Undergraduate Research in Writing: Keeping It Real

By Kim Moreland

Kim Moreland is currently the Assistant Director of the Writing Fellows Program.  She is a Ph.D candidate in Composition and Rhetoric, writing her dissertation on authorship and networks.

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Kim Moreland

Undergraduate research is on my mind.  Undergraduate writing center tutor research was the focus of Lauren Fitzgerald’s keynote address at the International Writing Centers Association conference in San Diego in October.  And undergraduate writing center tutor research has long been the focus of English 316, the honors course in writing across the curriculum that all Writing Fellows here at UW-Madison are required to take.  But what drives this research?  What do these projects look like?  How do they help us rethink these issues central to our field?

This semester, I’ve been thinking about these questions often.  I’ve been teaching a section of English 316, and I attended the National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing in Chicago with five undergraduate Fellows who presented their research.  Before this semester, I was familiar with the research conducted by Fellows – I’d seen several Fellows present at our annual joint staff meeting in the Writing Center.  But it wasn’t until I starting mentoring Fellows in 316 that I gave much thought to where the questions that sparked these projects came from: the particular interests of Fellows who are immersed in WAC as both tutors and students.

The assignment in 316 asks Fellows to design their own original research projects related to the tutoring or teaching of writing.  Fellows generally conduct qualitative research projects with small sample sizes.  They may observe conferences with either Fellows or Writing Center instructors, conduct interviews with tutors or students, or study Fellows’ written comments on student drafts.

As peer tutors, many of the Fellows are interested in how power and authority are negotiated in conferences.  And as undergraduate students, many of the Fellows are interested in considering writing in terms of their own academic interests and disciplines.  Here are just some of the topics that Fellows are working on this semester:

  • Facilitative vs. directive tutoring styles
  • Gender and body language
  • Gestures in conferences
  • Agenda setting in conferences
  • Tutors’ attitudes about grammar
  • Tutoring and 1st generation college students
  • Tutoring and normative discourses
  • Strategies for helping ESL writers
  • The teaching of writing in Art History
  • The impact of the English 100 and 118 beyond the freshman year
  • Student perspectives on generalist tutors
  • Whether Fellows and their students should be friends
  • The use of silence in conferences
  • Exchanging expertise with novice writers

What do these projects yield?   There’s way too much to include it all here, but I’m particularly excited about the ways that much of this research can complicate many of our beliefs regarding tutoring and identify new areas of inquiry.  For example, Fellows presented a panel on negotiating authority in the university at NCPTW, closely examining the unique position of the Writing Fellow as a peer tutor.

Jenna Mertz and Claire Parrott waiting for the keynote speech at NCPTW

Jenna Mertz and Claire Parrott waiting for the keynote speech at NCPTW

Claire Parrott looked at what she terms the “collaborative dilemma” for tutors who must negotiate their identities as both peers and teachers, which is not always comfortable.  Jenna Mertz examined how Fellows might encourage or discourage a student’s individual voice, and how tutors might view aspects of voice in inexperienced writers as having a lack of control.  Emily Dean’s paper on how Fellows’ work aligns with the goals of a liberal arts education (as outlined by Bill Cronon) suggests that we consider how Fellows move across the disciplines as both students and tutors.

Fellows also bring their perspectives to research on Writing Center work.  Nora Brand and Logan Middleton presented their research on tutoring and disability at NCPTW.  Logan’s research considered how tutors can work with students who may or may not disclose a disability, while Nora identified strategies that tutors use when working with students who have learning disabilities.  These projects reveal voices that might not otherwise be heard, and they take on difficult questions about our pedagogy and our identities.

Nora Brand, Emily Dean, and Logan Middleton at NCPTW

Nora Brand, Emily Dean, and Logan Middleton at NCPTW

In 316, the new Fellows started presenting their papers in class last week, and I’m already being challenged again.  One current project looks at tutors’ responsibility for communication and suggests that to be facilitative, one must paradoxically be prepared to take on some ownership in the conference.  Another on agenda setting notes that even when Fellows may think they are letting students take the lead, they may be implicitly forcing an agenda.  Yet another project confronts the meaning of collaboration by looking at directive tendencies in online conferencing.  I could go on, but my point is that these projects allow us to linger in areas that are not easy and clear and are continuously adding to my list of questions about the teaching of writing.

I’ve been telling my students that the research that they are conducting is real – that the research is not just to fill a course requirement, but to make a contribution to the field and to our tutoring practices.  I don’t know how convincing I am when I say this (but I am not sure at what point any researcher really begins to feel that their work is real).  Being able to point to experienced Fellows who present at conferences or who have published papers based on their work certainly helps build my case, but whether these projects are taken outside of the classroom or not, undergraduate research is vital to our work.

Waiting for the bus in Chicago

Waiting for the bus in Chicago

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