Carter, Genesea M., and Erin Penner Gallegos. “Moving Beyond the Hype: What Does the Celebration of Student Writing Do for Students?” Composition Studies 45.1 (2017): 74-98. Web. 29 Aug. 2017.
Genesea M. Carter and Erin Penner Gallegos present research on “celebrations of student writing (CSWs)” (74), arguing that while extant accounts of these events portray them as positive and effective additions to writing programs, very little research has addressed students’ own sense of the value of the CSW experience. To fill this gap, Carter and Gallegos interviewed 23 students during a CSW at the University of New Mexico (UNM) and gathered data from an anonymous online survey (84).
As defined by Carter and Gallegos, a CSW asks students to represent the writing from their coursework in a public forum through posters and art installations (77). Noting that the nature of a CSW is contingent on the particular institution at which it takes place (75, 91), the authors provide specific demographic data about UNM, where their research was conducted. The university is both a “federally designated Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI)” and “a Carnegie-designated very high research university” (75), thus incorporating research-level expectations with a population of “historically marginalized,” “financially very needy” students with “lower educational attainment” (76). Carter and Gallegos report on UNM’s relatively low graduation rates as compared to similar universities and the “particular challenges” faced by this academic community (76).
Among these challenges, in the authors’ view, was a “negative framing of the student population from the university community and city residents” (76). Exposure in 2009 via a meeting with Linda Adler-Kassner to the CSW model in place at Eastern Michigan University led graduate students Carter and Gallegos to develop a similar program at UNM (76-77). Carter and Gallegos were intrigued by the promise of programs like the one at EMU to present a new, positive narrative about students and their abilities to the local academic and civic communities.
They recount the history of the UNM CSW as a project primarily initiated by graduate students that continues to derive from graduate-student interests and participation while also being broadly adopted by the larger university and in fact the larger community (78, 92). In their view, the CSW differs from other institutional showcases of student writing such as an undergraduate research day and a volume of essays selected by judges in that it offers a venue for “students who lack confidence in their abilities or who do not already feel that they belong to the university community” (78). They argue that changing the narrative about student writing requires a space for recognizing the strengths of such historically undervalued students.
Examining CSWs from a range of institutions in order to discover what the organizers believe these events achieve, the authors found “a few commonalities” (79). Organizers underscored their belief that the audience engagement offered by a CSW enforced the nature of writing as “social, situational, and public,” a “transactional” experience rather than the “one-dimensional” model common in academic settings (80). Further, CSWs are seen to endorse student contributions to research across the university community and to inspire recognition of the multiple literacies that students bring to their academic careers (81). The authors’ review also reveals organizers’ beliefs that such events will broaden students’ understanding of the writing process by foregrounding how writing evolves through revision into different modes (81).
An important thread is the power of CSWs to enhance students’ “sense of belonging, both to an intellectual and a campus community” (82). Awareness that their voices are valued, according to the authors’ research, is an important factor in student persistence among marginalized populations (81). Organizers see CSWs as encouraging students to see themselves as “authors within a larger community discourse” (83).
Carter and Gallegos note a critique by Mark Mullen, who argues that CSWs can actually exploit student voices in that they may actually be a “celebration of the teaching of writing, a reassertion of agency by practitioners who are routinely denigrated” (qtd. in Carter and Gallegos 84). The authors find from their literature review that, indeed, few promotions of CSWs in the literature include student voices (84). They contend that their examination of student perceptions of the CSW process can further understanding of the degree to which these events meet their intended outcomes (84).
Their findings support the expectation that students will find the CSW valuable, but discovered several ways in which the hopes of supporters and the responses of students are “misaligned” (90). While the CSW did contribute to students’ sense of writing as a social process, students expressed most satisfaction in being able to interact with their peers, sharing knowledge and experiencing writing in a new venue as fun (86). Few students understood how CSW connected to the goals of their writing coursework, such as providing a deeper understanding of rhetorical situation and audience (87). While students appreciated the chance to “express” their views, the authors write that students “did not seem to relate expression to being heard or valued by the academic community” or to “an extension of agency” (88).
For the CSW to more clearly meet its potential, the authors recommend that planners at all levels focus on building metacognitive awareness of the pedagogical value of such events through classroom activities (89). Writing programs involved in CSWs, according to the authors, can develop specific outcomes beyond those for the class as a whole that define what supporters and participants hope the event will achieve (89-90). Students themselves should be involved in planning the event as well as determining its value (90), with the goal of “emphasizing to their student participants that the CSW is not just another fun activity but an opportunity to share their literacies and voices with their classmates and community” (90).
A more detailed history of the development of the UNM event illustrates how the CSW became increasingly incorporated into other university programs and how it ultimately drew participation from local artists and performers (92-93). The authors applaud this “institutionalizing” of the event because such broad interest and sponsorship mean that the CSW can continue to grow and spread knowledge of student voices to other disciplines and across the community (93).
They see “downsides” in this expansion in that the influence of different sponsors from year to year and attachment to initiatives outside of writing tends to separate the CSW from the writing courses it originated to serve. Writing programs in venues like UNM may find it harder to develop appropriate outcomes and assess results, making sure that the CSW remains a meaningful part of a writing program’s mission (93). The authors recommend that programs hoping that a CSW will enhance actual writing instruction should commit adequate resources and attention to the ongoing events. The authors write that, “imperatively,” student input must be part of the process in order to prevent such events from “becom[ing] merely another vehicle for asserting the value of the teaching of writing” (94; emphasis original).