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

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).


Leave a comment

Thomson-Bunn, Heather. When religion and academic norms conflict. CE, Jan. 2017. Posted 01/19/2017.

Thomson-Bunn, Heather. “Mediating Discursive Worlds: When Academic Norms and Religious Belief Conflict.” College English 79.3 (2017): 276-96. Web. 10 Jan 2017.

Heather Thomson-Bunn describes a study on the reactions of composition instructors to students who incorporate their religious views into their writing coursework. Forty lecturers or graduate student instructors at a large “Public Midwestern University” responded to a survey and seven experienced instructors also participated in interviews (278-79).

The discussion focuses on Christian students because, Thomson-Bunn hypothesizes, the Christian religion intersects with higher education in especially salient ways, with the result that it is with these students that “instructors appear to have the most frequent conflicts” (278). She defines Christians as “followers and/or worshippers of Jesus Christ, whose commitment to their faith is a significant (if not the significant) dimension of identity” (278). Thomson-Bunn refrains from modifying “Christian” with other labels because in her findings, the students themselves did not claim these labels (279).

In her literature review, Thomson-Bunn explores previous composition scholarship on religious discourse in academic settings, citing several recent volumes to contend that the topic is “an increasingly visible area of scholarship” (276). Views range from rejection of the possibility that religious discourse can find a place within academic norms to the contention that instructors should help students find appropriate ways to examine and articulate their positions (276-77).

The survey and interviews revealed ways in which instructors felt that Christian students often had difficulty with “academic norms,” in particular those associated with “critical thinking,” “audience awareness,” “appropriate use of evidence,” and “tolerance” (280).

Difficulties involving critical thinking, according to Thomson-Bunn’s findings, revolved around differences in the kinds of discourses religious students found meaningful and the kinds composition instructors felt were appropriate in secular writing classrooms. Citing Thomas Amorose, Thomson-Bunn notes that religious discourse “privileges received meaning over constructed or contested meaning” (278; emphasis original). Similarly, citing Douglas Downs, she explores the claim that religious discourses are “discourses of affirmation,” while those of the composition classroom are “discourses of inquiry” (280). Instructors in her sample seem to find Christian students struggling to see their views as fluid and context-based and to consider them in the light of a range of perspectives, practices that the instructors saw as central to successful academic work (281).

Thomson-Bunn suggests that teachers may not always fully articulate their definitions of critical thinking so that students understand why they are being asked to develop certain habits of thought (281). The result, she finds, can be that students feel that their teachers are rejecting them personally or their faith specifically, rather than advocating for a useful approach to academic tasks (282-83). Teachers’ attitudes, Thomson-Bunn posits, may reflect a sense that their relationship with Christian discourses is a “battle” to be won, an approach that may obscure the more productive uses of critical thinking (283).

Issues involving audience awareness emerged as instructors answered a question as to whether it was “appropriate to incorporate religious beliefs into academic writing” (283). Ninety-eight percent of the participants “answered with a version of “it depends’” (283). Instructors suggested that issues of faith were more appropriate to “personal narratives,” which they tended to contrast with other forms of writing deemed more specific to academic discourse, such as argumentative writing (283). Thomson-Bunn quotes an instructor who postulates that some religious students may not realize that the tenets of their faith are not “a fact for everyone” (qtd. in Thomson-Bunn 285) and thus do not recognize the need to “accommodate” an audience as diverse as that of academia (284). Thomson-Bunn offers examples of Muslim graduate students who were able to incorporate an examination of their religious beliefs into academically appropriate intellectual work (284), but suggests that many students lack the “rhetorical dexterity” such accomplishments require (286). Study participants expressed concern about how to respect students’ values while simultaneously requiring them to adhere to academic norms (285).

Instructors expressed similar concerns about how to address students’ use of personal experience and/or Biblical material as evidence in argumentative writing. Thomson-Bunn notes that personal experience has been considered legitimate argumentative evidence by many groups, such as “women, ethnic minorities, LGBT communities” (286). Instructors find premises based on Biblical infallibility problematic because such arguments may assume that “received meanings and values” should be “automatically accepted” (287) rather than subjected to critical evaluation.

Thomson-Bunn notes an instructor who bases judgments about the acceptability of evidence on its effectiveness in a “specific rhetorical context”; this move, Thomson-Bunn argues, eliminates the question of whether or not the student’s “beliefs are correct” (288). Religious students, she points out, share with all students a need for help in determining how to choose evidence for specific situations (288).

Thomson-Bunn finds that “tolerance” for diverse views has become, at least implicitly, “one of the purposes of instruction within the academy” (288). This particular academic norm is of concern in her study because the question, “What characteristics come to mind when you think of a Christian student?” (288) generated responses like “Judgmental,” “Not very open-minded,” and “Suspicious of ideas that challenge their faith” (288-89). No contrasting terms, such as “very open-minded,” emerged (289).

Thomson-Bunn reports a study participant who was taken aback by an intolerant statement from a religious student but who also worried that she responded by “shutting down the conversation” and avoiding “teaching ‘gay’ texts for two years,” responses that she deemed, in fact, emblematic of her own intolerance (289). Thomson-Bunn finds that many instructors respond to the expression of intolerance from religious students by declaring certain topics off limits in their classes (289).

Thomson-Bunn encourages “work[ing] through discursive conflict, rather than avoid[ing] it or inflam[ing] it” (290). She cites one study participant who felt that “critical responsibility [for helping students through such conflict] lies with the instructor” (qtd. in Thomson-Bunn 290). Following Beth Daniell, she suggests that what may look like resistance may be students’ efforts to “work through new ideas” (291).

One instructor addresses the use of the Bible as evidence by conducting a full-class discussion rather than one-on-one conversations with specific students. This tactic, according to the instructor, allows other students to make audience responses and differing interpretations of the text visible and to allow Christian students to examine audience further by re-imagining themselves as audiences for the religious texts of other faiths (292).

Another strategy involves helping students analyze texts that do meet academic norms while drawing on faith, such as the 1805 text “Red Jacket Defends Native American Religion” and “A Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr. Through such texts, students can analyze the rhetorical power of specific textual moves to alienate or appeal to diverse audiences (293).

Finally, Thomson-Bunn argues that by finding ways to respond constructively to religious values in the composition classroom, teachers can “model the very kinds of tolerance and critical thinking we want all students to exhibit” (294; emphasis original).


2 Comments

Tinberg, Howard. Transfer at Community Colleges. TETYC, Sept. 2015. Posted 11/16/2015.

Tinberg, Howard. “Reconsidering Transfer Knowledge at the Community College: Challenges and Opportunities.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 43.1 (2015): 7-31. Web. 3 Nov. 2015.

Howard Tinberg argues for the value of studying “transfer” from first-year writing (FYW) to future academic work and career, particularly at the community-college level. He acknowledges the impediments to fruitful study of this phenomenon while demonstrating what he learned through a “naturalistic” study of transfer at the community college where he teaches (10). Among his findings is the conclusion that community-college curricula may not provide students with opportunities to engage in the kind of complex writing, including metacognitive components, that will serve them well in more advanced college work and in the workplace.

Tinberg reviews scholarship on the function of FYW and on transfer, noting that the course is often assumed to provide “generalized writing skills” that will be useful in a variety of contexts (7). Skeptics referenced by Tinberg claim that it is impossible to assume that such a thing as transfer exists because the specificity of each writing experience requires learning completely new practices (9).

Tinberg argues that such skepticism, which dismisses the possibility of explicit instruction for transfer, must fall back on “‘[t]he Bo Peep’ theory of transfer: somehow, as if by magic, knowledge needed to address tasks will ‘come home’ to assist students” (9). In Tinberg’s view, such hopes are not realistic for the community-college population. Encouraging transfer is especially important as pressure mounts to increase retention and to demonstrate learning (10, 28).

Tinberg reports that studies have urged attention to “metacognition as a foundational step to transfer” for both students and faculty (9). He cites scholarship that urges composition specialists to see the FYW course as delivering “rhetorical dexterity” (Shannon Carter, qtd. in Tinberg 9) and “rhetorical adaptability” (Holly Hassel and Joanna Baird Giordano, qtd. in Tinberg 9).

In his study, Tinberg surveyed students at the college who had taken the required ENG 101 “at least a semester before the fall of 2014” and who had been at the college at least a year but not more than two years (12). Of the nearly 4000 students invited to take the survey, 110 completed it, with 80 responding to an open-ended question (12). Tinberg interviewed and solicited writing samples from five students with varied interests and majors; he also interviewed four faculty members, all full-time (16); sixty-six percent of the ENG 101 sections are taught by part-time instructors (12). Faculty areas of those interviewed were psychology, history, economics, and human services (10-11).

The surveys indicated that a large majority of students believed that they had benefited from FYW, that they wrote a lot in subsequent courses, that subsequent courses introduced “new knowledge about writing,” and that writing would be important in the workplace (12). Open-ended responses indicated that the gains students reported most often from their FYW experience were formalistic: citation formats, formats for genres, organization, and grammar and mechanics (16). Tinberg speculates that the lack of a well-developed vocabulary made it difficult for students to interpret or articulate the contributions of their FYW classes and the differing requirements of courses in the disciplines. He posits that “new knowledge about writing” may suggest simply “more writing” rather than specific attention to writing processes or practices (13-14).

Tinberg’s goal in the faculty interviews was to determine what teachers in the disciplines hoped students would bring from ENG 101 and “[w]hat new knowledge sets as expressed in their writing” they hoped to see in their own courses (17). He presents two assignments from the psychology instructor and one from the history instructor.

This component of the study suggests to Tinberg that teachers in the disciplines have an attenuated sense of the content and purpose of FYW, seeing it as primarily focusing on such skills as “proofreading” (17); one instructor, however, mentioned the ability to evaluate sources, while one with writing-center experience “touched upon rhetorical understanding as transferable from ENG 101” (17).

The assignments demonstrate to Tinberg that some, though not all, instructors in subsequent courses design pedagogies to impart concepts important to their fields. These assignments also suggest that critical reading is a central concern to these teachers and that some embed metacognitive awareness in their coursework (19-21). Although Tinberg’s coding of instructor values indicates that “expressive” writing is less privileged than critical reading and writing, “concern with form,” and “adaptability” across situations (20-21), he notes a focus in some assignments on linking coursework to students’ personal experiences, “emphasiz[ing}. . . students’ affective response to the reading . . . rather than deep, exploratory examination of disciplinary concepts and methods” (19).

Student interviews generally bore out Tinberg’s expectation that students would most often cite formalistic concerns in discussions of what they considered transferable knowledge; however, “the need to be analytical and critical readers” and the importance of “writing in different contexts other than ENG 101” also earned support. Students generally did not value the “expression of one’s own feelings” (22).

The article discusses two student interviews and writing samples in detail. In each, Tinberg detects both struggles with adequate vocabulary to describe learning from ENG 101 and how it intersects with later learning and evidence of analytical and rhetorical thinking. Without being able to name genres, “Ann” characterizes writing in English as related to students’ personal experiences and writing in other courses as more content-based (23). The student expresses a wish that her teachers would “push” her more (“Ann,” qtd. in Tinberg 23). Similarly, Tinberg posits from interview and writing samples that the other student, “Ash,” “might very well welcome the challenge of complex and specialized reading and writing tasks,” but “is not being given the opportunity” (27).

Arguing for the importance of such study, especially in the community-college environment, Tinberg reports that teachers and students value ENG 101 and that faculty value critical reading (27). But faculty ignorance about the content of the FYW course, “exacerbated by the increasing reliance on part-time faculty,” means that “bridging” between ENG 101 and other courses “is not explicitly and knowingly done” (28). Tinberg’s research points to a tendency of faculty in the disciplines to advance a “generalized” curriculum (26, 28) that subordinates discipline-specific concepts to efforts to efforts to engage students through personal, affective connections (26).

Tinberg urges support for writing-in-the-disciplines initiatives at community colleges, less focus on moving students rapidly through the curriculum, less reliance on part-time faculty, and broader “cross-disciplinary conversations about transfer knowledge” (28-29).


Leave a comment

Durst, Russel K. James Britton’s Contributions. CCC, Feb. 2015. Posted 05/05/15.

Durst, Russel K. “British Invasion: James Britton, Composition Studies, and Anti-Disciplinarity.” College Composition and Communication 66.3 (2015): 384-401. Print.

Russel K. Durst explores the contributions of James Britton to the field of composition studies during its formative years from the 1960s through the 1980s. Durst posits that although Britton’s work powerfully affected the development of the field as a scholarly discipline, Britton himself did not value the move toward disciplinarity in which he participated. According to Durst, of particular focus in Britton’s resistance to the field’s emergence were the pedagogy/theory dichotomy and the role of personal writing in students’ literacy growth.

Durst aligns Britton’s view of writing with that of “progressive educators” like John Dewey, contrasting that view with the prevailing approaches of Noam Chomsky and Jean Piaget, who posited “context-independent” theories of language and cognitive growth. According to Durst, Britton emphasized the social nature of writing, drawing on wide reading and research to valorize personal, “expressivist” writing in which students used informal registers to explore personally meaningful topics. Incorporating the work of Lev Vygotsky, Britton argued for the fundamental role of the social uses of language in learning, encouraging pedagogies that allowed students to write for purposes other than evaluation (388-89).

Durst recounts Britton’s role at the 1966 Dartmouth conference, where he represented a break with traditional and classical views of writing instruction (387), and summarizes Britton’s important empirical study, The Development of Writing Abilities (11-18). The premise of Britton and his colleagues in conducting this study was that informal, personal writing to varied audiences and to “the teacher as a trusted adult” would appear frequently in the more than two thousand samples of school writing in Britain that they collected (389-90). However, although the “discourse category” terminology of “transactional,”, “expressive,” and “poetic” writing proved valuable to composition studies, Britton et al.’s research revealed very little writing other than reproducing textbook and lecture material for the teacher to evaluate (390-91). Britton argued that teachers should recognize and more extensively exploit the value of personal and social uses of writing, which he saw as the starting point for writing and learning (390). Studies in the United States based on Britton’s categories by Arthur Applebee and others showed an even greater dearth of meaningful writing in American schools (389-90).

Durst cites four areas in which Britton’s contributions furthered the growth of composition studies (391-93):

  • the use of expressivist writing and talk that continues to inform activities like group work and conferencing;
  • the development of writing across the curriculum as an area of pedagogical focus;
  • the development of “facilitative response” as elaborated by C. H. Knoblauch and Lil Brannon to encourage a view of the teacher as a supportive learning collaborator;
  • the legitimation of collaborative research and publication that Durst speculates resulted from Britton’s location in schools of education.

In order to explore the “paradox” of the “anti-disciplinary” attitude of such a major contributor to a solidifying discipline, Durst distinguishes Britton’s sense of the expressive from the type of writing James Berlin categorized as “expressionistic.” For Durst, the focus on the personal that Berlin critiqued was individualistic, in contrast to Britton’s view of a kind of writing that engaged students’ personal interests through social activity (391). Similarly, Durst finds that Britton’s approach differs from that of “figures associated with expressionism” like Peter Elbow, Ken McCrorie, and Donald Murray (395). Britton’s concept of student-centered teaching, which rejected tradition and received knowledge, was similar to the views of these scholars and writers in that it accorded with the spirit of the 1960s: it appealed to the ethos of composition theorists who saw writing and learning as “liberating” activities and who were then breaking free from a limiting relationship with literary studies (394-95). But, Durst contends, Britton’s theories were more firmly grounded in his wide-ranging scholarly explorations, including empirical research (396). Yet Durst spots another crucial similarly between Britton and the expressionist writers. Elbow, McCrorie, and Murray, like Britton, focused on classroom practices and pedagogy in contrast to recent scholars like Sidney Dobrin, who contends that “writing theory must move beyond composition studies’ neurosis of pedagogy, must escape the shackles of classrooms, students, and management” (qtd. in Durst 397). In Durst’s view, the expressionists’ emphasis on students and classrooms makes them less than fully respected members of the current composition community. For Durst, this evidence that the field resists a focus on pedagogy affirms Britton’s sense that composition would not be well served by becoming a traditional academic discipline in which theory and scholarship took center stage (395-96).

In proposing “doubling down on pedagogy” in composition studies, Durst defines Britton as a scholar for whom writing instruction enabled broad intellectual growth and “liberation from society’s oppressive forces” (397); he sees in Britton’s example the possibility of solidly grounded scholarship specifically aimed at meeting the new challenges faced by students and teachers as diversity increases, technology expands, and the pressure to prepare students for careers escalates (398). Britton’s contributions illustrate that scholarly inquiry and a focus on student-centered pedagogy need not be competing activities; they can function jointly to enrich composition as an academic field.