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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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Anson, Chris M. Expert Writers and Genre Transfer. CCC, June 2016. Posted 07/09/2016.

Anson, Chris M. “The Pop Warner Chronicles: A Case Study in Contextual Adaptation and the Transfer of Writing Ability.” College Composition and Communication 67.4 (2016): 518-49. Print.

Chris Anson presents a case study of an expert writer, “Martin,” attempting to “transfer” his extensive writing experience to the production of seventy-five-word “game summaries” for his son’s Pop Warner football team. The study leads Anson to argue that current theory on transfer does not fully account for Martin’s experiences working in a new genre and advocates for a “more nuanced understanding of existing ability, disposition, context, and genre in the deployment of knowledge for writing” (520).

Martin wrote the summaries to fulfill a participation requirement for families of Pop Warner players (522). He believed that the enormous amount of writing he did professionally and his deep understanding of such concepts as rhetorical strategies and composing processes made the game-summary assignment an appropriate choice (522). The summary deadline was the evening of the Sunday after each Saturday game; the pieces appeared in a local newspaper each Thursday (523).

Martin logged his writing activities during a twelve-week period, noting that he wrote multiple genres, both formal and informal, for his academic job (520). For the game summaries, he received verbal and emailed guidance from the team coordinator. This guidance allowed him to name the genre, define an audience (principally, team families), and recognize specific requirements, such as including as many players as possible each week and mentioning every player at least once, always in a positive light, during the season (523-24). Martin learned that the team coordinator would do a preliminary edit, then pass the summaries on to the newspaper editors (524).

Anson writes that Martin’s first challenge was to record the games through extensive notes on a legal pad, matching players against a team roster. When Martin sat down on the Sunday following the game to write his first summary, he was surprised to find himself “paralyzed” (526). The effort to be accurate while making the brief account “interesting and punchy” took much longer than Martin had anticipated (526-27). Moreover, it earned only derision from his two sons, primarily for its “total English professor speak”: long sentences and “big words” (528).

On advice from his wife, Martin tightened the draft, in his view “[taking] the life completely out of it” (528). When the summary appeared in the newspaper, it had been further shortened and edited, in ways that made no sense to Martin, for example, word substitutions that sometimes opted for “plain[er]” language but other times chose “fancier” diction (530). He notes that he was offered no part in these edits and received no feedback beyond seeing the final published version (529).

Martin experienced similar frustration throughout the season, struggling to intuit and master the conventions of the unfamiliar genre. His extensive strengths were “beside the point” (531); faced with this new context, a “highly successful writer” became “a ‘struggling’ or ‘less effective’ writer” (531-32).

Anson draws on Anne Beaufort’s model of discourse knowledge to analyze Martin’s struggles. He reports that Beaufort lists five “knowledge domains” that affect the ability to write in a particular context:

writing process knowledge, subject matter knowledge, rhetorical knowledge, and genre knowledge, all of which are enveloped and informed by knowledge of the discourse community. (532; italics original)

In his analysis of Martin’s situation, Anson contends that Martin possessed the kind of reflective awareness of both writing process knowledge and rhetorical knowledge that theoretically would allow him to succeed in the new context (533). He notes that some scholarship suggests that such knowledge developed over years of practice can actually impede transfer because familiar genres are in fact “overpracticed,” resulting in “discursive entrenchment,” for example when students cannot break free of a form like the five-paragraph theme (533). Anson argues, however, that because of his “meta-level awareness” of the new situation, Martin was able to make deliberate decisions about how to address the new exigencies (533-34).

Anson further maintains that, as a reasonably attentive sports fan, Martin possessed sufficient subject-matter knowledge to comprehend the broad genre of sports reporting into which the game summaries fell (534-35).

Anson finds genre knowledge and knowledge of the discourse community central to Martin’s challenge. Martin had to accommodate the “unique variation” on sports reporting that the summaries imposed with their focus on children’s activities and their attention to the specific expectations of the families and the team coordinator (535).

Moreover, Anson cites scholarship challenging the notion that any genre can be permanently “stabilized” by codified, uniformly enforced rules (536). On the contrary, this scholarship posits, genres are “ever changing sets of socially acceptable strategies that participants can use to improvise their responses to a particular situation” (Catherine E. Schryer, qtd. in Anson 536), thus underscoring Beaufort’s claim that the nature of the relevant discourse community “subsumes” all other aspects of transfer, including genre knowledge (536).

In Anson’s analysis, the discourse community within which Martin functioned was complex and problematic. Far from unifying around accepted norms, the community consisted of a number of “transient” groups of families and officials who produced unstable “traditions”; moreover, Anson posits that the newspaper editors’ priorities differed from those of the team coordinator and families (537).

The study leads Anson to propose that external factors will usually override the individual strengths writers bring to new tasks. He notes agreement among scholars that “[t]ransfer theories are always ‘negative’,” recognizing that transfer always requires “significant cognitive effort and some degree of training” (539). Anson argues that Martin’s experiences align with theories of “strong negative transfer,” which state that writers will always struggle to adjust to new tasks and contexts (539-40).

Anson urges scholarship on transfer to apply a “principle of uniqueness” that recognizes that each situation brings together a unique set of exigencies and abilities. While noting that Martin is “qualitatively different” from writers in composition classrooms (541), Anson contends that students face similar struggles when they are constantly routed across contexts where genre rules change radically, often because of the preferences of individual instructors (541-42). A foundational course alone, he states, cannot adequately nurture the flexibility students need to navigate these landscapes, nor is there adequate articulation and conceptual consensus across the different disciplines in which students must perform (541). Moreover, he claims, students seldom receive the kind of mentoring that will enable success even when they import strong skills.

In a twist at the conclusion of the article, Anson reveals that he is “Martin” (544). The existence of such a genre-resistant article itself, he suggests, illustrates that his full understanding of the discourse community engaged with a composition journal like College Composition and Communication provided him with “the confidence and authority” to “strategically deviate from the expectations of a genre” in which he was an expert (544). In contrast, in his role as “Martin,” interacting with the Pop Warner community, he lacked this confidence and authority and therefore felt unable “to bend the Pop Warner summary genre to fit his typical flexibility and creativity” (543-44). This sense of constraint, he suggests, drove his/Martin’s search for the “genre stability” (543) that would provide the guidance a writer new to a discourse community needs to succeed.

Thus the ability to mesh a writer’s own practices with the requirements of a genre, he argues, demands more than rhetorical, genre, subject-matter, and procedural knowledge; it demands an understanding of the specific, often unique, discourse community, knowledge which, as in the case of the Pop Warner community, may be unstable, contradictory, or difficult to obtain (539).