Placing Writing Tasks in Local and Global Contexts: The Case of Argumentative Writing
- Background: Current research in composition and writing studies is concerned with issues of writing program evaluation and how writing tasks and their sequences scaffold students toward learning outcomes. These issues are beginning to be addressed by writing analytics research, which can be useful for identifying recurring types of language in writing assignments and how those can inform task design and student outcomes. To address these issues, this study provides a three-step method of sequencing, comparison, and diagnosis to understand how specific writing tasks fit into a classroom sequence as well as compare to larger genres of writing outside of the immediate writing classroom environment. By doing so, we provide writing program administrators with tools for describing what skills students demonstrate in a sequence of writing tasks and diagnosing how these skills match with writing students will do in later contexts.
- Literature Review: Student writing that responds to classroom assignments can be understood as genres, insofar as they are constructed responses that exist in similar rhetorical situations and perform similar social actions. Previous work in corpus analysis has looked at these genres, which helps us as writing instructors understand what kind of constructed responses are required of students and to make those expectations explicit. Aull (2017) examined a corpus of first-year undergraduate writing assignments in two courses to create “sociocognitive profiles” of these assignments. We analyze student writing that responds to similar writing tasks, but use a different corpus method that allows us to understand the tasks in both local and global contexts. By doing so, we gain confidence and depth in our understanding of these tasks, analyze how they sequence together, and are able to compare argumentative writing across institutions and contexts.
- Research Questions: Two questions guided our study:
- What is the trajectory of skills targeted by the sequence of tasks in the two first-year writing courses, as evidenced by the rhetorical strategies employed by the writers in successive assignments?
- Focusing on the final argument assignments, how similar are they to argumentative writing in other contexts, in terms of rhetorical profiles?
- Methodology: We first conducted a local analysis, in which we used a dictionary-based corpus method to analyze the rhetorical strategies used by writers in the first-year writing courses to understand how they built on each other to form a sequence. Having understood what skills students are demonstrating in a course, we then conducted a global analysis which calculated a “distance” between the first-year argument writing and a corpus of argument writing drawn from other contexts. Recognizing that there was a non-trivial distance, we then identified and evaluated the sources of the distance so that the writing tasks could be assessed or modified.
- Results: The local analysis revealed eight key rhetorical strategies that student writing exhibits between the two first-year writing courses. With this understanding, we then placed the argument writing in global contexts to find that the assignments in both courses differ somewhat from argument writing in other contexts. Upon analyzing this difference, we found that the first-year writing primarily differs in its usage of academic language, the personal register, assertive language, and reasoning. We suggest that these differences stem primarily from the rhetorical situation and learning objectives associated with first-year writing, as well as the sequencing of the courses.
- Discussion: The three-step method presented provides a means for writing program administrators to describe and analyze writing that students produce in their writing programs. We intend these steps to be understood as an iterative process, whereby writing programs can use these results to evaluate what rhetorical skills their students are exhibiting and to benchmark those against the program’s goals and/or other similar writing programs.
- Conclusions: By presenting these analyses together, we ultimately provide a cohesive method by which to analyze a writing program and benchmark students’ use of rhetorical strategies in relation to other argumentative contexts. We believe this method to be useful not only to individual writing programs, but to assessment literature broadly. In future research, we anticipate learning how this process will practically feed back into pedagogy, as well as understanding what placing writing tasks into a global context can tell us about genre theory.
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