Sherry Wynn Perdue, Oakland University, U.S.
Dana Lynn Driscoll, Oakland University, U.S.
Jacob Matthews, Oakland University, U.S.
Enrique Paz, Miami University of Ohio, U.S.
Jessica Tess, Michigan State University, U.S.
Five years ago, the faculty coauthors of this paper sat down to discuss a conundrum. Our peer tutors wanted to know why the field of writing center studies recommended certain practices over others, such as more indirect rather than direct tutoring. And, despite our own investment in data-supported research, we rarely could provide them with more than anecdote and theory. Since that pivotal luncheon meeting, we have set out to do several things to change this situation. One is to expand the definition of humanities scholarship, when rhetorically appropriate, to include data-supported research to support our claims. Another is to prepare our students to understand the means of data collection and the methods of assessment. This commitment has yielded what we now introduce as the scholarship continuum. Although we concede that this essay is not an example of data-supported research, it does 1) describe the process by which we have facilitated our students’ own data-supported research and 2) offer undergraduate insights into this process in their own words, both necessary contributions to the research conversation. (1)
Undergraduate research has continued to attract scholarly interest across all disciplines since the 1978 formation of the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR). By 1995, the National Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University, more commonly known as the Boyer Commission, was recommending that “a supervised research or creative undertaking be incorporated into the undergraduate experience” (Katkin, 2003, p. 24). The Kellogg Commission echoed this call in “Returning to our Roots: The Student Experience,” arguing that universities must create opportunities for discovery and learning through undergraduate research. Numerous subsequent texts, some mentioned throughout this manuscript, have joined the chorus, each endorsing the noble goal of undergraduate research. In fact, Perspectives on Undergraduate Research and Mentoring exists as a beacon of their success. So, one might ask, why another article advocating undergraduate research?
While the above-noted efforts have yielded undergraduate research opportunities, such projects are “still not central to the undergraduate mission at most institutions” (Katkin, 2003, p. 26), leaving substantial opportunities for undergraduate research limited. When opportunities are present, they are too often reserved for students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Only about one-fifth of polled institutions indicated that “half or more” of their humanities students were engaged in such research (Katkin, p. 26). Although this research opportunity gap persists more than a decade later, undergraduate research in the humanities is now being critically discussed in such books as Undergraduate Research in English Studies (2010) and is being showcased in journal offerings that include Young Scholars in Writing, The Journal for Undergraduate Multimedia Projects (The JUMP), and the annual fall issue of Xchanges as well as special issues of PURM (2013), The Writing Center Journal (2012), and Kairos (2011). There is still much work to do, but we write in an environment of promise.
If we hope to further narrow the undergraduate humanities research gap, we must examine the barriers to its production and envision what its future might include. To do so, we must heed Fitzgerald and Midiri’s (2013) caution that one of the barriers research in the humanities is the term “research” itself (para. 3). In this essay, therefore, we first address the problem of definition as it applies to data-supported humanities inquiry, a type of research that unfortunately evokes “visions of lab coats and clipboards” for some of our English and Rhetoric colleagues (Fitzgerald and Midiri, 2013, para. 3). In making our proposal for more data-supported humanities research, we neither discount the disciplinary differences between those conducting rhetorical analyses and those investigating pedagogical innovations, for example, nor do we dismiss other forms of inquiry that fit the problem. Rather, we seek to broaden the field’s definition and practice of research. Second, we maintain that undergraduates are not only the objects of this inquiry but also the agents of this research about undergraduate research. A review of books and articles on writing and writing center studies research demonstrates that while this conversation is currently more populated with the voices of faculty than of the undergraduates themselves, more undergraduate voices are being added every day. Finally, we argue that students need the kind of sponsorship that results from collaborating to support their local, regional, and national pursuits. By doing so, we resist the prevailing belief that humanities scholarship is the product of a single scholar working in isolation rather than the product of collaboration among scholars (Lauer & Asher, 1988), scholars who include undergraduate researchers. With this work, we join others in the task of remapping the landscape of humanities research and the undergraduate researcher’s role within it.
In the article that follows, we (a writing center director, a writing and rhetoric professor, and three undergraduate student collaborators) demonstrate that humanities undergraduates can and do engage in data-supported research as partners with their instructors/mentors. To make our case, we first examine the evolution of undergraduate research generally and explore, albeit briefly, how it has emerged within writing studies and writing centers specifically. In response to the problems identified in this short history, we next encourage opportunities for undergraduates to conduct what Richard Haswell (2005) calls RAD research, research that 1) can be reproduced by other researchers (replicable), 2) builds upon or extends previous research (aggregable), and 3) leverages data (data- supported). In RAD, we find a model for building undergraduate research expertise both within and outside our fields.
Because the route to becoming an undergraduate researcher requires guidance beyond any “Dummies” manual or research methods course, the next section of our article elaborates the “sponsorship continuum” to promote undergraduate RAD research, particularly in fields without a strong research tradition. Sponsors may include teachers who introduce them to the subject matter, the methods, and the tools; mentors who have a solid foundation in research methods themselves and who believe that undergraduates can fully participate within the research process; and collaborators with whom they can cooperate on the data collection, analysis, and the writing. While mentors and collaborators can be classroom faculty, the relationships they forge with undergraduates must extend beyond traditional classroom dynamics.
After explicating the sponsorship model as a process that makes RAD research in the humanities possible and sharing the perspectives of the two faculty coauthors, we segue into the individual research stories three undergraduates whose research evolved from classroom (teaching) to writing center (mentorship) to presentation (collaboration) to publication (coauthoring). These stories, told in the voices of the undergraduate researchers who also coauthored this article, are followed by recommendations to sponsor more undergraduate RAD research. Although our examples come from writing studies and writing centers, we believe that the principles we present are applicable and useful to a wide variety of institutional settings and disciplines where students, mentors, and faculty are seeking more engaging undergraduate research experiences.
Background and Significance
Evolution of Undergraduate Research in Writing Studies
To provide a sense of progress made and the challenges that remain, we illustrate the evolution of undergraduate research within our own fields, rhetoric and writing studies and writing center studies. As we trace our fields’ history, we encourage readers to consider their own fields’ approaches to the systematic support of undergraduate research.
Undergraduate research in rhetoric and writing and writing center studies has gained increasing attention in recent years. Two of our peer-reviewed journals—Kairos (2011) and The Writing Center Journal (2012)—invited undergraduates to publish in special issues, and new publications devoted to undergraduate research emerged. Grobman and Kinkead (2010) published Undergraduate Research in English Studies, which provides an excellent overview of undergraduate research in the broader field of English. Several articles in this collection address courses in research methods. For example, Traywick (2010) argues we must teach undergraduates responsible research conduct and ensure that they understand the Institutional Review Board (IRB) process, while Rogers (2010) describes the development of an undergraduate research methods course with an emphasis on ethnography. Although examples of data-supported research are strikingly absent from the collection—and we neither wish to discount the importance of the research presented within it nor to dismiss the research genre differences between rhetoric and English—we hope to encourage more representations of data-supported research models.
Additionally, we have seen a growing emphasis on undergraduate majors in rhetoric and composition, professional writing, and related areas in the last fifteen or so years. Very few discussions about undergraduate majors have included methodology, however, and there is still much debate about what should constitute an undergraduate education in writing studies. In their groundbreaking work, What We Are Becoming: Developments in Undergraduate Writing Majors, Giberson and Moriarty (2010) describe the rapid development of new undergraduate majors in writing studies and thoroughly examine the debate over its curriculum. For all of its strengths, however, this edited collection does not broach the subject of undergraduate research in any great detail.
While the aforementioned publications are important evidence of undergraduate research’s growing importance in English, rhetoric and writing, and writing center studies—despite some gaps—changes in the way the field’s flagship organizations address undergraduate research are equally important to this history. An important step forward occurred when the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), the field’s largest conference, formed a special interest group devoted to undergraduate research. More notably in March 2014, the CCCC Executive Committee charged its Committee on Undergraduate Research (CUR) in March 2014 to:
- Give an overview of how CCCC can foster a culture of undergraduate research and create connections with other organizations that support undergraduate research.
- Gather preliminary information or profiles of a sampling of programs in which undergraduates conduct research in writing curricula or programs, as well as information on undergraduate research participation at CCCC conventions and other professional conferences.
- Recommend dissemination venues within CCCC for undergraduate researchers in writing studies and first-year composition.
- Provide a rationale to the EC for further initiatives or areas of study in undergraduate research.
- Collaborate with the CCCC Committee on the Major in Writing and Rhetoric.
- Collaborate with the CCCC Committee on Research.
This timely initiative, commenced by an important writing studies organization, has the potential to significantly narrow the research gap between undergraduates in humanities fields like ours and those in STEM fields.
As this brief history has demonstrated, undergraduates now have the option to major in writing studies, and more scholarly publications address undergraduate research if they don’t actually feature it. Further, an important writing studies conference has placed undergraduate research on its agenda. These are important signs of progress that cannot be discounted. With that said, we caution that 1) most of the undergraduate research being conducted and discussed is not data supported, leaving Kinkead’s (2003) call for undergraduate research characterized by “scientific inquiry, creative activity, and scholarship” (p. 6) generally unfulfilled. Even today, 2) many of our disciplinary publications examine undergraduate researchers as objects of or participants within research rather than as authors, coauthors, or collaborators. In this context, one characterized by growth and gaps, we discuss writing studies research that is replicable, aggregable, and data-supported (Haswell, 2005) and that includes undergraduates as both subjects of and agents of this research. Based on the growing emphasis of and calls for more undergraduate research across the disciplines by organizations like the Kellogg and Boyer Commissions, we suspect that undergraduate research in many fields follows a similar trajectory.
To highlight the challenges facing undergraduate researchers outside lab settings, despite recent momentum, is to acknowledge that systematic support for research in these fields may be lacking. This support gap has been implicated not only in undergraduate education but also in writing studies by Haswell (2005) in “NCTE/CCC’s Recent War on Scholarship” and in writing center studies by Driscoll and Wynn Perdue (2012), where the authors argue that writing center studies and writing research more broadly needs more RAD research. Haswell (2005) defines RAD research as “a best effort inquiry into the actualities of a situation, inquiry that is explicitly enough systematicized in sampling, execution, and analysis to be replicated; exactly enough circumscribed to be extended; and factually enough supported to be verified” (2005, p. 201). In other words, it is “replicable, aggregable, and data-supported research” (Haswell, 2005, p. 201) that invites others to duplicate a study in new contexts to test the efficacy of its findings. We find the concept of RAD research particularly well-suited to undergraduate study. Its tenants can help undergraduates undertake such studies, especially in fields that do not have a strong tradition of research methods.
Although Haswell (2005) does not specifically address undergraduate research, we focus our discussion on the RAD research paradigm because versions of this paradigm have been accepted by researchers in almost every other discipline, as well as many within our field, as an important benchmark for quality research and evidence-based practice (p. 200). The RAD research paradigm represents an excellent research model (2) for students because it presents a model of thinking and action. By examining their research questions in the context of replication, aggregation, and data-support, undergraduates begin to envision how to design a good study, how to write their results in ways that others can understand, and how to produce results that directly lead from the data they collect. This gives them a clear path into the largely unknown and somewhat intimidating area of conducting one’s first study, and these larger principles can become cornerstones for their own thinking about and response to research questions. Encouraging undergraduate RAD research at the disciplinary level can serve as a professional apprenticeship whereby undergraduates identify important issues and address them in meaningful and methodologically sound ways. Undergraduates are in a unique position to ask questions of value to local programs and to the larger field due to their position as students, especially in the writing center, where they often function as primary practitioners. In sum, when empowered with support and a reputable research methodology, such as RAD Research, undergraduates are poised to make meaningful contributions—if only given a chance.
The Sponsorship Continuum: Re-Negotiating Authority
To effectively advocate undergraduate RAD research, we now address how faculty must embrace new roles and revisit the concepts of institutional authority and hierarchy. In 2009, Grobman examined “the potential for student scholars to obtain authorship and authority through participation in undergraduate research, a potentially democratic learning site in which students write themselves into disciplinary conversations and challenge faculty/scholar-constructed representations of them” (p. 176). Both Grobman and Kinkead before her, however, argue that most writing studies professionals neither understand undergraduate research nor comprehend how to sponsor it. Our experienced confirms that assessment. As a corrective, Grobman advocates viewing “research production and authorship…along a continuum of scholarly authority” (2009, p. 177), which acknowledges the differences between students positioned as study participants, research assistants, and coauthors and what happens when students are both subjects of study and coauthors or collaborators, a practice that is common in the social and natural sciences.
We therefore advance the sponsorship continuum, a recursive process by which academic professionals serve as teachers, mentors, and collaborators, sometimes all in one setting. When academic professionals teach, they provide students opportunities to acquire research tools in a classroom setting where the teacher sets the agenda; whereas, in mentoring, these opportunities start to move beyond the classroom and its traditional teacher/student relationship. This relationship might be expressed as that between a faculty member and a research assistant, or it might simply mean that a student conducts her/his own research after soliciting a mentor who guides the research agenda. When sponsors serve as collaborators, however, both parties negotiate the research agenda and coauthor their findings. There is a greater degree of reciprocity in this relationship, but even within the collaboration, there might be times where the faculty co-author steps out of the collaborator role and fills a knowledge gap (as a teacher) or models how to reply to editorial feedback (as a mentor). We would caution faculty collaborators that they must be sensitive to the dynamics of author and authority that Grobman introduces, something we will return to at the close of this essay. First, however, we describe some cautions and challenges in sponsoring undergraduate research.
One of the challenges we face in fostering undergraduate RAD research is the conflicting definition of what constitutes “research” in our field, as scholars like Charney (1996) and Haswell (2005) have articulated. We must help students understand and navigate different routes to answering research questions: theoretical, rhetorical, historical, and/or RAD-based. While RAD research is still not fully embraced by our own fields of writing and writing center studies, we argue that RAD inquiry is empowering for students, providing them with tools to understand and solve real problems using data-supported approaches. Furthermore, since undergraduate students represent the next generation of scholars, it is critical that they embrace methods of inquiry that support evidence-based practices.
A second concern we raise for undergraduate researchers is the fear of rejection when an undergraduate student takes his or her work into a professional arena by pursuing publication or presenting at a conference. Part of negotiating these difficulties, is, of course, the job of the faculty mentor—to prepare students for presentations/publications beyond the classroom and to talk realistically about the real work of research. As Dana describes below, we encourage faculty mentors to talk to students and to share materials from their own research processes: successes, challenges, drafts, confusing data, and so forth. This provides a realistic view of research and allows the faculty mentor to serve as a model for undergraduate researchers. Inexperience is no reason to refuse students such opportunities, regardless of whether they succeed or fail. Students need to experience both success and failure, just as they will in every career. Accepting failure, and learning from it, is a worthy lesson. However, as demonstrated in this article, undergraduate students are also likely to achieve success, which should encourage us to shift our view of undergraduate research in the field—a discussion we will return to in our suggestions below.
A third concern is the push for professionalization of undergraduate students. Academic professionals must be wary of exerting undue pressure on students to get more CV lines or to look better for graduate school. To address this concern, faculty can encourage students, but ultimately, it is students who should choose to engage in these activities volitionally, not as an obligation or course requirement.
A final concern is the time commitment—often well beyond coursework—that such projects take. Faculty, mentors, and students alike must recognize that the process of RAD research—both within the classroom as a class project and beyond its walls—takes substantially more time than traditional projects. As our narratives will attest, however, building time for research both within undergraduate positions in the writing center as well as through coursework can allow for these projects to co-exist within a larger curriculum. And certainly, it provides opportunities for students to substantially enrich their own education, which we see as time well spent.
In the next sections, we examine how sponsorship moved from classroom instruction to the writing center, a site of continued mentorship on individual projects, to collaboration on this manuscript through the experiences of two faculty mentors and three undergraduate researchers.
From Knowledge Telling to Knowledge-Transforming: The Classroom as a Site of Inquiry (Dana Lynn Driscoll)
The classroom, where much of my work with students begins, is the first potential site to foster undergraduate RAD research. To accomplish this, I embrace an inquiry-driven classroom model, where students are free to ask questions and explore possibilities for research. Throughout the term, I work to shift students’ view of research from what Scardamalia and Bereiter (1989) describe as “knowledge telling” to “knowledge transforming.” Knowledge telling is the process of regurgitating a familiar genre/topic without the need to plan, solve problems, or make new knowledge; whereas, knowledge transforming involves making rhetorical choices that require new knowledge or ways of seeing to solve problems. In other words, it is a gateway for undergraduate research (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1989, pp. 146-147). A second philosophy that informs my approach is the essential question model presented in Understanding by Design (Wiggins and McTighe, 2001). In this classroom model, students are presented with questioning strategies where the question, rather than the answer, drives student learning. Through this knowledge transforming and inquiry-driven process, students are free to engage in RAD research. A third component that facilitates the inquiry-driven classroom is modeling the research process. Throughout my classes, I share my own ongoing research into issues that fit within the class theme. This includes realistically and honestly sharing my research questions (and what lead me to ask them), my process, my successes, and the challenges I face.
An example of how these philosophies work within the classroom can be seen in WRT 320: Peer Tutoring in Composition, a course I commonly teach. WRT 320 is a course that predates both the Oakland University Writing Center (WC, established in 2006) and our major in Writing and Rhetoric (WRT, established in 2008). It offers new consultant preparation, general education credit, and elective coursework for the WRT major. Students who are interested in becoming writing consultants and who have finished their first year composition courses may take the course in preparation for employment at the writing center, but because of WRT 320’s appeal as a general education course, many students who enroll in the course have never even visited the WC. In this course, and in all of my other upper division WRT major courses, students engage in an open-ended, open-media project that requires academic research (primary and/or secondary) and must be directly connected to the course content. The project is negotiated between the students and me as the course progresses, and students are required to propose, research, and revise their ideas prior to execution. Students often choose to seek answers to questions that arise during their consultation observations or that connect to other coursework or career interests. I help those who are interested in pursuing RAD research by discussing methodology, assisting them with IRB applications, and helping them understand the research process through individual mentoring. The open-ended research project encourages the “knowledge transforming” mode and puts the impetus of learning in the hands of the students. Students decide what is important; they decide what questions to ask—I serve simply as a guide to assist them in this process. As my co-authors will attest, it is precisely this freedom that motivates them to become undergraduate researchers.
As the three student narratives demonstrate, my course projects often serve as a gateway to undergraduate RAD research beyond the fifteen-week semester. During and after my courses, I provide opportunities for students to further develop their work, such as presenting at a local undergraduate research conference, writing a research grant (of which our university has several available to support undergraduate research), composing a CCCC conference proposal, or extending their work into undergraduate capstone projects. Not every student is interested in taking these next steps, but for those that are, my role shifts to that of a mentor: providing encouragement and knowledge, reading drafts, or discussing data analysis or methods. These mentoring relationships are hardly one-sided. I may have more research methods knowledge and practical research experience, but the students are engaging in new areas that substantially enrich my own understanding of their research areas. Finally, because I often see these same students in multiple WRT courses, I work to build their ongoing research into the coursework as much as possible so that their efforts “count” for course credit. The work of these courses, and subsequent mentoring, serves both to substantially enrich students’ learning experiences while also allowing them to make potentially important contributions to our local program or larger field.
Primary Practice: The Writing Center as a Site of Undergraduate Research (Sherry Wynn Perdue)
Unlike other sites within academe, the writing center is often staffed by undergraduates, which makes them one of the writing center’s primary practitioners. Through their employment within the writing center, undergraduate consultants hone a unique skill set from which they can ask questions and seek answers using the RAD research inquiry model. As such, the writing center allows undergraduates a site in which to defend, challenge, or qualify that which they have learned within their courses and from the professional literature. With guidance, this research can be used to sustain the writing center and to contribute to the larger field.
I am not the first to identify the undergraduate consultant as uniquely situated for writing center research. DelliCarpini and Crimmins (2010) provide an excellent overview of the place of undergraduate research within the writing center, arguing that writing centers offer a place where students can be “active participants in the scholarly discourse of the discipline” (p. 206). Although the authors present four case studies illustrating the efficacy of undergraduate research in the writing center, the students described in these four cases are not coauthors. In a similar publication and approach, Kail, Gillespie, and Hughes described the skill set that undergraduate consultants develop in the writing center and use once they graduate, but the authors don’t connect the consultants’ expertise to writing center research in their welcome to The Peer Writing Tutor Alumni Research site. Likewise, Ebest (1999) described the important contribution of graduate student research within the writing center, but he did not address the important role of undergraduates. In sum, undergraduate voices are only scantily represented in our ongoing professional discussions about undergraduate research generally and writing center undergraduate research specifically. And this publication is one way in which I can facilitate the emergence of their voices in a peer-reviewed medium.
Since its opening, our writing center has evolved from a temporary library space, where it primarily served first year writers and WRT majors, to a customized location, still in the library, that serves undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and staff in all disciplines. Although the current director (me) is an adjunct member of the WRT department’s first year writing program, the writing center and my position as director are completely distinct from the department. I have been privileged to collaborate on the WRT 320: Peer Tutoring in Composition course about which Dana writes, but I neither teach it nor any other courses in the major. My relationships with peer consultants, therefore, are primarily defined as employer and mentor.
Like Grobman (2009), I see WRT majors and writing consultants as scholars to be; that is, they are developing scholars with growing expertise, but their relationship to me is always moving to and fro along the sponsorship continuum we previously elaborated. To respect this “both/and” relationship, I hone a leadership philosophy based upon modeling and cognitive coaching (3) (for self-assessment) rather than micro management. I ask more questions than I answer. I seek to be attentive to what they see, recognizing that their insights come from daily interactions with our clients. Although I sometimes serve as employer by offering a protocol for response to a problem, most of the time I serve as a sounding board, a mentor who encourages them to make a question their own and to extend the professional conversation by conducting a review of the literature, designing a survey, drafting a conference proposal, or writing for a publication like The Writing Lab Newsletter.
I also try to ensure that my enthusiasm for their projects respects certain boundaries. Although I want them to know that I would happily help them create a study and/or present with them, I don’t want my authority to trump their insights or their desire to create something of their own. In other words, I have to know when they want to tell their own story with research and when it is appropriate for us to tell those stories together. For example, when Enrique came to me with a plan to revamp a program I had created and then to do his thesis on the program, not only did I give him encouragement to do so, but also I waited for an invitation when he suggested he might present the program at a conference. As it turns out, he, now a graduate student at another university, did invite me to co-present, which we did last year at the National Conference of Peer Tutors in Composition. This project has continued to evolve beyond my involvement and beyond our center. I’m not sure that could have happened if I had not respected his autonomy and his accomplishments as distinct from what I had started. In sum, sometimes the continuum yields collaboration; whereas, other times it simply launches the UG on his or her own.
In the next section of this essay, Jacob, Jessica, and Enrique, our undergraduate coauthors, illustrate the moves that happen along the sponsorship continuum and demonstrate that they are well-situated to make substantial RAD research contributions.
Consultants as Researchers: Three RAD Research Projects
Out of the Sandbox and into the Silo (Jacob Matthews)
As much I have always loved writing, I have felt doomed while studying it. Throughout all my high school writing, I felt like I was standing still. The reason for this probably comes from my family background: half of my family is composed of farmers. Farmers tend to be product-driven people. Doing a good job is producing a result with substance and utility, like putting corn in the silo. Traditional classroom writing, on the other hand, is very process-driven and limited to a classroom audience. By the time I reached college, I felt like I was stuck in the “sand-box,” mired down in something confined and almost childlike.
When I was assigned the WRT 320 open-ended project, I should have been elated because it would give me a chance to define my work and do something with utility. But I panicked on topic choice, procrastinated, and in a rush to meet the deadline, I settled for a half-formed and uninteresting idea.
This was the result of my second problem with writing: writing anxiety. I am nervous about showing someone else my work, and I am terrified of starting something. I think this is less a fear of an individual assignment turning out poorly than a fear that someone will get fed up and tell me directly that I’m not good and should get a job parking cars. As a result, I spent most of my time wishing that I knew what writing center tutors would do to help a student with writing anxiety. It took longer than I like to admit before I wrote a proposal for a writing center program to assist students with writing anxiety. Dana affirmed my topic change, and I ended up doing well on the final draft of the assignment. She suggested that I follow this line of inquiry and develop a research intervention study. I should have jumped at this opportunity, but as a freshman I was stuck in an “undergrad as audience” mentality. So, I smiled, nodded politely, and made a mental note to forget the idea.
I very well may have forgotten it, but another professor suggested that I might join an all undergraduate panel for CCCC. Having no idea what a “CCCC” was, I decided to give it a try. One panic later, I submitted a proposal on tutoring writing anxiety. By the time we were accepted (the following academic year), I had lost confidence in my ability to do the project. Fortunately, Dana was there to mentor me through designing my methodology and introduced me to the idea of RAD research.
I narrowed my questions to deal with WCs’ ability to help students with writing anxiety. So my methods would be replicable, I decided to administer the Daly-Miller writing apprehension measure and employ a clear pre- and post- design. This is a quantitative measure used to help compare students’ writing anxiety. I would take the average score of several classes and email the students from the class who scored above the average level to see if they were interested in participating in the next part of the research. I wanted four participants to meet with me for three writing center sessions (40 minute, one-on-one consultations). I would perform entrance and exit interviews with my participants.
After students attended three sessions (which took three weeks), I would re-administer the Daly-Miller measure to them and their classes. I would compare the results from their first measure and their second and then compare any change from in their measure to any change that their class underwent. Next I would return to recordings of our tutoring sessions for evidence of any trends in how the sessions worked. Theoretically, I would end up with several different kinds of data to draw from. Dana and I tried to build my process so it could be accurately replicated.
By now, I was working for Sherry at the writing center. Her support was invaluable to me, as I needed to use the writing center as a site of inquiry. As my boss, she could have said “no,” or that I could not use university resources for my own work. Not only did she not say either of these things, she refused to let me go unpaid for the sessions, saying that my research would inform writing center practice.
I needed Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval for my study, since I would have human participants. Dana mentored me as I went through the IRB process, which included explaining my research methodology, detailing my recruitment plan, addressing the risks involved, and describing possible benefits of the study. I had never worked with the IRB before, but Dana went through revision sessions with me and provided examples for me to look at and work from.
After I gained IRB approval, I had to recruit participants. Thanks to the good relationships I had built with professors, I was given access to three classrooms in which to solicit participants. I planned to have four participants, and I identified plenty who would be great for the study. I was finally going to be putting corn in the silo! However, only one student was willing to work with me. I (true to form) started to panic. I went to Dana, who calmly suggested that I transform the study into a case study, which I did with the willing student.
To my delight, I had promising results. Over the three weeks that my participant and I worked together, her writing anxiety score fell from 88 to 69, while her class’s average rose from 66 to 69, so she ended her semester with writing anxiety about on par with the rest of her class. I had a small amount of data suggesting that our tutoring strategies could be used to help students become more comfortable with writing.
Follow the Question (Jessica Tess)
When I started college, I neither considered the prospect of becoming a RAD researcher during my undergraduate career nor was I inclined to think that others would see me as capable of becoming one. I had initially assumed the research process was too arduous and complicated for inexperienced undergraduates to pursue. During the last two years, however, I have become a researcher. I was able to do so by embracing RAD research methods in my typical undergraduate endeavors, such as training to become a writing consultant and pursuing my senior thesis. Overall, my evolving status as an undergraduate researcher has been defined not only by my motivation to ask questions and to discover answers but also by the support of my mentors.
The beginning of my path as a developing scholar and researcher began in Dana’s peer tutoring class. Since Enrique and I had similar interests, we decided to work on the open-ended project together. While we brainstormed for a good topic, I reflected on previous class discussions about ESL consulting and the qualities of a “good” paper. I developed a distinct question: Are the standards for writing different in Japan, and, if so, how can writing centers better tutor Japanese ESL students with knowledge of those differences? Enrique agreed to propose our idea to Dana, who introduced us to the field of Contrastive Rhetoric where we avidly looked for sources that could answer our question. We were quickly surprised to find a substantial time gap in published studies on Japanese rhetoric (Hinds, 1982; Kubota, 1998; Kubota, Ryuko & Al Lehner, 2004). Further, we found no existing publications written specifically toward an audience of writing consultants working with Japanese ESL students.
Faced with an absence of literature to answer our inquiry, Dana encouraged us to fill the gap ourselves by conducting RAD research. Although, we hadn’t thought this was feasible on our own, with guidance our class project quickly shaped into what we felt was substantive primary research. At this point, I could clearly see myself growing as a scholar. Led by our research question, we did a translation and analysis of a textbook that gave instructions for good writing in a Japanese high school and conducted a focus group with six OU Japanese foreign exchange students about their experiences with writing in the Japanese educational system. We definitely needed mentoring in the RAD research process, and Dana provided this by helping us negotiate the IRB process, critiquing our methods, and conferencing with us to discuss each step. As the semester progressed, Enrique and I eagerly collected our data and muddled through our first co-authoring experience.
Dana, Enrique, and I found that we had taken on roles outside that of teacher and students, as mentor and mentees, and this mentoring naturally continued beyond the WRT 320 class. Enrique and I were able to present our project at venues such as the Oakland University Festival of Writers (a university event sponsored by the WRT department) and Meeting of the Minds (a tri-university undergraduate research conference). These were our first experiences with public presenting in a conference setting. Dana had also suggested we submit our research for publication. It was exciting to take on such a project as sophomores in our undergraduate careers. Further, without our professor’s encouragement, I doubt these endeavors would have occurred to us since we hadn’t observed any of our peers doing anything similar. In addition, after finishing the peer tutoring class, Enrique and I also began working as writing center consultants.
Shortly after, I began pursuing topics for my senior thesis while feeling I now had some professional scholarly experience under my belt. Building upon my previous research, I developed another burning question: How do Japanese perceive academic writing? Dana agreed to mentor me through my first solo RAD research venture. Conveniently, I was planning to study abroad in Japan in the spring of 2011 and wanted to conduct my research there. I designed a survey instrument and scripted follow up interviews concerning perceptions of various aspects of academic writing, including writing instruction, valuable features of writing, and definitions of plagiarism. Before leaving for Japan, Dana coached me in some basics of survey, interviewing, and transcription skills, and I served as her research assistant in order to gain experience with collecting research data on one of her RAD studies. I also learned about the ethics of international research when working with the IRB to have my protocol approved. Lastly, I was able to obtain two university research grants, part of which I used to purchase recording equipment for the interviews I planned to conduct. Again, Dana had suggested I apply for these and guided me through the grant application process.
Although I faced many challenges in Japan, it was a beneficial learning process. Upon arriving, I happily found a population of about 50-60 Japanese students available for my survey. However, I received limited replies. Further, I noticed those who took my survey appeared to be unfamiliar with my survey topic. Though I was frustrated, Dana and I did some web conferencing where she reassured me and encouraged me to continue on. I was indeed able to get better information from my interviews. However, this happiness was unfortunately short lived due to the tragic 2011 Japan earthquake, which forced my early return to the United States. Thankfully, I had contacts who agreed to let me interview them via the Internet. Despite the hurdles and setbacks of this project, my confidence as a researcher greatly improved from this experience, and I was able to continue pursuing my research question and draft my results for publication.
From here, I see my development as a researcher flourishing as I enter graduate school, prompted by an array of research questions and supported by the RAD research process. I feel confident that my research experiences as an undergrad have prepared me to firmly pursue the gaps in research I perceive and to make contributions to the field. I now understand that undergraduates have the ability to pursue self-initiated research questions with RAD research methods and the support of faculty who are willing to navigate the sponsorship continuum.
Spelunking: Moving beyond the Sandbox (Enrique Paz)
Like many other undergraduates, I often questioned the legitimacy of the research skills I had learned in my classes. Though I have turned in many “research projects,” it was hard to believe that what I had done constituted serious, respectable research. I didn’t see myself as a “true” researcher. I was a mere undergraduate student, a rank that allows for no other title or recognition. I accepted this role, believing that an undergraduate could not engage in meaningful research. I did not overcome this misconception on my own. I required much support, much goading, and even much pressure to believe that I could do more. What follows is the story of the projects and the efforts of faculty and other students, which allowed me to confidently engage in meaningful work.
I began employment at the writing center in January 2010 as a second-semester sophomore, having only recently delved into the study of my writing and rhetoric major. Working together with Dana and Jessica on my initial project (as Jacob described above) caused me to realize that I could, in fact, perform significant work beyond the “sandbox” of typical undergraduate research projects. Because this initial project began in Dana’s peer tutoring course, I came into my work at the writing center seeing it as a site for interesting and novel work. My first months at the center and my first core classes within the WRT major coincided to create an opportunity for a project for which I now hold much passion.
In 2009, the WC began developing and facilitating a plagiarism remediation program for students who have violated the university’s academic integrity policy. The program, called “Cite Right,” aims to foster within students a personalized ethical standard for academic conduct and to equip students with the technical knowledge to avoid plagiarism (i.e., paraphrase and citation practices). The idea for the program was born out of necessity as many students began to come to the WC to meet requirements of their sanctions for academic dishonesty. Oakland University has experienced an increase in cases of academic dishonesty, a trend to which most universities would also bear witness, albeit quietly (Zwagerman, 2008, p. 677). In the last decade, Oakland University’s Academic Conduct Committee reported a significant increase in the number of academic dishonesty cases since 1998, a trend that has not reversed. It was in this environment that the university’s academic conduct committee began requiring writing center visits.
In response to the rush of students the center received, Sherry and experienced consultants worked together to create a program that would “teach students how not to plagiarize.” Putting aside all the implications and issues some would have with this sort of program, this is the situation the writing center faced, and the center responded as best it could. It developed a seven-session course that examined information literacy and the writing process to teach proper source use. When I entered the center, I joined the existing program as a “Cite Right” consultant, able to work with students in the program.
At the same time, I was faced with a semester-end research project in a core course for the WRT major. This project was open-ended, a feature for which I am often thankful in my courses and one found often in my major. For this project, I presented my concerns with Cite Right to my project group, and we began to evaluate the program.
We began by culling scholarship. We sought to include anything that discussed plagiarism. Our results were dismal. While the field of plagiarism studies is rapidly expanding and has a substantial pool of scholarship, much of it is based in anecdote or personal experience, as Howard and Watson (2010) have pointed out, or refers mostly to classroom policy, assignments, and pedagogy. We found little that offered anything RAD-based for a writing center program administered by (mostly undergraduate) peer consultants. However, the little we did find worked very well. Although they did not specifically refer to writing centers, works such as Zwagerman’s (2008) “The Scarlet P” and Kathryn Valentine’s “Rethinking Ethical Binaries” became essential not only to our understanding of what we wanted the program to do but also to the program itself, and we strategically integrated the above texts into the program’s curriculum.
After that project, class, and semester, I continued the evaluative work and began to sharpen the possible changes and solutions. I had found a passion, a worthy investment. I would help students to overcome the challenges of plagiarism and understand the discussions and significance of plagiarism in the academy. To do this, I began to consume all I could find on plagiarism. University policies, scholarly articles, and research data—I sought to know all I could. I read the works of Margaret Price, Rebecca Moore Howard, Matthew Woessner, and every other name any database could offer me, and, through my voracious study, I came to realize the depth of the cavern into which I so nonchalantly leaped.
I had unknowingly entered a realm of much consequence. The breadth of scholarship made it very clear that there were many opinions in this field and, accordingly, people ready to criticize the opinions of a lowly undergraduate. It paralyzed me. I felt more than ever the humility of my stature, an undergraduate, the acknowledgement and accusation of being unlearned. Plagiarism is field of politics, emotion, and significance. I felt I was not someone who was qualified at all to address such an issue.
It was at this point that the support of my faculty and fellow students was so crucial. I presented my proposal for revisions of the program to my various professors, who encouraged me by saying that I was doing good work with a well-informed structure. Other undergraduate researchers around me, like my co-authors Jessica and Jacob, motivated me as they pressed forward in their work despite similar anxieties. Sherry and other Cite Right consultants challenged me to constantly rethink my assumptions. The new program structure would also incorporate several methods to collect empirical data and conduct administrative RAD research in order to validate and continue improving the program. While I may never have been explicit with my concerns, the reassurance that I was, in fact, capable of not only doing such work but also doing it well was key to my confidence as a true scholar and actual researcher.
Armed with this confidence, albeit still quietly shaking, I pressed forward with my recommendations for the project. Whereas before the program assumed that all students committed plagiarism accidentally, this next iteration would remove the need to question intention, removing from the program structure the binary against which Valentine cautions (90). I also sought to change the way the program implicitly defined plagiarism. By focusing solely on the mechanics of citation and source use, Cite Right implied that plagiarism could be redressed with a formula, and plagiarism is clearly more than a correct formula of citation and wording. Instead, through Zwagerman’s (2008) reflection upon his and others’ discourse and response to plagiarism (677), the program would encourage the student to build a personal understanding of the ethical implication and universal ramifications of plagiarism. Performed concurrently with instruction in citation and source integration, these discussions would give students a deeper and personalized understanding of plagiarism. I am continuously excited while working in the program and studying of plagiarism, and it was through this experience that I became able to step out of the classroom, move beyond my fear, and enter the academic community as a peer.
Being a peer among professional and established scholars is an entirely new experience. As an undergraduate, I am constantly admonished to acknowledge my specific audience with in each assignment. However, I know, as do all students, that these admonitions merely give me context for my paper, which is effectively practice. Accordingly, I never actually faced the academic community I was addressing (i.e., I was staying in “the sandbox”). The private practice of the classroom never gave chance for public failure, open critique, or condescending coddling (e.g., “Oh, silly undergraduate”). If the classroom is to prepare undergraduates to become scholars, it is imperative that they be encouraged to move beyond the comfortable space of the classroom and to make themselves visible to the wiles of their academic community. That, however, requires a strong support group that will not only encourage the student but also challenge them to produce work that is appropriate for the public community and adequately supported through empirical RAD research. In my case, the encouragement and motivation I received throughout my research facilitated my growth as a researcher—a support system that is integral to the teaching of research and development of students and writing consultants.
This project is just one of many that served as a catalyst for my personal growth. Many ideas came and went, as I searched for projects that would motivate me to invest time and effort to become an actual researcher. This project, revision and new implementation of the Cite Right program, is ongoing. I am now conducting a RAD-based assessment of the program. Through analysis of texts produced by students before and after Cite Right, my current study aims to determine the effect Cite Right had upon these students’ beliefs about plagiarism and upon their ability to integrate sources. Through results of this empirical analysis, I hope to further improve Cite Right and to determine effective methods for academic integrity instruction.
However, the specifics of this program and project are not the focus of this essay. If anything, what should be remembered is that I, an undergraduate, was allowed and even encouraged to pursue this project. It was through this work in these places and in these ways that I was able to truly overcome the sandbox that so often is undergraduate work, and I am certain there are many other students like myself who would surprise many when given the chance.
As our narratives describe, the RAD research process calls upon both faculty and students to reconceive their identities: faculty along the sponsorship continuum and students along a scholarship continuum. These relationships are recursive in nature, so we cannot easily pinpoint when one moves from faculty to mentor to collaborator or from student to mentee to collaborator and back again. In other words, both students and faculty may inhabit the spaces in between each role. With this complication of identity, we also must ask: How does this change the nature of undergraduate education? What are the benefits and negatives of occupying these multiple roles? The benefits can be substantial—to professionalize, to increase the value of an undergraduate education, to increase the learning experiences of individual students, and to contribute to the field. In this section, we provide suggestions for encouraging more undergraduate RAD research—not just in the writing center but also in all humanities fields.
Suggestions to Encourage Undergraduate Research
We reiterate the factors that will facilitate undergraduate RAD research: a good research question, substantial coursework that exposes students to diverse methodologies, an appropriate site of inquiry, and mentorship and sponsorship at both the local, regional, and national levels. These four factors have proven to be pivotal to our experiences. In order to facilitate the growth of students into independent research practitioners, faculty must embrace these sponsors both within and outside of the classroom. However, we recognize the challenge that this may present, and we provide the following suggestions for implementation:
Hone an inquiry-driven environment.
Research questions ultimately need to originate from the student researcher, but there are some ways in which a questioning attitude can be cultivated. For one, academic professionals can make asking questions and working through possible methods to solve them as a part of the curriculum and work in the writing center. Encouraging students and consultants to ask questions, especially questions to which they currently do not have answers, can lead to interesting research projects. If there are gaps in the scholarship, encourage students to address them. In the WRT320 course, Dana regularly points out that some of the ideas presented in the tutoring manuals are unsupported—this allows for students to see new opportunities for RAD studies.
In sites of research, such as the writing center, it is important that undergraduates retain an interest in and a meta-awareness of their practice. Research can grow out of professional passion or dissatisfaction. In both cases, students should be made aware of the practical applications of their questions both in class and in the writing center.
Increase awareness of and exposure to opportunities for research and presentation within and beyond classrooms.
Many students are unaware of the discussions that take place in their larger field and have little idea of what “research” beyond the classroom might include. Faculty must demystify the field and open doorways to allow students to contribute to their field. In the classroom, students must find opportunities to produce work that they can take beyond that class; faculty must sponsor them by integrating these opportunities into coursework. In our experience, we have raised this awareness in three ways. First, flexible course projects allow students to pursue their research interests and produce work about which they are more passionate and willing to share. Second, extra credit to share those works through publications or conference presentations encourages a vision beyond a single class and creates opportunities for growth and professionalization. Third, capstone projects for undergraduate majors provide a venue for students to deeply study their interests under the careful mentorship of their professors.
Faculty, whether as collaborators, mentors or as teachers, should not restrict opportunities to local venues but should encourage regional and national participation with guidance and support. Students might attend conferences, pursue undergraduate or professional publication venues, and secure funding (such as university undergraduate research grants) and collaboration.
Seek out support systems for building research methods knowledge in students and faculty.
Experience and knowledge are important for sponsoring undergraduate RAD research. Faculty and writing center directors who plan on sponsoring and facilitating student research must have at least a working knowledge of research methodology and research ethics. Seeking resources on campus—other faculty and workshops—on RAD research is a good place to start for faculty who do not feel they have adequate research experience. These same workshops and scholarship can be made available to students who are interested in pursuing their own lines of inquiry. Additionally, the undergraduate curriculum should be supportive of fostering RAD undergraduate research; towards this end, we suggest that all writing majors be required to take a course in research methods in writing studies and that they be encouraged to study research methods in related fields. Additionally, opportunities should be available for students to present their work to a wider audience.
Encourage field-wide sponsorship of undergraduate RAD research.
We must also be aware of the interchange between local and national sponsorship of undergraduate research. Our final suggestion is working to shift the values of both higher education and the field by elevating the status of undergraduate voices—in our national conferences and in our publications, some devoted exclusively to undergraduate research. Even so, our own experiences suggest that we have a long way to go in supporting undergraduate researchers. We need more support and sponsorship for undergraduate researchers at our conferences: opportunities for funding, resources for students, and spaces for undergraduates to connect and shape the future of their fields.
If undergraduates are to excel as researchers, faculty must first acknowledge that students are capable of meaningful work that can answer questions of importance and give students an opportunity to pursue research. In addition to composing theoretical and analytical scholarship, undergraduates in writing studies and writing center studies need opportunities to engage in RAD research, to present their findings, and to publish their studies. Furthermore, these opportunities should not have to be extracurricular. Undergraduates should find these chances in classes, especially within our undergraduate majors and in the writing center, where professional development and constant learning are necessary to student development.
In this article, we represented five diverse voices engaged in sponsoring and conducting undergraduate RAD research in writing studies. We argue that for a culture of undergraduate research to proliferate, we must work to develop inquiry-driven classrooms, expose students to methodologies and models of the real work of research, discover sites of inquiry for conducting RAD research, and encourage sponsorship locally and nationally. We advance the sponsorship continuum—on which faculty and mentors move from teacher to mentor to collaborator and coauthor, and undergraduates move from student to mentee to collaborator to coauthor in overlapping ways—to assist students in undergraduate work and to further expand upon the authorship continuum espoused by Grobman (2009). We also advance the idea of the scholarship continuum, whereby undergraduates learn to conduct meaningful research, which enriches their educational experience and yields new understanding that may benefit the field. We believe our experiences and suggestions can provide models for undergraduate research in humanities disciplines across the campus.
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1 While the opening paragraph is written in the voice of the faculty coauthors, the rest of the essay, with the exception of individual sections attributed to specific authors, is meant to be read as a collective statement representing all authors’ ideas and perspectives. While individual authors drafted each non-attributed section, during subsequent group revisions, we worked to represent our collective voice.
2 While we advance the RAD research model in this essay and other publications, we are in no way suggesting that it is the only model appropriate for evidence-based undergraduate research. It is, however, a salient model that we and our students embraced.
3 For information on cognitive coaching, which encourages reflective practice within the person being observed or mentored, see Arthur Coasta and Robert Garmston’s Cognitive coaching: A foundation for renaissance schools. Norwood, MA: Christopher Gordon, 2002.