The study of writing-to-learn in Physics classes that Dedra Demaree and her colleagues are about to present is in one sense not unusual. Advocates of Writing Across the Curriculum have long contended that incorporating writing into classes in any discipline can enrich content instruction rather than supplant or burden it. Unfortunately, Writing Across the Curriculum scholars have only occasionally put their claims to the test. Empirical research of writing instruction has always been a part of composition studies, including studies of Writing Across the Curriculum. However, over the past decade less has been done, and when such work is done, it is almost never tested or built upon. There is a general suspicion of empirical research among some compositionists and in English studies as a whole. There are many who feel that such research is central to the development of the field and are bemoaning this fact. In this sense, Dedraâ€™s work is charting new territory. She applies a rigorous scientific method to find what correlations there might be between the evaluations of an experienced teacher of writing and a veteran teacher of Physics. She has tracked the commentary of two instructors (herself and Catherine Gubernatis, a PhD candidate in English) on several different assignments given in a Physics class. With the aid of Professor Lei Bao, who will be contributing to this panel as well, she has recorded the revision process of two students in a mid-level writing class in Physics, and will be interviewing them about their experience. This is not the type of study scholars in English tend to do, but it is the kind of work many Writing Across the Curriculum scholars have been calling for. It is the kind of work needed to persuade scientists that writing is a learning tool worth testing in the lab and in the classroom. Dedra, as a physicist, knows her audience, and as she put it to me when she was first explaining her project, â€œthis is the type of evidence that physicists will pay attention to.â€ Dedraâ€™s work thus offers a bridge between two disciplines that hold very different assumptions and methodologies in the production of knowledge. Before I turn over the panel to Dedra, Cat, and Dr. Bao, Iâ€™d like to talk very briefly about the reservations and prejudices some in English have about empirical research, point to new calls in English studies for such research, and then suggest the significance her work has for writing instruction at Ohio State and perhaps beyond.
The current suspicion of empirical research in composition studies is largely a result of a series of long-standing disciplinary disputes. Early studies of composition at the college level included qualitative and quantitative research, much of which was connected to cognitivist studies of child development in psychology. Such work, however, came under attack in the 80s and early 90s, when scholars called into question many of the assumptions behind the methodology of these studies, and advocated more discursive and social analysisâ€“mirroring similar turf battles in other disciplines where differing quantitative and qualitative methodologies found themselves at odds. Post-modern scholars in English studies often have been suspicious of what they deem to be â€œpositivisticâ€ inquiry, arguing that such study tends to occlude the subjectivity or personhood of both participants and researchers, often failing to account for the political, cultural, and institutional contexts within which empirical study is done. This might be a fair criticism, if not for the fact that social scientific researchers regularly account for these variables in their work, and are much more aware of such issues than they might have been several decades ago. Furthermore, social science researchers in many fields have found ways to merge quantitative and qualitative methodologies in order to conduct thorough, multi-layered, context-conscious, and ethical research.
Many scholars in the field of Composition are renewing a call for more empirical research to test the fundamental tenets of their discipline, deepened by broader understandings of what constitutes empirical research. Recently, at the annual Convention of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, the branch of the National Council of Teachers of English that addresses writing at the college level, I attended a panel of scholarsâ€”many of them eminent WAC specialistsâ€”who called for a renewed commitment to empirical research. One scholar, Lucille McCarthy of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, traced the development of her research as she moved from self-conscious â€œquasi-scientific, qualitative studiesâ€ to methods that are â€œmulti-voiced and narrative orientedâ€ and which very carefully scrutinize the social and ethical contexts of her research (McCarthy 2006). She noted that she is now much more conscious about incorporating the voice of the students and instructors whom she was studying into her work, sharing all aspects of her research with her subjects.
For some scholars, the consequences of not exploring a broad range of methodologies as McCarthy could be dire for the study of writing pedagogy. In a recent article provocatively entitled â€œThe War on Scholarship,â€ Richard Haswell complains that Compositionâ€™s most prominent professional organizations, the National Council for Teachers of English and the Conference on College Composition and Communication, have systematically ignored and de-valued empirical research, which he defines as replicable, aggregable, and data-supported research. Without such research, he argues, the field of composition can not build â€œa coherent body of testable knowledgeâ€ to convince scholars from other disciplines that the claims we make about writing are more than just â€œprivate epideictic,â€ a pie-eyed fad in higher education that will go away when people decide it doesnâ€™t work. Indeed, his diagnosis for the field is grim: â€œAs when a body undermines its own immune system, when college composition as a whole treats the data-gathering, data-validating, and data-aggregating part of itself as alien, then the whole may be doomed.â€ (Haswell 219).
Iâ€™m told that one treatment for a compromised immune system is a dose of toxins. The bodyâ€™s immune system rushes to defend the body from an alien substance, and in the process reestablishes itself. Perhaps I could have found a more flattering metaphor to describe Dedraâ€™s work. But, Iâ€™ve suggested that empirical research like hers can seem toxic to many scholars in English studies. Her scientific approach to studying writing can give English scholars a very different perspective on an activity we feel we are familiar with and give us tools to look at this activity and understand it in new ways. In the meantime, her approach might be more familiar to her colleagues in science looking for new ways to teach their students. As the coordinator of Ohio Stateâ€™s WAC program, I have been approached by professors, instructors, and administrators in the sciences and engineering who are concerned that their students have difficulty communicating knowledge in their discipline. Furthermore, they are frustrated that students cannot critically apply the scientific methodologies they are teachingâ€“they can â€œplug inâ€ numbers to equations and memorize textbook facts, but they have a hard time coming to a critical understanding of scientific concepts. OSUâ€™s College of Engineering, for example, recently polled its alumni and their employers about the effectiveness of their graduates. The college overwhelmingly found that both groups wished that graduates were better prepared to communicate the knowledge they had learned and to critically use that knowledge to solve new problems. Dedraâ€™s study probes into these very issues, and the results of her work could offer solutions to science and engineering educators like the ones I work with at Ohio State. She looks to convince physicists that there are pedagogical opportunities in using writing in physics instruction. I hope, as well, that her approach to studying writing-to-learn in physics will spur scholars in English to consider the value of her methodologies in researching writing instruction.
Haswell, Richard. â€œNCTE/CCCCâ€™s Recent War on Scholarship.â€ Written Communication 22 (2005): 198-223.
McCarthy, Lucille. â€œMy Life in WAC Research: Jousting with the Windmills of Science.â€ Conference on College Composition and Communication. Palmer House, Chicago. 23 March 2006.