Text Analysis for Evidence of Transfer. RTE, May 2018. Posted 07/13/2018.

Donahue, Christiane, and Lynn Foster-Johnson. “Liminality and Transition: Text Features in Postsecondary Student Writing.” Research in the Teaching of English 52.4 (2018): 359-381. Web. 4 July 2018.

Christiane Donahue and Lynn Foster-Johnson detail a study of student writing in the “liminal space” between a “generic” first-year-writing course and a second, “discipline-inspired” first-year seminar (365). They see their study as unusual in that it draws its data and conclusions from empirical “corpus analysis” of the texts students produce (376-77). They also present their study as different from much other research in that it considered a “considerably larger” sample that permits them to generalize about the broader population of the specific institution where the study took place (360).

The authors see liminal spaces as appropriate for the study of the issue usually referred to as “transfer,” which they see as a widely shared interest across composition studies (359). They contend that their study of “defined features” in texts produced as students move from one type of writing course to another allows them to identify “just-noticeable difference[s]” that they believe can illuminate how writing develops across contexts (361).

The literature review examines definitions of liminality as well as wide-ranging writing scholarship that attempts to articulate how knowledge created in one context changes as it is applied in new situations. They cite Linda Adler-Kassner’s 2014 contention that students may benefit from “learning strategy rather than specific writing rules or forms,” thus developing the ability to adapt to a range of new contexts (362).

One finding from studies such as that of Lucille McCarthy in 1987 and Donahue in 2010 is that while students change the way they employ knowledge as they move from first to final years of education, they do not seem fully aware of how their application of what they know has changed (361-62). Thus, for Donahue and Foster-Johnson, the actual features detectable in the texts themselves can be illuminating in ways that other research methodologies may not (362, 364).

Examining the many terms that have been used to denote “transfer,” Donahue and Foster-Johnson advocate for “models of writing knowledge reuse” and “adaptation,” which capture the recurrence of specific features and the ways these features may change to serve a new exigency (364).

The study took place in a “selective” institution (366) defined as a “doctoral university of high research activity” (365). The student population is half White, with a diverse range of other ethnicities, and 9% first-generation college students (366). Students take either one or two sections of general first-year writing, depending on needs identified by directed self-placement (366), and a first-year seminar that is “designed to teach first-year writing while also introducing students to a topic in a particular (inter)discipline and gesturing toward disciplinary writing” (365). The authors argue that this sequence provides a revealing “’bridge’ moment in students’ learning” (365).

Students were thus divided into three cohorts depending on which courses they took and in which semester. Ninety percent of the instructors provided materials, collecting “all final submitted drafts of the first and last ‘source-based’ papers” for 883 students. Fifty-two papers from each cohort were randomly chosen, resulting in 156 participants (366-67). Each participating student’s work was examined at four time points, with the intention of identifying the presence or absence of specific features (368).

The features under scrutiny were keyed to faculty-developed learning outcomes for the courses (367-68). The article discusses the analysis of seven: thesis presence, thesis type, introduction type, overall text structure, evidence types, conclusion type, and overall essay purpose (367). Each feature was further broken down into “facets,” 38 in all, that illustrated “the specific aspects of the feature” (367-68).

The authors provide detailed tables of their results and list findings in their text. They report that “the portrait is largely one of stability,” but note students’ ability to vary choices “when needed” (369). Statistically significant differences showing “change[s] across time” ranged from 13% in Cohort 1 to 29% in Cohort 2 and 16% in Cohort 3. An example of a stable strategy is the use of “one explicit thesis at the beginning” of a paper (371); a strategy “rarely” used was “a thesis statement [placed] inductively at the middle or end” (372). Donahue and Foster-Johnson argue that these results indicate that students had learned useful options that they could draw on as needed in different contexts (372).

The authors present a more detailed examination of the relationship between “thesis type” and “overall essay aim” (374). They give examples of strong correlations between, for example, “the purpose of analyzing an object” and the use of “an interpretive thesis” as well as negative correlations between, for example, “the purpose of analyzing an object” and “an evaluative thesis” (374). In their view, these data indicate that some textual features are “congruen[t]” with each other while others are “incompatible” (374). They find that their textual analysis documents these relationships and students’ reliance on them.

They note a “reset effect”: in some cases, students increased their use of a facet (e.g., “external source as authority”) over the course of the first class, but then reverted to using the facet less at the beginning of the second class, only to once again increase their reliance on such strategies as the second class progressed (374-75), becoming, “‘repeating newcomers’ in the second term” (374).

Donahue and Foster-Johnson propose as one explanation for the observed stability the possibility that “more stays consistent across contexts than we might readily acknowledge” (376), or that in general-education contexts in which exposure to disciplinary writing is preliminary, the “boundaries we imagine are fuzzy” (377). They posit that it is also possible that curricula may offer students mainly “low-road” opportunities for adaptation or transformation of learned strategies (377). The authors stress that in this study, they were limited to “what the texts tell us” and thus could not speak to students’ reasons for their decisions (376).

Questions for future research, they suggest, include whether students are aware of deliberate reuse of strategies and whether or not “students reusing features do so automatically or purposefully” (377). Research might link student work to particular students with identifiers that would enable follow-up investigation.

They argue that compared to the methods of textual analysis and “topic-modeling” their study employs, “current assessment methods . . . are crude in their construct representation and antiquated in the information they provide” (378). They call for “a new program of research” that exploits a new

capability to code through automated processes and allow large corpora of data to be uploaded and analyzed rapidly under principled categories of analysis. 378

 


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Goldblatt, Eli. Expressivism as “Tacit Tradition.” CCC, Feb. 2017. Posted 03/15/2017.

Goldblatt, Eli. “Don’t Call It Expressivism: Legacies of a ‘Tacit Tradition’.” College Composition and Communication 68.3 (2017): 438-65. Print.

Eli Goldblatt explores what he considers the “subtle legacies” (442) of a “much maligned movement” in composition studies, expressivism (439). His locates his exigency in conversations about the value of a “literacy autobiography” he recently published. These discussions led him to believe that this form of writing did not meet his colleagues’ definition of respectable academic work (438-39).

For Goldblatt, expressivist tendencies may be rejected by theorists but persist in much recent work in the field, creating what Christopher Burnham and Rebecca Powell call a “tacit tradition” within the field (qtd. in Goldblatt 440). Goldblatt argues that recognizing the value and influence of expression will lead to a sense of writing that more fully integrates important aspects of what actually inspires writers.

Graduate students, he reports, often learn about expressivism via the scholarly debate between David Bartholomae and Peter Elbow in 1989 and 1991; such theoretical work cast personal expression as too grounded in the individual and “lacking in a political analysis of the composing situation in schools” (440).

Yet, Goldblatt observes, students often prefer “personal writing,” which they may consider “relatable” (439); his graduate students exhibit interest in the role of the personal in literacy activities in their own research (440). He posits, with Burnham and Powell, that the research from the 1970s by James Britton and his associates reveals “some sort of Ur-expressive drive [that] stands behind all writing” (440).

Goldblatt traces overt strands of expressivism through the work of such scholars as Sherrie Gradin and Wendy Bishop (440-41). He posits that some resistance to expressivism in composition may be traceable to concerns about the kind of research that would lead to tenure and promotion as the field began to define itself within departments heavily populated by literary critics (445). He notes “two stigmas” attached to expressivism: one is its centrality to high-school pedagogy; in its effort to establish itself as a respectable college-level endeavor, composition distanced itself from methods practiced in K-12 (446). Similarly, the field set itself apart from creative writing, in which, Goldplatt recounts, instruction in his experience emphasized “aesthetic achievement rather than self-actualization” (447).

Wendy Bishop, who characterized herself as “something-like-an-expressivist” (qtd. in Goldblatt 448), subsequently became CCCC chair. Goldblatt notes her defense of her pedagogy against the claim that expressivism

keep[s] students in a state of naiveté, [doesn’t] prepare them for the languages of  the academy, . . . and “emphasize[s] a type of self-actualization which the outside world would indict as sentimental and dangerous.” (Bishop, qtd. in Goldblatt 447-48; quoting from Stephen M. Fishman and Lucille Parkinson McCarthy)

Still, Goldblatt contends, her stance was “more admired than imitated” (448), doing little to recuperate expressivism within the field.

Despite his own commitment to poetry, Goldblatt acknowledges the importance of composition’s “social turn” and the power of the “social-epistemic rhetoric” promulgated by James Berlin and others. Still, he finds the rejection of expressivism problematic in recent movements in college writing such as the focus on transfer and the “writing about writing” program advocated by scholars like Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs. Goldblatt worries that too much emphasis on “school success and professional preparation” (441) undercuts “two  impulses” that he posits underlie the need to write: “the desire to speak out of your most intimate experiences and to connect with communities in need” (442).

Goldblatt examines “habits of mind” that he associates with expressivism in the recent work of four scholars who, he believes, would not explicitly call themselves expressivists (443). In Goldblatt’s view, Robert Yagelski’s Writing as a Way of Being “seems both anchored in and estranged from expressivism” (448). Yagelski’s focus on “the ‘writer writing’ rather than the ‘writer’s writing’” seems to Goldblatt a “phenomenological” approach to composing (448) that values the social impact of relationships at the same time it encourages individual self-actualization (448). Goldblatt compares Yagelski’s views to Ken Macrorie’s in his 1970 book Uptaught in that both reject “standardized instruction” in favor of “writing as a means to explore and enrich experience” (450), undoing a “false binary” between writing for the self and writing to engage with the world (448).

In Adam Banks’s Digital Griots, Goldblatt finds the personal entering through voice and style that both invoke the African-American tradition while “consciously modeling that social boundaries everywhere must be crossed” (451). Banks recounts “personal testimony” from young African Americans for whom individual storytelling establishes solidarity while creating connections with the past (452). Goldblatt notes that unlike early expressivists, Banks rejects the sense that “all expression is drawn from the same well” (453). Instead, he “remixes” many different individual voices to generate an implicit expressivism as “a deep and dialogic commitment to the individual within the swirl of events, movements, and economic pressures” (453-54).

Tiffany Rousculp’s Rhetoric of Respect recounts her creation and administration of the Community Writing Center at Salt Lake City Community College (454). Goldblatt finds Rousculp addressing tensions between progressive Freirean motives and her recognition that community members from a wide range of backgrounds would have personal reasons for writing that did not accord with the specific goals of the “sponsoring institution” (455). Although honoring these individual goals may seem antithetical to a social-epistemic approach, Goldblatt writes that the Center’s orientation remained deeply social because, in his view of Rousculp’s understanding, “individuals can only be seen within the web of their relationships to others” (456). Only when able to escape the constraints of the various institutions controliing their lives and select their own reasons for writing, Goldblatt posits, can individuals “exert agency” (456).

Sondra Perl’s On Austrian Soil depicts a teaching experience in which she worked with native Austrian writers to explore the legacy of the country’s Nazi past. Stating that he connects Perl not so much with early expressivism as with the origins of the process movement (458), Goldblatt notes her interest in the “personal, even bodily, experience of composing” (457). In his view, her experience in Austria, though painful in many ways, highlights the ways in which students’ emotional positioning, which can both inspire and limit their ability to write, must often become a teacher’s focus (458). Moreover, Goldblatt stresses, the learning both for individuals and the group arose from the shared emotions, as Perl connects what she called each student’s “wonderful uniqueness” (qtd. in Goldblatt 459) with “the socially oriented responsibility” of ethical behavior (459).

Goldblatt hopes for an understanding within composition of how a sophisticated approach to expressivism can infuse writing with the “intentionality, joy, seriousness, and intimacy available in the act of writing” (461). He worries that the writing-about-writing agenda “elevates the study of writing over the experience of writing,” an agenda perhaps appropriate for more advanced writing majors but complicit in what he sees as higher education’s current “hostility toward intellectual play and exploration” in the service of completely managed institutional priorities. He proposes that recognizing the power of expressivism can fuel compositionists’ hopes that students will embrace writing:

Without an urgency that is felt as personal, a writer will always be looking to the teacher, the boss, the arbiter for both permission to begin and approval to desist. (461)