Studying Alumni Writing
by Paula Rosinski and Julia Bleakney
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 review the motivations, questions, methods, and populations of four studies that examined alumni writing in the hope that it might help colleagues not only make deliberate choices about their research methods and questions, but interrogate their own and their institutional motivations for conducting alumni writing research as well. The studies of alumni and graduate writing discussed here each emerged out of and are embedded in distinct institutional cultures or initiatives, reminding us that such studies are likely to be shaped by, reflect, and serve institutional needs to some extent.
“Writing After Elon: Assessing the Writing Experiences of Elon Graduates”
As part of our own institution’s Writing Excellence Initiative (our QEP for SACS accreditation) — which sought to enhance student writing by focusing on writing-to-learn, writing as a citizen, and writing in the disciplines/professions in every major, in the general education curricula, and in select Student Life units — we conducted two studies surveying Elon University alumni about their college and postgraduate professional, personal, and civic writing experiences. We were interested in collecting data on our graduates’ current and recent employment writing experiences, including salaried or hourly positions, independent consulting or contract work, creative or freelance work, and internships, as well as writing they did for personal reasons and civic purposes; and we also wanted to study the extent to which these alumni believed their university courses and experiences prepared them for these types of writing. (Rosinski et al. Manuscript in process).
We surveyed two populations: those graduating between 2000-2013 (prior to starting our WEI) and those graduating between 2014-2018 (so those who attended during our 5-year WEI implementation). The 2000-2013 survey received 541 responses and the 2014-2018 study received 435 responses, giving us the option to compare responses from pre- and post-WEI implementation and to look for trends over time.
The online surveys asked 28 questions on a range of topics including demographics like graduation year, major(s), minor(s), and the title of the alumni’s current or most recent professional position. Most of the questions had to do with their workplace writing (i.e., the types of writing they do or have done for a current or recent job or career; the types of writing they spend the most time on for their job or career; their greatest writing challenges on the job/in their career) and their perceptions of the extent to which their learning about writing transferred from Elon into the workplace (i.e., the extent to which they believe Elon prepared them for the kinds of professional/work-related writing they now do; the ways in which their college writing experiences [major coursework, general education, co-curricular writing experiences like internships] helped them since graduating [with critical thinking, researching, crafting an argument, writing in new situations, writing clearly and precisely]). We also asked alumni if and how they use writing-to-learn on the job/in their careers, a question that has implications for writing transfer beyond the university and which is often overlooked.
This study, the results of which are forthcoming, is embedded within our own institutional culture, and as such the questions we asked reflect Elon’s values and allow us to assess our Writing Excellence Initiative. Our close working relationship with the Alumni Office was essential for effectively reaching and distributing the survey to alumni. One change we would make to future studies of this scale is to offer a list of majors and minors to choose from (although this is also problematic, as majors/minors disappear and new ones emerge), as well as a write-in option to avoid the variation in written-in responses.
“What Our Graduates Write: Making Program Assessment Both Authentic and Persuasive”
Cornelius Cosgrove (2010) surveyed graduates from five different undergraduate programs, between 2001-2008, on “the genres, the processes, and the tools employed by those graduates” (Cosgrove 2010, 312). The undergraduate programs were those that “emphasized writing ability (literature, creative or professional writing, journalism, and public relations)”; the surveys aimed to determine what graduates “were currently doing in their writing practice, particularly when it came to the persuasive and public writing performed (1) as professionals in their occupations, or (2) as concerned and active citizens” (Cosgrove 2010, 314). Surveys were followed up with one-hour long interviews of select graduates. The survey asked the graduates about their “occupations, the extent of writing they perceived as related to citizenship, and whether they considered any of their writing as ‘persuasive’ or public in nature” (Cosgrove 2010, 316). The survey also asked if graduates engaged in self-sponsored civic writing, persuasive writing, or public writing, for “a readership beyond that of your fellow employees or social acquaintances” (Cosgrove 2010, 316). The survey response (n=105) rate was 28.3%; 18 interviews were conducted, including “5 creative writing, 5 public relations, 3 professional writing, 3 journalism, and 2 literature majors” (Cosgrove 2010, 318). Graduates who successfully landed writing- or education-related jobs were more likely to respond (Cosgrove 2010, 318). Acknowledging that the study did not examine whether the graduates were good writers, Cosgrove focuses instead on “how well undergraduate courses and instruction prepared alumni for the writing practices that would be a part of their post-academic lives” (Cosgrove 2010, 312), and highlights the wide array of stakeholders invested in such results (politicians, government bureaucrats, accreditation bodies, students, administrators).
“Writing Beyond Sac State: Alumni Writing in the Workplace”
Dan Melzer and Carolyn Pickrel, in the 2005 WAC Newsletter for Sacramento State University, shared the results of a pilot study of alumni writing; they also presented these results at the Writing Across the Curriculum conference held in 2005. Melzer and Pickrel surveyed thirteen alumni with jobs in law enforcement, business, engineering, and TV news, among others. They asked the participants a series of seven open-ended questions about the type, volume, and importance of writing in their current positions, as well as the audience for their current writing and how their job writing differs from the writing they were taught in college. The questions invited the participants to reflect on their current writing abilities, the types of writing they did in college that they still compose currently in their jobs, the types of writing that are also important for their on-the-job writing, and whether the believed students need to adjust their expectations about writing in the workplace.
“Data Driven Change Is Easy; Assessing and Maintaining It Is the Hard Part”
Les Perelman’s article (2009) discusses two separate studies at MIT in the 1990s, both of which sought to determine whether MIT was preparing students to be effective communicators and leaders after graduation and the extent to which students credited MIT with helping them to achieve these goals. One of these studies was an alumni survey. Perelman explains that “a 1996-97 survey of 881 alumni from the classes of 1992, 1987, 1982, 1977, and 1972 — asked respondents to rate various abilities in terms of (1) how they are important to them currently and (2) MIT’s contribution to their acquiring them” (Perelman 2009, 4). The study asked both quantitative and qualitative questions, with Perelman concluding that the qualitative questions elicited richer data. The relevant alumni quantitative survey questions, which are included at the end of Perelman’s article, asked “How important in your current life are the following outcomes that are possible from attending college? To what extent did MIT contribute to your development in each of these areas?” The survey asked alumni to respond to 27 distinct outcomes related to communication and leadership, including “leadership abilities,” “public speaking ability,” “ability to work cooperatively,” “ability to influence others,” “capacity for life-long learning,” “capacity to write clearly, effectively,” and “awareness of ethical issues” (Perelman 2009, 10).
As these articles suggest, research into alumni writing has often been motivated by wider institutional concerns, such as determining the effectiveness of specific majors, assessing curricula to prepare future leaders, or assessing the impact of an institution-wide Writing Excellence Initiative. And while only four studies are examined here, we can see that the methods most commonly employed were surveys and follow-up interviews. The questions often asked alumni to share the writing genres they most commonly compose in their work lives and the tools and processes they often rely upon, and to identify if any particular classes or other academic experiences (such as internships or undergraduate research) helped them become effective writers after graduation. The number of alumni studied varied from interviews (18 participants) to larger scale surveys of between 105 to 976 respondents; two of the studies surveyed alumni who had graduated up to 8-10 years earlier.
While institutional needs vary, researchers pursuing future alumni writing studies may benefit from reviewing the methods deployed and the questions asked in these four examples to help them identify the methods and frame the questions most relevant to their own contexts, purposes, and institutional cultures, including assessment needs and university-wide initiatives.
Cosgrove, Cornelius. 2010. What our graduates write: Making program assessment both authentic and persuasive. College Composition and Communication, 62 (2), pp. 311- 335.
Melzer, Dan, and Carolyn Pickrel. 2005. Writing beyond Sac State: Alumni writing in the workplace. Sacramento State University: Writing Across the Curriculum Newsletter.
Perelman, Les. Data driven change is easy; Assessing and maintaining it is the hard part. 2009. Across the Disciplines: A Journal of Language, Learning and Academic Writing, 6. https://wac.colostate.edu/atd/assessment/perelman.cfm
Rosinski, Paula et al. Writing after Elon: Assessing the writing experiences of Elon graduates. Manuscript in process.
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:
Rosinski, Paula, and Julia Bleakney. 2019, July 11. “Studying Alumni Writing” [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/studying-alumni-writing/