A.11: Approaching FYC from a Research Perspective: Using Teacher and Corpus Inquiry to Impact Practice

Reviewed by Sarah Tinker Perrault, University of California, Davis (sperrault@ucdavis.edu)

Chair: Andrew Blake, Delaware State University
Speakers: Raymond Oenbring, The College of the Bahamas, “Course Assessment and Corpus Linguistics”
Kathleen Richards & Tammy Winner, University of North Alabama, “(Re)searching and (Re)thinking Writing Strategies in FYC: A Call for Action”
Mary McGinnis, Ball State University, “Dealing with Diversity and Marginalization: A Corpus Study of First-Year Composition Readers “
Cat Mahaffey, University of North Carolina-Charlotte, “There and Back Again: How a Journey Into Online Course Design Changed the Way I Teach Writing”

This engaging panel offered thought-provoking questions and useful strategies for improving my teaching.

Course Assessment and Corpus Linguistics

The session opened with Raymond Oenbring explaining how he has been using corpus linguistics in assessing writing course outcomes at the College of the Bahamas. In this demonstration of what data-driven studies can offer rhetoric and composition, Oenbring examined a collection of 300 final polished essays from each of two general composition courses—a FYC course and a junior-level composition class—to find out if there were significant differences across majors or over time. For analysis, he used AntConc and “other free and commercial software packages” to look at features such as lexical density, periphrastic constructions, use of passive voice, and collocations.

In looking at these features, Oenbring reported that he paid particular attention to the “unique sociolinguistic features of the Bahamas” that arise in part due to its being both a former British colony and very close to the USA. He found no “observable losses or gains of features in Standard Bahamian English” and also no significant differences in hedges, vocabulary, or transitions across grades or between the lower-division and upper-division classes. However, he did notice that the “admittedly simplistic Flesch-Kincaid grade level followed the presumably increasing sophistication across (assigned paper) grades and across (class) levels.”

While Oenbring’s findings are not in and of themselves exciting, the presentation was valuable for his description of his research methodology and for the data itself. Research like Oenbring’s is useful both for guiding local program development and, as Richard Haswell (2005) and Chris Anson (2008) have argued in calling for research that is “replicable, aggregable, and data supported” (Haswell, 2005, p. 198), it also provides the field as a whole with information we can use in creating high-level knowledge about our pedagogy and its effects.

(Re)searching and (Re)thinking Writing Strategies in FYC: A Call for Action

Next, Kathleen Richards and Tammy Winner from the University of North Alabama gave a lively and hilarious talk on vital issues we all face in varying degrees: the need to change pedagogy to meet student needs, and a countering resistance to change among some faculty.

Assistant Director of the Center for Writing Excellence Kathleen Richards and Assistant Professor of English Tammy Winner described working in an environment in which timed, in-class writing is still emphasized, where “not everyone has made the change from the product to process approach” and where “we still struggle to define the disconnect between what college writers/researchers need to learn and what some consider to be ‘good writing.’” As they explained, this is problematic not only for students, but also for the program and the university itself as teaching writing as a process is linked not only to student learning but also university-level issues such as retention and sustainability. Their own research bears this out: two years into a four-year IRB approved study, they are finding that a revised curriculum results in better evaluations and in better student retention.

Changes in pedagogy are also important given that changes in student demographics and strengths—for example, in using technology, or in their comfort with group work—meaning the need for flexible teaching approaches is greater than ever.

Richards and Winners therefore decided to use more technology in their FYC course. This presentation described a range of teaching methods, including using clickers to “make participation into a game” that gets students involved, having students create YouTube videos, and assigning blogs. In contrast to most faculty, as part of the “respecting (students’) process,” they even encourage the use of cell phones: instead of having students put away their phones, they teach them to “use their phones to be college-level writers, especially with apps.”

This is not to say that Richards and Winner presented technology as a panacea; they noted that Millennials want instructors to be able to effectively use technology, and they recommended telling students why you are doing something. They also made it clear that we should not assume students already have given technological skills just because we see them as “digital natives.” In their own research, they asked questions such as, “what digital literacies do these students know?” For example, they knew students could download apps, but not if they could create blogs. In all cases, they asked how effective their pedagogies were, and how they compared to the more traditional practices in the department.

What they have found overall is that such assignments work. Describing one specific assignment, they talked about using blogs to teach audiences. While students were “used to writing to the BFFs (best friends forever),” they explained, blogs allowed them to teach students “how to write to a specific audience who isn’t their BFF.” They used blogs to teach rhetorical concepts too often taught in the context of decontextualized essays: logos, pathos, ethos, audience, clarity, diction, and so on. Students were asked to write about some point or event of interest in their community, and to make use of this as an opportunity to meet people, to explore, and to use media. I particularly like the idea of building on students’ existing practices through “selfies as homework.” Overall, Richards and Winner reported that students responded to the assignment with great enthusiasm: “When they learned they could do the blog using the smart phone app, it became a whole new ballgame.” In the next class in the sequence, they built on students’ familiarity with the genre by having students use blogs to help shape a research problem, presenting blogs as “an electronic forum for them to look at the rest of the world and look at what others are saying.” They have also had email from students who were in the class two years ago who are now blogging in their majors.

Overall, Richards and Winner struck an ideal balance by talking about what they do in the classroom and about how it works. Given the richness of the first two years of their research, I am eager to see their work published, and to find out what they learn in the next two years.

Dealing with Diversity and Marginalization: A Corpus Study of First-Year Composition Readers

Richards and Winner were so engaging, and speaking on such a vital subject, that I didn’t want them to stop talking. Fortunately, the next talk was equally compelling: a presentation by Mary McGinnnis of Ball State University on how diversity is represented in FYC composition readers.

McGinnis first set the context: while her students are lively about gender issues, they “resist talking about race, and sexuality, and disability.” For example, when students read bell hooks on media socialization and racism, she reported an “utter silence in my classroom when we started trying to talk about that article,” a silence she said pointed to the truth of hooks’ point about internalization of ideology. She was surprised, as the article is both readable and about media, a topic that students know well. Furthermore, students had done well understanding Peggy McIntosh on white privilege.

On further reflection, however, McGinnis realized that it made sense for students to understand McIntosh and struggle with hooks; like McIntosh, most of McGinnis’s students are white and middle class. Their struggles to understand hooks were understandable, she pointed out, as they were “not accustomed to… seeing things from minority perspective” and lacked the critical thinking skills to read hooks because “they haven’t practiced talking or thinking about marginalization and its effects.” Lack of experience with this kind of activity “leaves them both uncomfortable and ill equipped to participate as citizens” and needs to be taught in FYC.

To understand what kinds of resources are used in FYC, and how these resources represent diverse groups, McGinnis is conducting a corpus study of FYC readers. She is looking for whether and how readers “further the marginalization of minority groups and tokenize marginal experiences” and also what they do well if and when they “make an effort to richly-present, marginalized groups as a valued part of society.” She also plans to examine whether FYC readers have changed over time in how they address marginality and difference.

McGinnis provided several examples of problematic representations in FYC readers. Drawing on Jonathan Alexander’s (2008) work, she explained that mentions of gay rights are often reduced to gay marriage; this “reinforces heteronormative values” (such as monogamy) and hides other issues such as higher suicide rate, access to restrooms, and other problems such as “violence, homelessness, and job loss.” Disability provides another example of how poorly FYC readers address diversity, as studies are often added to FYC as a single reading, or “tacked onto a race, class, gender triad” in an “add and stir” fashion that tends to oversimplify and “unproblematize.”

To find out if “this add-and-stir mentality” is applied to other forms of marginality as well,” McGinnis will examine a corpus of 63 texts from major publishers, focusing on best-sellers with the longest shelf life; one reader has 11 editions, and another has 15 editions. So far she has gotten through seven texts, for a total of 356 articles, and has mostly focused on five editions (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 9th) of Rereading America. Her initial analysis has found “problematic trends in current editions,” such as the scant mentions of disability, religion, immigration, and language, and the reduction of sexuality to stereotypes (e.g., talking only about marriage).

In her next steps she will do deeper coding, looking for stereotypes. Although this research is in the early stages, it has great promise for revealing and even changing patterns of representation in commonly used readers.

There and Back Again: How a Journey into Online Course Design Changed the Way I Teach Writing

Finally, Cat Mahaffey returned us to a classroom focus with her talk on applying best practices in online teaching to pedagogy more generally. She organized the talk around seven points about online writing instruction (OWI), explaining how she adapted each to a conventional classroom environment.

First, students need an introduction to activities in an online writing course. Mahaffey adapted her online pre-course survey by removing the questions related to digital technologies and added a post-course reflective survey. She found this “very, very helpful to me as a teacher” as it showed what students had learned and where they still thought they had gaps.

Second, based on what she learned about teacher ethos online she set up a bi-weekly email communication that (a) reinforced her presence in the class, (b) “set the tone” for class communication, (c) helped keep students focused on the course, and (d) reminded them of the due dates. Mahaffey says that although we might think these are unnecessary in a face-to-face class, she found them helpful; as she said, students (especially first year students) can get “really distracted and overwhelmed and postpone and procrastinate” and these emails were “really helpful in fostering better time management.”

Third, it is important to create community. Mahaffey required students to read and respond to blogs and forum posts by creating group assignments that required online interaction. She also created an “ask the instructor” forum and encouraged students to post questions there instead of emailing. Over the course of the semester, they started to answer each other’s questions, and next year she plans to turn it into a student forum where she can “just lurk and answer only if there’s a gap.”

Fourth, redundancy and repetition are important in online classes, and the predictability they create is just as valuable in face-to-face classes.

Fifth, alignment of course activities with learning objectives is crucial in both contexts, as is teaching for transfer. Mahaffey set up a series of course reflections that made the learning more explicit: students had to “engage with a course learning outcome, for example by saying ‘where they had seen it before, where they are seeing it now, and where they might go with it.’” She reported that when students were putting together end-of-term portfolios, they “had already engaged with learning outcomes and could map them to assignments.”

Sixth, student engagement matters, as “students need to move,” meaning they need to experience some confusion and ignorance “or they will feel they are just repeating what they already know.” To create this experience, Mahaffey used exercises that “destabilized” the students: they had to read a dense theoretical text, interpret it, and explain it to the class. Mahaffey reported that students like this assignment, which stretched their critical thinking skills, and that they were “really proud they could come away understanding something deeply enough to explain it to classmates.”

Seventh, documents need to be designed for online spaces. Mahaffey explained that she started to “design documents in spaces {she wants} students to compose in”; for example, when she wanted students to write blogs, she posted the assignment in a blog of her own. Among other benefits, this pushed her to learn the technology herself.

Mahaffey’s talk was the perfect ending for a panel that began with corpus linguistics and grew increasingly more specific about classroom practices. As I think ahead to fall classes, I am already considering how to apply her insights in my own teaching, while also thinking longer term about how to assess the success of the different strategies I learned in this session.


Alexander, Jonathan. (2008). Literacy, sexuality, pedagogy: Theory and practice for composition studies. Logan: Utah State University Press.

Anson, Chris M. (2008). The intelligent design of writing programs: Reliance on belief or a future of evidence. WPA: Writing Program Administration, 32(1), 11–36.

Haswell, Richard H. (2005). NCTE/CCCC’s recent war on scholarship. Written Communication, 22(2), 198–223. doi:10.1177/0741088305275367

Created by OliviaW. Last Modification: Friday 13 of January, 2017 03:22:46 UTC by ccccreviews.