In the face of the continuing discourse of crisis in US education, The Meaningful Writing Project offers readers an affirming story of writing in higher education that shares students’ experiences in their own voices. In presenting the results of a three-year study consisting of surveys and interviews of university seniors and their faculty across three diverse institutions, authors Michele Eodice, Anne Ellen Geller, and Neal Lerner consider students’ perceptions of their meaningful writing experiences, the qualities of those experiences, and instructors’ perspectives on assignment design and delivery.
This study confirms that meaningful assignments offer students opportunities to engage with instructors, peers, and texts and are relevant to past experiences and passions as well as to future aspirations and identities. Meaningful writing occurs across majors, in both required and elective courses, and beyond students’ years at college. Additionally, the study makes clear that faculty across the curriculum devote significant care and attention to creating writing assignments that support student learning, as they understand writing performance to be a developmental process connected to overall cognitive and social development, student engagement with learning, and success in a wide variety of disciplines and professions.
The Meaningful Writing Project provides writing center directors, WPAs, other composition scholars, and all faculty interested in teaching and learning with writing an unprecedented look into the writing projects students find meaningful.
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About the Author
Michele Eodice is associate provost for Academic Engagement and director of the writing center at the University of Oklahoma. She is a coauthor of Working with Faculty Writers, The Everyday Writing Center, and (First Person)².
Anne Ellen Geller is professor of English and director of Writing Across Communities at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. She is a coauthor of Working with Faculty Writers and The Everyday Writing Center.
Neal Lerner is professor of English and writing program director at Northeastern University. He is the author of The Idea of a Writing Laboratory, winner of the 2011 NCTE David H. Russell Award for Distinguished Research in the Teaching of English, and a coauthor of Learning to Communicate in Science and Engineering, winner of the 2012 CCCC Advancement of Knowledge Award.
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The Meaningful Writing Project
Learning, Teaching, and Writing in Higher Education
By Michele Eodice, Anne Ellen Geller, Neal Lerner
University Press of ColoradoCopyright © 2016 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
THE MEANING OF THE MEANINGFUL WRITING PROJECT
INTRODUCTION — WHY MEANINGFUL WRITING?
Normally, I don't have the opportunity to write about a topic I'm interested in. Also it gave me a chance to be creative with format and wording.
— Electrical engineering major
I was able to pick a topic that speaks to me related to government on a personal level as opposed to working toward the professor's topical expectations.
— Government and politics major
This is a subject that is important to me and that I chose independently. Hopefully, this will help me with my future employment as well.
— Environmental science major
When asked to describe the most meaningful writing projects they wrote as undergraduates, over seven hundred seniors across three very different institutions — a private, urban Catholic university (undergraduate enrollment: ~15,700); a private, urban university known for experiential learning (undergraduate enrollment: ~17,400); and a public R1 institution (undergraduate enrollment: ~21,000) — told us stories of the powerful roles writing plays in their personal, academic, and professional lives. These stories are at the heart of The Meaningful Writing Project: Learning, Teaching, and Writing in Higher Education; our research is grounded in students' experiences and the many ways they make meaning of those experiences.
Our effort to better understand students' meaningful writing experiences draws, in part, on Herrington and Curtis (2000), who recommend that writing researchers "look across writing tasks and across the curriculum at the range of kinds of tasks we set for students, and at how students use this writing" (85). We took up this charge in the primary research questions that motivated our work:
What are the qualities of meaningful writing experiences as reported by seniors at three different types of institutions?
What might students' perceptions of their meaningful writing experiences reveal about students' learning?
What might faculty who offer the opportunities for students to gain meaningful writing experiences conclude about the teaching of writing in and across the disciplines?
To address these questions, over a two-year period of data collection and another two years of analysis, we engaged in a variety of strategies we describe later in this chapter. Our analysis of the data consisted of identifying patterns of similarity and difference within and across student participants and faculty responses, a grounded-theory approach (Glaser and Strauss 1967) we believe yields new understandings of student learning and the contexts and teaching methods in which it thrives.
In brief, here's what we found: meaningful writing projects offer students opportunities for agency; for engagement with instructors, peers, and materials; and for learning that connects to previous experiences and passions and to future aspirations and identities. Students described the power of personal connection, the thrill of immersion in thought, writing and research, and the satisfaction of knowing the work they produced could be applicable, relevant, and real world. Faculty who teach courses in which meaningful writing takes place often deliberately build these qualities into their teaching and curriculum, expressing their goals and values for writing through specific practices.
We came to these findings through a process at times fraught with methodological, practical, and analytical challenges. But we also felt great excitement as we learned about students' meaningful writing and learning experiences. We will offer a detailed description of our research methods in this chapter, but we want to note here why the concept of meaningfulness is important to us and how we developed it in this project.
Because all three of us are engaged in the enterprise of supporting writing at our universities — and have made careers in doing so, both in writing centers and in writing-across-the-curriculum programs — in designing this project we worked to keep a big-picture question in mind: what kinds of writing experiences are undergraduate students really having? However, rather than collect a list of assignments and students' texts in response to those assignments, we wanted to learn whether undergraduate students found their writing experiences rewarding, instructive, significant, or meaningful. We chose to ask about meaningful writing and invited students to name and describe a meaningful writing project even if it had occurred several semesters previous to our asking (and students could offer this description with ease, it seems, although no one had ever asked them before) but also to describe why a project was meaningful. This question was remarkably generative. In order to call something meaningful, we must have an opportunity to reflect on its significance to us or to make meaning through reflection (Yancey 1998). Over seven hundred students told us they truly understood the question as they focused on what was meaningful for them — not for their parents, instructors, or employers.
Students' accounts of meaningful writing run counter to the narratives dominating discussion of higher education — not only currently but historically (e.g., the "Johnny can't write" phenomenon of the 1970s and its periodic reoccurrences). One view is that students are "academically adrift" (Arum and Roksa 2011), reporting less time spent reading and writing than their predecessors, and those who make it to graduation face dim job prospects and crushing levels of student-loan debt (Grafton 2011). At the same time, more and more pressure is on institutions to assess outcomes, whether driven by outside accreditors, legislative mandate, or program improvement.
This strong narrative of crisis and the assessment methodologies used at all levels of education, however, often leave out the study of "incomes" (Guerra 2008) or an understanding of what students bring to their learning experiences and the important meanings they might derive. To date, few studies of students' writing across the disciplines, especially on the scale of what we have done, have made it a concurrent goal to consider how students use (or do not use) those "funds of knowledge" (Moje et al. 2004) or how they "repurpose" out-of-school knowledge (Roozen 2009, 2010) in disciplinary learning and writing.
In terms of book-length studies, Beaufort (2007), Carroll (2002) Herrington and Curtis (2000), Sommers and Saltz (2004), and Sternglass (1997) have each shown in longitudinal research that writing is essential to the ways students form identities as fledgling members of their disciplines. Similarly, Rebecca Nowacek (2011) presents an in-depth study of "transfer" for students in a particular interdisciplinary program, but each of these monographs focuses on single institutions or even a single student and does not feature the scope and depth of data we offer. Dan Melzer (2014) investigates writing syllabi and curricular materials from institutions across the United States but does not feature students' perspectives. An online report, the Stanford Study of Writing, led by Andrea Lunsford (2008), does ask questions about students' out-of-school writing, languages, and work experiences, but findings will likely be very different from what we learned from our study's targeted institutions, where significant numbers of the student population are multilingual, international, and/or first-generation college students — many of whom are studying in professional programs such as engineering, pharmacy, legal studies, and nursing. Many of these students live off campus in discourse communities different from, yet closely related to, those they engage in on campus.
Understanding students' writing performance as a developmental process is essential, even when viewing that writing reflectively, as our study does. Previous studies of students' undergraduate writing experiences describe students' relatively uncertain moves from their experience of first-year composition to the disciplinary requirements of writing in their majors (Carroll 2002; Haswell 1991; Hilgers, Hussey, and Stitt-Bergh 1999; Sternglass 1997) and writing postgraduation (Beaufort 2007). Barber, King, and Baxter Magolda (2013) tell us that "developmentally effective experiences [that] respect students' current meaning making and simultaneously invite students to consider new perspectives" (889) lead to faster and stronger gains in self-efficacy, or "self-authorship," as they call it. If the goal of higher education is, in fact, to foster a self- actualization (Maslow 1967), certain personally significant experiences must occur.
We also know the impact of these meaningful experiences extends beyond graduation. In their 2014 report on more than thirty thousand college graduates, Great Jobs, Great Lives researchers found that "well-being" in the workplace was directly related to several undergraduate experiences ("Great Jobs, Great Lives: The 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index Report" 2014). Such engagement was independent of the type of institution: "Where graduates went to college — public or private, small or large, very selective or not selective — hardly matters at all to their current well-being and their work lives in comparison to their experiences in college" (6). Graduates specified undergraduate experiences that contributed most strongly to their current workplace well-being:
I had at least one professor ... who made me excited about learning.
My professors ... cared about me as a person.
I had a mentor who encouraged me to pursue my goals and dreams.
I worked on a project that took a semester or more to complete.
I had an internship or job that allowed me to apply what I was learning in the classroom.
I was extremely active in extracurricular activities and organizations while attending [college]. (10)
The first three items are perhaps most relevant to what we report in this book (though many projects students chose as meaningful were semester-long efforts). In terms of those three, Gallup/Purdue ("Great Jobs, Great Lives: The 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index Report" 2014) reports the following: if an employed graduate recalls having "a professor who cared about them as a person," one "who excited them about learning," and if "they had a mentor who encouraged them" to pursue their dreams, the graduate's odds of being engaged at work more than doubled. But only 14% of all college graduates strongly agree that they had support in all three areas" (10).
As we describe in subsequent chapters, students in our study report engagement with instructors and peers, passion for the subjects they wrote about, personal connection with those topics, and a belief that their meaningful writing projects would connect to future writing. In short, meaningful writing completed as an undergraduate may very well produce well-being postgraduation and in a future workplace.
METHODS TO INVESTIGATE STUDENTS' MEANINGFUL WRITING
Rather than marginalize the description of our methods to an appendix, we offer the full story here, not simply to ensure readers that we engaged in RAD research — or what Richard Haswell (2005) describes as research that is replicable, aggregable, and data supported — but to emphasize that in qualitative research of this sort, dispositions of researchers, questions asked, methods of data collection and analysis, and the writing up of that research are intertwined in what Wendy Bishop (1992) describes as "author-saturated texts," or "those that acknowledge their constructedness" (152). What we offer next are the stories of that "constructedness."
We began the Meaningful Writing Project almost ten years ago when we were at three different institutions — Clark University (Anne), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Neal), and the University of Kansas (Michele). We each had long worked in writing centers and writing-across-the-curriculum programs and had already spent many hours talking about how students experienced writing across their undergraduate years at each of our institutions. In 2004 Anne completed a small pilot study (Geller 2005). Using thirteen short-answer questions, she prompted students to reflect on their experiences reading and writing during their first year. The responses to one question, "Describe a writing assignment from this year that seemed valuable to you. Why do you feel this writing assignment was valuable? (Be specific.)" are reported in "Students' Experiences of Meaning-Centered Writing and Reading" in Meaning-Centered Education: International Perspectives and Explorations in Higher Education (Geller 2013).
In 2005 we used that pilot study to develop a Meaningful Writing Project research proposal that looked very much like the research we report on in this book. We applied for a Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) Research Initiative grant that year but did not receive an award, in part, we imagine, because our institutions would not allow us to submit our grant without a very high percentage of costs taken up by grant overhead. After institutional moves to our current positions, we decided we still were committed to the questions of our research and revised our proposal: "Seniors Reflect on Their Meaningful Writing Experiences: A Cross- Institutional Study." We received funding from the 2010–2011 CCCC Research Initiative in January 2011 (and this time our new institutions did not request that we build in overhead costs) and combined this funding with institutional research support and program funds at each of our universities in order to complete surveys and interviews with students and faculty and spend two years on data analysis.
DEVELOPING AND ADMINISTERING THE STUDENT SURVEY
Once we had funding, we knew we did not have enough time to begin our data collection with the graduating class of 2011, so we set out to be ready to survey and interview the class of 2012. From spring 2011 through fall of that year, we developed our survey and IRB protocol. We also had to decide how to delineate seniors. For example, a student could graduate after three years or could be in a five- or six-year undergraduate program. We decided to target students who were on track to graduate with an undergraduate degree in May 2012. At each of our institutions, this group also included students in specialized programs such as the six-year accelerated pharmaceutical doctoral degree.
At the heart of our survey are two open-ended questions (see app. A for the complete survey): "Describe the writing project you found meaningful. What made that project meaningful for you?" However, we also asked students to offer information in several additional areas: (1) a range of demographics (e.g., major and minor, language proficiency, GPA in major and overall); (2) the class in which their meaningful writing project took place, whether that class was in the major, an elective, or a general education requirement, who the instructor of the class was, and when they were enrolled; (3) whether or not they had previously written anything similar to their meaningful writing projects and whether they imagined they would write similar projects in the future (open-ended responses were invited for each of these questions); (4) the ways their experience of their meaningful writing project was or was not in accord with the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) writing questions, which we describe more fully in chapter 3.
Through fall 2011 and spring 2012, the Institutional Research Office at SJU offered feedback on the content of our survey and hosted it online. In fall 2011, we also piloted our survey questions with seniors who were writing center consultants at each of our institutions and then revised the survey questions based on their responses and their reflections on the experience of taking the survey. Determining the best ways to present our multilayered approach to this study (recruiting seniors to complete a survey and be interviewed and asking seniors to name the faculty member we would then invite to take part in the research) to each of our institutional review boards and coordinating IRB approval at three institutions took months. In addition, each of our three institutions disseminates many annual student surveys, especially carefully timed senior surveys, and we had to coordinate the dissemination of our survey within the calendar of those surveys. We invited a total of 10,540 seniors (NEU = 2,414; SJU = 1,982; OU = 6,144) to take the survey from mid-March to mid-April 2012 (see app. B for recruitment e-mail from NEU), and for their participation they were entered in a drawing to receive either a $50 gift card or meal credit.
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Table of ContentsContents Acknowledgments The Meaningful Writing Project 1. The Meaning of the Meaningful Writing Project Infographics 2. Agency and the Meaningful Writing Project 3. Engagement and the Meaningful Writing Project 4. Learning for Transfer and the Meaningful Writing Project 5. Meaningful Writing Happens When . . . 6. Some Conclusions Appendix A: Student Survey Appendix B: Student-Recruitment E-mail Appendix C: Undergraduate and Graduate Research Assistants Appendix D: Student-Interview Questions Appendix E: List of Codes Appendix F: Faculty-Interview Questions References About the Authors Index