Lifespan Writing and Writing Beyond the University
by Julia Bleakney
In this blog, one in a series of blogs on topics connected to the 2019-2021 research seminar on Writing Beyond the University: Fostering Writers’ Lifelong Learning and Agency, I explore the recently-developed research collaboration on “lifespan writing,” summarizing its development, research interests, and connections to research on writing beyond the university. In 2016, in response to a call from Charles Bazerman to study writing “across the lifespan, from cradle to grave,” the Writing through the Lifespan Collaboration was created. This Collaboration, with about 40 current participants—as their Lifespan Writing site states—have started to work towards a “century-long set of coordinated studies of writing development in different sites, with different methodological and theoretical perspectives.” Most recently, in May 2018, the Collaboration hosted a conference at Ohio University in Athens, OH, focused on “Theory, Identity, and Society in Lifespan Writing Research.”
Prior to the 2016 call, Bazerman published “Understanding the lifelong journey of writing development” (2013). Recognizing that we develop as writers throughout our entire writing lives and that we cannot learn everything there is to know about writing in one course or over one year, or even four years of college, Bazerman suggests that “all our educational interventions and supports for students should foster that developmental trajectory, which defines how students approach each writing activity and what they learned from it” (422). Bazerman makes a case for longitudinal research because, simply put, “a life of writing development incorporates cumulative effects of multiple educational regimes and responses to many writing settings and tasks” (426). Studying this development, importantly, must take into consideration how an “individual perceives, makes sense of, and integrates” their experiences into a “personal trajectory” (426), a person’s developmental path through writing and learning experiences. In his call for more research that draws from various disciplines including Linguistics, Psychology, Socio-cultural Studies, and Rhetoric and Composition, Bazerman suggests there is much more to learn to “create rich, multidimensional, longitudinal pictures of the development of individual writers and of larger populations” (429). We need, for instance, to understand an individual’s development in relation to all their experiences of writing, both in and outside school, “if the writing learned in school is to prepare students for a lifetime of learning” (429-430), and to put this research in conversation with the existing research on transfer, such as the research that emerged from the 2011-2013 research seminar on Critical Transitions: Writing and the Question of Transfer research seminar.
Bazerman’s thought piece imagines a typical trajectory of literary practices from childhood through an entire adult life. Questioning this typical trajectory, Lauren Rosenberg in an article posted on the Lifespan Writing blog proposes that “lifespan researchers need to look into the writing development of adults who have extensive experiences outside of a traditional educational mode and can broaden the way we understand the meanings and uses of writing.” Rosenberg, who has studied adult basic literacy learners and the writing practices of military personnel, is interested in bringing researchers’ attention to adult writers whose literacy development was retarded or interrupted at some point in their learning paths/trajectories.
Bazerman’s and Rosenberg’s framing of research on Lifespan Writing suggests a need to understand writing development from the point of view of the individual writer and their experiences through a lifetime of writing in educational, professional, and self-sponsored contexts. Their arguments highlight how writing practices over one’s lifespan cannot necessarily be studied by looking just at enabling practices, such as instruction, or at contexts or sites of writing, such as the workplace, but by examining how a writer moves within and through these practices and contexts throughout their whole writing lives.
Research that has already been done on Lifespan Writing, such as that presented at the Lifespan Writing conference held in 2018, suggests so far small-scale or participant researcher inquiry. At the conference, participants presented on topics such as “Self-authorship development in faculty writers” (Sandra Tarabochia), “The story of a writer who raised a writer” (Summer E. Dickinson), and “Writing personal history with grandparents” (Su-Yi Chou). These topics suggest research that focuses on cohorts of writers, such as faculty members, or that highlight the intergenerational, familial, and cross-contextual contexts for writing. Researchers interested in topics such as these and in the study of lifespan writing more generally may find it useful to pursue projects with cross-disciplinary and multi-institutional longitudinal approaches as well as explore ways to connect the much needed theoretical framing seen in Bazerman’s article to instructional practice. To this end, researchers and practitioners are invited to apply to Elon’s Writing Beyond the University research seminar to explore lifespan writing with colleagues across disciplines and institutions.
- Bazerman, Charles. (2013). Understanding the lifelong journey of writing development. Infancia Y Aprendizaje, 36.4, 421-441.
- “Lifespan Writing Conference Schedule.” (2018). https://www.lifespanwriting.org/conference-schedule/ Retrieved 2 Sep. 2018.
- Rosenberg, Lauren. (2017). Developing as an adult writer: Literacy learners and military personnel. Lifespan Writing. https://www.lifespanwriting.org/lifespan-blog/2017/6/12/developing-as-an-adult-writer-literacy-learners-and-military-personnel. Retrieved 2 Sep. 2018.
Julia Bleakney is director of The Writing Center in the Center for Writing Excellence and assistant professor of English at Elon University. She is co-leading the 2019-2021 research seminar on Writing Beyond the University: Fostering Writers’ Lifelong Learning and Agency.