CCCC09 A17: 21st-Century Writing Lives

The full title of this panel was “21st-Century Writing Lives: Redefining Development, Performance, and Intellectual Property in College Writing.”

Erin Krampetz, of the nonprofit Ashoka in Washington DC, began the session by describing the Stanford Study of Writing, which followed students for the five years from 2001 to 2006, from their first year at Stanford through the year after graduation, asking those students to submit to the study every piece of writing they created in that time. Krampetz joined the writing department as an undergraduate, and was one of the initial guinea pigs for the study. The longitudinal study accumulated a total of 14,776 pieces of student writing in its database, and every piece of that data is now being coded. When we think about longitudinal studies, Krampetz observed, we think about change: in the Stanford study, what changes? It’s tempting, she suggested, for researchers to tell stories that follow a timeline. For the Stanford study, however, the story is anything but linear and chronological, with all that staggering data.

Paul Rogers of George Mason University began his presentation on “Dialogic Interaction, Fine Tuning, and the Leading Edge of Writing Development” by describing how his interest in the Stanford data was specifically in the development of writing abilities: he was asking teacherly questions of the data, in order to figure out how to be more effective teacher. In his integrative work with all this data, his teacherly focus was on feedback and response and how they might be seen as improving student writing. More specifically, much research has been done on the differences between spoken and written response, the efficacy of student-teacher conferences, the length of comments, and many other aspects of response, but significant questions remain about what practices foster growth in writing abilities. Writing development is both multidimentional and nonlinear, and different knowledge domains develop at different rates for differnet individuals. For this reason, Rogers took an ecological view of all the things that contribute to development of writing abilities, and in his sorting of the data on response, he had initial codes of contributing factors, under the categories of “classroom discourse,” “classroom genres,” “non-classroom related factors,” and “teacher behaviors.” Students’ conversations with their peers outside of class, he found, made a clear impact on their sense of the development of their writing abilities. It’s important, Rogers noted, to consider development outside of the teacher-student relationship: as one student said, “It doesn’t have to be the professor” they get feedback from. What was most important about response was its form as ongoing dialogue in contributing to students’ sense of their own growth. So Rogers coded and re-coded his interviews with students with new questions in mind: how do students interact, with whom, in what media and situations? And what does it mean for a teacher that students’ dialogic interactions with their peers are the most important factor in their sense of their own writing development? It helps him to see that everything he’s trying to do as teacher, he said, is to get students in dialogue with each other.

Dialogic interactions differ from feedback, Rogers noted, in that feedback is one-way: dialogic interactions are richer. Bakhtin ascribes three qualities to dialogic interactions: there’s turn-taking (a regular change in speaking subjects), finalization (each turn opens up the possibility of another response: in contrast, think of how a grade closes off dialogue), and addressivity (personalization to a specific audience). Rogers connected addressivity to the notion of fine-tuning from Jerome Bruner; adjusting language use in specific ways to specific audiences. So teachers need to facilitate fine-tuning, Rogers said, and this takes us back to Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development: dialogic interactions require active engagement from both participants. Responsibiity is on both sides, and not just the province of teachers. Development must be a partnership between student and institution, and feedback is important only when that partnership exists.

Development consists of synchronizations between individuals and systems of activity. Rogers is using very narrow sliver of the Stanford study to talk about student interactions outside of class, and how writing development is best fostered in these dialogic interactions. Situations where we can get students together outside of class engaging in sustained opportunities for those dialogic interactions will promote the most development in writing abilities: dormitories are a valuable space for that reason. (This leads me to think that my institution would do well to both promote peer responding skills in students and to capitalize on the unique opportunities offered by having the entirety of our student body living in the barracks.) Ongoing interpersonal relationships promote better development of student writing, as well, for the perhaps obvious reason of the presence of trust, knowledge, and candor. Students exists in multiple overlapping zones of proximal development, and personalization — addressivity — is so important because of the radical heterogeneity of student needs.

Jenn Fishman began her talk, “Writing Is What Writing Does,” by asking: what does it mean to approach this database as someone who thinks about history and historiography? What does it mean to do a case study of college writing? What does it mean to study writing longitudinally, and to study the recent past? She described the usefulness of the concepts of performance and performativity in thinking about these questions, and of their importance to college writing. When we talk about performance, we’re talking about it as specific acts; performativity includes a sense of audience, and of how writing makes meaning, makes things happen. Fishman tried to imagine the types of texts these students were writing: wikis, blogs, journals, web sites, and other electronic forms, but also more familiar genres. Students drew their attention to the performative instances of writing, Fishman said; to writing to make things happen, or to solve problems. For that reason, she suggested, students are most aware of themselves as writers when they have agency; when they sense the agency of their words. Ultimately, they’re redefining college writing: it’s not just writing that’s assigned, not just an intersection or an adjunct to the thing we assign (reading notes, annotated bibliographies, reflective writing, et cetera), but all the writing that students do while they’re in college that helps them invent themselves and the university. And it’s important to think, Fishman concluded, about how this performativity affects our curriculum. Which I’ll certainly agree with, but I’ll also admit that I had a hard time figuring out what performativity meant here, or maybe not so much that as it was figuring out why the term was important to this particular context: it felt to me like selecting an interesting critical term and then pointing to an instance of where that term operates. (I’d be grateful if any of those present might be willing to correct my obtuseness.)

Andrea Lunsford began her wrap-up of the session by pointing out that in the five years of study, not only did they collect 14,776 pieces of data, but they also amassed 150 hours of interviews. Among the questions asked in the interviews were these: how have issues of intellectual property showed up in your writing? How do those issues of intellectual property affect your writing? Some students’ replies were along the lines of “Not much at all, I don’t care,” while others said that they didn’t feel very proprietary about their writing, and still others responded that “It’s not a money issue, but it’s what I wrote,” and one student suggested that “It’s like rape: you take part of me and put it out on the internet?” (I’m paraphrasing Lunsford’s paraphrase here, but the rape analogy was made.) Still others argued that you shouldn’t share things that you’re working on publicly for fear of playing your hand: keep your research secret. Students responded often in terms of music downloading, as well, and some said they didn’t see the unfairness of downloading music in relation to writing: nobody worries about someone downloading lots of Shakespeare. In these responses, the students were seesawing between traditional views of intellectual property and copyright and a newer view that seems closer to Lankshear and Knobel’s definition of new literacies as involving a different post-industrial kind of mindset. While the old industrial mindset sees the individual as the unit of production, the post-industrial mindset focuses on the collaborative as the unit of production. With the shift to the post-industrial mindset, some of the hopes of the democratization of the web have been realized, even as commercial interests are working to limit sharing of information goods, and even as people are sharing more and more, and acting like a collaborative. One of the students interviewed, Lunsford said, offered a parable about digital use and re-use, and she used this parable to suggest that we’re seeing a new understanding of the relationship between students, texts, and ownership. But this new understanding of textual ownership is complicated by tensions between protections and open access. The need to confront such issues is urgent: Lunsford concluded by offering many student examples that illustrate tensions around intellectual property as well as new directions we might take, and that illustrate ways to explore what it means to have and especially to share textual ownership.

CCCC09 A17: 21st-Century Writing Lives