Mike Garcia, Jim Webber, and Kate Gillen presented on various aspects of the ongoing University of New Hampshire longitudinal study assessing the university’s current writing requirement. Mike led the presentation with a relaxed, comfortable talk offering an overview of the various forms the study has taken and the way it’s evolved over the years. The university has a set of writing-intensive courses, and according to Mike, the study was designed to assess what writing- intensive meant, precisely, and whether as a course requirement it actually did any good: in sum, the longitudinal study responded to the fact that the Writing Program had instituted a writing requirement without any built-in assessment method.
However, Mike pointed out that only a portion of the study was concerned with students doing academic writing in writing-intensive courses, and dealt more with considering students as writers in a more general sense.
The study began in 2005 with a summer pilot examining
eight two students in a single section, and Mike remarked that he quickly found that first-year students often didn’t have the language to adequately respond to the questions posed by the study. The study expanded to 24 students in the 2005-2006 school year, and the expansion necessitated hiring MA-literature graduate students as interviewers, who had to be given a crash course in composition scholarship in order to be able to pose the questions properly. In such a way, labor concerns influenced the study design. Additional complications arose, as well: the university discovered the study and attempted to piggyback other requirements (standardized tests, surveys, pyschological testing) onto it, and funding became a concern, as well. One foundation that was seen as a possible funding source had a significant concern with primary and secondary education, and so the study was adapted to include high school seniors, as well.
Thinking about the concerns of high school students introduced additional new stakeholders and concerns, but also led to a fundamental re-thinking of the design of the study: what kinds of claims could they make based on a longitudinal study? Despite not getting the funding they’d hoped for, they decided to pilot for another year: essentially, the study was ready to go, but with less momentum and less resources than they’d hoped for. As Mike described it, they were in “survival mode,” and decided to use the results they’d gathered thus far as a selling point for asking the University to support further implementation.
Following Mike, Jim described the evolving high school aspect of the study, foregrounding the IRB concerns associated with under-18 writers and querying them about their early literacy experiences. In their written work, Jim found, high school students were often flexible in their approaches to the early stages of writing assignments, and seldom afraid of failure. Jim offered an account of one student’s description of his writing process, wherein the student read the assignment, did the readings, did a single draft, and had his parents look over his paper for organization and grammar concerns, but didn’t revise in any significant way, and in fact displayed a fundamental resistance to what our discipline understands as revision. This single representative report, Jim implied, offered a useful sense of the writing expertise students come to our courses with, and a sense of the expertise they’ll need to develop in UNH first-year writing courses.
Finally, Kate discussed the alumni portion of the longitudinal study, following students’ experiences with writing after graduation. This portion involved two components: a written survey, and an in-depth interview. Both components sought to discover what kinds of writing alumni did in their jobs and lives, how and what they were able to apply from their UNH writing experiences, and how well the UNH writing program prepared them for their post-graduation lives. The responses Kate received were from graduates in a diverse range of jobs, and were remarkably positive: 87% felt either prepared or very prepared by their writing courses, and 77% felt excellent or very good about their writing experiences at UNH. Graduates, Kate noted, say they do a lot of writing, and do a lot of public writing. Many suggested that they would have liked more training in technical writing and writing for the internet. Ultimately, Kate concluded, the alumni aspect of the longitudinal study showed a lot about how students employ the skills they learn in college writing programs in their transition from school to the workplace.
The account that Mike, Jim, and Kate offered struck me — and others in the audience who I talked with afterwards — as nothing short of remarkable in its scope. The malleable and protean nature of their study was I think a function of its initial ambition, but it’s breathtaking to see such a huge project, even in the obstacles and frustrations that they acknowledged. The sense I got out of their presentation was that they wanted to do something on a Sternglass scale — but that the data and initial conclusions they developed were more along the lines of Curtis & Herrington. And the final insights Curtis & Herrington arrived at, I’d suggest, were no small conclusions.
There’s a lot to be said for the narrow scope and modest claim. One might propose, in fact, that the appeal of a longitudinal study lies not in its generalizability but in its specificity. I’ll watch with interest to see where Garcia, Webber, and Gillen go with what they’ve done: their work so far is impressive, and I’m sure it’ll spark further productive conversations about how we assess what we do.