Writer-Centered Research

Writer-Centered Research:

A New Perspective on the Use of Composition Research in FYC

Devon Cook

Each teacher of college writing tries to establish his or her own best practices. These practices are developed through a mixture of personal experience, teacher lore, institutional precedents, and composition research. Among all these influences, published research has the potential to provide teachers with a foundation of soundly tested principles off of which to build their pedagogy. However, as many scholars have pointed out (see Fulkerson, 2005; Haswell, 2005), research in composition has yet to produce a body of “systematically produced knowledge” that can be relied on by teachers across the board (Haswell, 2005, p. 220). As Richard Fulkerson (2005) suggests, much of the difficulty in establishing a body of unified scholarship stems from the difficulty of defining “good writing” in any sort of universal sense (p. 681). Just the deceptively simple lack of a stable definition for good writing cripples composition research in its efforts to effectively build off of itself. For writing teachers, it would seem that the body of research which should provide the basis for best practices ends up changing its mind every decade or so.

But to say that research in rhetoric and composition has nothing to offer writing teachers would be inaccurate, to say the least. For instance, research on the effectiveness of explicit grammar instruction (see Neuleib, 1977) has completely changed (at least in practice) the views that most writing programs and teachers have toward teaching, or not teaching, grammar. In reality, composition research always connects back to some implication for pedagogy and really does represent much of the current thinking in the field. The challenge for writing teachers becomes one of deciding which research is convincing enough to change the way they think about writing or compelling enough to justify a change in their teaching practices.

In an article published in Brigham Young University’s Locutorium, Tara Boyce suggests that the most productive way of evaluating approaches to FYC would be to judge them against the assumptions and reasoning used by the course creator in defining course goals and curriculum (p. 23). This idea—that the soundness of different approaches to teaching writing depends upon how one chooses to interpret the problem—suggests that different approaches actually result from different “axiologies,” or theories about how student writing improves (Boyce, p. 13). Boyce focuses on differing axiologies in the debate over Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Down’s “Writing About Writing” course, but I believe that her method of focusing on axiologies provides a useful way to interpret other research about FYC and composition research in general. Perhaps a look at the different approaches to conceiving and conducting composition research would help us determine the intended results, giving us a way to evaluate which research should be the most convincing to a practicing teacher.

In this paper, I hope to show how research in writing instruction often approaches writing from the standpoint of a teacher trying to teach writing to students (which I have labeled “instruction-centered” research), or from the standpoint of the student learning to write (research I will call “writer-centered”). While this critical lens could be applied to a variety of topics in composition research, I have chosen the more recent discussion on genre and transfer as a prime example of the interplay between “writer-centered” and “instruction-centered” research. After pointing out and analyzing some examples of writer-centered and instruction-centered research on teaching genre, I will compare this discussion on genre to an older body of research on process pedagogy. Based on this comparison, it would seem that writer-centered research is ultimately more useful in determining what will “work” when it comes to teaching writing.

Instruction-Centered Genre Research

In looking at some of the research on teaching genre in composition courses, the best place to start is probably with Carolyn Miller’s article, “Genre as Social Action,” where Miller defines genre as “typified rhetorical action” (1984, p. 151). Her definition relates genre to “the action it is meant to accomplish” (p. 151), situating writing within the real-world social context of its production instead of trying to classify genres by comparing and by attempting to define the attributes of certain “types” of writing. For college composition, Miller’s article invites instructors and scholars to see student writing as a product of the real-world social environment of the classroom. In other words, students who are assigned to write an opinion editorial do not produce an opinion editorial meant to be published in a newspaper. Instead, they write an opinion editorial that has the potential to be in a newspaper, as perceived by their instructor (Petraglia, 1995, p. 24).

Since its publication in 1984, Miller’s definition of genre has been used ubiquitously as the basis for discussions on the teaching of genre in college composition courses. Much of this research has been instruction-centered, meaning it focuses on the actions of the teacher in the classroom, proposing or critiquing various teaching strategies. A good example of instruction- centered research is “Wearing Suits to Class: Simulating Genres and Simulations as Genre” by Aviva Freedman, Christine Adam, and Graham Smart. Their article presents the results of a case study conducted in a financial analysis course, where students were expected to read historical case studies, analyze them with their professor in class, and then write papers recommending solutions. They were given no explicit instruction on how to write the genre of a financial proposal but were instead expected to “determine for themselves the relevant principles to apply” (1994, pp. 198–99). The course was created in hopes that students would “adopt the roles of management consultants offering specific recommendations for action to a board of directors about a situation described in the case history presented in the textbook” (p. 203). The basis for this experiment can be seen in Miller’s work, as the professor attempts to recreate the real-world social context of executive board meetings and by doing so allow the students to write desired genres naturally.

Freedman, et al. found that the students in this experimental course ultimately failed to produce the kind of writing actually used in real-world financial analysis (1994, p. 206). They claim that “although they wore suits, the students we observed were never really sure what roles they were supposed to play in the simulation” (p. 203); the “students were never deceived” about the true institutional context—the classroom—in which their papers were used and evaluated (p. 204). In short, the classroom experiment may have been successful in teaching students some of the principles of financial analysis, but the genres produced by the students remained far from the real-world genres they would later be expected to produce.

The research conducted by Freedman, et al. is instruction-centered in the sense that it tests a theory of writing instruction which seems viable based on previously collected research. Aside from research that tests pedagogical theories, there is another, larger, body of instruction- centered writing research that proposes these theories or provides theoretical context which is intended to inform classroom instruction. Instruction-centered research involves the continual proposal and examination of hypotheses in an effort to find answers to the unanswered questions involved in teaching college-level composition.

While Freedman, et al. test a particular pedagogical theory without offering a solution of their own—other than asserting that students will have to learn workplace genres in the context of their use—there are instruction-centered studies which provide a mixture of experimentation and theory (1994, p. 221). A good example of this type of research in genre studies is represented in Elizabeth Wardle’s (2009) “‘Mutt Genres’ and the goal of FYC: Can We Help Students Write the Genres of the University?”, in which Wardle describes the results of another experiment in genre instruction. She studied freshman and teachers in “designated ‘learning community’ courses that enrolled students from common majors who were enrolled in several of the same courses during the semester.” These courses represented an attempt to address “genre-related problems” by placing students in a writing classroom where they were all preparing to write the same academic genres and where the teacher would have contact with faculty in the students’ major (p. 772). Based on the assumption that FYC should prepare students to write in the university, the idea behind these courses was that students would be able to acquire the specific genres of their major with genre-specific feedback from both their peers and their teachers.

After two years of case-study research, Wardle (2009) found that students and teachers in freshman learning community courses still struggled to produce the genres the students would later be expected to write in their major classes (pp. 778–81). Her in-depth analysis of one instructor’s attempts to teach freshman biology majors the writing style of their discipline shows that even when the instructor went to great lengths to learn the specifics of research writing in biology, the students and the instructor still lacked the subject-specific knowledge required to actually produce writing fit for a biology major (p. 780).

Wardle’s conclusion, based on this experiment and other composition research, is that the purpose of FYC needs to be changed from training students in “academic genres” to teaching them “about writing,” with the justification that “specialized writing is best taught by reflective insiders who know the genres and their content, in the activity systems where those genres mediate” (pp. 783–84). Essentially, she argues that the teaching academic genres in FYC will always be futile; therefore, teaching students to think about their own writing processes will be more effective in preparing them to learn the genres of their disciplines. Her instruction-centered research first tests a theory on how to teach writing (that students in “learning communities” will be able to pick up the genres of their discipline) then posits a new theory (that if students learn about learning how to write then they will be able to learn new genres quickly in the future). It helps to look at Wardle’s article in this way because the connection between the results of her case study and the solution she proposes is only tentative. Just because one method isn’t working doesn’t necessarily prove that another will.

In many ways, Wardle’s article represents the paradigm of instruction-centered research in composition. Theories on how to teach college-level writing are proposed and modified based on knowledge gleaned from a variety of different sources—other composition research, research from other disciplines, and even teacher lore. These theories are then tested through case studies, surveys, and other forms of evaluative research. What stands out in terms of instruction-centered genre research is that so far the theories have continued to fail, producing a cycle of innovation and contradiction in the effort to give students transferrable genre knowledge in FYC. Wardle and Downs’ proposed freshman course on “writing about writing” serves as one of the newest proposed solutions to the teaching of genre (i.e., to not teach genre) in FYC. While their theory remains untested, it would be understandable, based on the history of instruction-centered genre research, to be skeptical of their claims.

Writer-Centered Genre Research

Writer-centered research contrasts with instruction-centered research in that it seeks to describe students’ learning processes instead of proposing and testing pedagogical theories. One great example of writer-centered research in composition is Nancy Sommers’ 1984 article, “Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers,” in which Sommers attempts to track the revision strategies of both experienced, expert writers and novice writers, such as college freshmen. Written during what has been called the “process studies” era of composition research (Durst, 2005, pp. 79–81), Sommers’ article revealed surprising and convincing differences between the revision strategies of novice and expert writers, showing the “recursive” revision process of experienced writers, of which student writers rarely took advantage (1984, p. 386). Her article helped solidify and improve the process model of writing instruction which is still used widely to this day in FYC courses; and the continued salience of her findings points to the value of writer-centered research for helping teachers develop their own best practices.

Examples of writer-centered research in FYC genre research are few and far between, as Mary Jo Reiff and Anis Bawarshi point out in their 2011 article, “Tracing Discursive Resources: How Students Use Prior Genre Knowledge to Negotiate New Writing Contexts in First-Year Composition” (p. 313). Instead of attempting to offer or test a pedagogical theory, Reiff and Bawarshi seek to “determine what types of discursive resources, especially prior genre knowledge, student writers bring to FYC and draw on as they participate in new academic writing contexts” (p. 316). As a result of surveys and interviews at two different universities, Reiff and Bawarshi found that freshman writers fell between two extremes: “boundary crossers” who viewed FYC genres as different from high school genres, tending to approach new genres with strategies learned from previous assignments, and “boundary guarders” who did all they could to classify FYC genres as similar or identical to genres that they had written before (p. 325). Although Reiff and Bawarshi don’t attempt to establish a correlation between the quality of a student’s writing and his or her classification as a boundary crosser or guarder (p. 330), composition teachers could probably guess which type of student they would expect to succeed in their classrooms.

The findings of Reiff and Bawarshi’s writer-centered research—findings which are corroborated by another Nancy Sommers study (Sommers and Saltz, 2004)—provide scholars and teachers with an opportunity to better understand their students. With respect to teaching genre, this study shows that a student’s attitude toward learning new genres may be more important than any specific previous instruction, adding perspective to the instruction-centered theories of Wardle and others. Once a teacher understands how students might approach the genres they will be assigned, he or she can begin to develop strategies for assessing and correcting students’ attitudes about writing in hopes of helping them become better at acquiring new genres.

Writer-Centered Research: A Basis for Best Practices

One of the most exciting aspects of composition research, including that part which focuses on genre, is that (some) students do actually learn how to write, while the process of how they learn to write remains in large part a mystery. This situation has proved to be ideal for research, whether theoretical, experimental, or descriptive, and research in composition has flourished. As a writing teacher, however, it might be important to recognize the functions, strengths, and limitations of the different types of research provided. Instruction-centered research serves an essential function of proposing best practices and testing those practices but it also has the tendency to change directions with the ebb and flow of contemporary academic trends. Every once in a while, a proposed teaching approach will be validated by further research (e.g. process theory pedagogy) but more often than not, the theories proliferate with no real way of knowing if they will actually work in the classroom. On the other hand, writer- centered research has the potential to give teachers and researchers information about how the phenomenon of becoming a good writer actually happens. This added understanding of students’ development can give teachers the power to establish their own best practices, as they will undoubtedly have to do.

To return to our (very) brief review of genre research in composition, it would seem that teachers need more writer-centered research in this area in order to begin forming their own best practices in teaching genre. This echo of Reiff and Bawarshi’s call for more research on how students use and acquire genre knowledge (2011, p. 332) is based on a history of failed attempts to “fix” the genre transfer problem. Maybe if we knew more about how certain students do acquire new genres we could find reasons for why others do not. This sort of research would be invaluable to teachers of FYC.

So what can FYC instructors do to take advantage of research in college composition? First, they can understand that writer-centered research—though often not as enticing or as exciting—is the best place to look for ideas that will help them develop their individual best practices. Second, when attempting to conduct their own teacher research, they should look to writer-centered research for ideas on how writers develop and base their pedagogical theories off of what they can expect from their students. All writing teachers will need to find a balance between their own strengths and the needs of their students, and writer-centered research is the place to start.



Works Cited

Durst, R. K. (2005). Writing at the postsecondary level. In Peter Smagorinsky (Ed.), Research on Composition: Multiple Perspectives on Two Decades of Change (pp. 78–107). New York: Teachers College Press.

Boyce, T. (2012). Response to Downs and Wardle and their critics: reframing conversations about FYC approaches. Locutorium, 6 11–25.

Freedman, A., Adam, C., & Smart, G. (1994). Wearing suits to class: simulating genre and simulations as genre. Written Communication, 11(2) 193–226.

Fulkerson, R. (2005). Composition at the turn of the twenty-first century. CCC, 56(4), 654–87.

Haswell, R. (2005). NCTE/CCCC’s recent war on scholarship. Written Communication, 22(2) 198–223.

Miller, C. (1984). Genre as social action. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 70(2) 151–67.

Neuleib, J. (1977). The relation of formal grammar to composition. CCC, 28(3) 247–50.

Petraglia, Joseph. (1995). Spinning like a kite: A closer look at the pseudotransactional function of writing. JAC, 15(1) 19–33.

Reiff, M. J., & Bawarshi, A. (2011). Tracing discursive resources: How students use prior genre knowledge to negotiate new writing contexts in first-year composition.” Written Communication, 28(3) 312–337.

Sommers, N. (1980). Revision strategies of student writers and experienced adult writers.” CCC, 31(4) 378–388.

Somers, N., & Saltz, L. (2004). The novice as expert: Writing the freshman year. CCC, 56(1) 124–49.

Wardle, E. (2009) .‘Mutt genres’ and the goal of FYC: Can we help students write the genres of the university? College Composition and Communication, 60(4) 765–789