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Composition Forum 42, Fall 2019

Writing the Boundaries: Boundary-Work in First-Year Composition

Dylan Medina

Abstract: Writing Studies’ emphasis on knowledge-transfer and learning stems from our pedagogical focus and is motivated by the fact that much of our research is about and our teaching is directed at students who will be entering other disciplines. Much of the research in the field has focused on tracing transfer and learning longitudinally through students’ college careers. This paper contributes to this larger body of research by presenting an approach to researching transfer and learning that focuses on the situated, moment-to-moment interactions that occur when students learn, when their dispositions form, and when they experience transfer. Initial findings from a study conducted at an R1 public university following this approach reveal that within these moments, students engage in complex boundary-marking interactions that iteratively define the material and discursive world and students’ place within it. The boundary marked in each iteration then affects future boundary-work, a phenomenon this study calls micro-transfer. The initial findings reveal that any given moment can have a profound impact on the trajectory of a student through a class, and that boundaries themselves have different characteristics and micro-transfer depends upon these characteristics. This study presents an initial set of categories of boundaries based on their flexibility and permeability and the field in which they form that could be a foundation for future research in boundary-work and micro-transfer in writing studies.

At first glance, Michael{1} would appear a prime example of successful transfer. He was quick to seek out and pick up crucial concepts, and in interviews he was able to articulate strategies and techniques he used in his writing. For instance, in the beginning of the term when his class covered rhetorical techniques, he reported embracing what transfer scholars would call the threshold concepts of political rhetoric, including the use of stock issues in policy debate, heuristics, and an understanding of logical fallacies (Adler-Kassner et al., Assembling Knowledge; Adler-Kassner et al., The Value; Elon Statement on Writing Transfer; Wardle). Further, in answering my interview questions, he would attempt to understand not only what my questions asked, but also my purpose in asking them. His inquisitiveness and desire to understand what is being asked of him makes it appear that Michael possesses a “boundary crossing” disposition (Reiff and Bawarshi). During our final interview, Michael provides an example of what Nowacek calls “making” and “selling connections.” In discussing his FYC instructor and characteristics of an effective teacher, Michael drew on past experiences from high school, his contemporaneous experiences with a particularly inspiring Chinese Language professor, and even his knowledge of professional wrestling{2} to articulate his perspective. On the surface, Michael appears to provide a wholly positive case of transfer. However, Michael’s experience in FYC was not all good and illustrates the complexity of transfer and our need for further research, particularly in the moment-to-moment interactions where boundaries are drawn and dispositions form.

Even though Michael remained transfer-positive throughout the term, problems began midway through the term when his instructor asked an attendance question that Michael found offensive and disrespectful{3}. The instructor asked, “Have you ever been in a fight?” Michael explained to me in an interview afterwards that he “didn’t personally have a problem” with the question but was concerned that this question might be a trigger for some students. This attendance question triggered a shift in how Michael interacted with the class. While he continued to complete all the work and participate in discussions and activities, in our interviews Michael expressed increasing frustration with and decreasing respect for the instructor. Michael maintained the same kinds of sensitivity and awareness that suggest a “boundary-crossing” disposition, but it appeared as if he had established a barrier between himself and the instructor. Perhaps a way to describe this shift, again borrowing terms from Reiff and Bawarshi, is that Michael remained a “boundary-crosser” in general but became a “boundary-guarder” in the class and especially with the instructor. This implies that dispositions are not monolithic but contextual. However, I suggest that a better way to understand this phenomenon is to focus on the nature of the boundaries themselves. Doing so allows us to better account for the complexity of how students understand and interact with the space and discourse around them and their own identities. This paper sets out to extend current research on transfer with this approach, seeing boundaries not as pre-existing barriers for transfer which must be guarded or crossed, but rather as the product of the boundary-work that occurs in the interactions between discourse, identity, and matter that iteratively define the world. As a result, this paper shifts the focus from transfer, or the major movements between different spatio-temporal contexts, to micro-transfer, or the series of situated, moment-to-moment interactions (like the attendance question) when boundary-work occurs, when dispositions develop, and when people experience transfer.

The investigation of boundary-work and the moment-to-moment interactions draws on the findings from a study conducted at a large, west coast research university with the goal of contributing to our general understanding of transfer, writing instruction, and the relationship between the two. In this paper, I present an initial foray into the data and work towards a theory of micro-transfer that can better account for dispositions and boundary-work. Most importantly, this paper offers an initial taxonomy of types of boundaries based on their flexibility and permeability. Finally, as is appropriate for the genre, this paper concludes with implications for future research and teaching.

Boundary-Work and Micro-Transfer

Transfer has been a major, explicit concern for writing studies for several decades, and I would argue that it has been an implicit concern for the field since its inception as a response to the literacy crisis following the U.S. Civil War when a wave of students from the growing middle class began enrolling in universities (Brereton). Many scholars have engaged with transfer explicitly over the last 20 years and have helped us substantially develop our understanding of this complex and controversial phenomenon. For detailed accounts of the conversation surrounding transfer, I would refer the reader to Kathleen Blake Yancey, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak’s book, Writing Across Contexts, or Jessie Moore’s article, Mapping the Questions: The State of Writing-Related Transfer Research. A more condensed culmination of this research appears in the 2015 Elon Research Seminar on Critical Transitions (ERS) (Elon Statement on Writing Transfer) and the 2012 special issue of Composition Forum (Writing and Transfer). The ERS generated four major categories of transfer research that focus on different elements of transfer: “Biological Models and Dispositions,” “Communities of Practice,” “Cultural-Historical Activity Theory,” and “Threshold Concepts” (Elon Statement on Writing Transfer). Research into dispositions and threshold concepts have done the most, perhaps, to investigate the effects of boundaries on transfer, and so I will briefly discuss those theories here. Disposition is a term drawn from Bourdieu that I suggest can be seen as a habit-of-occupying a particular field in space and time. For instance, Michael’s habit-of-occupying the space of being asked questions—both in class and in interviews—involved generating a response, but first assessing why he was being asked the question{4}. Since habits-of-occupancy orient people to the world around them, including educational encounters, and since the orientation seems to determine how effectively transfer occurs, understanding disposition as part of transfer makes a good deal of sense.

Driscoll and Wells complicate our notion of disposition by pointing out its multifaceted nature and four dispositional characteristics that are important to transfer: students’ dispositions toward assigning value to the learning moment, their dispositions toward ascribing agency to themselves, their disposition toward “attributing fault,” and their disposition toward self-regulation. Considering disposition as a habit-of-occupying provides an interesting perspective on Driscoll and Wells’ findings because assigning value, ascribing agency, attributing fault, and to a lesser extent self-regulation are all part of how we occupy a particular space and depend on how that space is rendered and interpreted in students’ minds. In the same issue of Composition Forum, Elizabeth Wardle also focuses on student disposition, suggesting that students who approach questions as an opportunity to explore rather than answer are more effective learners. Her discussion is reminiscent of Sternglass when she argues that writing helps students develop “questioning” dispositions rather than “complacent” ones (295). In tasks like writing, students with the habit-of-occupying the space of a question by exploring and investigating complicating evidence will produce more complex, nuanced, and complicated texts. Both Wardle and Sternglass rightly imply that writing classes ought to help students develop this kind of disposition. Since disposition relates to how one occupies space, time, and discourse, it relates also to how boundaries define that locus, surrounding fields, and individuals that inhabit them. This study, then, focuses on the relationship between dispositions and boundaries.

It is not novel to consider boundaries in relationship to transfer. While early metaphors for transfer suggested bridges and gaps to be traversed (Perkins and Salomon), more recent discussions of transfer have shifted that understanding of the space between contexts as boundaries rather than moats, as implied by the notion of a threshold concept (Meyer and Land; Adler-Kassner, Majewski, et al.; Adler-Kassner, Clark, et al.). According to Jan H.F. Meyer and Ray Land, “[a] threshold concept can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something” (1). It is particularly noteworthy that these scholars reference a “portal” or “opening,” establishing the metaphor of a boundary or wall between different discourses. Meyer and Land go on to identify a number of threshold concepts from various disciplines, an exercise repeated for Writing Studies by Adler-Kassner, Clark, et al. in Assembling Knowledge: The Role of Threshold Concepts in Facilitating Transfer. Clearly threshold concepts are important, but beyond the threshold itself, we must also ask what is the nature of the boundary in which that threshold is embedded, and what form of gate might bar entry? If the boundary or portal is impenetrable, either due to prejudices of the student who must enter or of the discourse against the student, learning threshold concepts won’t help facilitate transfer. A simple example of this might be the lack of gender equity in Computer Science and STEM fields. In 2017, women “[made] up only 30 percent of all STEM degree holders,” even though there are approximately equal numbers of women and men with bachelor’s degrees (Women in STEM: 2017 Update | Economics & Statistics Administration). A threshold concept response would be to provide programs that help girls and women learn the threshold concepts of CS and STEM (and many such programs exist). However, this fails to account for the boundary set against women surrounding these fields. One of my study participants, Lisa, who I will introduce below, described her own challenges of simply existing as a woman in her physics classes and internships. Despite having a solid understanding of the threshold concepts, she was regularly ignored, discounted, and even had her ideas stolen compared to her male peers. Certainly, threshold concepts are important, but we must also look at the nature of boundaries so that we can better account for the effects on transfer and learning.

In discussions on boundaries in transfer, differences between theories appear largely in how they describe people encountering, transcending, crossing, or traversing boundaries. Few discussions focus on the nature of boundaries or how they’re made likely because we ascribe movement and agency to the individual person rather than the boundary. Henri LeFebvre takes post-modern theorists to task for this, and Jarrett et al. illustrate this challenge with an example of a first-year student whose FYC class was conducted in a “trailer” building. The student’s uptake of the trailer hindered their ability to take the class seriously, created a sense of alienation from FYC, and therefore frustrated their ability to learn. Jarrett et al.’s study focuses on the memory of the trailer more than the student’s interaction with the trailer in the moment. What is not explicitly discussed is how the interaction between the physical space and the student produced a boundary between the class and the student that frustrated learning. Boundary-work accounts for the way that boundaries are constituted and interact with individuals in a space.

Boundary-work is a well-developed term in social sciences and describes the kinds of work that occur in boundary spaces—often between cultures—in which difference is negotiated (Lamont). In writing studies, boundary-work is often associated with literacy (Lu M.-Z and Horner B), transculturalism (Guerra), and basic writing to refer to the way under-represented students negotiate the boundaries between past communities and academic communities. As Leonard and Nowacek suggest, there are significant connections to be made between translingualism and transfer, particularly in theorizing boundary-work. This study, however, focuses on the process by which boundaries are formed—boundary-marking—and their resulting nature. Boundary-marking is the process by which boundaries are constituted and defines how they function, both as a frontier (or perhaps an obstacle) across which information and people might or might not move, and to define the nature of the bounded entity. For instance, the boundary that defines literary studies usually includes the practice of close reading, using some critical theory as a lens and often excludes ethnography. Certainly, someone could re-mark the line contending that the field does contain ethnography as a practice, which illustrates that boundaries can move if the appropriate forces are applied. Boundaries also define ideas, identities, and bodies. A good example might be the boundary that defines the practice of revision by constraining a set of practices that count as revision, and others that do not. Studies illustrate clearly that different types of writers see revision as a different set of practices (Sommers; Sommers and Saltz). For some, the boundary that defines revision contains substantive changes, while for others it only contains revision for “error.” Likewise, boundaries define individuals in a space, time, and discourse. For instance, we might see the shift that occurred with Michael after his instructor offended him with the attendance question as a shift in the boundary line that defined the instructor from Michael’s perspective.

To theorize boundary-marking, this study turns to Karen Barad who presents a theory—“agential realism”—that is particularly useful and is being taken up by writing scholars interested in new materialist rhetoric (Guerra; Villanueva and Arola; Pflugfelder; Rickert). Barad’s theory presents an ontology that accounts for both materialist and post-modern theories, seeing the world as both material and real, but also iteratively constituted through the activity of discourse. She explains:

[P]henomena are differential patterns of mattering (‘diffraction patterns’) produced through complex agential intra-actions of multiple material-discursive practices or apparatuses of bodily production, where apparatuses are not mere observing instruments but boundary-drawing practices—specific material (re)configurings of the world—which come to matter. (Barad 140)

In the moment, boundary-work constitutes boundaries that define phenomena—or objects in the world. These boundaries are then re-drawn as the world goes through continuous moment-to-moment “(re)configurings.” Or in Barad’s words, “specific material reconfigurations of the world do not merely emerge in time, but iteratively reconfigure space-timematter as part of the ongoing dynamism of becoming” (142). This theory is compelling because it provides a “real,” substantive “world in becoming” to anchor the theories of complexity, hydrodynamics, writing ecologies, and networks emerging in writing studies (Hawk; Dobrin; Dryer and Peckham; Fleckenstein et al.; Spinuzzi). The implication of boundary-work in a world in becoming is that boundaries are not “out there” waiting to be crossed or guarded but are being defined in real-time. As a result, students attempting to integrate into an unfamiliar discipline are not actually crossing into an already-bound and demarcated discipline. Instead, they are participants in the boundary-marking work that defines that discipline, and the forces that keep students out are not boundaries but the force exerted by often biased institutional and human memory.

To focus attention on boundary-work and its moment-to-moment interactions, I want to propose a relativistic shift in our conceptualization of movement in transfer research. Traditionally, we’ve seen transfer as the movement of an individual from place-to-place. Instead, I suggest we think of transfer as a phenomenon of space moving around people. For FYC this would mean that the field of high school recedes and the field of the university washes in. This is not without precedence. King Beach proposes the notion of “heterochrony,” which states, “the general rate of change for individuals is less than that for activities, which in turn is less than that for societies” (124). “Heterochrony” is relevant to transfer and the relativistic shift I’m proposing because it juxtaposes the dynamism of the world and a relatively stable individual. One need not depart from academia to find examples of this. For instance, when we see scholars who have been in their fields for decades, we notice that some keep pace with changes in the field and continue to make contributions to it, whereas others who don’t remain rooted in a field that exists predominately in their memories, and so they gradually fall out of the disciplinary “world-in-becoming.” I argue that this struggle to remain relevant is just as strong an example of transfer as the first-year college student attempting to work their way into the university and just as great a concern for transfer research. When we look at the movement of transfer from this perspective, it becomes easier to focus on the boundary-marking that occurs constantly across time. As individuals remain closely fixed to a spatio-discursive location and interact regularly with familiar elements of the rhetorical ecosystem, they develop stabilizing memories and dispositions that make these interactions more effective.

Focusing on boundary-work and the moment-to-moment interactions that define our world is useful in that it allows us to direct our attention to the smaller-scale situated moments when dispositions form, when writing occurs, and when people experience transfer. If transfer is the phenomena by which knowledge and skills are recontextualized between spatio-temporal and discursive spaces, then micro-transfer is the specific boundary-work and interactions that accumulate across time to allow knowledge and skills to change and filtered into new spaces. Micro-transfer is the series of boundary-marking and re-marking events that occur through the moment-to-moment interactions between people, places, and discourses. As micro-transfers occur, memories—both individual and institutional—of boundary configurations accumulate in a sedimentary fashion to form identities, dispositions, and knowledge, again, both on an individual and institutional level. Sedimentation is a term that Lu and Horner explain with their reading of Judith Butler’s concept of “social iterability of practice,” which “emphasizes the conditions of possibilities of gradual sedimenting of alternative conventions—collective uptakes across time and space—of new meanings and functions” (596). In other words, language develops through repeated patterns that sediment over time. Sedimentation occurs through the interplay between language and the material conditions of the world, or as Barbara Johnstone puts it: “discourse is shaped by the world, and discourse shapes the world” (10). If we take this further following Barad’s theory, the interaction between discourse and world is not an interplay between discrete units but between entangled elements of a larger apparatus. While these scholars are talking about the sedimentation of language, this same kind of sedimentation occurs around disposition. Sedimentation and stability in the world-in-becoming occurs through the continual boundary-marking as patterns are inscribed in memory and disposition. While this stability is what produces disciplines and is necessary to growth, dispositions that are not overly protective of memory and tradition—those that are the result of engaging with various discourses regularly—are likely more beneficial for transfer.

Since boundary-work occurs in moment-to-moment interactions, this study introduces micro-transfer to describe the effect each boundary-marking act and each resulting boundary has on subsequent boundary-markings. Micro-transfer in no way is intended to supplant transfer, but rather to look closer. For instance, we might look at Michael’s interaction with his instructor over the attendance question. As the question was being asked, an inflexible boundary was marked between Michael, the instructor, and the course. The question was defined as “inappropriate,” the instructor was defined as “offensive,” and Michael was defined with increased distance from the class. This single moment affected the way in which Michael could interact with the class for the rest of the quarter, as I explained above, and once a negative trend began, it accumulated to a total lack of respect for the instructor by the end of the term.

Boundary-work and micro-transfer are useful because they allow us to focus on the nature of the boundaries themselves rather than specific knowledge and skills that students must recontextualize. It also allows us to consider the moment-to-moment interactions that occur when one integrates into a community. The boundary is crucial because it determines how rhetorical force can flow, what kind of force the student can exert on the community, and how future boundaries will be marked. When we judge an individual’s effectiveness in transfer, we are really looking at their ability to engage effectively with the apparatus of which they are a part. Additionally, when we consider micro-transfer as well as boundary-work we shift the onus for effective transfer from the individual only to the individual and the context. This is particularly relevant in work with groups, like veterans and first-generation college students who already face particularly challenging transfer environments. In addition to working to help people gain agency over their integration, we can do more by working with how students participate in boundary-work and by advocating in the community to promote openness and acceptance of difference that honors students’ various literacy practices.

The Study

The present study, conducted at a large, west coast research university, did not set out to study boundary-work or micro-transfer. Instead, following Paul Prior’s proposal, this study initially set out to trace students’ activity and learning through the stages of their FYC class using various data collection protocols and instruments, focusing especially on the moment-to-moment experiences of the students. This approach was heavily influenced by Rebecca Nowacek’s study presented in Agents of Integration: Understanding Transfer as a Rhetorical Act, in which she sought to capture a “thick slice” of student experience. At the same time, while the study set out interested in “transfer” but with a focus on micro-level interactions, it was also heavily influenced by a grounded theory. Grounded theory encourages researchers to set aside theoretical preconceptions as much as possible{5} and gradually build theory from patterns that appear organically in iteratively collected data (Chiovitti and Piran; Dey; Glaser and Strauss; Clarke; Kendall J). Therefore, this study intentionally avoided looking for evidence of transfer and instead deployed various instruments and protocols to capture the complexity of what occurs in the moment in an FYC class and how students ground themselves. As I set out, I recruited Charlotte and Gorgias as instructors who both offered their classes as potential research sites. Both instructors were teaching FYC targeting the same outcomes; however, Charlotte was teaching a literacy-themed, service-learning section of FYC, and Gorgias was teaching a section focusing on rhetoric and research. Through an IRB-approved consent process, I recruited students as focal participants, and six students completed the study. Due to space constraints, this article focuses on three of those students. Jan and Lisa were both students in Gorgias’ section, and Banana was a student in Charlotte’s section. Banana’s selection of the pseudonym “Banana” says a great deal about her personality. Jan Novak was the only male student to complete the study and selected his pseudonym after the nom-de-guerre of a Hungarian freedom-fighter. Lisa was an applied physics major taking FYC later during her college career as a junior because she’d been able to intentionally put it off.

Throughout the quarter, I collected data through ethnographic observation, weekly interviews, and analysis of all the focal participants’ major writing assignments. Since grounding theory encourages us to analyze the data iteratively and shift our data collection methods and focus as patterns emerge, weekly interviews initially followed an open-ended protocol (Appendix 1) but as the quarter progressed, the interviews became free-formed conversations. While my initial focus was on transfer generally with an interest in grounded, the data revealed that the boundaries that gave to the spatio-temporal and discursive landscapes were more important. The notion that boundaries might be flexible and that they might have different natures depending on the interactions appeared in the attendance question. For this reason, I include Michael here even though he did not complete the study. The interaction that changed the boundaries defining the class, Michael, and Gorgias from Michael’s perspective had little effect on other students like Catherine Bell who thought it was funny{6}. The rapid shift for Michael reveals that boundaries might be flexible and change over time. Further analysis of the data revealed other examples of flexible and inflexible boundaries that appear in the sections below. Through a grounded approach, the notion of flexibility and inflexibility became more refined through the analysis of these additional examples.

Table 1. A Tentative Boundary Taxonomy

Flexible-Permeable (FP)

Boundaries that changed over time and did little to constrain physical, ideological, or rhetorical flow.

Flexible-Impermeable (FI)

Boundaries that changed over time but did constrain physical, ideological, or rhetorical flow

Inflexible-Permeable (IP)

Boundaries that did not change over time but did constrain physical, ideological, or rhetorical flow.

Inflexible-Impermeable (II)

Boundaries that did not change over time and did constrain physical, ideological, or rhetorical flow.

The concept of permeability appeared quite accidentally. An inflexible boundary appeared as Jan described revision to me in our interviews. Over time, the boundary didn’t move, and yet it did not effectively constrain how he did revision. In fact, while he saw revision as only copy editing, assignments forced him to do more substantive revision without him realizing it (until I asked him about it) and never changed where the boundary defining revision was drawn. I discuss this at length below. However, in this I saw that while an inflexible boundary was drawn defining revision for Jan, that boundary did not constrain his actions, suggesting that the exigence of the assignments permeated the boundary rather than causing it to be drawn in a different, expanded place. With the notion of flexibility and permeability in boundary-work, I continued to follow the grounded theory approach and saw the four categories appear (Table 1) as I continued to analyze the data.

Boundaries collected loosely into three fields: the spatio-temporal field, the field of discourse, and the field of identity. Spatio-temporal boundaries are those that exist in material space and time. Discursive boundaries may or may not correspond to spatio-temporal boundaries and exist in the field of discourse. Finally, identity boundaries are those that identify human individuals and they cross both the discursive and temporal fields.

Inflexible-Impermeable Boundaries

Inflexible and impermeable boundaries (IF) constrain the movement of bodies, ideas, and language, and do not move over time. The most apparent example of this appeared with the boundary that appeared in the service-learning section of FYC between the in-class context and the service sites. All focal participants from this class reported this II boundary in both the spatio-temporal field and the discursive field. When asked how the service site connected to the class or if they were two separate things, all the focal participants claimed they were two “separate things,” meaning in their minds, the two were separate with no overlap or permeability. These reports were further supported by my observation. Experiences from the service sites were rarely brought up in classroom discussion or activities to any significant extent except when Charlotte prompted students and during the final weeks of the quarter when students had to present their service learning. In both cases, the students did little to make connections between the two.

These II boundaries likely were the result of the spatio-temporal distance between the class and the service sites. Moreover, the students arranged their service through the campus center for community engagement. This means that establishing the relationship with their service organization occurred in the discursive space of the center for community engagement. The boundary was further reinforced by evaluation practices, which focused more on students’ writing and mandatory portfolios rather than on their service and their ability to make connections between the service and the class. This is not to say that students didn’t gain from the service; all but one of the focal participants learned a great deal from the experience and wanted to continue in the future. This II boundary in the spatio-temporal field is perhaps inevitable just due to the material distance between sites, but the II boundary in the discursive field is significant because it prevented a greater exchange between course material and students’ real-life experiences provided by volunteerism, which the service learning program hopes to foster. In this case, perhaps the constraints of the writing program and the lack of integration between the writing program and community engagement center worked against the efforts to integrate the experience in the service discourse with the class.

If boundaries were not particularly prevalent in the data in this study. I suspect that this is because the larger context in which the study was conducted was a university, which ostensibly is a space in which students and faculty are working to expand knowledge (either their own or their field’s, respectively). Contexts that privilege learning likely privilege more flexible or permeable boundaries. II boundaries pose a significant threat to education because they prevent learning, and so if we encounter such boundaries in our classes, either as a result of poor practice or systemic injustices, they must be addressed. I do suspect that II boundaries would be much more prevalent in polarized contexts as I will discuss briefly in the conclusion.

Flexible-Impermeable Boundaries

Flexible-impermeable Boundaries (FI) are those that change over time and effectively constrain movement of ideas, bodies, and language in any given moment. Lisa, a STEM student in Gorgias’ class, provides a prime example. In her first interview, she explained, “I definitely hate [writing]. Um, I’m just not efficient at it. I get really frustrated...I really, really hate writing.” She went on to describe agonizing over word choice and correctness in literary analysis essays from high school and her resistance to taking FYC, which she put off until her junior year. Her experience with the discursive boundary defining “writing” illustrates the FI category. Initially, the boundary defining writing for Lisa included practices of finding the right words, formal correctness, identifying themes, and general unpleasantness, and being impermeable. It effectively constrained her actions. She described taking up writing tasks reluctantly, agonizing over formal details, and searching for literary themes which were non-existent in a rhetoric-based class. Fortunately, as the quarter progresses, the boundary begins to move so that the definition of writing begins to change.

The shift in this boundary began with Gorgias’ lessons on classical rhetoric during the first sequence of the class. Lisa appreciated these lessons because she saw rhetoric as a pleasant change from the literary analysis she’d done in high school writing classes. While she didn’t immediately recognize these new techniques as part of writing, she was aware enough to recognize that perhaps her understanding of writing was limited, and that these might be included. Gradually, when Lisa explained what counted as writing in our interviews, it was clear that the boundary defining writing was shifting to include rhetoric. As the boundary defining writing expanded and shifted, Lisa began to warm up to the practice and recognize that many of her own daily activities actually were already “writing.” She explains, “As someone who’s in the sciences, I definitely do this in day-to-day life with friends.” In other words, she recognizes that she does rhetoric both verbally and in writing with her friends in her physics classes as they debate concepts. Through her interaction with Gorgias’ class, the boundary and Lisa’s understanding of writing expanded to include these kinds of literacy practices. What’s more, as this boundary expanded, Lisa gained “writing” as a way to explain practices she’d already been doing.

The boundary is impermeable because Lisa’s practice in FYC was bound or constrained by what she understood “writing” to be. Early in the quarter, her writing practice focused mainly on getting the words right and she reported writing as an agonizing process with numerous “thesaurus tabs open.” By the end of the quarter, in her portfolio reflection, Lisa reports: “what used to take four or five hours to write a three-page paper now takes one or two hours with even better quality of work. Overall, this class helped boost my overall confidence in my writing flow and structure, my argument abilities, and my efficiency with written assignments.” Lisa’s reflection echoes what she told me in interviews and clearly illustrates the expanding boundary defining “writing” and that her understanding of and appreciation for writing improved dramatically. Moreover, Lisa’s experience, perhaps more than that of any other focal participant, demonstrates learning and its mechanism. I will discuss the implications at length in the final section, but at this point we see that Lisa’s knowledge of writing is a discursive boundary that identifies that which is part of writing and that which is not part of writing. At any given moment, her understanding of writing, defined by the discursive boundary, constrains her actions. At the same time, her understanding of writing changes over time through interactions with Gorgias and the class. By teaching perhaps unfamiliar rhetorical techniques in a writing class, Gorgias disrupted the boundary defining writing in students’ memories and encouraged (re)drawing of that boundary.

Inflexible-Permeable Boundaries

Permeable boundaries appeared first in analysis of Jan’s interviews, and such boundaries do not constrain action or movement. The instance that appeared in the data that revealed the concept of permeability is the discursive boundary that defines revision for Jan. Not unlike many students in FYC, Jan entered his FYC class having written most papers as “one shot deals” and saw revision as the process of copy editing, meaning the boundary defining revision contained strategies and skills of error-checking. Explaining how he felt about being forced to revise in this writing program, Jan responded thoughtfully: “It’s different. It’s like, why would you? If you put in a lot of effort in the beginning to write something, like why would you have to revise it? Like intuitively. But, I know that if there’s [sic] many mistakes you make the first time you go [then you might have to fix some things].” Jan retains the notion that revision is pointless or at best for fixing “mistakes” (i.e. copy editing). His understanding of revision does not change throughout the quarter. This means that the boundary is inflexible. However, looking at the work Jan does, he makes major, substantive changes to his writing. In the first assignment sequence, which asks students to write a letter to the editor, rebut a peer’s, and revise their own following the rebuttal, Jan significantly shifts his tone and makes major, substantive changes in his revision. The original and revision are included as Appendix 2. In the original version, Jan takes a polemical, even condescending tone as he describes environmentalists protesting the Keystone XL pipeline as being in a “chaotic frenzy” and the pipeline being a “no-brainer.” In the revision, he removes such language and focuses instead on the logical argument for the pipeline.

In our interviews throughout the quarter, Jan forcefully articulates the boundary defining revision as a practice does not include substantive changes, even though he clearly makes them. This suggests that while the boundary exists in a fixed position, it does not constrain Jan’s action. I describe this as permeable. Toward the end of the quarter, I asked Jan to account for the revisions he made that didn’t seem to work with his definition of revision. Instead of allowing the boundary defining revision to change, he articulated a new discursive boundary called “total revisions” as distinct from “revisions.”

This example represents a critical breakthrough in this study and illustrates the value of grounded theory. As I suggested above, following the grounded approach, I Initially set aside my theoretical frameworks and attempted to look at what happened in interactions in an FYC class and how that might relate to learning or students’ abilities to ground themselves in the field. It quickly became clear that these interactions were not “grounding” but rather boundary-marking. As I gathered and analyzed data, I saw that boundaries change over time. I include Michael, even though he did not complete the study, because his experience clearly demonstrates a changing boundary. However, when I was trying to account for Jan’s experience with revision, the data did not seem to fit with the patterns I’d seen in boundary-work up to this point. Clearly a boundary was being drawn, and it wasn’t moving, but it also was not constraining Jan’s actions—even if he didn’t recognize it. Since the boundary was not constraining Jan’s actions, I suspected that while he saw the boundary, the force exerted by the assignment prompt and Jan’s peer feedback forced Jan’s performance of revision to permeate the boundary defining it. This data suggested that beyond flexible and inflexible, a taxonomy of boundaries had to also include permeability. Permeability as a boundary feature was reinforced by Banana’s letter to her service organization, which I discuss at length in the next section.

Flexible-Permeable Boundaries

As I embarked on this study, I believed that more flexibility and more movement would generally be very positive for writing and acquisition of writing skills. After all, many of the transfer studies before this have praised “boundary-crossers” and students with rhetorical flexibility (Elon Statement on Writing Transfer; Nowacek; Reiff and Bawarshi). As the taxonomy presented here formed, I suspected that flexible and permeable boundaries (FP) would be very positive for transfer. However, as the data analysis repeatedly revealed, things were a bit more complicated than that. FP boundaries are those that change over time and that allow for the flow of ideas, bodies, and language. Banana provides a particularly interesting example of how FP boundaries appear in her second major paper included in its entirety as Appendix 3. This assignment asked students to write a proposal in the form of a letter to their service organizations about what the student learned and how the organization might improve. In the text, we can see that Banana begins and ends her letter within the formal constraints of the genre. In other words, she recognizes the discursive boundary that defines the letter genre and what it includes. In addition to the salutation and sign-off, Banana uses the second person, directly addressing her audience. These are all characteristics of what we would generally call the letter genre. At the same time, embedded in the letter is a clearly written five-paragraph essay, which Banana reported having learned to write prior to college. This begins in the second half of the first sentence in paragraph three: “I would like to suggest one interactive way to help tackle the struggle students have in completing their homework...” This sentence and the following sentence serve as a thesis for the embedded five-paragraph essay. The following three paragraphs provide three reasons that support her argument for this new system and include citations of scholarly articles. The final paragraph serves as a conclusion, beginning with the words “In conclusion...” and serves as a sign-off for the letter. At the very end, Banana includes an MLA formatted works cited page. This example is fascinating because clearly Banana is aware of the boundary defining a formal letter. However, her main understanding of academic writing and making an academic argument likely is the five-paragraph essay. As a result, the knowledge contained within the boundary in the discursive field that defines the five-paragraph essay permeates into the discursive space that guides Banana’s understanding of the letter genre. In a sense, the boundary defining the letter is permeable enough for Banana to draw on other skills and strategies from another genre. That this appears as a five-paragraph essay permeated into a letter is very interesting and perhaps a way that future research might identify permeable boundaries.

Considering our goal of helping students become more flexible in their abilities to manage a variety of genres and writing contexts and of eliminating boundaries that might be obstacles to students, it is interesting that the most flexible variety of boundary that this study discovered leads to such frustration in the student. For instance, had Charlotte been a less effective and supportive teacher, it is possible that Banana might have remained in a state of frustration and like Michael, her disposition toward writing could have easily shifted to avoidance. This frustration stemmed directly from the lack of solid boundaries, especially in the field of discourse to define writing and the rhetorical situations of the class.

Conclusion and Implications

At the beginning, I suggested that transfer in general terms is related to the application of knowledge and skills learned in one context to another context and involves both adaptation and transformation, which are central to current transfer theory (DePalma and Ringer, Nowacek). Transfer is a phenomenon that occurs across a series of interactions between identities, discourses, and material objects, which means that application, adaptation, and transformation all occur across a sequence of boundary-marking events. Research that applies the taxonomy presented here to transfer could look at the nature and effects of the cluster and sequence of marked boundaries and how they promote or frustrate application, adaptation, and transformation. For instance, Lisa’s understanding of writing transformed as the discursive boundary defining the phenomenon expanded or flexed over time. This transformation allowed her to better apply—or more precisely adapt—the knowledge and skills that she had gained about argumentation to the assignments in her FYC class. Additionally, her identity was transformed from a person who “hates” writing to someone who could do writing effectively; this transformation was possible because the boundary defining her identity was sufficiently flexible. Banana entered her FYC course believing herself to be a proficient writer—which is a feature of the boundary defining her identity. As she encounters unfamiliar writing tasks, she reports feeling confused, lost, and frustrated, and her displayed emotions reflect that this was a sometimes-fraught experience. This suggests that these writing tasks and the feedback she receives force her to adapt herself and her understanding of writing—both defined by boundaries—to the new context. Gradually, Banana adapts, and her understanding of writing transforms to include both what she knew as writing in high school and what she was learning in college. Investigating the boundary-work that occurs during adaptation or transformation could be a quite fruitful avenue for future research.

At this point, I want to discuss the initial but substantial implications of the taxonomy proposed here to both research and teaching. From a research perspective, boundary-work and micro-transfer encourage us to focus our data collection on the moment-to-moment lives of students because transfer and learning occur within and across these moments. As a result, the specific mechanism by which they occur could be revealed clearly by tracing boundary-work across these moments; Paul Prior again gives us a good model for doing this kind of tracing work. While longitudinal studies that trace boundary-work across time can provide us with solid qualitative data that reveals much about unique student experiences, they do not necessarily generalize. To achieve generalizable results, we might focus on a single boundary, or a set of discrete boundaries, and gather a large, representative sample of those boundaries. This could be as simple as asking a representative sample of students to describe writing at the beginning of their FYC class. Researchers have already begun turning toward quantitative methods and corpus analysis approaches (Dryer; Dryer and Peckham; Johanek). Digital tools like the Natural Language Toolkit or Spacy—both Python libraries for Natural Language Processing that require only minimal experience with Python—could facilitate the analysis of larger data sets. In the above example, one might extract adjectives used to describe writing either as a noun or a verb. In addition to relying on student writing and reflection, we might also use tools like key-logging, use-logging, and eye-tracking as students participate in boundary-work. These methods have been used extensively in applied linguistics, and they present great potential for transfer and micro-transfer research. By deploying these kinds of techniques in addition to the other qualitative methods, we stand to gain an unprecedented glimpse into micro-transfer and writing-as-it-happens. Even more ambitious studies might follow applied linguistics and establish partnerships with scholars in neuroscience to attempt to see what is physically occurring when a student is writing.

The most important research implication is rooted in the taxonomy itself. It is certainly far from complete. This study has identified 4 categories of boundaries across three fields; however, clearly the categories represent a spectrum rather than discrete categories. Studies might expand our understanding of each category, the delineating boundaries between them, and the nature of the boundaries that group within each. For instance, since no boundary is purely permeable or impermeable, can we measure degrees of permeability? Can we measure how far a boundary might flex? What conditions predicate flexibility and permeability? I also see great potential to apply this taxonomy to other, non-academic boundary-marking spaces, including those where we might find more impermeable and inflexible boundaries, or in contexts where boundaries are being actively contested. Finally, this study only looks at two characteristics of boundaries—flexibility and impermeability—but I suspect that there are additional characteristics that might be identified and examined.

Beyond research, this study presents significant implications for teaching and learning. I present these implications in response to the work done by Ambrose in How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, one of the best books I’ve seen on the phenomena of teaching and learning. They identify learning as a “process” that “involves change in knowledge, beliefs, behaviors, or attitudes” and that “is the direct result of how students interpret and respond to their experiences—conscious and unconscious, past and present” (3). From this definition of learning, the authors develop seven principles of learning that can ground our teaching practice. I want to speak to a few of those here that are particularly related to boundary-work. The first principle, which is most directly related to transfer, explains that “prior knowledge can help or hinder learning” (4). Prior knowledge depends upon boundaries marked in the field of discourse insofar as an individual’s knowledge is defined by the discourse they inhabit. These boundaries give definition to that body of knowledge. For instance, Lisa’s knowledge of writing is defined by the boundary that distinguishes what counts as writing and what does not. Over the quarter, that boundary moves, suggesting that while initially her prior knowledge could have hindered her learning in FYC, she was able to build on that prior knowledge and even consciously move the boundary of writing. Not only does prior knowledge affect learning, but the nature of the boundary that defines that knowledge determines what effect that knowledge has. In terms of teaching, this means recognizing that knowledge is defined by boundaries in the field of discourse and so learning involves a change to an individual’s experience in discourse. In other words, learning is not just about adding information, but is about redefining one’s understanding of the world and the boundary-lines that define it. Therefore, and in agreement with Ambrose et. al., teachers need to concern themselves with these boundaries and how they influence how students encounter new definitions of concepts.

The second principle that I want to discuss has to do with student motivation. Motivation is broken into eight categories depending on whether the environment is supportive or not, whether the learners see value in the material, and their sense of efficacy in that space (i.e. do they feel like they can learn it?) (80-81). The two most striking examples in this study in terms of motivation were Michael and Banana. Michael shifted from seeing value and appreciating Gorgias’ instruction to continuing to see value but disrespecting Gorgias after the attendance question. In Ambrose et al.’s categories, Michael would be expressing a “defiant” disposition. This disposition manifested as an II boundary that was marked between Michael and the class in the field of identity and discourse. Recognizing Michael as defiant is useful, but understanding that this defiance is related to an II boundary can help us consider how an instructor might intervene in the boundary-work to adjust the boundary, so it is less impermeable or inflexible. For instance, had Michael said something about the issue or if Gorgias recognized that the attendance question might have been perceived as offensive, he could have apologized (a rhetorical move that I suspect softens boundaries) or acknowledged that the question might’ve been inappropriate. A change from either might have changed Michael’s trajectory in the class. The point here is not that Gorgias and Michael had this unspoken conflict, but rather that teachers and students will inevitably do things in class that contribute to counter-productive boundary-work, and as teachers we should be aware of this and attempt to mitigate it when it does occur. In practical terms, taking trigger warnings seriously might be a start. The second example, Banana, did not experience a shift in the feeling of support in the environment. Charlotte always appeared supportive to her. Instead, she had a major shift in her feeling of efficacy, and in Ambrose et al.’s terms, she moved from “motivated” to “fragile.” The FP boundary that manifests in this shift suggests that a student’s sense of efficacy is strongly affected by a boundary. In Banana’s case, the boundary of writing became so flexible and permeable that she had trouble grasping what writing was at all, and she even struggled to maintain some sense that it was valuable. Fortunately, since the environment remained supportive, the boundary of writing became more rigid and impermeable toward the end of the quarter, and she was able to leave with a high level of motivation. Unfortunately, for a number of weeks during the quarter, her motivation waned and her experience in class was less pleasant. I suggest that students understanding of the nature of the environment—supportive or hostile—depends on the spatio-temporal, discursive, and identity boundaries that define it. Likewise, since boundaries define the subject matter of the class, they also determine whether a student will see value in it and feel efficacious in learning it. Teachers can work to ensure that for each student the environment is defined as supportive. They can pay attention to how they contribute to the boundary-work that defines the environment for each student. Additionally, as with the previous principle, teachers can account for how the boundaries form that define the knowledge and skills that they are teaching and the experiences that student can have.

The final principle that I hope to discuss relates to students’ level of development. This principle relates directly to motivation because students’ levels of social and intellectual development play a major role in how supportive or unsupportive they perceive the environment to be and their sense of efficacy and value. For instance, many traditional students in universities are fairly young. Often, they have entered our classes directly from high school and lack any experience of the world or careers outside of school. If these students were privileged enough that college was inevitable from a very young age, as is the case for many—but not all—traditional students, they may take a university education for granted and their sense of value might reflect that. On the other hand, non-traditional students often come back to university after years—sometimes decades—of experience in the world of work. These students often have developed further and have a very different way of defining value. As a result, their motivation and their interaction with the climate of the classroom is different. In terms of this study, student development is directly related to identity boundaries. Identity boundaries define students’ sense of self and how they relate to the surrounding spatio-temporal and discursive fields. As Ambrose et al. suggest, “[s]tudents between the ages of seventeen and twenty-two are undergoing momentous changes” including living “independently from parents”, managing unfamiliar social interactions, dealing with their own money, and in general interacting with the various experiences that they encounter with much less direct support from more developed individuals. This means, in terms of boundaries, that the boundary-work defining student identities is particularly fraught and tumultuous. As a result, the boundaries that define their identities may be particularly flexible or permeable, but more importantly, students may not have well established boundary patterns that can be readily marked in the moment-to-moment interactions of life. Teachers would do well to recognize this, and while they may not consider their role as helping students build their identities, students—while learning the material—will be attempting to establish their identity in the context of school or even simply in this class. In the case of all of the students in this study, their sense of identity—as writers and as members of class—determines how they interact with the material, their peers, and the instructor and therefore have a significant impact on their learning.

Transfer research has come a long way and reached a solid foundation with the ERS, and boundaries have been implicitly or explicitly discussed in much of that research. This study suggests that we not only consider boundaries as pre-existing obstacles that should be traversed or surmounted, but more importantly that boundaries are marked in the moment-to-moment interactions that define the world-in-becoming. Moreover, we must consider the nature of the boundaries in various fields, their flexibility, and their permeability. Understanding the nature of boundaries and how they form has significant implications for both future research and teaching, and I offer this study and the included taxonomy as a tentative stepping off point.


  1. Informants of this study self-selected pseudonyms as per IRB reviewed protocols. (Return to text.)

  2. Michael references the inspiration that Macho Man Randy Savage reported receiving from Hulk Hogan to describe the kind of inspiration he received from good teachers. (Return to text.)

  3. It’s worth noting that none of my other informants had any problem with this question. (Return to text.)

  4. While this habit is tremendously useful for learning in school, it did result in less “natural” responses in terms of my study because he made an effort to answer the questions in a way that would achieve my goals or satisfy my purpose of asking them. (Return to text.)

  5. It is impossible to set aside theory completely insofar as research site and data collection methods are inevitably implicated (Dey; Clarke). (Return to text.)

  6. Catherine Bell was another focal participant who is not included here. (Return to text.)

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