A Review of A Review of Research; Research on Writing 2 of 2 (Haswell)

Haswell, Richard. “Teaching of Writing in Higher Education” (331-346) In Bazerman, Handbook of Research on Writing.

Haswell’s chapter is a review of research, focusing on “formal research,” which he defines as “any study whose method of investigation and data collection is systematic and exact enough that the study can be tested, replicated, and extended“ (331). Haswell doesn’t quite limit this to “empirical” research, but that’s most of what he’s talking about, as he specifically excludes rhetorical/disciplinary history, intuition-based or informal discussions of curriculum or practice, and the assorted kinds of philosophical/theoretical analyses that we might also call “rhetorical inquiry” or “scholarly inquiry”; work that doesn’t rest so much on a data set than it does analyze a phenomenon, event, group, idea, or text in a nonreplicable, nonsystematic way according to some theory or model, etcetera. MacNealy (1999) would offer that crucial identifying characteristic of the research having been planned beforehand as a major distinguishing factor.

According to Haswell, research in writing instruction tends to follow trends in social sciences and has shifted (in both objects of study and methodologies) from texts and analysis to cognition and experimentation, and from there to social/cultural contexts and embodied/material contexts and the assorted naturalistic or hermeneutic methods applied to them. In terms of supporting theories, writing instruction research is given to trendiness, with the ideas of figures such as Burke passing in and out of fashion in rapid cycles. I must agree with his critical but not overly pessimistic assessment:

“Taken as a whole, the research has an air of bricolage, with researchers taking up whatever methods, theories, and participants lie readily at hand. There are few large-scale research projects, few extended research lines, few replication studies, even few systematic reviews of research. Long-range studies . . . have been largely replaced with a myriad of tightly focused studies, locally easier to interpret but difficult to synthesize and, as we see herein, perhaps construing the instructional enterprise of college composition more pessimistically than it deserves” (332).

The meat (sorry, vegans) of this chapter maps college writing research according to the instructional space or learning site it focuses on. Bazerman notes that his seven categories are not mutually exclusive, but helpful for navigating the findings: the composed paper, the classroom, the office conference, the computer, the writing center, the curriculum, and the institution. His overview is fascinating, and I wish I could relay it in depth—heck, I wish I could just post it here, but I imagine someone somewhere would throw a copyright fit, no? The major takeaways I’ll offer here (and a highly culled list, at that) are:

  1. More research could be done on any of these spaces (commenting and writing centers in particular)
  2. Writing pedagogical spaces are characterized by a “variety and restlessness of teaching practices” (334)
  3. Teachers’ assumptions about the ecology of their classrooms and—especially—the office conference are often incorrect.
  4. Many of our writing classroom strategies are still fairly 19th century, and some popular ones (grammar instruction and peer evaluation) have shown highly questionable and downright doubtful effectiveness
  5. There’s lots of lag time between cultural and pedagogical change and research programs
  6. Students face incredible amounts of contradictions in their writing instruction, but there is consistent evidence of improvement under WAC/WiD, service-learning, or learning-community conditions.
  7. There have not been nearly enough systematic, broad-based, or longitudinal studies of writing instruction.
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