New Research Methods to Study Writing Beyond the University
by Julia Bleakney and Paula Rosinski
In this blog, one in a series on topics connected to the 2019-2021 research seminar on Writing Beyond the University: Fostering Writers’ Lifelong Learning and Agency, we explore new possibilities for research methods that can be used to study writing practices, attitudes, behaviors, and genres/texts beyond the university.
In her synthesis of the state of the field of writing-related transfer research (during the Center for Engaged Learning’s 2011-2013 multi-institutional research seminar on the topic), Jessie L. Moore categorized the research methods that have been commonly used to study transfer: longitudinal studies that involve smaller numbers of participants and short-term studies that involve larger numbers of participants. Both approaches often focus on one institutional site and use similar research methods: surveys, focus groups, interviews (all with faculty or students), observations, and composing-aloud protocols; in addition, the types of materials analyzed for these studies typically include discussion logs, reflections, student writing, and faculty comments on student writing.
In research focused on transfer of writing beyond the university specifically, there have been similar approaches; for instance, one larger-scale survey-based study of hundreds of alumni (Elon alumni study) gauged alumni perceptions on how well their college writing experiences prepared them for professional writing, their greatest workplace writing challenges, and the genres/documents they most commonly write in professional and civic contexts. Other studies have involved smaller cohorts of participants–typically between five and twenty (e.g. Beaufort 1999). Some studies are time-limited — occurring over the duration of a semester (e.g., Zimmerelli 2015) — and some are longitudinal (e.g, Baird and Dilger’s  study of students over a period of up to three years). And similar methods have been used but with an emphasis on the ecology of writing (e.g. Beaufort’s ethnographic observations of the work environment, analysis of writing, and interviews) and on using technology to capture students’ writing processes (e.g. Blythe’s use of screencast technology to “gather a variety of phenomena simultaneously” [2017, 58]). Some of the current research draws on frameworks from activity theory (Baird and Dilger 2017, De Palma 2015), which focuses on how writing occurs within a system–such as how an individual writer operates within a work context, with colleagues, and with existing documents or artifacts. An activity theory approach can help address the limitations of focusing only on self-reported learning. Other researchers have sought to address this limitation by looking directly for evidence of the visibility of transfer, for instance, by looking for “an ongoing process of adapting to a social setting, involving not only the idiosyncratic textual features of a discourse community but a shifting array of political, managerial, and social influences as well” (Anson and Forsberg 1990, 225).
What are the future possibilities and directions for research methods to study writing beyond the university? First of all, we need methods that enable multi-institutional studies, as addressed in Moore’s article and in the Center for Engaged Learning’s 2011-2013 research seminar on transfer. To this point, the Lifespan Writing Collaboration describes its work towards a “century-long set of coordinated studies of writing development in different sites, with different methodological and theoretical perspectives”–suggesting a multi-site, longitudinal approach to the study of the writing over a person’s lifespan. We also need methods of research that make room for marginalized or under-presented voices: the counterstory in students’ writing (Martinez 2016, 2018) or using transformative listening (Garcia 2017) are attuned to issues of injustice or exclusion. Without these methods, we run the risk of neglecting under-represented groups when we recruit or select participants, code and analyze, or make decisions about whom we cite. In addition, drawing on technology-enhanced methods from digital humanities allows us to analyze large amounts of data: distance reading (Janicke et al. 2015, 1), for instance, permits researchers to automate, graph, map, and visualize–and therefore analyze in new ways–large amounts of text, such as survey responses or student writing. And new methods from computational linguistics and rhetorical algorithms enable precise identification and analysis of patterns in language and writing, again enabling the study of large amounts of text.
Yet as technology enables researchers to step back to analyze large amount of data, other scholars see the value in a return to close reading. In her description of how her transnational study of first-year writing evolved, Christiane Donahue described a method that relies on a deep and sustained analysis of student writing and the intellectual contexts in which it is produced. Her method draws on “completing intellectual traditions” (2013, 154, after Canagarajah 2002, p.67) in order to produce a “translingual way of thinking” (152) about translingualism that moves beyond a simple cross-comparison of writing produced in different contexts. Donohue’s method, in fact, invites researchers to avoid U.S.-centric theories and methods in order to be a better job of understanding the translingual realities of all writers.
Future participants in the 2019-2021 research seminar on Writing Beyond the University:Foster Writers’ Lifelong Learning and Agency, as well as other scholars interested in this topic, will be challenged to identify robust research methods that study writers’ experiences deeply as well as broadly and over time. These challenges prompt researchers to identify methods that align and respond appropriately to the writing or practices of writing being studied; that work across disciplinary, institutional, and national contexts in ways that represent the lived experiences of a diversity of writers; and that attend to previously underrepresented frameworks, theories, and participants.
Anson, Chris M., and L. Lee Forsberg. 1990. “Moving Beyond the Academic Community: Transitional Stages in Professional Writing.” Written Communication 7, no. 2: 200–231.
Baird, Neil, and Bradley Dilger. 2017. “How Students Perceive Transitions: Dispositions And Transfer In Internships.” College Composition and Communication 68, no 4: 684-712.
Beaufort, Anne. 1999. Writing in The Real World: Making the Transition from School to Work. New York: Teachers College Press.
Blythe, Stuart. 2017. “Attending to the Subject in Writing Transfer and Adaptation.” In Critical Transitions: Writing and the Question of Transfer, edited by Chris Anson and Jessie L. Moore. 49-68. Fort Collins, Colorado: WAC Clearinghouse. Available at: https://wac.colostate.edu/docs/books/ansonmoore/chapter2.pdf
Canagarajah, Suresh. 2002. A Geopolitics Of Academic Writing. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
DePalma, Michael-John. 2015. “Tracing Transfer Across Media: Investigating Writers’ Perceptions Of Cross-contextual And Rhetorical Reshaping in Processes of Remediation.” College Composition and Communication 66, no.4: 615-642.
Donahue, Christiane. 2013. “Negotiation, Translinguality, and Cross-cultural Writing Research an a New Composition Era.” In Literacy as Translingual Practice: Between Communities and Classrooms, edited by Suresh Canagarajah, 149-161. New York: Routledge.
Jänicke, S., Franzini, G., Cheema, M.F., & Scheuermann, G. 2015. “On Close And Distant Reading In Digital Humanities: A Survey And Future Challenges.” Proceedings of EuroVis – STARs, 83-103.
Lifespan Writing Collaboration. n.d. Accessed February 20, 2019. https://www.lifespanwriting.org/
Martinez, Aja Y. 2018. “The Responsibility of Privilege: A Critical Race Counterstory Conversation.” Peitho: Journal of the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition, 21, no. 1: 212-233.
Martinez, Aja Y. 2016. “Alejandra Writes a Book: A Critical Race Counterstory about Writing, Identity, and Being Chicanx in the Academy.” Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 13, no. 2: 56-61.
Moore, Jessie L. 2012. “Mapping The Questions: The State of Writing-related Transfer Research.” Composition Forum, 26. Available at http://compositionforum.com/issue/26/map-questions-transfer-research.php
Zimmerelli, Lisa. 2015. “A Place To Begin: Service-learning Tutor Education and Writing Center Social Justice.” The Writing Center Journal, 35, no. 1: 57-84.
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.
Paula Rosinski is director of Writing Across the University in the Center for Writing Excellence and professor of English: Professional Writing & Rhetoric at Elon University. She is co-leading the 2019-2021 research seminar on Writing Beyond the University: Fostering Writers’ Lifelong Learning and Agency.
How to cite this post:
Bleakney, Julia, and Paula Rosinski. 2019, June 5. “New Research Methods to Study Writing Beyond the University” [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/new-research-methods-to-study-writing-beyond-the-university/