This is the third blog post in a series featuring the ongoing scholarship of each research team participating in the Center for Engaged Learning (CEL) 2019-2021 research seminar on Writing Beyond the University: Fostering Writers’ Lifelong Learning and Agency. This blog post features research by Team Recursivities, a moniker that nods toward the group’s interest in studying the non-linear complexities of students’ writing–occasions, opportunities, processes, and texts. Team members include Ashley J. Holmes, associate professor of English and director of the Writing Across the Curriculum program at Georgia State University (United States); D. Alexis Hart, associate professor of English and director of writing at Allegheny College (United States); Anna V. Knutson, assistant professor of English and director of first-year writing at Duquesne University (United States); Íde O’Sullivan, senior educational developer at the Centre for Transformative Learning where she is curriculum development support lead and course director of the graduate diploma/MA in Teaching, Learning and Scholarship at the University of Limerick (Ireland); Yogesh Sinha, assistant professor of language studies at Sohar University, Al Batinah North Governorate (Oman); and Kathleen Blake Yancey, Kellogg W. Hunt Professor of English and Distinguished Research Professor Emerita at Florida State University (United States). For this blog series, we asked the Recursivities team some questions about their in-progress research so we could highlight their work in the CEL seminar.

This group’s research was inspired by previous studies that found students do a lot of writing and experience a great deal of writing development outside of school, even though the majority of research on writing development has focused on school-based writing. The CEL seminar’s theme⁠—­­­with its focus on writing beyond the university⁠—motivated the team to study writing students do outside of their coursework. They crafted a research project that deliberately studies the writing beyond the university that students engage in while they are still students⁠—such as self-motivated writing, writing for internships, and writing for jobs⁠—and the ways this writing impacts the writing they engage in as students. This team has found a sweet spot at the intersection of research addressing only writing done in school and of research inquiring into beyond-the-classroom writing. Their research focus also emerged out of the recognition that classroom-based assumptions about students as writers don’t necessarily match the reality, given the diverse kinds of writing that students engage in outside and alongside the university context.

In addition to the more traditional research methods of interviews and surveys, this group also employed an innovative visual exercise wherein students drew maps of the spheres, or contexts, where they write and of the “recursivities” across them. These mapping data complement their other data sets.

One of the most innovative concepts this team is excited to further explore is “controlling spheres,” a concept that emerged as they coded their interviews. They have more analysis work to do, but the general idea is that students (1) can document aspects of their writing lives through the concept of spheres and (2) identify, in explaining their spheres, one sphere as more “controlling” or overarching than the others. In a forthcoming book chapter, the team has forwarded the term “centrifugal recursivity” to describe how students’ controlling spheres influence their writing in other spheres. This concept suggests that the ways students develop as writers are more complex than has previously been understood, an idea the team continues to document. Another fascinating insight emerging from their research is that students discuss their writing beyond the university in terms of genre, something that might be expected in university contexts, but that has yet to be fully documented in writing contexts beyond the university.

This team has also found that students express clear preferences about their writing. For example, students are eager to discuss their challenges and successes with writing, and they tend to prefer writing to real audiences: they don’t like writing just for “thought experiments” only meant for their professors’ eyes, and they want their writing to relate to something outside of itself. These preferences demonstrate that these students are neither apathetic about nor indifferent to their writing lives, as has been reported in some literature. Not least, this team is also finding that writing development is both cognitive and affective; in other words, students have emotional interest in and an attachment to their writing within and beyond the university.

The Recursivities team acknowledges the pandemic as an extra challenge to their research, but not one they haven’t been able to overcome, for instance, by shifting their interviews online. In fact, for some researchers, the move to online interviews resulted in auto-generated first draft transcripts that would not have happened so easily in audio-recorded face-to-face interviews. Additional challenges about how to use the mapping data have generated productive possibilities, such as treating them separately, as part of a whole, or as confirmation of other data sets. As an international research cohort, they’ve also productively managed the complexity of practical issues like holding meetings across different time zones and translating some of the team’s data collection tools and interviews into English in order to facilitate collaborative analysis.

We’ll showcase the team’s publications on the Center for Engaged Learning website as they become available.

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. (2021, May 11). The Concept of “Controlling Spheres” and Complicating Assumptions about Student Writers [Blog Post]. Retrieved from