Dissertation Summary

My dissertation project investigates how composition students and teachers describe the material social practices and conditions that enable and constrain undergraduate student 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.

This dissertation takes seriously the Indianapolis Resolution’s call for “explicit attention to the reality that material conditions are teaching and learning conditions.”[1] I believe that to best respond to this charge, undergraduate student perspectives must be integrated into research and scholarship on the material social practices and conditions of composition classrooms. In my dissertation, I pay close attention to how students characterize their experiences within material contexts to see how conditions created inside and outside classrooms shape how students complete writing assignments. 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. To address the lack of attention to the material conditions of students in composition scholarship, my dissertation applies the scholarship of political theorist Hannah Arendt to analyze student writing efforts as necessary labor, productive work, and/or public action. This approach offers helpful insight for students, teachers, and administrators about the material conditions that help and hinder student learning in composition classrooms.

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 because 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 L. 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.”[2] 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 from and conducted interviews with 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 conducted interviews with 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 allows me to analyze student writing efforts 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 and analyze whether these conditions enable or constrain students’ abilities to compose.

Chapter One takes a bird’s-eye view on austerity policies and their effects within higher education generally before diving into the more specific effects of austerity for writing programs and courses. In this chapter, I posit that appreciating the local changes and labor efforts made possible in 21st century composition classrooms depends on understanding how neoliberal rationality, a form of reason that frames and measures human endeavors in economic terms, configures writing classrooms. After reviewing the concept of neoliberalism and the austerity policies it yields, I argue for more attention to students’ lived experiences and labor in modern composition classrooms where so much meaning is couched within neoliberal reasoning.

Chapter Two 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, specifically 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 new graduate student teachers, her analysis illustrates the value of adopting a theoretical framework from Hannah Arendt to understand undergraduate student writing efforts as labor, work, or action. Horner’s text demonstrates the importance of localized research, an argument which provides further exigence for my study on student writing efforts within a particular second-year writing classroom. In keeping with what I consider a cultural materialist perspective, my synthesis of these texts illuminates the importance of assessing the multitude of productive forces and social relations that influence undergraduate composition.

Chapter Three explains the methodology behind my cumulative case study, which was designed to aggregate student and teacher perspectives on the material conditions that affect student labor and work. My methodology is greatly informed by Robert Yin’s depiction of case study research and 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.[3] 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 gather 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 Four and Five detail the findings of my study. In Chapter Four, 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 Five, 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 necessary labor. Chapter Five also describes key limitations and challenges students face completing assignments in the course and the material conditions that permit students to negotiate these limitations and challenges. The data presented in these two chapters highlight the inequities associated with assessment of student writing quality. My findings suggest that writing instructors should pursue alternative assessment strategies that account for the diverse experiences students have with composition and composing technologies.

Chapter Six builds upon the analysis provided in Chapters Four and Five to highlight pedagogical interventions that can be made by administrators and instructors to facilitate student learning in composition classrooms. In this chapter, I apply my findings to the work of Asao Inoue, who argues for assessment strategies that concentrate on student labor rather than writing quality.[4] By applying my findings to Inoue’s assessment system, I develop promising assessment possibilities that acknowledge the importance of student labor and promote writing efforts that resemble productive work. That said, my main goal is not to generalize the findings of this one study on student labor and work in a particular composition course to every composition classroom in higher education, but instead 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.

Studying student perspectives about how they respond to composition classroom conditions will not only allow teachers and administrators to rethink dominant composition pedagogy 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 and work 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 and work, examining the labor and work of students 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] 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.

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

[3] 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.

[4] Inoue, Asao. Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing Writing for a Socially Just Future. Parlor Press, 2015.