Writer Identity Development During Career-Life Transitions

Sandra Tarabochia, University of Oklahoma

My research seeks to better understand the writing development of early career faculty who are required to publish academic writing for tenure. I am most curious about how faculty members’ writing identities change (or not) during the transition to a tenure-track position and throughout their time on the tenure track. I am not as interested in specific texts or their circulation.  I am not necessarily interested in writing practices or literate practices more broadly, in how faculty organize themselves for writing, or in how they physically get writing done.  I do, however, want to know how they perceive those activities, how their thinking about their writing/literate practices changes over time. I want to know more about how faculty understand the challenges they face as writers on the tenure track.  I want to consider what faculty members’ responses to writing challenges (and reflections on those responses) suggest about their identities and development as writers.  I hope my research findings lead to policies and pedagogies that validate and support faculty writing development.

I see this as lifespan research because it focuses on an understudied group of experienced writers, who are often considered “developed,” during an important career-life transition.  I propose that studying writers during this transition can shed light on their developmental trajectories as well as (perhaps) suggest something about writerly transitions more broadly.  I also hope to highlight connections between social-psychological sense-making structures as they change recursively over time, and writers’ perceptions of their writing and writerly identities. Here are some ways I am thinking about the principles of writing development as I continue to articulate the dimension(s) on which my research will focus.  

Principle 1: Writing can develop across the lifespan as part of changing contexts.

This principle resonates with my work, although, again, I’m more interested in how writers develop as opposed to writing. This principle is particularly important to me because too often faculty writers are expected to be fully developed.  The “publish or perish” climate implies that faculty writers should be ready and able to write for publication in their fields and if they can’t hack it (smoothly, immediately, and without assistance), they don’t deserve their positions. In contrast, Principle 1 holds that writers are always in process, developing across their lifespans. It normalizes the struggle all writers experience when faced with new contexts and life circumstances. In this vein, my research investigates how faculty writers “understand identities and roles” as they reflect on new writing projects, challenges, and successes on the tenure track (Bazerman et al.).  As faculty writers make this career-life transition, how do they see their writing contributing to individual and collective goals (of their disciplines or subfields)? How do they process responses to their writing (praise, critique, rejection)? What contributions do they hope to make through writing and how does their thinking about that shape motivation, disposition, resilience, etc.?

Principle 2: Writing development is complex because writing is complex.

I am most excited about how this principle intersects with my work because I hope to reveal “the constitutive power that contexts play in conditioning, stabilizing, amplifying or interfering with individual writing efforts” and writer identities (Bazerman et al.). How do disciplinary and institutional contexts influence faculty members’ writing identity trajectories? If writing is “a synergistic process engaging self and world” then how writers organize or make sense of self/world matters (Bazerman et al.). Here, I draw on Robert Kegan’s framework, rooted in constructive-developmental psychology, for understanding “meaning-making systems or ways of knowing” (1994, p. 6). Kegan argues that “emotional, cognitive, interpersonal and intrapersonal experiencing is constellated” according to “principles of mental organization” that change over time (p. 7). In each meaning-making structure, there are elements we can name and control (objects) and invisible elements that are embedded in us, that control us (subjects) (Kegan, 1994, p. 32; Baxter & King, 2007, p. 492). What we treat as subject and object affects how we understand ourselves in relation to others and how we act in the world.   

Analyzing how faculty writers talk about themselves, their relationships, their experiences, and writing-as-work can provide insight into their underlying meaning-making structures, which in turn can help us better understand their writing identities, needs, and trajectories. For example, Kegan’s (1994) concept of self-authorship involves epistemological, intrapersonal, and interpersonal dimensions of development (Baxter & King, 2007). A self-authored person has an internal belief system, internally chooses values to inform their identities, and engages in interdependent, mutual relationships (Kegan, 1994; Baxter & King, 2007, p. 492). The concept is often applied in instruction and student affairs settings to research undergraduate student growth and development, but Carmen Werder (2013) proposes the “three spheres of self-authorship”—cognitive (meaning-making), interpersonal (self in relation to others), and intrapersonal (sense of identity)—as a “lens for conceptualizing how faculty writers can move beyond simply advancing their immediate writing projects/research agenda to becoming more aware of how they make meaning when composing, how they construct their audiences, and how they represent their own writerly voices” (p. 282).

Although it may seem logical to assume faculty have achieved self-authorship (internal self-definition), Werder (2013), referencing the stages in the development of self-authorship described in Baxter Magolda’s Making their Own Way: Narratives for Transforming Higher Education to Promote Self-Development, wonders if the transition to faculty positions and experience of the tenure track might cause faculty to circle back to earlier stages—to the experience of struggling to negotiate outside authority and internal belief systems, to restructure beliefs about knowledge, self and others and act on those beliefs (p. 282).

With Werder (2013), I believe that the evolution of meaning-making structures is non-linear, recursive, and life-long; thus all faculty writers would benefit from attention to the “cognitive/interpersonal/intrapersonal disequilibrium” they experience during career-life changes (p. 284). By working to reveal how faculty experience, understand, and respond to this disequilibrium, I hope to create a richer picture of how faculty develop as writers.  My hope is that the picture will generate support structures that offer faculty writers “more than simply some strategies for time management” (Werder, 2013, p. 284).

Moreover, in the spirit of Principle 2, I suspect that researching the role of shifting meaning-making structures in writer identity development for faculty will shed light on the ways “individual writing development [bears] the marks of larger arrangements by which the powers of writing are being harnessed as economic, political, and cultural assets” (Bazerman et al.). Initial data analysis from my current study of faculty writers supports the finding that individual “writing development takes shape as an aspect of work” (Bazerman et al.). For better or for worse, faculty members’ ingrained perceptions of “work” seem to shape how they approach writing and describe their identities as writers. Some attribute their ability to labor with writing--despite rejections and other setbacks--to blue collar values.  Others report dissonance as they try to measure and justify the result of writing-as-work for parents, spouses, and publics who have different ways of determining productive work. In short, how faculty come to terms with writing as labor is proving to be a significant aspect of development.

Even further, I’m interested in exploring what it means to acknowledge that faculty writing and writer development “emerge within the material, political, and social worlds that naturalize, actualize, and exploit them” (Bazerman et al.) Although I have a small ‘n’ at this point, I am noticing differences in the experiences of faculty writers of color and how they make sense of those experiences.  I’m still exploring my initial impressions, but so far it seems faculty from minoritized groups tend to wrestle with issues of self-worth more than their colleagues (see also Dancy & Jean-Marie, 2014). Concomitantly, they develop powerful strategies for self-care and establish strong relationships and communities with others to remind them that racism, sexism, ageism and other forms of discrimination are systemic.

Principle 3: Writing development is variable.

The differences among my participants’ experiences, and among their cognitive, interpersonal and intrapersonal sense-making structures, speak to Principle 3.  If people are socially positioned in different ways to engage in writing practices, and if those differences contribute to “varied trajectories of writing development” (Bazerman et al.), what does that mean for the challenges faculty writers face as they transition to the tenure track and how they experience those challenges? For example, as I’ve mentioned, a faculty member from a working-class family draws on her blue-collar mentality to persist despite obstacles. At the same time, a black woman scholar describes the trauma of giving up her voice and devaluing lived-experience-as-evidence in order to perform the academic discourse that will get her published. One Puerto Rican woman in my study, Lorna, spoke about identifying publication venues: “I’m looking at the places that I feel like I am a lot more connected to and that understand my voice and the way that I write.” Of course, those venues aren’t respected in her field.  She is evaluated based on her ability to publish in journals that don’t matter to her. As Bazerman et al. point out “when features that construe identities are met with negative responses, writers [like Lorna] are often pressed into difficult choices in their use of language resources that in turn may affect their standing in the various communities they belong to.”  I want to know how faculty writers make those choices and what that means for how they negotiate their identities as writers, internally as well as in writing. If “ongoing success at being heard recursively provides further motivation” for writing (Bazerman et al.), what happens when faculty writers consistently feel unheard, misunderstood, and devalued?

Principle 5: The development of writing depends on the development, redirection, and specialized reconfiguring of general functions, processes, and tools.

Finally, Principle 5 is particularly relevant for my work. I want to know how motivational dispositions are developed, redirected and reconfigured for faculty writers as a result of transitioning to the tenure track (Bazerman et al.). How have faculty writers come to establish attitudes about efficacy, the value of their writing in their personal and career lives, and about “reasons for their perceived writing successes and missteps” (Bazerman et al.)? What is the relationship between these dispositions and their writerly identities? How do dispositions and identities affect resilience and persistence?


Works Cited

Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2001). Making their own way: narratives for transforming higher education to promote self-development. Sterling, Va.: Stylus.

Baxter Magolda, M. B., & King, P. M. (2007). Interview Strategies for Assessing Self-Authorship: Constructing Conversations to Assess Meaning Making. Journal of College Student Development, 48(5), 491–508. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.2007.0055

Dancy, T. E., & Jean-Marie, G. (2014). Faculty of Color in Higher Education: Exploring the Intersections of Identity, Impostorship, and Internalized Racism. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 22(4), 354–372. https://doi.org/10.1080/13611267.2014.945736

Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: the mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Werder, C. (2013). The Promise of Self-Authorship as an Integrative Framework for Supporting Faculty Writers. In A. E. Geller & M. Eodice (Eds.), Working with faculty writers (pp. 279–293). Logan: Utah State University Press.