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September 7, 2018 Previous day Next day

If you are interested in introducing FYW students to primary research methods, An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing provides an overview and general definitions of qualitative and quantitative methods appropriate for students in a first-year writing class. If you are new to teaching qualitative or quantitative methods to students, it can be a bit intimidating to be sure. I’d like to write today about a fun, low-stakes activity I have my students do the first few weeks of the semester to begin a conversation about research methods.



I enjoy having my students interview one another during class early in the semester. Recognizing that most students are more tech savvy than I am, I ask them to practice recording one another using a semi-structured set of interview questions. It’s remarkable to watch a class begin to discuss how they’re going to record the interviews, whether on a laptop or on mobile devices, and then to watch them learn socially from one another about the best way to upload the audio files to our  course shell once their recording is complete (we use D2L at the University of Arizona). If asked, I’ll step in and offer advice and tips about how to do the recording and uploading, but for the most part I give them just enough direction to get them started, provide the questions and activity objective, and then let them learn from one another by just jumping in there and giving a recording a shot.


Below you’ll see a set of semi-structured questions I’ve asked students to use in the past as they record themselves interviewing one another:


Usually they pair up with a partner, and I ask them to leave the room and find a quiet space somewhere in the building to conduct the interview. Once they record their interviews, they upload the audio file to our  course shell. This then allows us to listen to the interviews in class. It’s a great conversation starter, and FYW students find the use of technology as well as listening to their audio-recorded voices played back in class fun, funny, and entertaining. There’s usually quite a bit of positive emotions and laughter with this activity.


You may notice that some of the questions in the table above are intended to begin a conversation about Writing in the Disciplines (especially Q. 1 and Q. 2). Q. 3 is intended to draw on their funds of knowledge and to position students as experienced and knowledgeable writers who have succeeded in the past.


By using these recordings in class as conversation starters, I’ve learned a lot about the expectations and support that faculty in other disciplines have provided to students in writing contexts. The recordings also reveal a great deal about students’ perceptions of effective teaching practices as well as their past experiences with writing.


Coding and Interpreting

Once we have these interviews archived digitally, students can access the audio files and listen to them to take notes. I ask students to listen to multiple interviews and note any themes or keywords or phrases that begin to emerge from the data.


A student may end up with a list of words or phrases like “feedback,” “peer review,” “tutoring,” “assignment sheet,” “rubric,” “drafting,” “meet with teacher,” etc.


Typically this is about as far as we’ll take it in a FYW class. I might write some of the keywords that emerge from multiple students’ interpretations of the interviews on an eraser board, and we’ll use that as a bridge to talk about effective writing processes and what the expectations are for our course. Later in the semester, we’ll return to interviewing more formally as a research method they can use in collecting data on a research topic of their choosing. These early recordings thus scaffold toward more formal interviews they may record for a grade later in the semester as part of a research project.


If you have tips or suggestions you’ve used, please feel free to share your ideas in the comments below. As always, I’m grateful for your time and interest, and if you found this blog helpful or informative, please comment, like, and share it!


Thanks so much, all.

Daniel LibertzToday's featured Bedford New Scholar is Daniel Libertz, who is pursuing his PhD in English with a concentration in composition and rhetoric at the University of Pittsburgh and expects to finish in 2019. He teaches Writing for the Public, and he will be serving as Composition Program Assistant in 2018-2019. He has also taught Seminar in Composition at Pitt, a reading course at the United States Military Academy, composition at Howard County Community College, and English courses at the high school level. His research interests include quantitative rhetoric, public rhetoric, social media writing and algorithms, and writing program administration.


Toward the end of his book Introducing English: Essays in the Intellectual Work of Composition, James Slevin presents a letter responding to a former student who has become a teacher. Maggie asks Slevin a question he has been asked many times: “What should she do to prepare her students for writing in college?” (246).


Slevin says he never felt he gave a satisfactory answer to this sort of question. It is a complex question that, I assume, all of us continually think about throughout our teaching lives. After all, implicit in this question is how the writing in college is “different” from writing in high school—and for that matter, how writing in college is different from writing anywhere else. One of the more difficult, slippery concepts we all have to confront as writing teachers in higher education is figuring out what we mean by “academic” writing. What is it? How do we teach it? Should we teach it? Do we do enough to acknowledge the inherent value judgments and political nature of the way we teach academic language or address its close ties to whiteness?


These are big, difficult questions, but what I like about Slevin’s response to Maggie is that it focuses on academic writing as intellectual work, something that can occur in any genre, under any conventions, or in any language. Slevin writes that what matters is evidence. By evidence, Slevin does not mean having a thesis or using direct quotations. It is not about accumulating material. It is about what is done with material, and what is “done” depends on language. For Slevin, “the excitement of the academic life—of academic writing broadly conceived—is in the making of stuff (data, events, passages from a text, the work of other writers) into evidence” (246). Language is the tool that turns “stuff” into evidence—what Ann Berthoff calls (channeling I.A. Richards) a “speculative instrument” for making meaning out of, well, “stuff.”


I agree with Slevin that if there is anything that makes writing in the academy somehow different from writing in other places (though, not exclusively different as there is writing in many places that does what Slevin advocates for) it is how we use evidence to make knowledge through “supporting, testing, and complicating” our ideas (252).To put this idea into classroom practice at a very practical level, I like to have my students think about this at the level of the sentence. One way I do so is by asking them to find two sentences in any text that they have read for another class that they feel is certain and uncertain, respectively. I like the idea of having them look at texts outside our own classroom so that they see, explicitly, that academic writing very much resides outside of their composition class (and, hopefully, such a move helps to transfer this idea about writing to their other classes). Students can choose any text from another class—a textbook, a journal article, a blog post—if the sentences they choose convey certainty or uncertainty for them.


During the next class, we talk about the reasons students selected their sentences, and we put them up on the board. Several items typically come up: word choice (e.g., obviously, really, probably, very, possibly), sentence type (e.g., short, simple sentence vs. longer, meandering sentences), syntax (e.g., position of a qualifying dependent clause), etc.


We usually focus on the rhetorical aspects of such moves at first: why does a short, punchy sentence “sound” certain (e.g., multiple clauses may undercut the strength of a direct statement)? Why do words like “really” and “very,” sometimes, ironically, make the sentence sound less certain? Do qualifying clauses ever make a sentence, counterintuitively, sound more certain by building the writer’s credibility as well-read? Ken Hyland, for instance, notes that the use of hedges and boosters have a range of effects in academic writing: to show conviction, to show solidarity with an audience of peers, to differentiate between opinion and data-based knowledge, to express deference for peers.


As much as these moves are matters of persuasion, it is difficult to untangle them from matters of making knowledge. For Slevin, this would mean that we can and should look to such moments in our sentences to ask ourselves what we know and what we are trying to know—that is, how we are making sense of our “stuff,” of our evidence. Does the use of “really” or a sentence with three dependent clauses tip us off to anything we are struggling with knowing as a writer? Sometimes the use of the word “very” or “obviously” is used for stylistic emphasis. Sometimes a sentence with a series of qualifying dependent clauses adds necessary context to a complicated topic. Sometimes, too, these moments at the sentence level are a “tell” that more work is needed for a writer to turn stuff into evidence, in Slevin’s sense.


During the remaining time in class, I ask students to make these considerations while looking back at an in-progress piece of writing to find one sentence that they feel shows certainty or uncertainty. I then ask them to spend some time thinking about how those sentences might represent a larger pattern of thought in their draft.


Finally, I ask students to rewrite that sentence to make it more or less certain, followed by partner discussion about how it does or does not fit into the ecology of their larger paper.


By the end of the lesson, my hope is that students—via a notion of certainty—begin to see how the ways they choose words and arrange sentences can have an impact on the way they are makers of knowledge.


To view Dan’s activity, visit Writing with Certainty in the Disciplines: Sentence Confidence. To learn more about the Bedford New Scholars advisory board, visit the the Bedford New Scholars tab on the Macmillan English Community.