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Three of my colleagues and I presented a session at the 4Cs this year, focusing on the rhetorical choices of community college students at different points in their academic programs. How did such a local study come about? The genesis of our investigation was a session at the Houston conference in 2016, where Joanne Baird Giordano and her colleagues described local research that informed local placement and program decisions. That session led us to ask a simple question: what do we want to know about our students?
The four of us agreed that we wanted to understand how our students develop as writers across the sequence of writing and literature courses they take at our college. As a starting point, we decided to get a snapshot view of students at each level. Thus, in the fall, we each incorporated reflection assignments into our courses, and in the weeks prior to the conference, we began to analyze the data we had collected.
My part of the investigation focused on students in co-requisite courses (ALP and ESL). In the ideal research project I had envisioned before we began the study, I imagined myself coding texts according to neat categories confirmed by inter-rater reliability among my colleagues. But after a week of working through my particular data set in January (and teaching five classes, reviewing a copyedited manuscript, and working on my college’s quality enhancement plan), I questioned whether I could actually find anything meaningful together before the conference, much less reliable or valid conclusions. I had to remind myself that
- research in writing is messy, recursive, and never quite what we intended (but valuable nonetheless).
- I didn’t need to have neatly defined coding schemes in advance of an exploratory study.
- whatever patterns I noted in the data could inform my own teaching, if not policies at the institution or system levels.
I ultimately decided to look only at two sets of reflections, those that followed my mid-term and pre-final student conferences (and submission of mid-term and final portfolios). In both of these reflections, I asked students to consider specific changes they had made and the reasons for those changes, and while students mentioned a number of edits and revisions, for the purposes of my study, I counted only those that included an explicit rationale (introduced by an infinitive of purpose or words like “because” or “so that”).
I looked for trends in changes described and the rationales for those changes, as well as the language used to explain the alterations. Students described revisions and edits in content, organization, grammar, mechanics, citations, and document design. The reason most often cited by students concerned meaning: “it wasn’t clear” or “it wouldn’t make sense to my reader.” Moreover, in stating these rationales, students often repeated the language I had used in class, with references to “making meaning,” “making meaning clear,” “thinking of the reader,” “providing the needed context,” etc.
What these rationales suggest is that students are engaging with the threshold concepts and the language that I have used to frame my course. In that respect, my analysis yielded encouraging results. But I must consider these results cautiously. As Glynis Cousin has pointed out, part of a student’s progress through a liminal state is mimicry; she further explains that imitation is not mastery, and that is certainly true for my students. In many cases, the final essays students submitted—the very essays where they made changes to improve clarity of meaning—seemed garbled and unfinished to me as a reader. Moreover, the extent to which my language and framing concepts will carry to the next course is not addressed in the study.
After meaning, my students noted deference to me (“I changed this because you said to”) and “fixing” things that were bad or wrong (“I had to fix it because it was not good”) as reasons for making changes. These comments, particularly at the end of the semester, confirm that my students have not internalized course concepts fully—and I need to examine my words and pedagogy carefully. Is my instruction hampering students’ sense of agency? What can I do differently in my assignment design or feedback to help students move past a good/bad, right/wrong conception of texts?
My study certainly didn’t seem very impressive as I formalized it for the conference. But one of the many benefits of attending the 4Cs is the interaction and encouragement among colleagues at the sessions—not to mention the application of session concepts to early-stage projects and as-yet unformed ideas. The post-its and notebook pages I brought back to my campus reveal how every session I attended prodded my thinking, connected me to new resources, or intimated possible answers to my questions (or at least ways to explore those questions from a different perspective). Our 2017 proposal arose from exchanges at the 2016 event, and based on the 2017 conference, I am planning now for the 2018 conference in Kansas City.
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