The Complexity of Understanding Factors in Writing Development

Nicholas Jackson, University of Louisville

I was drawn to the Writing through the Lifespan Collaboration because of my interest in the trajectories writers take as they transition from high school to college and the ways that trajectory develops as those writers continue to move through college. While this may be relatively short snippet a writer’s life (unless, of course, they start and stop college many times, as many individuals do), I see it as necessary to lifespan research because of the perceived importance on the success of this transition in order to have a successful career. Moreover, understanding the resources writers have available as they make this transition involves a focused look at multiple different contexts of writing at different stages of a writers’ life, and the Lifespan Group’s first principle reminds us that “[w]riting can develop across the lifespan as part of changing contexts.” The change in context from high school to college is one that is multifaceted and complex, and one that I would argue is understudied. Todd Ruecker (2014), for example, noted that while our field has increased its output on research into transfer across different university contexts, we need more research on the high school to college transition because we have “limited knowledge on the types of writing students experience before entering a first-year composition (FYC) class” (p. 92). What makes this transition increasingly complex is the rapid proliferation of dual enrollment FYC classes, often as part of an impetus to get FYC “out of the way.”

While my identity as a researcher is just beginning (I will be a first-year Ph.D. student at the University of Louisville this coming academic year), I am currently interested in the ways taking “college composition” as a high school student affects the trajectories writers take as college writers. The Lifespan Group’s “Towards an Understanding of Writing Development Across the Lifespan” highlights some of the concerns I have about the ways dual enrollment can hinder these transitions. While principle one, mentioned above, echoes one of the major questions I have been asking in my work around dual enrollment (if writing develops based on changing contexts, what happens when we conflate the very different contexts of high school and college?), I want to focus now on the thoughts and questions I have specifically in response to principle three.

The third principle states that “Writing Development is variable; there is no single path and no single endpoint.” While this principle also discusses the individual variations writers experience, I am, at the moment, more interested in the variability in social worlds the group focuses on. As this principle explains, individuals “write in order to participate in socially organized activities in which they use literacy to assert their presence, needs, desires, or interests.” Because writing is used to mediate our involvement in these activities, “trajectories for learning writing purposes, forms, and strategies are shaped by locally valued forms of writing.” That is, “successful” writing is writing that responds to the needs and expectations of the local context in which that writing takes place. Therefore, as the principle’s focus on “no single endpoint” highlights, there is no single form of writing that can signify the successful conclusion of a writer’s developmental trajectory (even assuming we could reach a neat and tidy conclusion). While this is easily understandable in relation to contexts we readily see as vastly different (i.e. legal briefs and fanfiction), it’s important to remember that this is no less true even in regards to different institutions’ understandings of “college writing.” In “The Fantasy of the ‘Seamless Transition,’” Michael Bernard-Donals reflects on having taught at four different colleges with the same stated mission and states that “‘college writing’ at each couldn’t have been more different” and then explains you will see even more variation in what “college writing” entails if you look at colleges with different missions (Alsup and Bernard-Donals, 2002, p. 117).

These different local conceptions of college writing are important in regards to dual enrollment because of the fact students do not always attend the post-secondary institution offering the dual enrollment credit because the high schools frequently partner with a local university. In the dual enrollment courses I have taught, many of the students had no intention of even considering attending the partnered university. So when a writer succeeds in a dual enrollment FYC course through one institution, in order to get the class “out of the way,” what happens when they attend college at a university with different expected outcomes for FYC or different WAC expectations? If they struggle, is that because they took FYC while still in high school or because they took FYC at a different institution? How does that writer operationalize their prior knowledge differently from a writer who took the same dual enrollment course and then attended the university that sponsored it? While the concern for that first student may be no different from concerns for a student who transferred to a new university after taking FYC, this question reveals some limitations in judging the “success” of a dual enrollment FYC course. In short, this principle highlights some complex variables that may blur the effects the dual enrollment course itself has on a writer’s trajectory.

As the Lifespan Group’s entire statement made clear, understanding writing development is a complex task. What principle three especially reveals for me, however, is how complex making sense of the effects any one factor has on that development can also be complex because of all the “moving parts” we are drawing on as we write (as discussed in principle two). Each time we write, our prior experiences, sociocultural influences, and cognitive activities are all interweaving in complex ways. I am looking forward to trying to understand these interlocking variables as I continue my trajectory as a researcher and a writer.

Works Cited

Alsup, J. and Bernard-Donals, M. (2002). The fantasy of the ‘seamless transition.’ In T. Thomas (Ed.), Teaching writing in high school and college: conversations and collaborations (pp. 115-135). Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Ruecker, T. (2014). Here they do this, here they do that: Latinas/Latinos writing across institutions. College Composition and Communication, 66(1), 91-119.