Community, Collaboration, and the Pressing Need for First-Generation Socialization in the Composition Classroom

Community, Collaboration, and the Pressing Need for First-Generation Socialization in the Composition Classroom

As an undergraduate writing tutor, I was trained to work with students of various cultural, linguistic, and academic backgrounds. In my consultations with students, I found that it was sometimes (but not always) possible for me to tell if a writer was a multilingual or international student and then apply some of the techniques I had learned in my training. However, while I had learned about first-generation college students’ (FGCS) general writing struggles, I realized that there wouldn’t always be clear signs when I was working with FGCS. Composition scholar Margaret Marshall has specifically researched the difficulties of identifying and supporting FGCS writers and argues that if composition instructors view students monolithically, FGCS will often be overlooked “because the outward manifestations of race and gender are easier to identify than the more difficult markings of class or literacy experience” (231). Along with these concerns, as a tutor I questioned whether my knowledge of a student’s first-generation status would even lead to more personalized help or if it could just lead to inaccurate assumptions.

As a current graduate instructor of first-year composition, similar questions are present in my mind as I teach and interact with my students. I began my research with a background of having conducted some writing center research with FGCS and a curiosity concerning how I can better support first-gen students as an instructor. While any blanket statements or solutions concerning the unique difficulties that FGCS face in the first-year writing (FYW) classroom should be recognized as generalizations, the complexity and range of this demographic’s concerns should not dissuade but rather invite composition scholars to explore first-gen issues and offer solutions as deep and rich as these students’ varied backgrounds and experiences.

Historically, the struggles of FGCS have been ignored, but composition scholars are currently paying closer attention to this demographic’s writing needs and experiences. Since first-generation students are more likely to feel unprepared for college-level writing, the composition classroom is a space that can either heighten insecurities, imposter syndrome, and general feelings of otherness, or strengthen students’ confidence in navigating writing communities and collaborating. I argue that the worthy goal of helping first-gen students more effectively integrate into a FYW writing classroom is largely a matter of socialization, and when considering classroom socialization, I see the need to explore concepts of community and collaboration. Collaborative work helps break down traditional classroom power dynamics and hierarchies that may naturally cause first-gen students to have less of a voice in the classroom community and feel dislocated. However, it is important for instructors to consider how they can balance the socializing, community-building benefits of collaborative work while also integrating first-year, first-gen students into the academy—another type of community.

Considering first-generation students’ unique needs and backgrounds, collaboration and community could be vital to these students’ retention and future academic success. Since the FYW classroom is such a pivotal point for first-gen students, it is important for instructors to investigate how the purposes and practices of community and collaboration meet (or don’t meet) the needs of these students in the writing classroom. My purpose in writing this paper is to attempt to answer this question by defining community and collaboration, giving an overview of past and current composition research that has connected these concepts with first-generation students, and offering some potential classroom applications.

Some of the studies I share investigate the effects of community and collaboration with working-class or multilingual students specifically, so it’s important to recognize that while not all working-class or multilingual students are first-generation and not all FGCS are working-class or multilingual, there is significant overlap between these groups. This intersection of multiple identities is characteristic of FGCS, so it’s valuable to consider findings concerning these groups when discussing the needs and experiences of FGCS.

What is Community?

            Over the past 50 years, composition scholars have recognized the vagueness of the term “community.” In “The Idea of Community in the Study of Writing,” Joseph Harris describes communities as general groups and backgrounds that construct identity. Harris is fascinated by our “sense of difference, of overlap, of tense plurality, of being at once part of several communities and yet never wholly a member of one” (11). While he affirms the plurality and intertextuality of communities, Harris also discusses how difficult it is to pin down a definition of community. Despite its common use, or perhaps because of its common use, it has become a vague and slippery term. Similarly, in his Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Raymond Williams defines community as a “set of relationships,” a “warmly persuasive word,” and one that “never seems to be used unfavourably” (66). David Bartholomae defines community less hazily as a “stabilizing term” that gives a sense of shared purpose to the various discourses of a university (14).

Multiple scholars have created specific names for the kinds of communities in composition studies that Bartholomae is referring to. For example, there are meta-communities such as “the Discipline” or “the Profession.” Stanley Fish writes about “interpretive communities” which refer more to a worldview or discipline rather than a physical group. Similarly, a “discourse community” refers to “a hermetic weave of texts and citations” that creates a common goal or collaborative project (Harris 15). Contrastingly, Harris describes a “speech community” as an actual group of people in time and space (like those in a classroom or settlement). These various communities in composition studies demonstrate the versatility of the term and show that community is at the root of many, if not all, of composition conversations and creations.

While within these conversations, community is a connotatively positive term, composition scholars have butt heads over the role community should play in the composition classroom. One of the most notable of these scholarly conflicts is Peter Elbow and Bartholomae’s back-and-forth written debate concerning personal and academic writing, which has influenced how current scholars understand the purposes of writing communities. While scholars such as Elbow may encourage instructors to relinquish authority in order to empower students, Bartholomae questions whether rejecting writing’s role within a community would actually lead to empowerment and if that rejection is even possible in the first place. To Bartholomae, preparing a student to effectively enter into the academy is a more genuine and impactful way for an instructor to empower since students can and should use scholarly discourse to penetrate and creatively improvise within the community.

Composition scholars, in addition to Bartholomae and Elbow, have been interested in community’s relationship with writer identity. Harris dismisses the conflict between Bartholomae and Elbow by stating that it is unnecessary to side with either the discourse community or the imagination of an individual because “our aims and intentions in writing are . . . not merely personal, idiosyncratic, but reflective of the communities to which we belong” (11-12). Consequently, individual identity and community, whether they are theoretical or physical groupings, are more connected than we may think. Mary Louise Pratt demonstrates this by connecting how both individual and group ideologies are formed. Pratt notes how multifaceted individuals and groups truly are—neither are constituted by a “single unified belief system” but rather several that often conflict and contradict (qtd. in Ashley). This concept emphasizes writing’s socializing power as our personal identities are shaped by groups, systems, and communities that compete within us. In response, we, through our personal participation and contributions, also shape groups, systems, and communities. This recursive relationship between personal identity and community also brings up important questions of how instructors can account for writers facing complex inner negotiation when there is conflict and contradiction between a community’s values and the individual’s.

While communities can account for and accept varieties of personal identities, they naturally have converting, assimilating properties as well (Harris 16). Hannah Ashley discusses how “proficient academic writing is typically conceived of as literacy in a particular discourse community” (495). To enter that community, writers must discover and learn the “rules” of successful academic writing. Harris describes this initiation or qualification into a community as crossing a bridge and learning a new language. He uses this metaphor because it helps represent how student difficulties often are not due to slowness or ineptitude but because academic discourse has peculiar, foreign demands. Harris associates the issues of entering a discourse community with socialization rather than intelligence, which can help instructors maintain an appropriate and accurate view of their students and their potential to join the community.

First-Generation Students and Community 

            As Harris argues, “One is always simultaneously a part of several discourses, several communities, [and] is always already committed to a number of conflicting beliefs,” first-generation students quickly come to mind (19). While all students are experiencing plurality and inner negotiation or conflict to some degree, Ann Penrose found that FGCS’s feelings of dislocation in composition courses led to discomfort, self-doubt, and a fight for citizenship within the classroom. Because of these findings, Penrose posits that “the challenge for educators . . . is not how to build student confidence but how to restore or reclaim it or, better yet, how not to undermine it in the first place” (457). It is imperative for writing instructors to be aware of how students from different backgrounds navigate discourse communities and how feelings of dislocation call for a strong classroom community.

While the instructor has a role in restoring, reclaiming, and not undermining student confidence, it is important for instructors to understand imposter syndrome since it can threaten students’ sense of security in a classroom community. Yamini and Mandanizadeh define imposter syndrome as “a self-concept that one’s record of accomplishments is not due to ability” and “the secret conviction that one is truly less intelligent and competent than one appears” (71). When introducing her work on FGCS and community-building practices, Audrey Fisch emphasizes how research has proven that FGCS experience imposter syndrome more frequently and more severely than other students, “often with deleterious consequences for their mental health, academic success, self-efficacy, and time toward degree completion” (239). Imposter syndrome and any feelings, fears, or reservations associated with it are harmful to first-gen students trying to navigate any community—whether it is in the classroom or through academic discourse.

What is Collaboration?

What is collaboration but community? In Teaching Mindful Writers, Brian Jackson claims that “effective student collaboration can break ‘the chain of hierarchical institutional authority’ and give students the freedom to ‘reacculturate’ into a working community” (143). Community and collaboration are closely connected, but it is important to recognize various understandings and perceptions of collaboration. Kenneth Bruffee, a scholar of composition collaboration, describes it as “engaging students more deeply with the text,” “an aspect of professors’ engagement with the professional community,” interpretive communities, and “a process that constitutes fields or disciplines of study and sometimes as a pedagogical tool that ‘works’ in teaching composition and literature” (635). While Bruffee offers this definition, George Kuh identifies the “why” behind collaborative learning: its value lies in how it teaches students to work and solve problems with peers and to “sharpen [their] own understanding by listening seriously to the insights of others, especially those with different backgrounds and life experiences.” Collaboration emphasizes the social nature of writing and the role of socialization, empathy, and audience awareness in the composition classroom. Deborah Dean even identifies social skills as a more prominent takeaway from collaborative writing than writing improvement (36).

To make wise collaborative choices as an instructor, it is helpful to take away some of the term’s positive vagueness and give some distinct shape to what we consider collaborative in the composition classroom. Does collaborative writing look like co-authoring? Or any kind of writing since all writing is social and intertextual? As an instructor, it feels possible to label any kind of task that involves multiple students as collaborative. According to Bruffee, collaboration challenges authority and structure in the classroom because student groups are left to manage their own learning without the instructor’s intervention, and Dean similarly reminds instructors that to be truly collaborative, we need to “be willing to give some authority to students to make decisions for the goals and outcomes of their writing together” (38). Although not all group work necessarily needs to be collaborative, when instructors are aware of what makes these approaches and their results distinct, both cooperative and collaborative writing activities can play a meaningful role in building a composition classroom’s community.

FGCS and Collaboration

Although Bruffee does not specifically refer to FGCS, several of his points could be especially applicable to this demographic. Academic preparedness is often a concern of first-gen students, and Bruffee identifies the common denominator between the poorly prepared and the seemingly well-prepared: these students “seem to have difficulty adapting to the traditional or ‘normal’ conventions of the college classroom” and experience this difficulty adapting because many refused offered help (637). This refusal signifies a lack of involvement in collaboration and perhaps an underlying skepticism toward collaboration’s effectiveness and benefits to writing. Conflict and cultural misunderstanding are also factors likely to discourage or frustrate some first-gen students, as Allaei and Connor found that multilingual learners experience conflict in cross-cultural collaboration, like peer review groups, because of clashing politeness strategies and communication styles (20).

Ryan Padgett also investigates why first-gen students often face difficulties with collaboration and found that first-generation students generally have less positive peer interactions, and he attributes this to first-gen students’ “lower social capital” (262). Schwartz et al. defines social capital as “the information, support, and resources available to an individual through connections and networks of relationships” (166-67). These connections play a critical role in academic attainment and success, so when social capital is unequally distributed, Schwartz et al. found that this difference contributes to FGCS’s lower college completion rates (167).

Practical Applications

Since a collaborative classroom with a strong community would be especially beneficial to first-generation writers, I consequently question how we can make this happen in the FYW classroom. What practices could potentially support our goals to create more inclusive and supportive writing environments? In an attempt to address these questions, I will introduce several composition scholars’ best practices, and then offer my own proposal based on these scholars’ contributions and first-generation writers’ general needs and experiences.

To many FGCS, the relationship between instructor and student can be especially intimidating, so the way that an instructor provides personal feedback ultimately affects the students’ perception of the classroom community, especially if they see the instructor as the head of that community. To help improve the dynamic and interactions between composition instructors and first-gen students, Marshall encourages instructors to adjust how we read and respond to errors. She recognizes the conflict many instructors experience in feeling the responsibility to prepare students to produce appropriately academic writing. Additionally, it is important to remember that FGCS often desire to receive direct feedback on their errors so that their writing can fit into the academy, a realm where Standard English is the expectation and errors are not generally viewed with much patience or tolerance. However, Marshall seeks a compromise that encourages instructors to view “error as another sign of a student’s decision making, and as a point of entry through which we can have students rethink their meanings” (243). The purpose of this mindset is to turn away from labeling errors as violations or sins but instead as evidence of newly developing academic literacy. This may seem like a subtle shift, but it acknowledges academic writing’s conventions and value without creating an adversarial relationship between student and instructor.

While Marshall’s suggestions encourage community-building with close attention to the instructor-student relationship, Brian Jackson provides several teaching approaches that encourage community and collaborative opportunities between classmates. Some of these suggestions include carefully framing or “selling” collaboration; planning who works with whom; asking groups to talk about working in groups; asking groups to establish rules, roles, and workflow; leading groups through the mindful writing process; helping with group difficulties; and setting up a fair evaluation system (148-9). While Jackson’s strategies highlight instructors’ range of influence with collaborative activities, Dean fittingly pinpoints a lack of preparation as “the most important reason for the failure of [collaborative] practice” and emphasizes that preparation looks like “planning for collaborative work” as well as “instructing and training groups to function in collaborative situations” (40). In this regard, Dean also reminds that online collaborative opportunities are valuable and shouldn’t be neglected as valid possibilities since they can deliver many of in-person group work’s benefits while avoiding some of its common issues.

Composition scholar Audrey Fisch sets an example that can be easily adapted and implemented in a variety of composition classrooms to foster community and collaboration in a way specifically tailored to benefit FGCS. Fisch, in her teaching, observed that “the anxiety of [introduction] activit[ies] in our composition classrooms can be compounded by the weight of imposter syndrome . . . especially for those for whom higher education is an unfamiliar and potentially alienating arena,” so her purpose in beginning-of-the-semester introductions is to “engag[e] directly with some of the challenges [her] students face, underscore their strengths, and build their sense of belongingness” (239-40). To achieve her goals and ultimately “build a supportive learning community,” Fisch has her students interview each other and discuss questions about where they came from, their families, ambitions, and strengths. Following the personal introductions, Fisch has students introduce their partner based on what they learned so that students can feel known by their new acquaintance and the class. While Fisch’s activities don’t have to be exactly imitated for successful community-building, her practices demonstrate a desire to set a tone of acceptance and understanding between class members from the first day, which can be incredibly impactful to FGCS’s mental health and academic success in FYW.

Along with these potential practices, after getting a sense of the conversation surrounding community, collaboration, and FGCS, I see a general need for more studies with first-generation students and composition. While interest in this demographic has increased in the past decade, a variety of studies over time will help capture the diversity and variety within this group and more clearly represent the range of experiences that students have. With this, more examples of first-generation students’ experiences with collaboration would be particularly insightful since researchers have associated this demographic with a culture of independence and hesitant help-seeking behaviors. Additionally, studies concerning first-gen students and composition often focus on self-efficacy and personal identity, but it is also important to look at how first-gen identities connect and interact with surrounding communities.

Possible (and Perhaps Undesirable) Effects of Collaboration and Community-Building 

While more collaborative activities with the goal of socialization and building a class community could specifically support some of FGCS’s needs in FYW, it is also important to consider ways that these approaches could have yield some unintended consequences. For example, according to writing center scholar Candis Bond, FGCS often value and prefer more direct feedback and instruction. When an instructor takes a step back and allows groups to be truly collaborative, first-generation students are less likely to feel like their needs are being met. While the authority of an instructor may be intimidating, it also creates academic trust, and students who may already feel unprepared may consequently feel frustrated if they don’t have sufficient access to expert guidance. While students may appreciate the freedom that collaboration allows, they may care more about becoming acclimatized to academic writing than taking the time and effort to work with group members and develop stronger social skills. Since first-generation students are more likely to come from working-class families and may consequently deal with time and financial constraints, they may view their education very pragmatically and experience anxiety when they feel like time is being misused.

Along with these possible frustrations, it is important to consider that while collaborative assignments can unsettle a classroom’s authority and structure in helpful ways, new structures of hierarchy and authority will likely develop in small groups. Because first-generation students are more likely to feel unprepared and out-of-place with less social capital, other students are more likely to take charge of the groups and potentially exclude or drown out first-gen voices. Different levels of social capital in a classroom complicate collaboration’s socializing qualities since it can sometimes unflatteringly emphasize differences between students’ academic backgrounds rather than empower them. Intentionally or unintentionally, the same issues of inclusion that happen on the larger scale in the classroom can also take place in smaller collaborative groups.

While supporting first-gen student socialization and inviting them into academic communities through collaborative tasks is a worthy goal, instructors also need to consider some of the unintended and negative effects these efforts can have. Just as students’ backgrounds and prior knowledge interact with their new university context, their university self and new skills interact with their background. In Denny et al.’s study on the writing needs of working-class students, found that while working-class students have proven that they are capable of adapting, meeting writing standards, and ultimately feeling more connected to academic and classroom communities, these changes can dislocate them from their roots. The changes students make to fit in and succeed in a university setting can feel like a surrendering of identity, an exchange, and an act of assimilation. Denny et al. poignantly captures this dilemma by stating the following:

For middle-class students, getting college degrees and professional jobs just makes them more like their parents and most of the other adults they’ve been in contact with their whole lives. For working-class students, the opposite is true. The more “success” they achieve, the greater the symbolic and material separation between them and their families and home communities. (70)

A simple awareness of the inner complexity and negotiation FGCS may be facing in college composition classrooms can help instructors mindfully choose and apply fitting collaborative and community-building activities.

My Proposal

The self-reported and researched struggles of first-gen writers call for stronger socialization in the writing classroom. Collaborative and community-building tasks in this space are worthy means to reach the ends of first-gen socialization because of their fundamental purposes and proven effects. Truly collaborative writing can challenge traditional classroom structures and consequently grant first-generation students more freedom and involvement in the classroom community despite feelings of unpreparedness or imposter syndrome. However, as I have mentioned in the last section, collaboration and community aren’t without their issues and complications. To truly account for first-gen students in the FYW classroom, instructors need to incorporate collaboration in a way that respects students’ desires to gain expertise and become conversant academic writers.

I propose that this can be accomplished by instructors dedicating time, preparation, and emphasis to how they frame collaborative tasks as opportunities to acquire social capital and grow as academic writers. This could look like an instructor emphasizing how collaborative writing tasks help us understand the social, communal nature of academic texts. An increased understanding of academic writing can help satisfy first-gen students’ desires to be better prepared to enter the academy and help them see value in the collaboration process. However, before students are let loose to work together collaboratively, it is essential, especially for first-generation classmates, to feel like they belong in the classroom and have something to contribute. This message can be conveyed through instructor-initiated socialization. As Fisch suggests, beginning-of-the-semester introductions should be taken seriously and thoughtfully planned. If students are given time to genuinely connect with classmates, there is a series of benefits, especially for first-gen students. First, students can realize that they’re most likely not alone in feeling nervous or insecure about college-level writing. FGCS have often cited feeling uncomfortable contributing to discussions or asking for help because everyone around them seems to “get it.” While I agree with Fisch’s point that it is important for students’ to be able to focus on their successes to build confidence, I also see value in giving students a question that would have them discuss how they feel about writing, whether those feelings or experiences are positive or negative.

After providing first-generation students with opportunities to relate to others, socialize, and connect, they (as well as their multi-generation classmates) will be more prepared to collaborate. To accomplish this, an instructor could introduce a collaborative activity by providing a model of academic writing that demonstrates collaboration. This model can be taken from the sciences, art, or any discipline that could connect with students and help them see the role of writing in their futures. By using this kind of model, an instructor helps demystify the academic writing process, dispel the myth of the “solitary genius,” and emphasize first-generation students’ roles as writers. Collaborative writing tasks and models also demonstrate that a range of voices is necessary and helpful, which is an important connection that instructors should explicitly make to the classroom community. Framing collaboration with these kinds of models would not only help FGCS see that collaborative writing is transferable, but it also can help students see that we view them as scholars.


FYW instructors are in a unique position to give FGCS one of their first tastes of higher education. As many first-generation (and multi-generation) students attend the first day of our classes, wondering, “Who am I in relation to these new peers, this new teacher, this new institution? Do I belong? Is this college or college in general the right place for me?”, we can meet some of our students’ socialization needs by mindfully incorporating collaborative and community-building efforts (Fisch 239). By approaching FYW with first-generation students’ experiences and unique challenges in mind, these students’ engagement and sense of belonging can increase, and everyone in the classroom can benefit. We can make more informed and fitting choices of how we establish a classroom community and frame collaborative activities so that all composition students can feel more at peace in the classroom, understood, and ultimately more prepared for future collaboration and communication opportunities.



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