Last Post…For Now

Well, it is the end of the semester and I have almost completed my comp research course. It has truly been an experience to see another side of English. I really believe that everyone should read some composition texts and write at least one research proposal. I had written grant proposals before, but I recently learned that my PhD dissertation proposal is closer to a research report than an academic essay, so I am grateful to have had the practice. I also appreciate the enthusiasm of my classmates for their classes and students. It is great to think that I could enact my research project and actually make a difference in the way that scholars teach composition and literature courses.

I think the most important thing I will take away from this course is the power of stories and the written word. Ethnographies are affecting the way we all view our communities, teaching and learning. The possibilities for ethnography are endless. I enjoyed reading each ethnography and gaining access to different ways of experiencing the world. The most moving ethnography I read was actually the one I presented on. It was great to see a scholar using her personal experiences to teach us all something about race and academia. I also really enjoyed Nathan’s reporter-like style and her insights into the undergraduate university student’s experiences. I will forever think differently about my students.

I thank each and every person in my class (and Dr. Moxley, even though he is only a comp professor!) for their insights and patience with me as I waded into the waters of composition study and research. I will definitely be using the invention techniques I learned about while researching my proposal in my classes. I would like to actually do the research project, but it will depend on whether I have the time to do so. Overall, I have learned some very valuable skills and I now plan to have one of my comps lists be in composition studies! So it looks like I have come over to the dark side after all 😉

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Ethics and Online Research

Not being the most tech-savy person, it was hard for me to read about the ethics of online research this week. However, I really enjoyed Heidi McKee and James Porter’s “The Ethics of Digital Writing Research: A Rhetorical Approach.” I had never thought about how to define online participants in a research study, but the more I read, the more I realized that it is a very complex issue. 

The concept of “public spaces” is often unclear even when not dealing with online spaces. Rebeka Nathan had trouble defining public spaces when she was conducting research in the dorms. She was constantly debating whether overhearing conversations in the halls was public, and eventually decided to exclude this information. So even when dealing with a physical space, public vs. private may not always be clear.

Therefore, it makes sense that defining public spaces on the internet would be even harder. Danah Boyd’s methods section in her dissertation on teen online social spaces is filled with questions about the ethics of online interviews, accessing private sites, and talking to teenagers without the consent of parents. She decided ultimately to proceed with caution, but I imagine it was very difficult to read all of the teens’ information online and not be able to contact most of them or intervene if she noticed issues. The example in McKee and Porter’s article about the professor who did not contact a suicidal student whose online site she was reading (the student later committed suicide) is a very disturbing look at the consequences of treating online sites as separate from the individuals writing  them. It is fine to say that it is not our job to be more than impartial observers, but  the research ethics readings we have been reading in class would argue otherwise.

There is also another interesting point that McKee and Porter make: how to treat “imaginary” online figures like avatars in online games. I would argue that even when people are not creating characters, they are not exactly themselves when engaging others online. Given time to revise, plagiarize, edit, or bolster our personalities with online “personas,” no one is truly themselves online (as any online dating site will tell you). That does not mean that we cannot gain great knowledge from studying online rhetoric, but I think online researchers should make it clear that they are not truly studying people; they are studying personas of people, fabrications carefully created to achieve a certain impact from a certain audience. While I know this issue might make online research harder to conduct, I also think it makes online research even more interesting than face-to-face encounters. Our online personas are, as McKee and Porter note, “all rhetoric,” giving compositionists an edge when conducting online research.

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High Literacy

Hi Everyone!

This week for my presentation I chose Dulce Maria Grey’s High Literature and Ethnic Identity. I will talk about all of the research points in class, but her book inspired me to write my own autoethnography. I write this piece after reading the first few chapters because her stories moved me to tell my own. I hope you enjoy it:

I am an American. I know this because I have a birth certificate that states that I was born in Dover, Delaware to Raymond and Theresa Sanchez. However, I am also Puerto Rican by heritage. I know this because my grandmother immigrated from Puerto Rico to New York and my last name is Sanchez. All of my life, I have faced these two conflicting identities: American and Latina/o (or Hispanic, as most American categorize any Spanish-speaking person or person descendant from Spanish-speakers). I have recently read an autoethnography by a Dominican women named Dulche Maria Grey entitled High Literature and Ethnic Identity who wrote about her struggles as a Latina academic and interviewed other Dominican-American academics about their struggles to navigate the academic world as children of immigrants: the negative stereotypes, the shame of disappointing their families, the need to be considered “smart.” It is interesting to read their experiences because my experience as a Puerto-Rican descendant living in America has been both similar and entirely different. The main difference I can recognize between their experiences and my own is that I do not have one of the classic markers of Latina descent: the Spanish language.

In a way, I will never be able to understand Dulche’s immigrant experience because I was not an immigrant or even the child of immigrants. I am a third-generation American whose parents grew up speaking English (although my father’s family did speak Spanish at home). My parents never had a typical gender-role Hispanic/Latino marriage; my father was not into machismo, and both my sister and I were highly encouraged to go to school and find fulfilling professions. I did not grow up ashamed of my parents. Both of my parents managed to survive and succeed, despite living in rough New York City neighborhoods (my mother, in particular, was one of only two siblings in a family of nine to finish high school, despite living in very poor conditions). I was always very proud of how my parents overcame their financial situations to become professionals, homeowners, and, eventually, investors. While I sympathize with Dulche’s situation and the situations of those she interviews in her work, I will never truly understand the pain of being a non-English speaker.

On the other hand, Dulche has a significant advantage over my experience as a Latina: her knowledge of Spanish. I have found that the Spanish language is like a golden ticket to a culture I have never experienced. Because I do not speak Spanish, I do not feel comfortable in all Spanish-speaking areas. I am not connected to my Puerto Rican heritage. I may eat some of the same foods and use the same hair salons, but I am not Latina according to Latina/o standards. When I find myself in an all Spanish speaking area, I am treated as a child while well-meaning women give me looks of pity and pantomime my food order or hair wishes (the only Spanish word I learned after two years in Miami was “cuarto,” a forth, because the Spanish-speaking lady working the deli at Publix kept giving me a full pound of lunchmeat every time I ordered). I have also had many negative experiences because of my lack of knowledge of Spanish. One time, I was yelled at by a tiny Latina woman in a clothing store and accused of “forgetting my culture.” Whose culture? If I was not born in Puerto Rico, and do not speak Spanish, am I Puerto Rican? Do brown skin and a love for Latin food qualify me to call myself Latina? I was very angry at this woman, just as I was very angry when I travelled overseas and was constantly reminded that I was not a “real” American. American television and magazines has taught other countries that only “white” people are American. Because I was not white, I could not possibly be American. Eventually, after much questioning, the people decided that I was Spanish (evidently, Puerto Rican also did not qualify as a culture).

This distinction has plagued me throughout my life. I am constantly being defined as Hispanic and being asked to represent Hispanics. I am sure I received some of my educational opportunities because I am labeled Hispanic. I do not want to let down my fellow Latina/os by denying my Latina heritage, but it is very frustrating to be labeled Hispanic by other Americans, while simultaneously being denied accesses to Latina/o culture because of my lack of Spanish language skills. I understand Dulche’s resistance to be labeled as a representative of Dominicans everywhere, but I argue that at least she is a member of the Dominican community, an accepted Dominicana. While I realize that this distinction comes with its own issues (stereotypes and pressures from the community to act like a Latina, etc.), I often feel like an imposter as both an American and Latina, a person lost between worlds.

Because I do not speak Spanish, I became an English major and learned English so well that no one would ever doubt my intelligence. However, joining the academic community has not created a sense of belonging for me; instead, it has created a new set of challenges as I fight other academic’s attempts to move me towards some form of Latina/o studies. It angers me that I have to defend my decision to not study Latina/o American literature, or literacy among Latina/o populations. I find myself reading Dulche’s study to help myself better understand my position as a Latina scholar, but I still cannot ever fully understand her experience because we have lived different lives in different cultures. However, what we both share is a desire to define our ethic identities, to make peace with both the ways we are viewed and the ways we view ourselves.

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Newkirk, Sunstein and Chiseri-Strater: Representing Study Participants and Ourselves

In the readings for this week, two stood out to me more than any other. Newkirk’s “Seduction and Betrayal” was a strongly-worded condemnation of ethnographers who do not disclose the true nature of their studies to the participants. Sunstein also addresses this issue in “Culture on the Page,” though her article is more personal and interreflective. Although several other authors this week touched on the responsibility of the researcher (Sullivan, Parkinson McCarthy and Fisher, etc.), I found the Newkirk and Sunstein to be the most engaging of the articles.

Newkirk and Sunstein seem to be addressing the same issue; the responsibility of the researcher. Honestly, I had never thought about this issue from the perspective of the researcher vs. the researched. I assumed that the anonymity offered to the participants and the consent forms were enough (after all, how many students will actually track down the study their professor did using their writings and actually read the thing?). However, Newkirk’s example of the graduate student June made me very uncomfortable. I understood that the researchers wanted to remain objective so as not to influence the study, but I found myself agreeing with Newkirk that the graduate student’s trust was violated. Sunstein also describes the issue from the side of the researcher; she constantly has to balance between her research and the guilt of wondering whether she is fairly representing her subjects. Several authors this week also noted the issue of responsibility when the researcher holds a position of authority over the subjects they are researching. All of these points made me think that I will have to be very careful if I ever take on qualitative research.

I also found myself thinking of how Newkirk would critique some of the ethnographies I have encountered so far. I think he would have approved of the comments Sohn made during our class skype session. The fact the Sohn gave her former students a say in the way they were represented (whether we agree with her choice or not), is exactly the sort of consideration that Newkirk discusses. This may be because she was close to the community, which gave her more insight into the consequences of betrayal. Also, Sullivan notes that Heath did not simply study the communities of Trackton and Roadville in Ways with Words; she also worked with the local teachers to help the students. This work is not seen as negatively affecting her study, suggesting that Newkirk is correct in stating that researchers can study and assist the participants of a study.

I was also very interested in Chiseri-Strater’s point about the personality and situation of the researcher influencing a study. Her point about the anthropologist who had to experience loss before he could understand the ritual of head-hunting made me think about my Peace Corps experience. If there anything that I have learned from living in a widely different culture for two years, it is that often, people come into a community with good intentions and end up doing more harm than good. If I had not taken the time to understand the community I lived in and their culture, I would have done what I assumed would help without knowing what they actually needed. The same principle applies to ethnographers; it is difficult to enter a widely different community (of writers or otherwise) and compose research that will fairly represent the culture and help the study participants. Ethnographers need to take the time that Heath and Sohn took to understand their communities before conducting research. I do not know how this applies to studies within the university. While I am part of my university’s community, I also know that it would depend on the study and how different the students I am studying are from me. Whatever decision I make about my research position and goals, I appreciate these authors taking the time to make me think about my responsibility to those I study.

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The Community College Writer: Bridging the Gap

This week, I read Howard Tinberg and Jean-Paul Nadeau’s The Community College Writer: Exceeding Expectations. After graduating with my Masters in 2008, I was lucky enough to be offered a full-time teaching position at HCC’s new Ruskin campus. The campus was small and the administration was very lenient, making the job a very enjoyable experience for me. I came into the job with certain stereotypes and low expectations of the students (they did not earn the grades to attend university, etc); however, what I learned in my year of employment is that community colleges have some advantages over universities. The student population is more diverse, and most of the students are very motivated to succeed. A lot of these students also tend to have a more mature mindset and more life experiences because they have worked and waited to attend college. Reading the stories of the students in Tinberg and Nadeau’s text, I was reminded of all of the wonderful students I taught during my year of employment.

I think that Tinberg and Nadeau’s research questions (p. 3) are ones that can be applied to the FYC program at USF as well. It is important to know what writing skills our students bring with them from their secondary school educations. It is also important to gage their expectations and instructor responses to see how far apart students and instructors are in their thinking. I agree with Susan that there is often just as much of a gap between community colleges and universities as there is between high schools and universities. There also tends to be an elitist view that a community college curriculum is not as rigorous as freshman composition classes at the university level. I can tell from my own experiences that this is not always true; for example, the online courses I taught at HCC Ruskin were far more advanced than the online courses at USF. Tinberg and Nadeau’s study is important because it helps to challenge these assumptions and also because it bridges a gap between  community college ethnographies such as Sohn’s, speaking of lower class returning rural students and Nathan’s and Foster’s, who speak of a more traditional, privileged university student experience. Not all students fall into these two categories, and I feel that it is important to depict the story of the hard working, middle-class student who is not impoverished but does not have the financial support of parents that would allow them to go to university. The more studies and communication between “levels” of academia, the better we will be able to gage our student’s abilities and be better equipped to help them transition from one institution to another.

I also like the two instructor’s approaches to research. Their description of their difficulties in finding participation for surveys and interviews taught me just how difficult field research can be. I also agree with their assessment that community college students have more demands on their time and less incentive to participate in a study that will take more of their time. I did not, however, agree with their decision to offer tutoring to students in exchange for participation. I thought this could potentially skew their findings by influencing their study participant’s academic success. I would have preferred if they kept incentives to free goods. However, reading how difficult it was for them to find a handful of study participants out of thousands will make me think carefully before I attempt to do a large study of college students.

I enjoyed reading the sections where Tinberg and Nadeau survey and interview faculty to try to understand their writing assignments and expectations of their students. Again, this speaks to the false notion that one or two semesters of college composition can speak to the myriad number of writing assignments that students receive in their other classes. I liked that the instructors stressed the importance of writing to their professions; I think if there was more dialogue like this at the beginning of a student’s college or university career, there would be less confusion about the importance of FYC. I do not think that getting rid of composition classes is the answer, but I do feel that composition professors must work hard to show students how composition fits into their professional goals by engaging with professors across the curriculum. I think this approach would be especially successful in community colleges, where students tend to be more goal-oriented.

I was a little disturbed by the amount of revisions and essays students were undertaking in a semester-long course. I feel that focusing on a few, key assignments and having a few chances for revision is enough. I have had students tell me about essay burnout (they have four essays due for four different classes in one week or they have to write a third or fourth revision for the same essay) and from their comments, I realized that there is only so much improvement possible in one essay assignment and throughout one semester. I do agree with Tinberg and Nadeau that instructors need to give more helpful, specific comments. The fact that instructors outside of composition were focusing on grammar issues also shows me that we cannot ignore grammar altogether; in the professional world, grammar and mechanics is an important part of successful writing (as much as I hate to teach it).

All in all, I enjoyed Tinberg and Nadeau’s study. I like that they noted the limitations of a study focused on one semester of college. I agree with their call for other researchers to do large-scale studies on community college writing. However, considering the challenges they faced (limited school support, little professional advancement, students with varies, hectic schedules, etc), I believe that a large-scale study will not be easy. But it will be important, not just to community college instructors, but also to university professors, and instructors like myself who are constantly teaching in both worlds.

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Writing with Authority

This week, my composition class read David Foster’s Writing with Authority: Student’s Roles as Writers in Cross-National Perspective. Compared to the other ethnographies we have read in in class so far, I found Foster’s to be unique. Most of the other ethnographies were concerned with depicting the areas that the studies were taking place in (Heath, Sohn). In comparison, Foster’s ethnography is much larger and not as descriptive. However, considering the scope of his study and research goals, I think this lack of description is understandable.

Foster’s study was also not as concerned with depicting the voices of the students in the study. Although he had some short statements from students, overall the voices of the students were not as strong as some of the other ethnographies, such as Sohn’s and Harrington’s. I would have liked to hear more of the student’s voices talking about their experiences with writing.

I think that the part of Foster’s study that interested me the most was the way he grounded his study in current research and his descriptions of American students as using a “short burst writing” technique. He situated his study better than some of the previous ethnographies we have read, and this helped me understand the reason scholars need to write literature reviews. As far as the short burst writing: I had always understood that students wrote on deadlines, but hearing that some students were writing full essays hours before the essay was due was disturbing. Also, I understood his point about American classes focusing on several short pieces, while the German system allows students more time and focuses on longer pieces of writing. This is something that constantly bothers me in my classes. I don’t necessarily think that the study needed to compare German and American students to come to these conclusions, though.

I found the overall study interesting, and I am open to looking at other educational systems, but I feel that Foster makes a lot of generalizations about education in general. There were a lot of things he stated about German education that I found to be negatives (forcing students into a track at twelve years old, not giving as much guidance in writing, etc.). I think that there are some interesting parts to his study, but if we classify it as an ethnography, I do not think it was as successful as Sohn’s or Heath’s.

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Research and Literary Studies

I recently had a conversation with one of my graduate Literature professors about why literary critics do not engage in qualitative research. Her first answer to me was something to the effect that “we just don’t do that.” After a bit of questioning, I realized that the reason we “just don’t do that” is complicated. A lot of the reason involves that fact that engaging in qualitative research as a literary scholar is seen as unproductive; sure, you may publish a paper in an educational journal, but this is not seen as an accomplishment in the world of theoretically-based literary scholarship.

I see this view also reflected in Richard H. Haswell’s “NTCE/CCCC’s Recent War on Scholarship.” As Haswell laments the state of composition studies, in particular the lack of RAD scholarship being published, I noticed that his description of composition today seems to be leaning towards a more theoretically-based scholarship. It seems odd that as I am wondering why my department does not engage in research, composition departments are slowly becoming more like my department.

I do think that it is important for all scholars to engage in research that is both original and replicable. Lee Ann Carroll notes in Rehearsing New Roles that there is a strong link between literacy, writing skills, and student success. By engaging in research studies, literature faculty could make themselves more aware of teaching strategies that enhance student literacy. As Haswell notes, English department faculty should be pooling resources in order to effectively help students to perceive themselves as literate, successful students.

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