Dissertation Summary

My dissertation project investigates how undergraduate composition students describe the material social practices and conditions that enable and constrain writing efforts. I situate my dissertation, titled Labor, Work, Action: Rethinking Student Learning Conditions in Composition Classrooms, among the growing body of research and scholarship on labor issues in composition teaching and practice. Within this body of labor research and scholarship, much has been written about the difficult teaching conditions faced by writing instructors, especially graduate and part-time instructors who now teach most college composition courses in the United States. Absent from current conversations taking place about fair, equitable, and responsible labor practices in composition classrooms are standards for or studies about undergraduate student labor in writing classrooms.

To address this gap in composition scholarship, my dissertation analyzes student writing efforts as labor, paying close attention to how students characterize their experiences within material contexts. Such a focus has the potential to help teachers and administrators understand the personal, social, academic, and professional challenges students face when completing assignments in writing courses, and lays the groundwork for determining fair student working conditions in college and university writing classrooms. Moreover, defining better working conditions for undergraduate students in composition classrooms may clarify the challenges faced by composition instructors and administrators who have thus far endeavored to create better working conditions for themselves, but have not yet integrated student demands and insights into their public action. In short, my sustained investigation into student labor in composition classrooms has the potential to benefit students, teachers, and administrators.

My primary research site is a composition classroom that emphasizes digital and multimodal composing in its lessons and assignments. I made the choice to gather data from this particular course consciously, as my experiences working within digital media studies have convinced me that effective composition instruction should provide students with opportunities to compose using a variety of technologies and reflect on the affordances of these technologies. My thinking here has been strongly influenced by Ohio State University Professor Emerita Cynthia Selfe, who argues that composition teachers should “develop an increasingly thoughtful understanding of a whole range of modalities and semiotic resources in their assignments” and “provide students the opportunities of developing expertise with all available means of persuasion and expression.”[1] The research site I selected demonstrates the critical approach to technology articulated by Selfe and enables me to study how students evaluate, describe, and compare the labor involved in the construction of multimodal projects and traditional research papers.

In the fall of 2017, I collected surveys and interviews from students about their experiences working on multimodal and text-based assignments for the composition course I selected as my research site. My survey and interview questions encouraged students to describe the material factors that enable and constrain students’ abilities to labor effectively and see their writing efforts as productive work. I also collected interviews from the course instructor and teaching assistant about their goals and expectations for the class, which I use to contextualize and clarify the student responses I received. I apply the work of scholars such as Hannah Arendt, Raymond Williams, and Bruce Horner to theorize writing as material social practice. This theoretical lens enables me to analyze student writing labor as responses to historical and social contingencies that occur inside and outside the classroom. Using a grounded theory approach to data analysis, I identify which material conditions are most salient to the students I study and whether these conditions enable or constrain student writing efforts.

Chapter One begins by examining the treatment of student labor in composition studies scholarship. I conduct a keyword search for “labor” in recent professional documents associated with composition studies, particularly the Indianapolis Resolution and the Conference on College Composition and Communication 2018 Call for Program Proposals, to generate productive frameworks for my research on student labor in composition classrooms. I then review two recent books relevant to the topic of student labor in composition classrooms, Jessica Restaino’s First Semester: Graduate Students, Teaching Writing, and the Challenges of Middle Ground and Bruce Horner’s Rewriting Composition: Terms of Exchange. Although Restaino’s book is explicitly about graduate student labor, her analysis illustrates the value of adopting a theoretical framework from Hannah Arendt to unpack the manifestations of labor, work, and action in undergraduate composition classrooms. Horner’s text demonstrates the importance of localized understandings of labor, an argument which provides further exigence for my research study on labor within a particular second-year writing classroom. In keeping with what I consider a cultural materialist perspective, my synthesis of these texts illuminates the multitude of productive forces and social relations that influence composition learning and pedagogy.

Chapter Two explains the methodology behind my cumulative case study, which was designed to aggregate student and teacher perspectives on student labor. My methodology is greatly informed by Robert Yin’s depiction of case study research Kevin DePew’s conception of “multiperspective analysis,” an approach to data collection and analysis that serves as a corrective to a myopic focus on text among writing researchers. According to DePew, multiperspective analysis rejects claims that rely only on textual documents for evidence. Instead, multiperspective analysis encourages researchers to study “multiple features of a rhetorical situation” through the dual mechanisms of data triangulation and method triangulation.[2] In this chapter, I explain my decision to collect data from multiple sources (i.e. students, teacher, and teaching assistant) and the variety of methods I use to collect this data (i.e. interviews and surveys). I also further discuss my decision to focus on a composition course that prioritizes digital and multimodal composing.

Chapters Three and Four detail the findings of my study. In Chapter Three, I present data from my interviews with the instructor and the teaching assistant of the course that serves as the primary research site for my study. In addition to uncovering the labor and work involved in the creation of a composition course, this chapter analyzes how the instructor and teaching assistant envision the learning objectives and major assignments associated with the course. In Chapter Four, I present data provided by students who agreed to complete surveys and/or interviews. Using a theoretical model described in the previous chapters, I interpret student responses to map when, where, and how students see their writing efforts as productive work and compare these responses to feedback which indicates when, where, and how students see their writing efforts as laborious toil. Chapter Four also describes key limitations and challenges students face completing assignments in the course and the material conditions that enable students to negotiate these limitations and challenges.

Chapter Five builds upon the analysis provided in Chapters Three and Four to highlight pedagogical interventions that can be made by administrators and instructors to facilitate student learning in composition classrooms. My goal is not to generalize the findings of this one study on a particular composition course to every composition classroom in higher education, but to outline promising trends and insights that I plan to develop in future studies. My hope is that other teachers, researchers, and administrators will find this chapter instructive and build upon its content in their pedagogy and scholarship. Moreover, I hope this dissertation offers compositionists new language and perspectives that can further the important work being done within the composition labor movement that continues to find more supporters.

This dissertation takes seriously the Indianapolis Resolution’s call for “explicit attention to the reality that material conditions are teaching and learning conditions.”[3] I believe that to best respond to this charge, student perspectives on composition labor must be integrated into research and scholarship on the material social practices and conditions of composition classrooms. Studying student perspectives will not only allow teachers and administrators to rethink dominant composition pedagogical practices, but will also clarify the roles instructors and administrators can adopt to facilitate productive course learning conditions. In other words, a study on student perspectives about composition labor enables compositionists to create meaningful courses for students as well as construct a more effective defense of the value of composition instructors. Instead of foregrounding issues involved in composition instruction labor, examining student writing labor reveals that the 21st century challenges teachers and administrators face are not isolated, but part of a multitude of productive forces and social relations that include students. To face 21st century challenges, solidarity among administrators, teachers, and students will be necessary. My dissertation is an act of cultivating this solidarity.

[1] Selfe, Cynthia. “The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 60, no. 4, 2009, pp. 616-663.

[2] DePew, Kevin. “Through the Eyes of Researchers, Rhetors and Audiences: Triangulating Data from the Digital Writing Situation.” Digital Writing Research: Technologies, Methodologies, and Ethical Issues, edited by Heidi A. McKee and Danielle DeVoss, 2007, pp. 49-69.

[3] Cox, Annica et al. “The Indianapolis Resolution: Responding to Twenty-First-Century Exigencies/Political Economies of Composition Labor.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 68, no. 1, 2016, pp. 38-67.