I start every semester by telling my first-year writing students—and really I probably do this every time I tell someone I’m a writing professor—that the central irony of my life is that I hate writing. I love thinking about writing, but when it comes to actually writing I’d rather do literally anything else. And as I’m sure you can guess, there are a lot of students who are like “yeah! Me too! Writing sucks!!!” As a result of this often-shared feeling, freshman writers often feel alienated from both the practice of writing and the process of researching it, and they join our classes wondering “Why am I here?” (And probably also “why is this guy my professor?”)
Most of us, as evidenced, especially, by theme of the conference this year, want students to feel like they belong in a first-year writing course even if they—like me—really feel like they hate writing or that they’re not “writers.” So in this presentation, I’m going to discusses a project that, I think, provides an accessible and inclusive pathway for students to research their own writing, which can help students see that that they are writers and researchers, that their writing and researching practices matter, and that they do belong in a class about writing and can make contributions to our understanding of it.
The way that I try to bridge this gap—between a feeling of alienation and a feeling of belonging, or at least a feeling closer to it—is a Time Use Diary project that asks students to track their own writing practices, write about their own writing, and work towards answering the question “What Kind of Writing Do I Do?” In the process, they often start to rethink what writing and research are, and centers students’ practices and perspectives in a way that can also demonstrate the potential value of FYC for them.
In the rest of the talk, I’ll provide some background into where my thinking comes from, provide an explanation of the TUD project, and go over some students’ reflections on this project. Hopefully, by the end, you’ll understand how a project like this might benefit students and be prepared to adapt it to fit the needs of your classes and students.
In recent years, the field has definitely been more attuned towards what Ryan Dippre and Talinn Phillips refer to as “both a life-long and life-wide understanding” of writing (Dippre and Philips, 2021) and we have demonstrated the benefits of this perspective by studying writing as it happens across a range of contexts, as work from scholars like Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak; Bazerman et al.’s Lifespan Writing Research Group, and the members of the Writing Through The Lifespan Collaboration have done—even if it might initially seem like the writing is not totally related to the writing classroom (Roozen, 2008, 2012; Yancey et al., 2021; Naftzinger, 2021). This wider focus not only helps us, us meaning writing scholars, better understand what writing looks like, but it also helps us see how it’s used by a more diverse group of writers in a wider range of situations.
While I think our field has mostly accepted these ideas, our First Year Writing students are, understandably, often unfamiliar with the idea that these more everyday writing practices are actually important, worth studying, are pertinent to the ideas we’re going to talk about in our FYC courses, and have an impact on the ways they, students, interact with the world outside of the course. Because FYC students’ ideas of “writing” (in scare quotes) are often associated with writing within a relatively small area of their lives (like in school); with rigid formats, harsh feedback, and limited personal importance; and/or with practices they generally dislike doing, they’re not always able to see the importance and relevance of their own writing practices and the writing knowledge they already possess nor are they able to see how our FYC classes and the concepts we cover might be useful.
Ultimately, these feelings result in “dispositions,” which borrowing from Driscoll and Wells are the “individual, internal qualities”—like “value, self-efficacy, attribution, and self-regulation”—that can limit students’ abilities, or willingness, to engage with the material we’re going through in class and make use of, or transfer, it to other contexts. Put another way: if you feel like the genre is something that’s only related to writers, but you don’t feel like a writer, why would you waste time learning about it? If you aren’t going to think about or use writing in the future, why would it matter how it’s defined or how you study it? When students feel like they don’t belong in a writing class, it’s harder for us to make the case that they should learn about writing.
I see a lot of resonance between dispositions and Purdy and Walker’s “research identities,” or the “confluence of skills, knowledge, attitudes, and practices that combine when an individual engages in research activities” (9). Particularly, I think one of the barriers we face trying to get students interested in writing and research is the dispositions around the “knowledge” and “attitudes” part of the research identity. Students often come into our class thinking of research solely as Wardle and Downs discuss in Writing About Writing “gathering existing information: finding a lot of library books or webpages that have the information [they] need, and quoting or paraphrasing from them to pass on that existing knowledge to a teacher” and that their own practices—of noticing, of asking, of investigating—are separate from that process. As Purdy and Walker state in their piece on “Research Identities,” this can have a damaging effect: “When positioned as wholly ignorant, students are invited neither to critique the processes they are engaging in nor to situate their own practices within the model they are taught” (26), and this can “add to the alienation that students may begin to feel regarding the research activities they understand as “academic.” (27).
Wardle and Downs, in their Writing About Writing textbook, suggest that having students engage in primary research through conversational inquiry is one way that we can help students develop more productive, real, robust research identities. By asking students to actually “ask questions, and then ago in search of answers, in conversation with other people” (Wardle and Downs, 2021, p. 54) rather than just reading and summarizing other peoples’ research, we can help them better understand the ways that research can be used, the ways they’ll actually use—or at least are more likely to use—research in future courses and occupations, and look for ways this knowledge can transfer into new situations.
But when we ask students to engage in more primary research driven writing research, I think we can also run into a separate issue, which springs up when we try to show models of that research to students. Often times, when we show students examples, we might show them some interesting academic articles that might seem relevant to them and their writing situations: Like Mirabelli’s “Learning to Serve: The Language and Literacy of Foodservice Workers”; or Sparby’s “Digital Social Media and Aggression: Memetic Rhetoric in 4chan’s Collective Identity” ; or Grabill et al.’s “Revitalizing Composition: Mapping the Writing Lives of First Year College Students.” But when we do this, we’re still showing students models that might seem disconnected from their particular research identities: they might be looking at research that’s taken months or years to complete, research that seems complicated to someone who’s unfamiliar with the sometimes mundane origins our writing research can take, and research reports that are much more advanced than they feel like they can do.
Even when we provide student examples of primary research, like Wardle and Downs do in their textbook, we’re still often showing students the finished product divorced from the methods that got it there. And as much as we talk about the process and scaffold it over the course of the semester, it can sometimes be hard for students to see how their kernel of an idea into one of these more fully formed projects. Even when the process is discussed, as it is in Writing About Writing’s chapter on conversational inquiry and the veteran’s research project on other veterans deal with the transition between military-life and student-life, our students might not see their own experiences and practices, and especially their research identities, reflected in that example, and it still might feel somewhat alienating.
And I think that’s a great reason to start with something small and manageable, like this Time Use Diary project, that, despite its relatively simple starting point and manageable research focus, still introduces students to practices and ideas that might help them understand that they do write and that they can be writing researchers. This kind of project can help to shift student dispositions towards the usefulness of studying writing and their research identities in ways that can help them feel more like they belong in our classes and might benefit from the research of our field.
So now that that the kind of general background is out of the way, I’ll start to talk about the actual project itself, which was mostly inspired by Cohen, White, and Cohen’s “Time-Use Diary Study of Adult Everyday Writing Behavior.” Generally, for this project, I task students with keeping a time use diary (modified from the one Cohen et al. used) that catalogs what, why, when, where, how, to whom, and any other factors the students deem relevant about their writing over 7 days. (Although I didn’t realize it until much later, Wardle and Downs also have a similar project in their suggested writing projects of the 4th edition of Writing About Writing.) The main goal is for students to start with the research question “What Kind of Writing Do You Do?” And narrow from there based on their own interests and actaul writing practices. Following discussions in class about Threshold Concepts, Rhetoric, Genre (some of our main “building blocks” towards our course outcomes), and what writing, and “good” writing is and isn’t, I ask students to make their own decisions about what they focus on in the paper that discusses their findings. I just ask that, as they’re studying their writing and keeping their time use diary, they think about what counts as writing, what gets—or doesn’t get—included, and why they’re making these decisions.
The major goal of the essay they write at the end of this assignment is to help students better understand their own writing practices, which can help them see more value in what we’re learning and set them up for the rest of the semester. But the main goal of the TUD process is to help students understand what research on writing can look like and what role they can play in this research. They’re no longer just reading research on writing, they’re actually researching writing, and, importantly, they’re researching their own writing. Ultimately, this serves as a stepping stone into deeper research into writing and more complex discussions of writing in practice, but it gets them started, and, importantly, it puts their practices—their writing, their researching, and their writing about their research—in the spotlight.
As they do their research for this project, students determine what to track and what to say about it, which makes the project more inclusive of their perspectives and practices and helps them learn to make choices as researchers. In making those decisions, students are synthesizing their own definition of writing from existing perspectives in the field, making choices about what matters to them and what gets cataloged in their time use diary, and learning to look for patterns and interesting data. This process helps them re-think what writing is or isn’t, what research can look like, and, importantly, centers their critical perspectives and choices about writing and research. Students have to research their writing, but what that means and what they ultimately write about is essentially up to them. Again, they’re starting to see their own choices and their own practices represented in what we’re talking about in class and how it resonates with—or complicates—other information that might seem so disconnected from their own lives.
I’ve used this as our first project in my FYC classes for the last few years, and I’ve made some adjustments and tried different approaches around what students collect, how they describe their findings, and what the “end goal” of the project is. Students have focused on topics like their rhetorical choices (they’re often really interested in the role audience plays in their writing, which they haven’t considered in depth before), the genres and technologies they use and how it influences their writing, and the ways factors like space, location, social pressures, and prior learning experiences impact their writing. Alongside the actual essay where students describe what they learned and how they learned it, I ask students to reflect on what these findings and this process have contributed to their understandings of writing and research. I’ll be using some of these reflections to discuss the project.
As I mentioned before, I’ve been using this project for a few years at this point—making changes along the way—and I’ve continued using it because I think it does work towards those goals around shifting students’ dispositions and research identities and making them feel more like they belong. At the same time, though, it isn’t perfect and it’s not always successful. I’ll discuss some of these successes, and failures, here.
One of the major successes is that as they engage in this project, students actually become writing researchers as they track their writing for a week. No matter how they go about the project and no matter their findings, students only arrive there by paying attention to their writing just like we—scholars of writing—do. Going back to Purdy and Walker’s suggestions for developing effective research identities, this is helpful because it can help students’ understand what research looks like by helping them learn how to develop a question as they’re going. As one student said: “Before this [project], I don’t think I knew how essential asking questions was when it came to writing and research” and they didn’t realize “…a lot of the time with every answer [I] came to another question.” Another said “prior to this project, the research I have done for other projects wasn’t as enjoyable because most of the time, our teacher would pick the topic for us. So, picking the topic and learning from the research process was beneficial.” In other words, students are learning that research begins not just with a topic or idea but with a question and that research often moves in an often non-linear fashion that is really shaped by noticing new questions.
Similarly, this project helps them understand what data collection can, and more often does, look like in a research project. One student said “Prior assignments merely had me grab information from websites and arrange a bibliography to house the information I had assembled…. The term ‘research’ has been redefined for me [by this project]; sometimes, I must find information myself instead of pulling up information found by someone else.” Students can start to move away from seeing research as only trawling for secondary sources to help support an understanding they already had, and instead see it as a negotiation between primary and secondary research driven by their own data-gathering process.
Unfortunately, students don’t always come to these new understandings. Some students, for example, aren’t convinced that the data that is collected from tracking their own writing and paying attention to their own practices and understandings counts as “research.” As one student said, “I feel as if this paper did not teach me much on the researching side of things because it was based purely off of my own personal experiences and I did not need to look anything up to help me.” So despite engaging in these research practices, they might not be ready to shift away from the model they’re more familiar with the “Traditional Research Paper” process.
Another benefit of this project is that it can help students learn new things about their own writing—and writing generally—that they put in conversation with what other students notice about their writing. As they track their writing and start to look for patterns, students have noticed really interesting connections between how/what they write and their intended audiences, their composing technologies, their composing environments, their shifting moods, and more. As one student said “I have gained so much knowledge specifically about my writing that I did not know before…. My writing is affected by all the things in the world around me including social aspects, learned habits, peer influences, but the one I focused on the most was the location.” And as part of our class sessions they also talk to each other about their findings, to see how their preferences and influences are similar to/different from other writers. So this actually puts students into the Burkean Parlor, that oft-used research metaphor, rather than just having them wonder “What the hell is a parlor?” These kinds of findings and the discussions about them—and their similarities and differences for other students—helps to make discussions about the rhetorical situation, genre, and so on more real to them—as opposed to something someone talked about in an article they read.
Students’ research, findings, and discussions for this project do seem to have a positive effect on their understandings of the value of writing and the ways they use it. One student said “keeping tabs on my writing did allow me to realize that I am writing more frequently than I thought. Before this, I never would have considered a text message as writing, until I realized how many I send on a daily basis.” The ‘I never would have considered X as writing, until I saw…’ reaction is shared among many of my students in their reflections and is one of the biggest benefits of this kind of project. For students who come into the class hating, or disliking, writing, as I alluded to in the beginning of the talk, a realization that they’re engaging in writing and it’s not just for school is an important breakthrough, and one that can help them engage more with the material.
But this realization doesn’t come without some potential costs. The student above, who was able to see that they writing more than they previously considered, said that “tracking [their] own writing…” to get to that realization “was a very tedious process for [her].” But one they thought was ultimately worth it based on their new realization. Another, echoing that feeling said, “If I am being completely honest, at the beginning of the project I sort thought it was dumb that we had to do so much analyzation of our own writing. I felt like ‘I know what I am writing about so why do I have to analyze my own stuff,’ but I now realize how much it actually helped me write better papers.” So students’ dispositions towards the value of writing or the uses of what we’re learning in class might shift based on what they notice about their own writing.
At the same time, even if students become more aware of their writing by studying it, it might not have the impact I hope it does. As one said after completing this project, “I am familiar with the intricacies of my writing from rhetorical situations to the various influences on my very own concept of writing – and I can confidently say that I am interested in precisely none of them.” So despite noticing, and in some cases learning to notice, new aspects of their writing, their writerly identities, and their research identities, students aren’t always a fan of the process nor are they always interested in what they learn.
Even as they’re looking at all of their writing over the course of a week—and many students do end up noticing that they engage in ‘way more writing than I expected’—many also still end up focusing primarily on academic writing they’re doing—perhaps because of their particular contexts for the assignment (learning about writing in a class) and their busy schedules (that often consists of a lot of writing for their other classes—at my institution freshman often take 5 or 6 courses). Although, personally, I would love if they focused on not-just-academic writing, the project is based on their interests, their understandings, and their particular contexts and the particular power of academic writing is part of that. Because they’re the experts in this situation and they’re the designers of their research process: they get to make the choices about what to focus on. Luckily, they’re still paying attention to their particular ways of engaging in academic writing and they’re often looking at it in new ways, like how it’s shaped by their audience, purpose, location, and other factors. I think that having the power to make these choices, and seeing the impact of these choices on both their research and their findings, helps them feel more connected to the process and also helps them find more value in what they’re learning.
So to wrap all this up and bring it back to the theme of the conference, I think that this project can help students understand “Why am I here?” in our FYC classes, because it 1) emphasizes the writing that all of our students are already doing and helps them see the importance and complexity of those practices, and 2), perhaps most importantly, positions students as participants in, rather than just observers of, writing research.
When we reflect on the course at the end of the semester, students usually indicate that it was the project they enjoyed the most, the one that had the biggest impact on their understandings of writing, or both. They say that this project, and its process and findings, helps them see that they are writers and that their writing is important, which stretches outside of FYC and into their lives—even if its only to their academic lives, much to my chagrin. As a result, students start to understand that they are here, in our classes, because they are writers and researchers and because their practices and perspectives matter. Rather than feeling alienated, they are more able to see how the course can apply to the contexts they write and exist within.