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Moe, Peter Wayne. William Coles and “Themewriting” as Epideictic. CCC, Feb. 2018. Posted 03/02/2018.

Moe, Peter Wayne. “Reading Coles Reading Themes: Epideictic Rhetoric and the Teaching of Writing.” College Composition and Communication 69.3 (2018): 433-57. Print.

Peter Wayne Moe presents a reading of The Plural I: The Teaching of Writing by William E. Coles, Jr. Published in 1978, The Plural I narrates a course Coles taught in the fall of 1965-66 at the Case Institute of Technology (434). In Moe’s view, Coles’s course and his representation of it illuminate the relationship between writing pedagogy and epideictic rhetoric.

Moe notes that reviewers of Coles’s book found it counter to “the dominant traditions and pedagogies shaping composition” and thus “hard to read, hard to place, hard to value” (434). Moe hopes to “recover, and find value in” Coles’s contribution to the field (435).

Moe explores scholarly definitions and judgments of epideictic, many of which denigrate this rhetoric as superficial stylistic display that reinforces a community’s received values and therefore stifles critical inquiry (436). Moe contrasts it with “pragmatic” rhetorics that result in actions, like rhetorics of the “courtroom or senate” (435). He cites scholarship arguing that the role of the audience in the epideictic is not to act or “be persuaded; rather, the audience observes” (438). In doing so, an audience participates in epideictic as often defined: as bestowing “praise and blame” (438).

Scholars cited by Moe note that the “display” characterizing epideictic lays out “the shared values of a community”; etymologically, Moe shows, the term means “showing forth”; it is the rhetoric of “making known” (436). Moe argues that in performing these functions, epideictic becomes “the foundation from which a rhetor can praise and blame” (436). He contrasts the view that this showing forth sustains shared values with the contention that, in fact, epideictic can “reshape shared values,” and he argues that this reshaping is what Coles achieves in his use of this form in his writing classroom (437).

Moe cites Dale L. Sullivan to present education as fundamentally epideictic because it works to teach reasoning skills fitting particular contexts and “to instill in the student sentiments or emotions appropriate within the orthodoxy which the teacher represents” (Sullivan, qtd. in Moe 437). However, in Moe’s reading, Coles did not represent orthodoxy but instead pushed against it, using “little more than [the] praise and blame [of] student writing” to generate “sustained inquiry” capable of critically resisting banality and conformity (438).

Moe writes that The Plural I tracks the weekly assignments of a required first-year composition course, Humanities I (434). The chapters consist of these thirty assignments, several student papers mimeographed for discussion (ninety-four in all), and Coles’s account of each week’s classroom discussion (439). There was no textbook. According to Moe, “Coles dramatizes the classroom conversation; he does not transcribe.” Coles insisted that in these narratives nothing was made up (439).

Tracing Coles’s lessons through selected examples, Moe writes that Coles began by assigning an essay asking students to differentiate between amateurism and professionalism. The resulting essays, Coles declaimed, were “[t]riumphs of self-obliteration, . . . put-up jobs everyone of them, and as much of a bore to read as they must have been to write” (qtd. in Moe 440). In Coles’s view, these efforts represented what he called “Themewriting,” in which students displayed their understanding of what a teacher expected them to sound like (440).

Moe argues that this rhetorical choice represents students’ conception of the “shared values of this community, this classroom, and this teacher” (440), in which they draw on familiar patterns and commonplaces, believing that the community honors writing that, in Coles’s words, is “well-organized. It’s Clear, Logical, and Coherent. It’s neat” (qtd. in Moe 441). Coles asks questions that push students to challenge the voice of the Themewritten essays, ultimately creating consensus that “no one talks the way this paper sounds” (441). Moe depicts Cole creating a game of Themewriting in which students discover their ability to convert any set of terms‑for example, “man, black, and TNT” (442)— into a formulaic set of moves that are both “inevitable” and “moralistic” (443).

Coles’s project, Moe contends, is to push students to think about what they are doing with language when they act on these assumptions about “what makes good writing” by undermining their confidence in these apparently sacrosanct shared values (443). Among Coles’s stated intentions is the development of a “common vocabulary” (qtd. in Moe 443) that will provide new ways to characterize writing (443). Developing this vocabulary, Moe argues, “serves an epideictic function, uniting the class in their practice of praise and blame” (443).

As part of this vocabulary production, Coles encourages the adoption of metaphors like “sky-writing” or “mayonnaise” to capture the characteristics the class assigned to Themewriting (444). Among these metaphors are the names such as Steve, or Suzie, a “character who ‘isn’t a character at all’ because she is composed solely of clichés” (Coles, qtd. in Moe 445). Coles finds, however, that students fall back too glibly on these critical terms, using them to avoid grappling with stylistic nuances that suggest deeper struggles with language (446).

As the class nears its end, Moe contends that students discover that “avoiding the rhetoric of cant” is nearly impossible, and that articulating “‘another way of talking’” has been the difficult goal of Coles’s method (Coles, qtd. in Moe 447). Their loss of confidence in Themewriting and the challenges of finding a new understanding of what language can do upset students and left them feeling as if, in Coles’s words, “‘readiness with’ a certain kind of language is the same thing as a ‘loss of words’” (qtd. in Moe 448). However, Moe points out that students begin to notice how they manipulate language to create “a stylistic self” (449):

The “self construable from the way words fall on a page” is integral to Coles’s teaching. He clarifies that such a self is “not a mock or false self. . . .” The assignment sequence in The Plural I seeks to bring students to an awareness of how language constitutes this stylistic self and how one might use language in light of that awareness. (439)

Moe argues that writing teachers read student work as epideictic, reading it against the shared values of a community, not so much to be persuaded by arguments as to respond to the writer’s display of his or her use of language to create a particular stylistic self. He states that “persuasion, if it does occur, is a product of display—how well the student shows forth the various conventions of the discourses he or she hopes to enter” (451). This display is the ground on which persuasion “and other rhetorical acts” can take place (451). He argues that the value in Coles’s pedagogy is that he impels students to understand more precisely what they are doing when they partake in this display. Once they have recognized the shared values of the community, they become capable of “resisting them, rewriting them even, through praise and blame” (452).


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McAlear and Pedretti. When is a Paper “Done”? Comp. Studies, Fall 2016. Posted 03/02/2017.

McAlear, Rob, and Mark Pedretti. “Writing Toward the End: Students’ Perceptions of Doneness in the Composition Classroom.” Composition Studies 44.2 (2016): 72-93. Web. 20 Feb. 2017.

Rob McAlear and Mark Pedretti describe a survey to shed light on students’ conception of “doneness,” or when a piece of writing is completed.

McAlear and Pedretti argue that writing teachers tend to consider writing an ongoing process that never really ends. In their view, this approach values “process over product,” with the partial result that the issue of how a writing task reaches satisfactory completion is seldom addressed in composition scholarship (72). They contend that experienced writers acquire an ability “central to compositional practice” of recognizing that a piece is ready for submission, and writing instructors can help students develop their own awareness of what makes a piece complete.

A first step in this pedagogical process, McAlear and Pedretti write, is to understand how students actually make this decision about their college assignments (73). Their article seeks to determine what criteria students actually use and how these criteria differ as student writers move through different levels of college writing (73).

McAlear and Pedretti review the limited references to doneness in composition scholarship, noting that earlier resources like Erika Lindemann and Daniel Anderson’s A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers and Janet Emig’s work suggest that the most important factors are deadlines and a sense that the writer has nothing more to say. The authors find these accounts “unsatisfying” (74). Nancy Sommers, they state, recognizes that writing tasks do end but does not explore the criteria nor the “implications for those criteria” (75). Linda Flower and John R. Hayes, in their cognitive model, suggest that endings are determined by a writer’s “task representation,” with solution of a problem the supposed end point. Again, the authors find that knowing how writers “defin[e] a problem” does not explain how writers know they “have reached an adequate solution” (75).

One reason doneness has not been explicitly addressed, McAlear and Pedretti posit, is its possible relationship to “products” as the end of writing. Yet, they argue, “one of the implicit goals of teaching writing as a process is to get better products” (76). In their view, interrogating how writers come to regard their work as finished need not commit scholars to a “Big Theory” approach; “completion,” like process, can be rhetorically focused, responsive to specific audiences and purposes (76).

The authors surveyed 59 students in four first-year and four second-year writing courses at a Midwest research institution (78). The survey consisted of ten questions; analysis focused on the first two, asking about the student’s year and major, and on two questions, Q5 and Q10, that specifically asked how students decided a piece was finished. Question 5 was intended to elicit information about “a cognitive state,” whereas Question 10 asked about specific criteria (78).

Coding answers yielded three strategies: Internal, Criteria, and Process. “Internal” responses “linked to personal, emotional, or aesthetic judgments, such as feeling satisfied with one’s work or that the paper ‘flowed’” (79). Answers classified under “Criteria” referenced “empirical judgments of completion” such as meeting the requirements of the assignment (79). In “Process” answers, “any step in the writing process . . . was explicitly mentioned,” such as proofreading or peer review (79). McAlear and Pedretti coded some responses as combinations of the basic strategies, such as IP for “Internal-Process” or PC for “Process-Criteria” (80).

Survey responses indicated that first-year students tended to use a single strategy to determine doneness, with Internal or Process dominant. Nearly half of second-year students also used only one marker, but with a shift from Internal to Criteria strategies (79-80). Students responding to Question 10 claimed to use more than one strategy, perhaps because an intervening question triggered more reflection on their strategies (80). However, the authors were surprised that 33% of first-year students and 48% of second-year students did not mention Process strategies at all (80). Overall, first-year writers were more likely to report Internal or Process options, while second-year writers trended more to external Criteria (80-81).

McAlear and Pedretti found that for first-year students particularly, “Process” involved only “lower-order” strategies like proofreading (81). The authors recoded references to proofreading or correctness into a new category, “Surface.” With this revision, first-year students’ preference for Internal strategies “become even more prominent,” while second-year students’ use of Process strategies other than “Surface” was highlighted (82).

Study results do not support what McAlear and Pedretti consider a common perception that correctness and page length dictate students’ decisions about doneness (84). The authors posit that “students may be relying on equally simple, but qualitatively distinct, criteria” (84). First-year students commonly pointed to “proofreading and having nothing more to say,” while second-year students expressed concern with “meeting the criteria of the prompt” (84).

McAlear and Pedretti note that even among second-year students who had been exposed to more than one writing class, these responses indicate very little “awareness of rhetorical situation” (84). Although responding to the rhetorical situation of a college classroom, McAlear and Pedretti argue, second-year students interpret the actual expectations of a writing class simplistically (85). Considerations that writing teachers would hope for, like “Is this portion of my argument persuasive for my audience,” were completely missing (84). Moreover, many second-year students did not note Process at all, despite presumably having encountered the concept often (85).

McAlear and Pedretti propose that the shift away from Internal, affective markers to external, criteria-focused, albeit reductive, strategies may reflect a “loss of confidence” as students encountering unfamiliar discourses no longer trust their ability to judge their own success (85-86). The authors suggest that, because students cannot easily frame a rhetorical problem, “they do not know their endpoint” and thus turn to teachers for explicit instruction on what constitutes an adequate response (87).

For the authors, the moment when students move to external criteria and must articulate these criteria is an opportunity to introduce a vocabulary on doneness and to encourage attention to the different kinds of criteria suitable for different rhetorical contexts (88). Instructors can use reflective activities and examination of others’ decisions as revealed in their work to incorporate issues of doneness into rhetorical education as they explicitly provide a range of strategies, from internal satisfaction to genre-based criteria (88-89). Students might revise writing tasks for different genres and consider how, for example, completion criteria for an essay differ from those for a speech (90).

The authors propose that such attention to the question of doneness may shed light on problems like “writing anxiety,  procrastination, and even plagiarism” (84). Ultimately, they write, “knowing when to stop writing is a need that many of our students have, and one for which we have not yet adequately prepared them” (90).

 


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Gallagher, Chris W. Behaviorism as Social-Process Pedagogy. Dec. CCC. Posted 01/12/2017.

Gallagher, Chris W. “What Writers Do: Behaviors, Behaviorism, and Writing Studies.” College Composition and Communication 68.2 (2016): 238-65. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

Chris W. Gallagher provides a history of composition’s relationship with behaviorism, arguing that this relationship is more complex than commonly supposed and that writing scholars can use the connections to respond to current pressures imposed by reformist models.

Gallagher notes the efforts of many writing program administrators (WPAs) to articulate professionally informed writing outcomes to audiences in other university venues, such as general-education committees (238-39). He reports that such discussions often move quickly from compositionists’ focus on what helps students “writ[e] well” to an abstract and universal ideal of “good writing” (239).

This shift, in Gallagher’s view, encourages writing professionals to get caught up in “the work texts do” in contrast to the more important focus on “the work writers do” (239; emphasis original). He maintains that “the work writers do” is in fact an issue of behaviors writers exhibit and practice, and that the resistance to “behaviorism” that characterizes the field encourages scholars to lose sight of the fact that the field is “in the behavior business; we are, and should be, centrally concerned with what writers do” (240; emphasis original).

He suggests that “John Watson’s behavioral ‘manifesto’—his 1913 paper, ‘Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It’” (241) captures what Gallagher sees as the “general consensus” of the time and a defining motivation for behaviorism: a shift away from “fuzzy-headed . . . introspective analysis” to the more productive process of “study[ing] observable behaviors” (241). Gallagher characterizes many different types of behaviorism, ranging from those designed to actually control behavior to those hoping to understand “inner states” through their observable manifestations (242).

One such productive model of behaviorism, in Gallagher’s view, is that of B. F. Skinner in the 1960s and 1970s. Gallagher argues that Skinner emphasized not “reflex behaviors” like those associated with Pavlov but rather “operant behaviors,” which Gallagher, citing psychologist John Staddon, characterizes as concerned with “the ways in which human (and other animal) behavior operates in its environment and is guided by its consequences” (242).

Gallagher contends that composition’s resistance to work like Skinner’s was influenced by views like that of James A. Berlin, for whom behaviorism was aligned with “current-traditional rhetoric” because it was deemed an “objective rhetoric” that assumed that writing was merely the process of conveying an external reality (243). The “epistemic” focus and “social turn” that emerged in the 1980s, Gallagher writes, generated resistance to “individualism and empiricism” in general, leading to numerous critiques of what were seen as behaviorist impulses.

Gallagher attributes much tension over behaviorism in composition to the influx of government funding in the 1960s designed to “promote social efficiency through strategic planning and accountability” (248). At the same time that this funding rewarded technocratic expertise, composition focused on “burgeoning liberation movements”; in Gallagher’s view, behaviorism erred by falling on the “wrong” or “science side” of this divide (244). Gallagher chronicles efforts by the National Council of Teachers of English and various scholars to arrive at a “détente” that could embrace forms of accountability fueled by behaviorism, such as “behavioral objectives” (248), while allowing the field to “hold on to its humanist core” (249).

In Gallagher’s view, scholars who struggled to address behaviorism such as Lynn Z. and Martin Bloom moved beyond mechanistic models of learning to advocate many features of effective teaching recognized today, such as a resistance to error-oriented pedagogy, attention to process, purposes, and audiences, and provision of “regular, timely feedback” (245-46). Negative depictions of behaviorism, Gallagher argues, in fact neglect the degree to which, in such scholarship, behaviorism becomes “a social-process pedagogy” (244; emphasis original).

In particular, Gallagher argues that “the most controversial behaviorist figure in composition history,” Robert Zoellner (246), has been underappreciated. According to Gallagher, Zoellner’s “talk-write” pedagogy was a corrective for “think-write” models that assumed that writing merely conveyed thought, ignoring the possibility that writing and thinking could inform each other (246). Zoellner rejected reflex-driven behaviorism that predetermined stimulus-response patterns, opting instead for an operant model in which objectives followed from rather than controlled students’ behaviors, which should be “feely emitted” (Zoellner, qtd. in Gallagher 250) and should emerge from “transactional” relationships among teachers and students in a “collaborative,” lab-like setting in which teachers interacted with students and modeled writing processes (247).

The goal, according to Gallagher, was consistently to “help students develop robust repertoires of writing behaviors to help them adapt to the different writing situations in which they would find themselves” (247). Gallagher contends that Zoellner advocated teaching environments in which

[behavioral objectives] are not codified before the pedagogical interaction; . . . are rooted in the transactional relationship between teachers and students; . . . are not required to be quantifiably measurable; and . . . operate in a humanist idiom. (251).

Rejected in what Martin Nystrand denoted “the social 1980s” (qtd. in Gallagher 251), as funding for accountability initiatives withered (249), behaviorism did attract the attention of Mike Rose. His chapter in Why Writers Can’t Write and that of psychology professor Robert Boice attended to the ways in which writers relied on specific behaviors to overcome writer’s block; in Gallagher’s view, Rose’s understanding of the short-comings of overzealous behaviorism did not prevent him from taking “writers’ behaviors qua behaviors extremely seriously” (253).

The 1990s, Gallagher reports, witnessed a moderate revival of interest in Zoellner, who became one of the “unheard voices” featured in new histories of the field (254). Writers of these histories, however, struggled to dodge behaviorism itself, hoping to develop an empiricism that would not insist on “universal laws and objective truth claims” (255). After these efforts, however, Gallagher reports that the term faded from view, re-emerging only recently in Maja Joiwind Wilson’s 2013 dissertation as a “repressive” methodology exercised as a form of power (255).

In contrast to these views, Gallagher argues that “behavior should become a key term in our field” (257). Current pressures to articulate ways of understanding learning that will resonate with reformers and those who want to impose rigid measurements, he contends, require a vocabulary that foregrounds what writers actually do and frames the role of teachers as “help[ing] students expand their behavioral repertoires” (258; emphasis original). This vocabulary should emphasize the social aspects of all behaviors, thereby foregrounding the fluid, dynamic nature of learning.

In his view, such a vocabulary would move scholars beyond insisting that writing and learning “operate on a higher plane than that of mere behaviors”; instead, it would generate “better ways of thinking and talking about writing and learning behaviors” (257; emphasis original). He recommends, for example, creating “learning goals” instead of “outcomes” because such a shift discourages efforts to reduce complex activities to pre-determined, reflex-driven steps toward a static result (256). Scholars accustomed to a vocabulary of “processes, practices, and activities” can benefit from learning as well to discuss “specific, embodied, scribal behaviors” and the environments necessary if the benefits accruing to these behaviors are to be realized (258).

 


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Blythe and Gonzales. Using Screencast Videos to Capture What Students Do. June CCC. Posted 09/08/2016.

Blythe, Stuart, and Laura Gonzales. “Coordination and Transfer across the Metagenre of Secondary Research.” College Composition and Communication 67.4 (2016): 607-33. Print.

Stuart Blythe and Laura Gonzales describe a study of students’ writing practices using screencast videos to record their activities. They hoped to shed light on the question of whether students “transfer” their learning in first-year writing classes to other contexts.

Five researchers recruited students from multiple sections of a cross-disciplinary biology course that met a university-wide requirement (610). Coordinating with the professor in charge of a large lecture section, the researchers distributed index cards to students in the smaller discussion sections, instructing students willing to participate in the study to provide contact information (612). Ultimately twelve students agreed to take part (613).

Blythe and Gonzales review studies by multiple scholars that find little or no evidence of transfer of first-year writing content, supporting Doug Brent’s “glass half-empty” interpretation of the issue of transfer (608). Along with Elizabeth Wardle, as well as Linda Adler-Kassner, John Majewski, and Damian Koshnick, Blythe and Gonzales posit that the learning involved in writing is difficult to research because it is non-linear and, according to Joseph Petraglia, does not yield to “‘well-structured’ formulas or algorithms” (qtd. in Blythe and Gonzales 608). The authors also propose that researchers may be handicapped by their use of “a limited set of methods” such as interviews and focus groups (608).

Blythe and Gonzales contend that their use of screen-capture technology improves on interviews because, unlike an interview, this method does not rely on memory or the interaction between the interviewer and interviewee but rather reveals what actually happens “in that moment” of actual composition (Raul Sanchez, qtd. in Blythe and Gonzales 613). The authors also state that, unlike think-aloud protocols, screencast videos do not add an unfamiliar, distracting element to students’ processes; they note that many students “reported forgetting that their work was being recorded” (614).

Students were instructed to upload three fifteen-minute videos over the course of their composition process (613). Each student then joined a researcher in an “artifact-based interview” designed to overcome the failure of the screencast process to record the student’s reasons for various choices (614).

In choosing the biology course for study, the researchers expected to analyze genres such as lab reports, but were surprised to find that “students were being asked to write arguments using published sources,” specifically involving the use of DDT to control malaria (610).

Citing Michael Carter’s use of the term metagenre to denote “ways of knowing and doing that cross disciplines” (610; emphasis original), Blythe and Gonzales locate the biology assignment in such a metagenre. Following Carter, the authors distinguish between “knowing that,” which designates “unique sets of knowledge” specific to each discipline, and “knowing how,” indicating “share[d] ways of knowing” (610). In this view, these “ways of knowing” constitute metagenres (610). Four metagenres listed by Carter are problem-solving, empirical inquiry, research from sources, and performance (610-11). The biology assignment falls into the cross-disciplinary metagenre of “research from sources.”

The software allowed the researchers to code thirty-six videos capturing student composing processes and to generate “visualizations” or graphs that recorded student movement among the texts they worked with as they wrote (614. 616). Major patterns in student processes emerged from this coding and from the interviews in which students affirmed the categorizations recognized by the researchers’ analysis (614).

Three major conclusions resulted. First, “[s]tudents select sources rhetorically” (615). Specifically, students chose sources that they thought would meet their instructors’ approval (622). Although they used Google to generate ideas and plan, they cited only information from library databases and Google Scholar, as specified by the assignment (623). In conducting searches, the students did not venture beyond the first entry in a results list and thus often cited the same sources (624).

The authors remark that:

Students were not concerned with learning about DDT and malaria as intended by the assignment guidelines. Instead, students used sources to constantly ensure they were meeting the assignment requirements in a way that would please their instructor. (622-23)

Second, “[s]tudents coordinate multiple texts” (615). The screen captures revealed that students moved rapidly among six different kinds of texts, for example, from their drafts to websites found on Google to the assignment rubric (618). They spent an average of 12.14 seconds on each type of text (619). The preferred process was to paste text from sources into the paper, reword it, then cite, resulting, in one student’s example, in the construction of the paper “sentence by sentence” through the search for “necessary piece[s] of information” (620).

While Blythe and Gonzales agree that pasting and rewording might constitute what Rebecca Moore Howard terms “patchwriting,” they contend that using what Shaun Slattery refers to as “textual coordination” to “find bits of text from multiple sources and rework them into a new text designed for a particular purpose” resembles the process followed by professional writers engaging with a topic on which they lack expertise (627). They cite Howard’s claim that this writing technique can be useful in “finding a way into” a new discourse (qtd. in Blythe and Gonzales 627). The authors argue, though, that students lack the social and professional networks that scholars like Stacey Pigg and Jason Swarts find underpinning the work of professional writers. Students relied on the assignment rubric for their understanding of the purpose and possibilities of their task (628).

Third, students do not generally credit their college writing courses for teaching them the skills they deem important in crafting a paper. All students in the study stated that they used strategies learned in high school; Blythe and Gonzales found that many relied on “adjusting the same basic structures” like the five-paragraph theme (625). First-year writing, according to this study, served as “another space in which they get to practice the writing strategies they learned earlier in their academic careers” (626). Such practice, students seemed to believe, contributed to improvements in their writing, but interviews suggested that their sense of how these improvements occurred was vague (626).

The authors close with recommendations that first-year-writing instruction can usefully focus on “expand[ing] the resources and networks” that can contribute to students’ writing processes, introducing them to “specialized communities or connections” (629). Blythe and Gonzales further suggest that transfer studies might attend more carefully to what Elizabeth Wardle calls “meta-awareness” about writing, particularly awarenesses that students bring to writing classes from prior experience (630).

 

 

 


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Quick Personal Note: My Writer’s Interview with Don Massenzio Tomorrow!

Books leading to open door in brick wall.Great News! My writer’s interview on Don Massenzio’s highly active, informative blog is scheduled for tomorrow! It posts in the early morning hours and should be up in the a.m. on Monday. My deepest gratitude to Don for highlighting so many terrific authors and for sharing so much information on writing and publishing. Check him out!


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Grouling and Grutsch McKinney. Multimodality in Writing Center Texts. C&C, in press, 2016. Posted 08/21/2016.

Grouling, Jennifer, and Grutsch McKinney, Jackie. “Taking Stock: Multimodality in Writing Center Users’ Texts.” (In press.) Computers and Composition (2016). http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.compcom.2016.04.003 Web. 12 Aug. 2016.

Jennifer Grouling and Jackie Grutsch McKinney note that the need for multimodal instruction has been accepted for more than a decade by composition scholars (1). But they argue that the scholarship supporting multimodality as “necessary and appropriate” in classrooms and writing centers has tended to be “of the evangelical vein” consisting of “think pieces” rather than actual studies of how multimodality figures in classroom practice (2).

They present a study of multimodality in their own program at Ball State University as a step toward research that explores what kinds of multimodal writing takes place in composition classrooms (2). Ball State, they report, can shed light on this question because “there has been programmatic and curricular support here [at Ball State] for multimodal composition for nearly a decade now” (2).

The researchers focus on texts presented to the writing center for feedback. They ask three specific questions:

Are collected texts from writing center users multimodal?

What modes do students use in creation of their texts?

Do students call their texts multimodal? (2)

For two weeks in the spring semester, 2014, writing center tutors asked students visiting the center to allow their papers to be included in the study. Eighty-one of 214 students agreed. Identifying information was removed and the papers stored in a digital folder (3).

During those two weeks as well as the next five weeks, all student visitors to the center were asked directly if their projects were multimodal. Students could respond “yes,” “no,” or “not sure” (3). The purpose of this extended inquiry was to ensure that responses to the question during the first two “collection” weeks were not in some way unrepresentative. Grouling and Grutsch McKinney note that the question could be answered online or in person; students were not provided with a definition of “multimodal” even if they expressed confusion but only told to “answer as best they could” (3).

The authors decided against basing their study on the argument advanced by scholars like Jody Shipka and Paul Prior that “all communication practices have multimodal components” because such a definition did not allow them to see the distinctions they were investigating (3). Definitions like those presented by Tracey Bowen and Carl Whithaus that emphasize the “conscious” use of certain components also proved less helpful because students were not interviewed and their conscious intent could not be accessed (3). However, Bowen and Whithaus also offered a “more succinct definition” that proved useful: “multimodality is the ‘designing and composing beyond written words'” (qtd. in Grouling and Grutsch McKinney 3).

Examination of the papers led the researchers to code for a “continuum” of multimodality rather than a present/not-present binary (3-4). Fifty-seven, or 74%, of the papers were composed only in words and were coded as zero or “monomodal” (4). Some papers occupied a “grey area” because of elements like bulleted lists and tables. The researchers coded texts using bullets as “1” and those using lists and tables “2.” These categories shared the designation “elements of graphic design”; 19.8%, or 16, papers met this designation. Codes “3” and “4” indicated one or more modes beyond text and thus indicated “multimodal” work. No paper received a “4”; only eight, or 9.9%, received a “3,” indicating inclusion of one mode beyond words (4). Thus, the study materials exhibited little use of multimodal elements (4).

In answer to the second question, findings indicated that modes used even by papers coded “3” included only charts, graphs, and images. None used audio, video, or animation (4). Grouling and Grutsch McKinney posit that the multimodal elements were possibly not “created by the student” and that the instructor or template may have prompted the inclusion of such materials (5).

They further report that they could not tell whether any student had “consciously manipulated” elements of the text to make it multimodal (5). They observe that in two cases, students used visual elements apparently intended to aid in development of a paper in progress (5).

The “short answer” to the third research question, whether students saw their papers as multimodal, was “not usually” (5; emphasis original). Only 6% of 637 appointments and 6% of writers of the 81 collected texts answered yes. In only one case in which the student identified the paper as multimodal did the coders agree. Two of the five texts called multimodal by students received a code of 0 from the raters (5). Students were more able to recognize when their work was not multimodal; 51 of 70 texts coded by the raters as monomodal were also recognized as such by their authors (5).

Grouling and Grutsch McKinney express concern that students seem unable to identify multimodality given that such work is required in both first-year courses, and even taking transfer students into account, the authors note that “the vast majority” of undergraduates will have taken a relevant course (6). They state that they would be less concerned that students do not use the term if the work produced exhibited multimodal features, but this was not the case (6).

University system data indicated that a plurality of writing center attendees came from writing classes, but students from other courses produced some of the few multimodal pieces, though they did not use the term (7).

Examining program practices, Grouling and Grutsch McKinney determined that often only one assignment was designated “multimodal”—most commonly, presentations using PowerPoint (8). The authors advocate for “more open” assignments that present multimodality “as a rhetorical choice, and not as a requirement for an assignment” (8). Such emphasis should be accompanied by “programmatic assessment” to determine what students are actually learning (8-9).

The authors also urge more communication across the curriculum about the use of multiple modes in discipline-specific writing. While noting that advanced coursework in a discipline may have its own vocabulary and favored modes, Grouling and Grutsch McKinney argue that sharing the vocabulary from composition studies with faculty across disciplines will help students see how concepts from first-year writing apply in their coursework and professional careers (9).

The authors contend that instructors and tutors should attend to “graphic design elements” like “readability and layout” (10). In all cases, they argue, students should move beyond simply inserting illustrations into text to a better “integration” of modes to enhance communication (10). Further, incorporating multimodal concepts in invention and composing can enrich students’ understanding of the writing process (10). Such developments, the authors propose, can move the commitment to multimodality beyond the “evangelical phase” (11).

 


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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).