College Composition Weekly: Summaries of research for college writing professionals

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Witte, Alison. CMSs as Genres. C&C, Sept. 2018. Posted 11/20/2018.

Witte, Alison. “‘Why Won’t Moodle. . . ?’: Using Genre Studies to Understand Students’ Approaches to Interacting with User Interfaces.” Computers and Composition 49 (2018): 48-60. Web. 9 Nov. 2018.

Alison Witte addresses the difficulties her first-year students faced when they encountered the Course Management System (CMS) in use at her institution. She surveyed students in first-year courses over six semesters to discover the factors that may have caused these problems (50). Witte found that examining the CMS interface as a genre provided insights into how students interacted with the program.

The author notes that the use of a CMS has “become a normalized part of many educational institutions’ landscapes” (48). The program’s power to shape interactions between students, instructors, and the institution, she writes, can generate “tensions” (48). She describes Moodle, the CMS in place for her university, comparing its “static” features with the more interactive and responsive features of social media sites; she notes in particular the “teacher-driven design” that permits the instructor to determine what sections to create and to provide the content (49). Witte quotes a faculty mentor who supports the university’s commitment to Moodle because the students are familiar with it from high school and “like it,” even though, according to Witte, there is only “anecdotal” evidence behind this claim (49).

In Witte’s view, if students are indeed comfortable in electronic environments, they should not exhibit the level of difficulty she observes (49). Her survey investigates which kinds of interfaces students have experienced and how these experiences might influence their reactions to Moodle (50).

Drawing on genre theory, Witte proposes, highlights the ways an interface cues users to control what behaviors and actions are acceptable, requiring users to determine the “appropriate response” in the rhetorical situation established by the interface (52). Citing Carolyn Miller, Witte considers genre “a way of understanding how a text responds to a particular recurring situation” (50). Just as Microsoft Word’s presentation of a blank page cues an essaylike response rather than a social-media post, the CMS signals certain kinds of “typified” actions (51).

Arguing that writing studies has not explored electronic interfaces through this theoretical lens, Witte contends that interfaces have generally been seen as tools to produce other things rather than as “text[s] with both expectations and formal conventions” of their own (50). Instructors, she proposes, are like other users of electronic environments in that their use of these familiar programs becomes “unconscious or invisible” because they are so accustomed to the process (51). Her study foregrounds the need for teachers to be more alert to the ways that their use of a CMS acts as a genre students must interpret and positions them in certain ways in the classroom environment (50). Teachers’ understanding of this interaction, she maintains, can help students use a CMS more effectively.

Witte notes two common models of CMS use. In many cases, the system attempts to “replicate” a classroom environment, allowing students to complete familiar academic tasks such as taking quizzes and completing assignments. A second model treats the CMS as a “repository” where students go to procure whatever they need for the class. These models share a “top-down” quality in that the teacher decides on the categories and sections and provides the material (52-53). The models limit students to responding in ways determined by the instructor and indicated by the conventions incorporated into the interface (53).

For Witte, a “guiding assumption” in the study was “that people learn unfamiliar genres by determining how they are like and unlike genres they know and by observing how the unfamiliar genre is used in context” (50). Hence, her survey asks the 68 participating students which interfaces they normally interact with (54). It also asks multiple-choice and open-ended questions about students’ experiences with Moodle, including ease of use and kinds of use across classes. Finally, students were asked what they liked about the CMS and what improvements they might suggest (54).

The majority of the participants were in their first college semesters. Witte proposes that while these students might be among the most likely to report problems with the CMS, surveying this particular population yielded good information on how best to help students navigate their early exposure to such platforms (54).

Data revealed that students used a variety of social media, Word tools for producing documents, and “Miscellaneous Web-based Interfaces” like iTunes, E-bay, or YouTube (54). They most commonly relied on the CMS to “complete course work and to find the information necessary” to do so (55). All of the students used Moodle in some of their classes. Grounded-theory coding of the open-ended responses produced four categories of “likes” that focused on availability of materials and information and ease of completing tasks. Students’ suggestions for improvement addressed usability issues, “Mobile Device Compatibility,” and inconsistency in the ways teachers used the CMS (54).

Analysis of her data suggests to Witte that students receive conflicting genre cues about the function of the CMS, sometimes assuming it is more like social media sites than it is in practice and in fact asking for more interactivity with their mobile devices and other media choices (56). They may see certain cues as inviting informal, interactive responses while other require a more “school/professional response” in which they become “passive consumer[s] of information” (56). In Witte’s view, instructors do not always articulate clearly exactly what role the CMS should play in their individual courses; moreover, students may approach the CMS with a different idea about its purposes than the instructor intends (57).

Seeing a CMS as a genre, Witte contends, helps instructors think about their use of the program in terms of audience, redirecting the focus from “its technological affordances to what it does or how it is used in particular context for particular people” (57). She urges instructors to plan CMS structure in accordance with course design, for example, arranging a course built around weekly schedules by weeks and courses meant to provide materials without regard to due date by topic. The survey reveals that students may need specific direction about the type of response indicated by CMS features, like text boxes or discussion forums (57). Instructors are urged to clarify their own purposes and expectations for how students use the resource and to communicate these explicitly (57-58).

Witte also argues that casting a CMS as a genre provides an opportunity to introduce students to genre theory and to understand through a concrete example how audience and purpose relate to the conventions of a particular form. In this view, students can explore how to use their exposure to other genres to situate new genres like a CMS in their contexts when they encounter them (58); they may then carry the experience of navigating a CMS into their interactions with other texts they may be called on to respond to or produce.

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Cox, Anicca. Full-Time Lecturers and Academic Freedom. Forum, Fall 2018. Posted 10/05/2018.

Cox, Anicca. “Collaboration and Resistance: Academic Freedom and Non-Tenured Labor.” Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty 22.1 (2018): A4-A13. Web. 01 Oct. 2018.

Anicca Cox, in the Fall 2018 issue of Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty, discusses a case study of her institution’s decision to replace non-tenure-track part-time faculty (PTLs) with full-time, non-tenure-track lecturers (FTLs) on two-year contracts. She interviewed three of the ten new full-time hires and three part-time instructors who taught in the program (A6).

Noting that the percentages of FTLs in higher education is increasing, Cox reports that this change has entailed better working conditions, more access to benefits, and more job security, among other positive effects (A5, A7). She suggests that this trend may reflect institutions’ “response to the increasingly publicized problems of an outsized reliance” on contingent labor that constitutes a “seemingly altruistic move” (A5). She writes that the more stable teaching force provides institutions with more predictable costs than hiring based on shifting enrollments (A5).

Cox focuses on how the PhDs most likely to be preferred for such positions negotiate possible constraints on their academic freedom and professional identifications. The program she studied hired ten new FTLs, nine of which were either literature PhDs or were completing doctorates, as well as a new tenure-track writing program administrator (WPA) to implement a revised first-year writing program (A6). Part-time instructors who had previously taught at the institution were not hired for the new lines.

The new WPA “designed a heavily scripted curriculum” in which all components, including textbooks, were prescribed (A6). The full-time instructors were given office space and professional development specific to the program; they were evaluated much more broadly than the part-time faculty and often included ongoing research in the evaluation dossiers they prepared (A7).

Cox’s study asked how these instructors

perceived themselves fitting into the institution and department relative to their own sense of professional identity, and how those feelings shaped and otherwise intersected with their work as instructors both inside and outside classroom. (A6)

Her study, part of a larger analysis, emphasized both the effects on professional identity of the new context and the question of how collaboration among teaching professionals was impacted by the new alignment (A7).

Interviews with FTLs revealed that they “did not feel like hired mercenaries” but did not feel fully integrated into the department (A8). A focus of their concern was the sense that they were not considered “intellectual contributors” and were enlisted to perform a “role” that did not jibe with their professional preparation (A8). One respondent expressed concern about being issued a “teacher proof” curriculum dismissive of her scholarship and expertise (A8). In comparison, the PTLs, while accustomed to being given scripted curricula, expressed concern that the new program materials were not appropriate for the actual student population they were used to teaching (A9). These teachers felt less conflicted over identity issues because they saw themselves primarily as teachers, not researchers (A9-10).

Tensions in the FTL position also affected collaboration in that the new lecturers felt constrained from “simply asserting their purported academic freedom” and, rather than challenging the program structure, began devising ways to adjust the curriculum without “getting caught” (qtd. in Cox A10-11). Collaboration, in this study, became a way of “spread[ing] the blame” so that renewal at the end of the two-year contract would be less likely to be threatened (A11). Part-time lecturers, in contrast, relied on long-standing patterns of “informal collaborations,” sometimes making “radical changes” in the prescribed teaching materials (A11), despite having lost the opportunity to share practices with many of their colleagues in the new configuration. These teachers posited that the failure to hire from within their ranks reflected a desire on the part of administrators to eliminate “the baggage they carried over from previous iterations of the first-year writing program” (A11); Cox posits that they acted to modify the curriculum despite recognizing the precarity of their situation in the new program (A11).

Cox supports the shift toward more full-time positions but notes that the particulars of the arrangement she studied drove instructors to invest energy in sustaining a coherent professional identity rather than working together to improve student outcomes (A12). She writes that the benefits of the full-time jobs were “not enough to neutralize the frustrations” engendered by the lecturers’ compromised fit within the department (A12). She recommends that should these kinds of readjustments become more common, they be constructed

in a way that recognizes and honors the laboriously forged and deeply felt professional identities of workers by supporting continued professional development and encouraging autonomy in curricular design. (A12)

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Ray et al. Rethinking Student Evaluations of Teaching. Comp Studies Spring 2018. Posted 08/25/2018.

Ray, Brian, Jacob Babb, and Courtney Adams Wooten. “Rethinking SETs: Retuning Student Evaluations of Teaching for Student Agency.” Composition Studies 46.1 (2018): 34-56. Web. 10 Aug. 2018.

Brian Ray, Jacob Babb, and Courtney Adams Wooten report a study of Student Evaluations of Teaching (SETs) across a range of institutions. The researchers collected 55 different forms, 45 of which were institutions’ generic forms, while 10 were designed specifically for writing classes. They coded 1,108 different questions from these forms in order to determine what kinds of questions were being asked (35).

The authors write that although SETs and their use, especially in personnel decisions, is of concern in rhetoric and composition, very little scholarship in the field has addressed the issue (34-35). They summarize a history of student evaluations as tools for assessment of teachers, beginning with materials from the 1920s. Early SETs focused heavily on features of personality such as “wit,” “tact,” and “popularity” (38), as well as physical appearance (39). This focus on “subjective” characteristics of teachers asked students to judge “factors that neither they nor the instructor had sole control over and that they could do little to affect” (38).

This emphasis persisted throughout twentieth century. A scholar named Herbert Marsh conducted “numerous studies” in the 1970s and 1980s and eventually created the Student Evaluation of Education Quality form (SEEQ) in 1987 (35). This instrument asked students about nine features:

[L]earning, enthusiasm, organization and clarity, group interaction, individual rapport, breadth of coverage, tests and grading, assignments, and difficulty (39)

The authors contend that these nine factors substantively guide the SETs they studied (35), and they claim that, in fact, in important ways, “current SET forms differ little from those seen in the 1920s” (40).

Some of composition’s “only published conversations about SETs” revolved around workshops conducted by the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) from 1956 through 1962 (39). The authors report that instructors participating in these discussions saw the forms as most appropriate for “formative” purposes; very few institutions used them in personnel matters (39).

Data from studies of SETs in other fields reveal some of the problems that can result from common versions of these measures (37). The authors state that studies over the last ten years have not been able to link high teacher ratings on SETs with improved student learning or performance (40). Studies point out that many of the most common categories, like “clarity and fairness,” remain subjective, and that students consistently rank instructors on personality rather than on more valid measures of effectiveness (41).

Such research documents bias related to gender and ethnicity, with female African-American teachers rated lowest on one study asking students to assess “a hypothetical curriculum vitae according to teaching qualifications and expertise” (42). Male instructors are more commonly praised for their “ability to innovate and stimulate critical thought”; women are downgraded for failing to be “compassionate and polite” (42). Studies showed that elements like class size and workload affected results (42). Physical attractiveness continues to influence student opinion, as does the presence of “any kind of reward,” like lenient grading or even supplying candy (43).

The authors emphasize their finding that a large percentage of the questions they examined asked students about either some aspect of the teacher’s behavior (e.g., “approachability,” “open-mindedness” [42]) or what the teacher did (“stimulated my critical thinking” [45]). The teacher was the subject of nearly half of the questions (45). The authors argue that “this pattern of hyper-attention” (44) to the teacher casts the teacher as “solely responsible” for the success or failure of the course (43). As a result, in the authors’ view, students receive a distorted view of agency in a learning situation. In particular, they are discouraged from seeing themselves as having an active role in their own learning (35).

The authors contend that assigning so much agency to a single individual runs counter to “posthumanist” views of how agency operates in complex social and institutional settings (36). In this view, many factors, including not only all participants and their histories and interests but also the environment and even the objects in the space, play a part in what happens in a classroom (36). When SET questions fail to address this complexity, the authors posit, issues of validity arise when students are asked to pass judgment on subjective and ambiguously defined qualities as well as on factors beyond the control of any participant (40). Students encouraged to focus on instructor agency may also misjudge teaching that opts for modern “de-center[ed]” teaching methods rather than the lecture-based instruction they expect (44).

Ray et al. note that some programs ask students about their own level of interest and willingness to participate in class activities and advocate increased use of such questions (45). But they particularly advocate replacing the emphasis on teacher agency with questions that encourage students to assess their own contributions to their learning experience as well as to examine the class experience as a whole and to recognize the “relational” aspects of a learning environment (46). For example:

Instead of asking whether instructors stimulated critical thought, it seems more reasonable to ask if students engaged in critical thinking, regardless of who or what facilitated engagement. (46; emphasis original)

Ray et al. conclude that questions that isolate instructors’ contributions should lean toward those that can be objectively defined and rated, such as punctuality and responding to emails in a set time frame (46).

The authors envision improved SETs, like those of some programs, that are based on a program’s stated outcomes and that ask students about the concepts and abilities they have developed through their coursework (48). They suggest that programs in institutions that use “generic” evaluations for broader analysis or that do not allow individual departments to eliminate the official form should develop their own parallel forms in order to gather the kind of information that enables more effective assessment of classroom activity (48-49).

A major goal, in the authors’ view, should be questions that “encourage students to identify the interconnected aspects of classroom agency through reflection on their own learning” (49).



Lynch, Paul. Writing as Spiritual Exercise. CE, July 2018. Posted 08/17/2018.

Lynch, Paul. “Shadow Living: Toward Spiritual Exercises for Teaching.” College English 80.6 (2018): 499-516. Print.

Paul Lynch writes about a state of mind experienced by some seasoned writing teachers that he equates with Thomas Newkirk’s “emotional underlife of teaching” (qtd. in Lynch 500). Drawing on Paul Kameen’s depiction of this state of mind in Writing/Teaching, Lynch describes it as a point at which a well-developed set of teaching practices ceases to make classroom practice meaningful (499-500).

Further exploring this phenomenon, Lynch considers Bill Readings’s contention in The University in Ruins that teachers who see themselves as a “rhetor rather than magister” find that their “mastery” of teaching practice may not mesh with the need, as a rhetor, to “redefine pedagogy as ‘a relation, a network of obligation” rather than as a platform from which to dispense knowledge (qtd. in Lynch 500; emphasis original). Recognizing the contradictions between the accumulation of professional expertise and an understanding of teaching as relational leads, in Lynch’s view, to questions like Kameen’s “What am I doing here?” In Lynch’s view, teachers cannot easily resolve this contradiction and should consider instead, in Kameen’s words, “living in the shadow of [the question’s] imperative” (qtd. in Lynch 501; emendation in Lynch).

Central to the kind of mastery composition specialists commonly value, Lynch proposes, is faith in reflection as a means of becoming a critically aware teacher. Citing Kathleen Blake Yancey’s discussions of reflection, Lynch writes of the assumption that reflection can aid teachers just as it can students by allowing them to “consciously and therefore critically reflect on their own success and failure with an eye toward improvement” (502). Such reflection commonly involves exploring one’s experiences through writing. Donald Schön, in The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, further develops the view that by combining “technical knowledge and practical experience” (503), experts like teachers can assemble a set of responses to the problems they encounter.

Lynch turns to critiques of reflection as a means of resolving the problem of the “emotional underlife” teachers may encounter. From Kenneth Burke he takes the concept of “trained incapacity” to argue that a teacher faced with a loss of faith in his or her professional practice may resort to reflection as an attempt to increase mastery, which may make responses to complex relational engagements “automatic” (Schön, qtd. in Lynch 504) and, in Lynch’s view, a grounds for “boredom, burnout, and breakdown” (504).

Casey Boyle similarly suggests that reflection as commonly understood “operates on a destructive subject-object distinction” that assumes that people can separate their “agency” from the environment in which it is created and perpetuated, examining their actions rationally to improve them based on technical assessments of success (505). Lynch also draws on Robert Yagelski’s views, in Writing as a Way of Being, that written reflection as often practiced sees writing “simply as a way to record and express one’s experience,” whereas writing can also be viewed as “an experience in and of itself” (507).

Lynch proposes that the feelings expressed by Kameen and Newkirk “cannot be addressed by a reconsidered lesson plan or a revamped pedagogy” (507); indeed, in his view, resorting to these strategies compounds the problem. He suggests instead the use of writing as a form of reflection as experience that he calls “spiritual.” Spirituality, in his view, need not be specifically religious but can serve as a way of “liv[ing] in the shadow of questions that do not seem amenable to reflective thinking” (507-08) and thus avoiding the need for control that may lead to “demoralization,” defined as a feeling that, for the teachers in question, moves beyond frustration that old ways no longer work to an awareness that “they’ve lost any sense of which ways might” (505).

Lynch draws on Foucault to propose a regimen of “care of the self” (qtd. in Lynch 508) that includes “practices through which subjects might shape themselves” (508). This self-formation addresses character through, in Debra Hawhee’s words, “intensive attention and discipline, painful repeated exercise” (qtd. in Lynch 509). Among the exercises that promote self-re-shaping is a form of writing related to the development of “[p]hilosophic wisdom,” which, for Lynch, is not about acquiring topic mastery but rather “a matter of living a certain way of life” (509). This view counters the view that Lynch, via Foucault, attributes to Descartes, in which the self can be held apart from the knowledge it acquires, with the result that the knowledge does not affect “the structure of the subject itself” (qtd. in Lynch 510).

Similarly, Lynch cites the philosopher Pierre Hadot, for whom the “study of philosophy in the ancient world was more concerned with how the student lived than with what the student knew” (510). As an example of how writing furthered such a “spiritual program,” Hadot and Lynch reference the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which they present not as exercises to portray experience but rather to engage more deeply with it (510-14). The spiritual exercise of writing for this purpose allows Aurelius “a chance to examine his conduct” each day (511) and to prepare himself for “the challenges of . . . daily living” (512). Aurelius’s view, quoted by Lynch, is that

The art of living is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s in this regard, that it must stand ready and firm to meet whatever happens to it, even when unforeseen. (512)

In order to develop this stance, Lynch proposes, philosophical wisdom requires engaging rather than lamenting “the writer’s daily struggle (shadow boxing) against himself” (512). Lynch sees this kind of self-formative writing as important in the effort of “dwelling within a network of obligations,” which teachers must accept if they are to survive their encounters with the emotional underlife (512).

Contending that more experienced and capable teachers are among the most prone to confront this emotional quandary, Lynch concedes that reflection as most often understood can increase knowledge, but argues that knowledge alone is not sufficient (513). The kind of written reflection as spiritual exercise practiced by Aurelius and other philosophers, he asserts, can offer a way “to practice interdependence” rather than increase control (513). He argues that such exercise may bolster what Hawhee calls “a pedagogy of association” (qtd. in Lynch 514), that is, a pedagogy based on relationship and obligation:

Why would our students want to associate with us? And how will we be formed by the association? These are the kinds of questions that we might answer by practicing writing as a spiritual exercise. (514)

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Cunningham, Jennifer. African American Digital Language. C&C, June 2018. Posted 06/07/2018.

Cunningham, Jennifer M. ‘“wuz good wit u bro’: Patterns of Digital African American Language Use in Two Modes of Communication.” Computers and Composition 48 (2018): 67-84. Web. 30 May 2018.

Jennifer M. Cunningham reports a study of three male African American college students living in Ohio as they communicated with each other via text messages (73). Cunningham analyzed the messages for features of digital language (DL), African American language (AAL), and digital African American language (DAAL). She compared the results with those from a 2014 study of 100 comments posted by 19 African American college students on My Space (72). Her goal was to determine whether the features of the three language classes remained consistent across the different purposes, audiences, and platforms. In her view, consistency across these different contexts indicate the degree to which a form of language use is a stable, rule-governed literacy (72).

The author contends that efforts within writing pedagogy to build on languages with which students are familiar and in which they are already accomplished in order to build a bridge to Standard American English can benefit from learning more about how people communicate outside of the classroom (82). Cunningham reports research showing that text messaging is a favored form of communication among both adolescents and college students (68). She argues that studies of digital communication provide a view of how literacies are used for “authentic communicative purposes in . . . non-academic spaces” (67), and, as such, offer important lessons for writing pedagogy.

Cunningham reviews work by scholars who have examined and classified features of DL and AAL language groups. However, her previous study of DAAL is unique in that, except for her work, “there are no existing theoretical frameworks or coding categories that specifically address AAL as it is used to communicate in a digital environment” (73). As a result, for coding, she drew on tables she developed for her 2014 My Space study (73-74).

The author notes that in some views, digital language is considered a substandard form of communication with deleterious impacts on the literacy of users (68, 70). Scholars, however, have argued that the ability to exploit “textisms” like “initialisms” (e.g., “lol”), “letter/number homophones” (e.g., “b4”), and various forms of “shortenings” or “deletions” indicates a larger language-use repertoire rather than a deficit (68). Research suggests that fluidity in the “code-meshing” (69) involved in DL correlates with better reading skills (68, 82).

Cunningham writes that, similarly, African American Language has been labeled “an inferior form of communication that can negatively affect literacy” (69). Scholarship has recognized AAL as a “rule-governed language and literacy” with West-African roots and an English vocabulary (69). Cunningham discusses use patterns in AAL that demonstrate the affinity of AAL with West-African grammar and phonology, including “zero copula,” which occurs because in these language families there is “no form or conjugates of ‘to be’” and the conversion of “th” sounds, which do not occur in the African phonologies, to various alternatives such “d” sounds (71).

She explains her coding process for analysis of 380 messages consisting of 3136 words (73-74). “Open coding” classified the 3136 “instances” into “one of eight DL subcategories, one of six AAL phonological subcategories, and/or one of eight AAL grammatical subcategories” (73). In both the text messages and the social-network posts, Standard American English (SAE) accounted for most of the instances, (54.9% and 59.1%, respectively), but “SAE was not further coded” in the study (73).

In each subcategory, Cunningham reports substantial consistency between the text messages and the My Space posts. She notes some areas of difference. For example, in the subcategory DL, punctuation tended to be missing in the text messages but “excessive” in the social media posts (e.g., !!!) (75).

Some differences could be attributed to specific word choices by participants. In the AAL phonological subcategories, the two sets of texts differed considerably in the feature Cunningham designates as “Syllables”: “Unstressed syllables may be omitted and two pronounced words in AE may become one construction in AAL” (76). The more prominent occurrence of this feature in the text messages may have resulted from the three men’s regular use of “ight” to mean “all right” (76). Similarly, the verbal choices of “specific interlocutors” accounted for a disparity in the use of “Replacement th” in which the “th” sound is replaced with “d”; “several participants” in the social-media posts tended to use a particular example of this construction (76-77).

The author analyzes the degree to which the features she examined affected “functionality” (78). DAAL appeared designed to “creat[e] concise words, phrases, and sentences that are noticeably different from SAE while also approximating spoken AAL” (78). Writing that AAL is already “a more concise language” (78) and “a pragmatic language” (81), Cunningham contends that DL as used by African American speakers reflects these tendencies.

The author examines scholarship that contends that DL itself is “a hybrid between speech and writing,” creating “a new linguistic system” (69). Cunningham contends that the combination of DL and AAL creates a literacy, DAAL, that employs representations that differ from Standard American English both visually and by “approximating spoken AAL” (78). She found that the features of AAL that were incorporated into DAAL were more consistent across the two corpora than were the DL constructions, suggesting that DL is evolving as it is used in different contexts while “AAL is a more established and less fluctuating form of communication” (80).

In her view, her results reveal DAAL to be a hybrid practice with features that are consistent across contexts and therefore can be identified as a literacy in which users “follow innate and learned linguistic and paralinguistic rules to compose consistent and somewhat predictable written messages” (81). She argues that as an example of enhanced “heteroglossia” and as a way for students to “combine, alter, and mesh” both academic and non-academic language forms in response to differing contexts (81), DL and DAAL should be valued not only as stable, rule-governed linguistic practices but as contributors to “rhetorical awareness and writing ability” (82).


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Salig et al. Student Perceptions of “Essentialist Language” in Persuasive Writing. J of Writ. Res., 2018. Posted 05/10/2018.

Salig, Lauren K., L. Kimberly Epting, and Lizabeth A. Rand. “Rarely Say Never: Essentialist Rhetorical Choices in College Students’ Perceptions of Persuasive Writing.” Journal of Writing Research 93.3 (2018): 301-31. Web. 3 May 2018.

Lauren K. Salig, L. Kimberly Epting, and Lizabeth A. Rand investigated first-year college students’ perceptions of effective persuasive writing. Triggered by ongoing research that suggests that students struggle with the analytical and communicative skills demanded by this genre, the study focused on students’ attitudes toward “essentialist” language in persuasive discourse.

The authors cite research indicating that “one-sided” arguments are less persuasive than those that acknowledge opposing views and present more than one perspective on a issue (303); they posit that students’ failure to develop multi-sided arguments may account for assessments showing poor command of persuasive writing (303). Salig et al. argue that “the language used in one-sided arguments and the reasons students might think one-sidedness benefits their writing have not been extensively evaluated from a psychological perspective” (304). Their investigation is intended both to clarify what features students believe contribute to good persuasive writing and to determine whether students actually apply these beliefs in identifying effective persuasion (305).

The authors invoke a term, “essentialism,” to encompass different forms of language that exhibit different levels of “black-and-white dualism” (304). Such language may fail to acknowledge exceptions to generalizations; one common way it may manifest itself is the tendency to include “boosters” such as ‘“always,’ ‘every,’ and ‘prove,’” while eliminating “hedges” such as qualifiers (304). “Essentialist” thinking, the authors contend, “holds that some categories have an unobservable, underlying ‘essence’ behind them” (304). Salig et al. argue that while some subsets of “generic language” may enable faster learning because they allow the creation of useful categories, the essentialist tendency in such language to override analytical complexity can prove socially harmful (305).

The investigation involved two studies designed, first, to determine whether students conceptually recognized the effects of essentialist language in persuasive writing, and second, to assess whether they were able to apply this recognition in practice (306).

Study 1 consisted of two phases. In the first, students were asked to generate features that either enhanced or detracted from the quality, persuasiveness, and credibility of writing (307). Twenty-seven characteristics emerged after coding; these were later reduced to 23 by combining some factors. Features related to essentialism, Bias and One-sidedness, were listed as damaging to persuasiveness and credibility, while Refutation of Opposition and Inclusion of Other Viewpoints were seen as improving these two factors. Although, in the authors’ view, these responses aligned with educational standards such as the Common Core State Standards, students did not see these four characteristics as affecting the quality of writing (309).

In Phase 2 of Study 1, students were prompted to list “writing behaviors that indicated the presence of the specified characteristic” (310). The researchers developed the top three behaviors for each feature into sentence form; they provide the complete list of these student-generated behavioral indicators (311-14).

From the Study 1 results, Salig et al. propose that students do conceptually grasp “essentialism” as a negative feature and can name ways that it may show up in writing. Study 2 was designed to measure the degree to which this conceptual knowledge influences student reactions to specific writing in which the presence or absence of essentialist features becomes the variable under examination (314-15).

In this study 79 psychology students were shown six matched pairs of statements, varying only in that one represented essentialist language and the other contained hedges and qualifiers (315). In each case, participants were asked to state which of the two statements was “better,” and then to refer to a subset of the 23 features identified in Study 1 that had been narrowed to focus on persuasiveness in order to provide reasons for their preference (316). They were asked to set aside their personal responses to the topic (318). The researchers provide the statement pairs, three of which contained citations (317-18).

In Likert-scale responses, the students generally preferred the non-essentialist samples (319), although the “driving force” for this finding was that students preferring non-essentialist samples rated the essentialist samples very low in persuasiveness (323). Further, of the 474 choices, 222 indicated that essentialist examples were “better,” while 252 chose the non-essentialist examples, a difference that the researchers report as not significant (321).

Salig et al. find that the reasons students chose for preferring essentialist language differed from their reasons for preferring non-essentialist examples. Major reasons for the essentialist choice were Voice/Tone, Concision, Persuasive Effectiveness, One-sidedness, and Grabs/Retains Attention. Students who chose non-essentialist samples as better cited Other Viewpoints, Argument Clarity/Consistency, Detail, Writer’s Knowledge, Word Choice/Language, and Bias (322).

Participants were divided almost equally among those who consistently chose non-essentialist options, those who consistently chose essentialist options, and those whose chose one or the other half of the time (323). Correlations indicated that students who were somewhat older (maximum age was 21, with M = 18.49 years) “were associated with lower persuasiveness ratings on essentialist samples than younger students or students with less education” (324). The authors posit that the second study examined a shift from “conceptual to operational understanding” (324) and thus might indicate the effects either of cognitive development or increased experience or some combination in conjunction with other factors (325).

In addition, the authors consider effects of current methods of instruction on students’ responses to the samples. They note that “concision” showed up disproportionately as a reason given by students who preferred essentialist samples. They argue that possibly students have inferred that “strong, supported, and concise arguments” are superior (326). Citing Linda Adler-Kassner, they write that students are often taught to support their arguments before they are encouraged to include counterarguments (326).The authors recommend earlier attention, even before high school, to the importance of including multiple viewpoints (328).

The study also revealed an interaction between student preferences and the particular sets, with sets 4 and 5 earning more non-essentialist votes than other sets. The length of the samples and the inclusion of citations in set 4 lead the researchers to consider whether students perceived these as appropriate for “scholarly” or more formal contexts in comparison to shorter, more emphatic samples that students may have associated with “advertising” (327). Sets 4 and 5 also made claims about “students” and “everybody,” prompting the researchers to suggest that finding themselves the subjects of sweeping claims may have encouraged students to read the samples with more awareness of essentialist language (327).

The authors note that their study examined “one, and arguably the simplest, type” of essentialist language. They urge ongoing research into the factors that enable students not just to recognize but also to apply the concepts that characterize non-essentialist language (328-29).


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Griffiths, Brett. Preparing Two-Year College Faculty to Think Institutionally. TETYC Sept. 2017. Posted 11/14/2017.

Griffiths, Brett. “Professional Autonomy and Teacher-Scholar-Activists in Two-Year Colleges: Preparing New Faculty to Think Institutionally.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 45.1 (2017): 47-68. Print.

Contributing to the issue of Teaching English in the Two-Year College dealing with the preparation of two-year-college faculty, Brett Griffiths discusses the importance of preparing these faculty to advocate beyond the classroom for pedagogical practices grounded in the expertise of writing professionals and the field of composition. Recognizing that two-year faculty face the challenges of “our current teaching context,” which includes “the mass production of knowledge for profit, globalization of economic relationships,” use of contingent labor, and success measured solely by completion (47), Griffiths notes that these faculty are often not empowered within their institutions to act as advocates for theoretically valid teaching (60). Her study examines how two-year faculty in three institutions constructed their professional identities in ways that either helped them position themselves in leadership roles or, conversely, “unwittingly undermined” their potential as leaders (49).

Griffiths studied ten faculty, most holding MAs, from colleges chosen for their differing demographics (“urban, suburban, rural”) (50). In each case, she collected teaching artifacts, observed and videoed a class session, and conducted interviews. Her coding procedure resulted in more than 175 codes; she provides examples in appendices (52). Her goal was to distinguish teachers’ classroom actions, such as “planning the curriculum, conducting a class-length lesson, [and] grading a paper,” from the “pedagogical rationales” driving choices and addressing constraints (50). The specific focus of the cases reported was the “influences on an instructor’s teaching and the tensions they experienced between teaching choices and perceived expectations” (52). This focus allowed her to distinguish how teachers coped with these tensions.

Griffiths draws on the work of “sociologist and professional identity scholar” Magali Sarfatti Larson to consider how professional identity can be consolidated. Sarfatti Larson, she writes, delineates two components of professional authority: “a monopoly of competence,” which means that writing professionals are perceived as most qualified to determine what counts as good practices, and “a monopoly of credibility,” which means that these professionals are believed to implement these practices well (48). Griffiths contends that two-year faculty must be prepared to position themselves to make these monopolies more visible within their institutions and communities.

The author draws as well on Sarfatti Larson’s claim that “control over the regulation of . . . knowledge” is essential to establishing professional authority and autonomy (49). She distinguishes between “control over technique,” which involves specific activities “associated with knowledge of the field,” and “control over scope of service,” which addresses “the knowledge, protocols, and professional theories that shape . . . practice” (49; emphasis original). For Griffiths, this theory indicates that the professional autonomy to affect policy beyond the classroom is built on the ability to develop, assess, and revise professional knowledge and to convey “the value of that knowledge to a broader community—our institutions and the voting public” (49).

Griffiths’s study examines how her participants positioned themselves in relation to “scope of technique” and “scope of service” and how that positioning affected their effectiveness as leaders and advocates for sound teaching in their institutions. Her findings lead her to classify the instructors as either “independent contractors” or “teacher-advocates” (55). She arrived at this distinction through interviews in which many instructors described their freedom to do what they wanted within their classrooms and the tensions that arose when their classroom practices did not accord with departmental directives (56).

Interviews with instructors working from a “negotiated syllabus” revealed considerable disagreement over many components of the syllabus and their program’s overall design. Griffiths records a determination, in the words of one instructor, to “subvert” elements of the program’s requirements with which he did not agree (qtd. in Griffiths 57). Instructors in this group engaged in “workarounds” and even used “fake” materials to appear as if they were following the departmental requirements when in fact they were teaching according to their own understanding of best practices (57, 58). Disagreements included varying approaches to teaching grammar, the number of required essays, and whether a modes-based curriculum was appropriate (57).

Griffiths notes that these choices made by instructors as “independent contractors” deliver “two narratives for the course outcomes” to the students (54) and, in the case of tensions over the inclusion of “style” as an outcome that no one had been able to define, result in a sense of “normlessness” that, in Griffiths’s view, undermines claims to professional competence and credibility (56-57). She also found that in giving feedback, instructors tended to further provide mixed narratives by applying the departmental rubrics despite their claims to disavow them (55).

She writes that at first she joined these instructors in imagining that they were engaging in “victories of composition soldiers against the omnipresent oppression by an education overlord” with little understanding of teaching practice (59). But she claims that the “freedom” and “independence” these teachers assert differs from professional autonomy as Sarfatti Larson explains it (56).

The independent contractors, Griffiths states, avoided debating and defending their positions with colleagues, choosing instead to “teach outside of the department expectations while appearing to adhere to them” (58) and permitting colleagues the same perceived freedom. However, Griffiths argues that such tactics left instructors working within a system that frustrated them; a teacher who chooses this version of “freedom” “opts out” of more broadly based efforts to improve experiences of both teachers and students alike (56).

Griffiths contrasts these faculty with “autonomous teacher-advocates” who, rather than teaching “as if” they supported departmental outcomes, “assert[ed] control over scope of service to evolve those outcomes based on contemporary research in writing studies” (60-61). The majority of these teacher-advocates taught at a specific institution, which both encouraged and required them to become active, collaborative participants in designing and implementing outcomes and policies (60-61). One instructor at another of the institutions stepped forward on her own in a less-than-inviting environment to direct a textbook review (62).

The author highlights the importance of graduate preparation if faculty at two-year colleges are to embrace these more active roles (62). Most of the faculty she studied “had very limited engagement with the meta-discourses of the profession . . . or with the language of their labor contracts,” and no “clear sense of what footing they possessed to exert change” (62). The failure of faculty to develop this kind of awareness, she writes, “will likely continue to limit the status and autonomy” of two-year-college instructors (63).

She stresses the “responsibility” of moving beyond the apparent freedom of the classroom to the larger context in which instructors should be willing “to assert—sometimes uncomfortably—within their departments and institutions an articulation of the shared norms and practices” that have been developed and promulgated by the discipline (64).