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Composition Forum 45, Fall 2020

Considering Students’ Experiences with Disciplinary Tensions in our Program Development

Catherine Forsa, Brian Hendrickson, and Dahliani Reynolds

Abstract: In expanding our minor in Professional and Public Writing (PPW), we drew on scholarship exploring tensions inherent in the field’s efforts to understand and present itself as a cohesive, yet capacious, discipline. Missing from the scholarship are the voices of students. To fill this gap, we conducted focus group interviews with PPW students at Roger Williams University. Our findings suggest that disciplinary tensions surrounding conceptions of writing are echoed in students’ perceptions of their experiences and how they understand themselves as writers. Even as they assert the importance of good writing skills in the workplace, they express an appreciation for courses in which writing for a variety of audiences is conceptualized as complex and flexible. Understanding the tension between these beliefs about writing holds significant implications for our future program development, especially with curriculum and recruitment. It can also help other programs as they expand their offerings.

With the development of the major in Rhetoric and Composition (Rhet-Comp), scholars have begun to consider how tensions inherent to our field’s ongoing self-conceptualization inform degree program design, and vice versa. In her analysis of Rhet-Comp’s evolution from field to discipline, Kathleen Blake Yancey observed that “with a major, we become more disciplinary” (27), a turn toward cohesion wherein scholars work to understand and present Rhet-Comp as having a clear, recognizable identity. The scholarly terrain of our discipline is marked by our doctoral programs, journals, monograph press series, conferences, etc. At the same time, Yancey pointed out that this cohesion is accompanied by a stubbornly proud commitment “to the capaciousness of the discipline” (31). This capaciousness is evident in our undergraduate degree programs, wherein there is wide variability in what we call such programs and how we design curricula. Even more, disciplinary scholarship evidences a continuing interest in expansive approaches to the study and practice of writing. Yancey acknowledged, however, that this tension between cohesion and capaciousness is more than a byproduct of the development of undergraduate degree programs in Rhet-Comp: it is “closely bound to our historical identity” (30). Interpreted thusly, tensions surrounding conceptions of writing—such as between Rhet-Comp’s cohesion and capaciousness—that arise in undergraduate degree programs should be studied to better understand both recent developments in and foundational characteristics of our discipline. These tensions should especially be studied in terms of how students experience them.

In our case at Roger Williams University (RWU), a mid-sized, private, comprehensive university in New England, we chose to explore these disciplinary tensions surrounding conceptions of writing because our program in Professional and Public Writing (PPW) is at an inflection point.{1} Now in its seventh year, the PPW minor and core concentration have grown significantly, with approximately 60 students at the time of our study, but our growth appears to have peaked. As we seek to develop growth potential for the program, whether through revising the curriculum and/or through expanding the minor into a major, we reviewed the literature on undergraduate writing degree programs to learn from our colleagues about how to nurture our program into its next stage. It was also important to us that we consider our students’ experiences in the program, so we conducted a series of focus groups to talk with them about their perceptions of the program and what they would want to see in future program development. What we found, somewhat to our surprise, was that the disciplinary tensions we read about in the scholarship were also prevalent in our students’ discussion. For instance, our study reveals that students in our PPW program internalize the tension as one between skills-based messages about the importance of good writing in the workplace and their own emergent conceptualizations of writing as a complex, situated, and capacious activity. These findings about students’ conceptions of writing, and/or their experiences with writing, have significant implications for how we are making decisions about the future of our program; outside our own program development, we argue that students’ experiences should play a larger role in our scholarship on undergraduate writing degree programs.

It is no surprise that students in writing programs internalize disciplinary tensions. Greg A. Giberson and Thomas A. Moriarty argued that undergraduate writing majors “can and should be understood as micro-manifestations of the discipline itself” (2). Literature on undergraduate degree programs in Rhet-Comp described various iterations of the discipline’s tensions with a common theme regarding what our commitments are and who gets to determine them. On the one hand, we readily embrace our commitments to cultivating critically engaged citizens through general education. On the other, we are resistant to others narrowly defining us in terms of our service to the institution or as providing skills-based, vocational instruction.{2} This tension in understanding our disciplinary commitments can result in undergraduate degree programs that are either expansive in their curricula (such that students might have difficulty conceptualizing writing in ways that will aid transferability) or more narrowly framed as professional or technical writing (in ways that, as our study suggests, may unintentionally support commonplace messages about skills-based writing). Our study shows that students are internalizing this very tension as they move through degree requirements.

Tracing how disciplinary tensions in Rhet-Comp manifest in undergraduate degree programs can therefore serve as a study in how our program (and, more generally, the discipline) self-conceptualize and talk about ourselves to others. Elizabeth Wardle theorized that both individuals and fields inhabit dispositions, with fields “often structured so as to produce particular individual dispositions that are amenable to orthodoxy and, even better for the dominant groups, that lack the linguistic and critical tools to question” (par. 6). While Wardle posited that the critical study of language and rhetoric can serve as an antidote, we ought to be critical of whether the degree programs we design are critically interrogating both foundational and newly emerging disciplinary tensions in ways that serve our students and Rhet-Comp more generally, or whether our programs are uncritically reproducing them.

Despite the attention it has given to tensions as disciplinary micro-manifestations, the literature on undergraduate degree programs in Rhet-Comp has yet to sufficiently explore how diverse conceptions of writing—from skills based to complex, situated, and flexible—manifest in students’ understanding of those programs and their own emergent identities as writers. Acknowledging the importance to students of outward-facing programmatic coherence, Matthew Livesey and Julie Watts offered an in-depth account of their degree program’s rationale and implementation, but they didn’t provide a detailed account of students’ perceptions of their program’s identity or their own identities. While undergraduate degree programs in Rhet-Comp are surely surveying their current and former students on their learning experiences, very few detailed studies have appeared in publication. One notable exception would be Amy Clements et al.’s description of an alumni survey that affirmed their program’s synthesis of humanities-informed concerns, such as disciplinary capaciousness and authorial creativity, with practical concerns, such as job placement and career readiness. The results they share do not, however, lend themselves to analyzing students’ conceptions of themselves and their experiences in the program.

What might richer student accounts of their experiences in our undergraduate degree programs teach us about the manner in which we consciously or unconsciously reify disciplinary tensions in our students’ conceptualizations of writing? We came to this question after conducting focus groups with students enrolled in our independent writing department’s minor and core concentration in Professional and Public Writing.{3} We set out to learn about students’ perceptions of the transferability of what they were learning and its impact on their writerly identities—and what it means for our program, especially as we are looking to expand from a minor to a major. In the following sections of this program profile, we analyze one unexpected finding from these interviews: a pronounced tension in individual students’ conceptions of the value of what they were learning. As we describe below, students indicated they chose the PPW minor largely because they expected to gain valuable skills for the workplace. These students clearly stated their desire for professional and technical writing classes to help them stand out when applying for jobs. However, even as these students expressed interest in professional and technical writing courses, they indicated a strong appreciation for the non-professionally aligned writing courses they found themselves in due to limitations of course scheduling. These courses, which they might not have otherwise chosen to take, provided them both clearer and more expansive conceptions of writing. We argue that these unacknowledged and unresolved tensions in our students’ conceptions of writing (and of themselves as writers) are significant findings to consider as we work to better shape our writing program and students’ experiences in it.

Institutional and Program Context

The PPW program is housed in the Department of Writing Studies, Rhetoric, and Composition at Roger Williams University. Although the university’s demographics are slowly changing, the undergraduate population at the main campus is predominantly residential, with traditional-aged students, most of whom are white. Students follow a directed self-placement protocol to select the first of their two writing courses, typically beginning with a first-year writing course (How Writing Works); they select their second writing course based on interest and availability.{4}

Our department has always been an independent unit but for many years was limited in its ability to grow, as the general education Writing Program was its singular responsibility. A department-sponsored 2011 survey of university faculty suggested that improving writing on campus required a greater university-wide commitment and intensified presence of the department. In response, the department developed a proposal for a new PPW minor and core concentration as a cohesive way to speak to these concerns, putting it forward in 2012 for curriculum review:

This minor aims to prepare students to write confidently and effectively in professional and public situations. Students can choose to focus on professional writing, where they analyze and produce genres required by employers; public writing, where they study and engage in meaningful social action through written texts; or a combination of courses tailored to the student’s own interests. Students will write purposefully, imaginatively, and persuasively in, across, and beyond their college courses. In alignment with several of RWU’s Core Values, this minor fosters preparation for careers and future study, collaboration of students and faculty in research, commitment to local and global communities, and the promotion of civil discourse.

A 2012 Program Review conducted by the Writing Program Administrators Consultant Evaluators supported our plans for a minor, noting that the design offered several advantages: it is “résumé-able,” “suited to the pre-professional bent of many ... undergraduates,” and “taps both university and writing faculty’s interest in promoting civil and civic discourse.”

Adding courses that focused on writing for public audiences, civic purposes, and rhetorically sophisticated professional situations meant that we could offer students more flexibility in meeting their writing requirements. The minor was thus designed for students to select coursework to meet their personal and professional interests. Many of our PPW students come from business, legal studies, and criminal justice, with a smaller subset from the sciences. Only a handful of our students major in the humanities. A significant number of PPW students are double majors and/or double minors, as they aim to curate a range of professional identities. It is important to note that our PPW students are minors and core concentrators, not majors. They select PPW because they believe it will help them in their future professions—for which they will likely do a lot of writing, but in which they will not identify as professional writers. And they certainly will not be going on to graduate programs in Rhet-Comp.

Conducting the Study

The department is considering next steps and whether we want to develop a PPW major. We wanted to get feedback from our students about their experiences in PPW and how they saw their identities as writers developing through their coursework. We received approval from our university’s Human Subjects Review Board{5} to run audio-recorded focus groups in an attempt to ascertain:

  1. what if any role their experiences as PPW minors or core concentrators play in the formation of their identities as writers;

  2. how if at all they are using or planning to use what they are learning in their writing courses in other contexts.

We ran three focus groups in Spring 2018 and 2019, with a total of 21 participants, both minors and core concentrators, recruited via email and in-class announcements. We developed an open-ended interview protocol aimed at understanding the students’ facilities with learning transfer and their developing identities as writers.

We recognize that any research methodology has advantages and limitations. Conducting focus groups provided an opportunity for students to share their experiences and have their voices heard by faculty in the program. It also provided an occasion for students to participate in a shared activity with other PPW students. At the same time, we are all professors in the PPW program, which meant we were conducting focus groups with our own students. We rotated facilitation of the focus groups in an attempt to ensure that none of us led a focus group with students who were concurrently enrolled in our courses, but logistics meant that this was not always feasible. Although it is likely that the social dynamics of a focus group inhibited some students’ responses, it appeared that hearing others critically reflecting on their own experiences encouraged students to share their thoughts.

In Summer 2019, we used QSR’s NVivo 12, qualitative data analysis software, to analyze student transcripts through processes that Michael Quinn Patton describes as deductive and inductive coding (541-546). Whereas deductive analysis involves coding snippets of transcript text in accordance with their relevance to predesigned research questions, inductive analysis involves coding snippets in accordance with themes that emerge through the process of analysis. As such, our initial deductive analysis involved coding transcripts in accordance with three major thematic categories—or “nodes” as NVivo describes them—derived from the guiding questions that informed our entire research protocol, including the focus group questions we asked students:

  • Identity: both students’ disciplinary identity in relation to their major(s) and their writerly identity as related to the PPW program

  • Motivation: why they selected the PPW minor/core concentration

  • Transfer: how they used the knowledge and skills gained from their PPW classes for other writing situations

Once we had coded relevant student comments in accordance with these three major thematic categories, we then conducted two more rounds of inductive coding analysis in which we identified two levels of subcategories within each major thematic category. For instance, in our second round of coding, we broke the major thematic category of transfer into subcategories that identified what transferred (concepts or skills) and where it transferred (curriculum, co-curriculum, profession). In our third round of coding analysis, we broke our second-level categories down into additional subcategories to identify, for instance, the particular sorts of concepts that transferred (audience, genre, narrative, process, purpose, style).

In doing this coding, we began to notice significant tensions regarding how students conceptualized their writerly identities and writing more generally. This unexpected finding led us to refine our research questions and conduct one more round of inductive coding analysis, this time to identify the tensions we were beginning to notice manifesting consciously or unconsciously within a given student’s account of their identity as a writer and learning experience in PPW. Although we started out by inferring from our previous rounds of coding a number of potential thematic categories of tensions, this final round of analysis resulted in us coding most student comments according to tensions between (1) more complex and skills-based conceptions of writing, and (2) appreciation for a wider and narrower range of writing experiences in their PPW coursework.

In the following section, we interpret representative coded remarks within the context of what our analysis revealed: students chose PPW because they believed it would be useful to their future professions, providing marketable workplace “skills.” They identified courses like Technical Writing, Critical Writing for the Professions, and Writing for Business Organizations as especially valuable courses. However, while they entered the program wanting to focus on workplace writing, they found a variety of writing courses that ranged far afield from traditional conceptions of professional writing. And students enjoyed this variability of focus and genre, finding it valuable to their developing expertise while also frequently identifying these courses as where they developed more complex conceptions of writing. Yet, even as it was these other courses they privileged in their comments during the focus group, they still claimed to want greater opportunities to “focus” on professional writing.

Analyzing Tensions

We surmised that most PPW students chose the minor to enhance their employment prospects, given widespread cultural messages about the importance of good writing skills in the workplace. And this was, in fact, a major—if not primary—determinant in most students’ decision to minor in PPW. What we did not expect to find is that those same students, even as they repeatedly articulated the narrative about good writing skills, also indicated a strong appreciation for the variety and range of classes they encountered, even ones such as Travel Writing or Art of the Essay that they initially dismissed as irrelevant to professional or workplace writing.

In the focus group, most students explained they chose PPW because it complemented their majors and future career plans, which fits in with their belief that PPW’s professional focus is its core value. For instance, senior marketing major Natalie{6} shared, “People in the industry have said ... that your writing skills should be on point when you’re going into the business world.” She continued, “My advisor really pushed it as well. It’s a good complement to marketing since you’re writing content a lot, especially with email marketing, digital marketing.” While we are encouraged by the degree to which students and their advisors in general perceived PPW as relevant to their major coursework and future careers, students did not really explain how their writing knowledge would transfer or express the specific ways that writing works in these fields.

In keeping with students’ career focus, senior accounting student Aria chose mostly professionally-oriented courses such as Writing for Business Organizations that fit within “the mindset of professional business writing.” Aria shared that her advisor sparked her interest in PPW: “My advisor was really heavy on pushing [PPW] for our core concentration. He said it really complements business, and, in accounting, we’d be writing ninety percent of the time, so it was really something that we should look into.” She anticipated that PPW would help her stand out from other job candidates and produce strong cover letters.

Sophomore public relations major Ariana made a similar point in selecting PPW to help her excel at her major: “Writing is a big part of the public relations major, so it just goes along, cohesion with that.” Senior psychology major Maya also explained that she chose PPW when she realized “there’s a lot of writing that goes on with psych.” Junior criminal justice major Brett is considering a career in law and presented a similar perspective:

I’m considering different paths in my life ... a law or a policing kind of path. And in both of those communication is key. Whether it’s verbal more on the policing side or written in the law. And I think in both of those, knowing how to write well and understanding what you’re saying, who you’re saying it to, and how you’re going to say it is really important.

Across these examples, writing emerges as a tool that students can apply in their major courses and future careers, even if they don’t say exactly how.

Chris, a senior finance major, pointed out that his professors, leaders of campus clubs, his parents, and “other adults [who] are in the same field” emphasized how important writing is in the workplace. He received this message over and over again, and he saw how PPW—and especially professionally-oriented courses like Writing for Business Organizations and Critical Writing for the Professions—“would be important to [his] finance degree.” Chris therefore chose courses that seemed most useful to his major, and he observed that many other students do the same: “You see these titles and what’s in them, and that brings in business students, because that’s something useful to them.” Likewise, junior Mike, also a finance major, shared that he chose PPW because it could help him with his major. In fact, he chose his writing classes by assessing whether they had “any relevance in the business world.” He identified professionally-oriented writing courses as providing valuable skills that would give him an “advantage” among other job applicants. Like Chis, Mike described PPW in terms of its usefulness. He pointed out that “[writing is] not very well mastered by a lot of people in the business world, so I thought I would get an advantage” by minoring in PPW.

Senior accounting major Morgan also discussed how PPW “really complemented everything else on my résumé,” and added that it had been a valuable talking point in interviews: “I would always bring up writing because all the jobs that I was applying for—they’re accounting positions—but I really wanted to push that, when it comes down to it, I can write clearly and effectively.” Ariana made a similar claim in pointing out that she “feel[s] more confident” in interviews when talking about her “writing experience” and anticipated that taking more writing courses would help her acquire “some leverage when getting jobs.” And in more generic terms, junior biology major Miranda anticipated how PPW “would give me an edge over other applications because it’s different and you still need [writing] in science.”

Students frequently discussed PPW as something that will distinguish them not just in the job search but on the job as well. Senior architect major Rachel knew “how important it is in architecture to be able to write well because there are so many people who have great ideas and cannot express them.” But rarely did students explain how what they’ve learned in PPW will help them do so. For some students, this ambiguity might come from a more general sense of the applicability of the skills they’re acquiring in PPW. Senior management major Jake, for instance, introduced himself to the focus group by saying, “I chose to minor in writing just because ... I just wanted to improve my skills.” Jake saw value in PPW, but notably, he identified this value as coming from a general improvement of writing “skills.”

Like Jake, most students demonstrated a strong attachment to their majors in talking about them throughout the focus group, choosing the word “skills” to describe the significance of writing in the fields they aspire to work in. Junior economics major Edmund knew that employers will be looking for these skills in the hiring process. Natalie knew that people’s “writing skills” need to be strong “when [they’re] going into the business world,” and senior management major Nick knew that writing is “a skill that would be central for my future.”

We were struck by how often students used phrasing related to “skills” to describe the value of their work in writing courses. Given that our first question to students asked why they initially chose PPW, it makes sense that their responses might not offer more complex conceptions of how writing will work in future jobs. This language could also come from larger conversations in the media or on campus about the importance of skills. However, as we analyzed our findings, we realized that our curriculum must inadvertently (or implicitly) support the message about the importance of workplace writing skills that dominates most extra-disciplinary discourse about writing. It is not surprising, then, that students use this language of skills to articulate their learning. Students clearly understand that writing is an important skill gained from their time in PPW, but we realized that perhaps they are not receiving the opportunity to meaningfully interrogate what they mean when they say “skills” or why these skills are so important. Indeed, few students elaborated on what “skills” meant or how these skills would actually transfer to future careers. This oversight is not the fault of students; it is something noteworthy to explore and consider, though, in terms of our own program design.

Students’ reliance on skills-based terminology could also be attributed in part to the challenges of forward-reaching transfer wherein students need to imagine future as-yet-unknown contexts. Scholarship on transfer explores how forward-reaching transfer can be challenging. Dana Lynn Driscoll explains that this type of transfer requires that students “anticipate future situations where they may need the knowledge and skills they are currently using,” which can be difficult for a number of reasons. For example, students need to make a “conscious effort” to think about their previous knowledge and how it may work in distinctly different ways, a move that is not always “automatic” or necessarily obvious (4).{7} While transfer is challenging, at the same time, we would hope that our PPW program would enable students to articulate how they imagined more complex conceptions of writing might transfer to the workplace, but that was not generally the case. For example, some students identified the rhetorical concepts of audience and genre, yet they did not often employ them as concepts for understanding and doing work in the professional contexts.

Miranda provided the most comprehensive discussion of skills when she anticipated that she will be writing “scientific papers for people in her field” and “other times, I’ll have to write to the general public and know not to use specialized terms and stuff like that.” Implicit in Miranda’s remarks is a fluid conception of audience. More representatively, Morgan shared that she knows business writing involves attention to audience. Senior public relations major Maggie also noted that “public relations is extremely audience based.” Although Morgan and Maggie both mentioned audience in relation to their prospective professions, they do so without interrogating the specific ways that their writing will need to address a range of audiences. Morgan’s and Maggie’s awareness of audience is noteworthy because they are drawing from language and concepts emphasized in their coursework; we had hoped, though, that our curriculum would have prepared students to more fully discuss the nuances and complexities of such a key concept.

In reflecting on how writing skills are important to the workplace, students often called for the program to offer more professionally-oriented courses such as Technical Writing and Writing for Business Organizations. Nick identified these two courses in explaining how important it was for him to take courses centered on workplace writing. He wanted to learn genres such as “memorandums” that will help “build [his] skills.” Nick’s observation is interesting given that we know that both of the courses he mentioned focus on how writing mediates organizational activity, not on writing memoranda. It seems that he finds language about skills to be a particularly useful way to express value about PPW even when his course guided him towards more complex language and concepts, and he mastered these concepts while in the course. Like Nick, Mike explained that he chose courses based on their relevance to his major. Yet, he shared that he also looked for “writing classes that work with the [Community Partnerships Center] ... It’s a great thing to put on a résumé, and I think more fun than just writing in class.” Mike chose to enroll in professionally relevant courses, but he also valued an experience that allowed him to contribute to a larger cause, as he evidenced in his discussion of his favorite class project:

... working with ... a breast cancer foundation. I just think it was really rewarding, just like, even seeing the look on [the communications director’s] face after we just gave her pages and pages of free information and various programs they could do to expand themselves, or additions they could make to their website or ... it was rewarding.

Here Mike described a motivation for taking a PPW course that is different from a skills-based value: an intrinsic rather than extrinsic reward. In the focus group, Mike did not provide a complex conceptualization of the project, but he indicated that his motives were complex and not entirely tied to career ambitions. Mike’s response inadvertently points to a tension within his experience with PPW—he states that PPW’s professional focus is important but appreciates the expansiveness of the opportunities afforded to him.

Students clearly stated that they favored professionally-oriented courses because of the skills they could gain, especially since advisors, professors, parents, and others often make this case; but students also expressed an interest in a wide variety of courses, including those not closely aligned with the professions such as Travel Writing, Rhetoric of Film, Art of the Essay, and Feminist Rhetorics. What is most intriguing about this tension—which the students do not seem to quite recognize—is that when students talked about these other courses, they were much more specific and detailed about describing audience and genre as rhetorical concepts.

Evidence of this tension appeared towards the end of the focus group when students started sharing their interest in and appreciation of the variety of courses they took. Morgan reflected on how a course on Feminist Rhetorics helped her understand more about the writing she will be doing in future auditing accounting jobs. Specifically, she explained how the combination of Writing for Business Organizations, Critical Writing for the Professions, and Feminist Rhetorics helped her analyze and understand what happens in texts:

So, I’m in an auditing class right now, and ... we were looking in class at the notes to financial statements, and it’s really funny how companies hiding details or misleading people like the investing public with the way they phrase things, so being able to look at it critically with the tools I’ve learned in, like, Writing for Business and Critical Writing, I can pick up these things that they did on purpose to kind of mislead you.... I’m going to be working in auditing after graduation, so now I kind of have some experience in examining texts ... and not just producing text. So I think that’s another really helpful thing I got from ... [Writing for Business Organizations] along with Feminist Rhetorics ... I’ve learned how to examine writing.

The combination of these courses—one that is professionally oriented and one that is less so—helped Morgan comprehend rhetorical concepts and start considering how they work in texts.

Other students talked about how this variety specifically helped them understand the concept of genre. Rebecca, a junior history major, identified the “diversity of the classes” as helping her understand how genre works because they spotlighted a range of texts. After taking these diverse courses, she finally realized that “it’s not just writing essays the whole time” but rather that different situations call for different types of writing. Chris, who previously described choosing courses based on their perceived relevance to his major in finance, shared how his understanding of genre originated in a course not closely tied to his major. He said that taking a variety of courses in PPW “gave [him] a better appreciation for writing; I feel like I’ve been exposed to a lot of different styles of writing, and not just professional.” He continued to demonstrate how he grasped the concept of genre during a Rhetoric of Film course: “We practiced writing movie reviews and critiques, and there’s a difference. I didn’t know that going into it.” He explained how he now feels confident investigating different genres. Even though he will not be writing film reviews or critiques at his future job, he now knows how to look for genre conventions and understand differences among genres.

Students also talked about audience in more detailed ways when they discussed the variety of courses they took. Brett shared that he was surprised at how much he gained from taking courses that were more “creative” and less tied to professional contexts. He stated that while he enjoyed writing before college, he “didn’t see the application of that in criminal justice.” Yet, he attributed these more “creative” courses to teaching him rhetorical concepts that will be key in his career: “I’ve taken a lot of creative classes that made me think about writing and thinking in different ways. Like the term ‘public,’ I had a complete misunderstanding of public writing before. Now I’m understanding ... what audience really means and what public really means.” Although Brett didn’t elaborate on what these concepts mean to him, he evidenced an emerging understanding of these concepts that earlier examples of students’ discussions of skills acquisition did not.

Maggie attributed her understanding of audience and genre to taking courses, such as Rhetoric of Film, that were less aligned with her career aspirations in public relations. She explained that public relations requires attention to various audiences and genres and taking the range of courses helped her “learn how to write to different audiences and on many different subjects” as she “took a film writing class and then took a research paper sort of class. So that’s been helpful as well.” Senior marine biology major Annalise had a similar experience when she took Environmental Rhetoric, a course that required her to write a range of different texts for different audiences; she was not “just writing scientific papers all the time.” And Miranda singled out her experience in a Writing about Health class as her favorite:

It’s more like a love-hate relationship ... because we used Google Sites, and when something didn’t want to fit in the right place it was so frustrating. But, it had a real life application to it ‘cause we did it for [our university], and created a sleep website for the health center. So I thought it was pretty fun and interesting.

Despite frustration at the challenge of learning to write about unfamiliar subject matter using unfamiliar technology, Miranda recognized the situatedness of the genre and rhetorical situation as a principal motivating factor in her learning.

Even when they weren’t wrestling with the complexity of concepts learned in courses not associated with their majors, students evidenced a tension between their motivation to pursue courses directly relevant to their major and their appreciation for how much the variety of PPW course offerings helped them understand, practice, and strengthen their writing in ways they found meaningful. Some students even expressed surprise at how much they took away from courses less closely aligned with their majors. Senior public relations major Kate noted, “I really liked that Writing about Health class, too, even though I wasn’t really interested in health at all” because it showed her how she “can do writing about anything really.” She learned about transferring writing strategies across the campus, and she highlighted how writing applies to “different areas of the school” and “different areas in different types of writing with different topics.”

Senior Rachel reflected on how taking a range of classes shifted her conception of writing since she used to think that it was “read a book, write an essay.” Maya explained how taking so many different courses helped deepen her understanding of what writing is: “I didn’t know about [how] the blogs or websites or anything like that was actually considered public writing.” Like Rachel and Maya, Annalise identified PPW with helping her know how “diverse” writing is and how “you could do so much with it; you could do like, social justice with it or political writing or just writing in the offices.” She added, “our [PPW minor] is so diverse.”

Despite general agreement amongst focus group participants that they wanted more professionally-oriented writing courses, by the end of our sessions some of these same students called for a greater variety of offerings. This tension is evidenced when Morgan, a student who had been emphasizing how important professionally-oriented courses are, declared, “I liked the variety.” Aria imagined how offering more types of courses could appeal to people like her who want to “broaden your horizons” and gain a deeper understanding of and appreciation for how writing works across a range of contexts. When imagining what a PPW major might look like, Jake—a student who sought out PPW to “complement” his management major—called for a greater variety of courses: “I would want a lot more of the special topics classes, because the one I took [Writing about Health], I had no interest in public health or whatever, but I found it so interesting.... I think it just gives you a lot of education that you would not have expected in ... it was a good experience.” The tension between students’ desire for more professionally-oriented writing classes alongside their valuation of the variety of more humanistic courses highlights a central tension with significant implications for writing programs developing majors and minors.

Implications for Our Program and Other Programs

We approached our focus group research as a complement to our outcomes-based, direct assessment of student learning, hoping that data on students’ perceptions of the impact and value of their experiences in PPW might guide us in revising our current curriculum to better meet the needs of our minors and core concentrators while also planning ahead for a prospective major. In curriculum planning meetings, we debated the value of offering a major; on the one hand, it could raise our profile on campus, yet on the other, it could detract from our commitment to general education. Although our commitment to service across campus has already earned us a reputation for collegiality, a major signifies that we are not just a service department but rather a discipline with its own claims to knowledge. In turn, we hoped such recognition would help us make a stronger case for conceptualizing learning to write not as basic skills acquisition but as complex, highly contextualized, lifelong cognitive development that requires a whole-systems approach to effect. At the same time, we worried that in staking out a territory defined as much by disciplinary epistemology as internship opportunities and alumni job placement, we might inadvertently place more constraints on who we are and what we do than if we were to forego a major. We recognized that these anxieties were not unique to us; we’re one of many departments taking stock of the opportunities and threats associated with developing a major in what Douglas Hesse described as this “fertile time to grow writing” (181). And, as Yancey pointed out, the tension between increased cohesion and sustained capaciousness is a defining characteristic of the current stage in the evolutionary trajectory of the discipline of Rhet-Comp at large. What we hadn’t expected was that our students’ learning trajectories would thread that same tension.

Certainly, our students’ perceptions of learning to write as skills acquisition, accompanied by their desire for a more linear degree path that parallels their career goals, could be attributed as much to macrocosmic external factors such as the political economy as to our own program design. Nevertheless, our focus group participants were our minors and core concentrators, and we must assume responsibility for whatever conceptions of writing they do or do not form. Doing so requires that we approach curriculum design not just with an eye to improving student achievement of learning outcomes, but also with consideration toward how our curriculum inadvertently perpetuates the tensions that accompany the evolution of our department and discipline. For instance, these insights into our students’ conflicting conceptions of what it means to learn to write and what they want in a curriculum raise important questions that our program is considering as we think about expanding PPW to a major. We imagine these are considerations that would be useful for programs in similar situations.

A number of questions arise from our recognition of a tension between students’ desire to take professional writing courses and their appreciation of and ability to articulate in more complex terms what they learned from having taken a variety of writing courses: What courses are taught? What new courses need to be developed? What courses should be required? Is a distribution model useful? Should students have the option to focus on professional or public writing tracks? These questions are guiding our program development and could be helpful for other programs considering expanding their offerings in professional and public writing.

As we make decisions about restructuring the program and designing a major, these questions have inspired a great deal of conversation about PPW and changes to its curriculum. One major change involves redeveloping a course at the 200-level that students could take to fulfill the second general education writing requirement while also learning more about PPW.

To capitalize on what students told us about how important it was to gain experience writing in multiple genres for a range of audiences, the new 200-level course will replace the two courses we offer as the standard for most students to complete their second general education writing requirement: Critical Writing for the Humanities and Critical Writing for the Professions. Instead of separating professional and public writing, the new problem-based course will introduce students to the contexts for and rhetorical dimensions of writing for academic, public, and professional audiences. Our hope is that in providing students with experience writing across a range of contexts in a single course, they will develop a fuller conceptualization of how writing works beyond generic skills acquisition, and one commensurate with students’ experiences in taking a variety of PPW courses. Furthermore, the course might serve as a place to explicitly address the tensions identified in our focus groups as tensions in Rhet-Comp. We might, for instance, ask students to consider what it means to be a flexible and adaptive writer, and to examine where skills-based conceptions of writing come from. Lastly, we hope the new course will serve as a better recruitment tool for the minor—and, potentially, for the new major.

We are also thinking carefully about the kinds of courses students are encouraged and/or required to take. Based on our focus group findings, it seems that, at least initially, we will most likely find success in recruiting students based on the narrative of professionalization associated with “good writing skills.” This has implications for what we name the major, as well as for the kinds of courses we need to offer. However, given the tensions inherent in our findings—that students initially seek the “professional” opportunities inherent in the minor, yet end up valuing the range of opportunities afforded by other courses aimed more toward public, humanities-based writing—we are still thinking about what this means in terms of the major. Students indicated a desire to choose a “professional” track. Should we cater to that desire, knowing it is most likely to be effective in recruiting students? Or do we require something more along the lines of a distribution model, wherein students are required to take courses in public writing, knowing that most students will end up valuing such experiences, even if they initially resist? With these questions in mind, the department is having ongoing discussions about a potential PPW major, including considering models that give students choice while also ensuring exposure to a range of writing experiences. This balance will be imperative for programs like ours in both attracting students and helping them understand how professional and public writing work.

We are also in the process of assessing program materials, such as our website, which is an area that we, like other programs, are realizing is important in attracting students, explaining the value of PPW, and helping students understand how the curriculum supports student learning. The tension identified in our focus groups presents an interesting ethical dilemma in terms of marketing materials aimed to highlight our program’s—and even our field’s—strengths. Do we focus on tropes about “good writing skills” to emphasize the professional benefits of PPW? Doing so might help with recruitment but could continue to perpetuate narrow perceptions of writing and our disciplinary work. Or do we seek to present a more capacious version of the minor at the potential expense of recruitment? In a similar way, we also are thinking about better ways to advise PPW students. We might send more emails about upcoming PPW course options or develop events that bring PPW students together. Our findings suggest that in all of these efforts we need to craft our own narrative around the value of PPW and why students may find value in the program and its courses. For example, we would want to emphasize why even finance majors might want to take Rhetoric of Film or why biology majors may find value in studying Feminist Rhetorics. This narrative could attract students to our programs, help them choose courses providing a rich variety of writing experiences, and encourage them to meaningfully engage with writing-related concepts. We understand that the website will be essential for building our major, and we believe that there is value in sustained assessment and revision of program websites.

It might be optimistic to imagine that in revising our curriculum and marketing approach we’ll resolve to our satisfaction the tensions between a desire for professionally targeted and effectively capacious writing instruction. Regardless, our department and students as well as our teaching and scholarship will be shaped by these tensions. In that similar tensions likely bubble up in other undergraduate degree programs, they will undoubtedly shape Rhet-Comp as well. Rather than studying disciplinary tensions in scholarship alone, then, we advocate here for the scholarly value of analyzing tensions as they manifest in students’ perceptions of their learning experiences as valuable evidence of where we are as a discipline, and also where we may be headed. We also advocate for the value of programs undertaking focus groups and related efforts such as exit surveys so that students’ voices become a main consideration in redesigning or developing their curriculum and programs. While we, like many programs, had been doing this informally, our study shows the value of undertaking well-designed research to provide valuable data that can help shape program decisions. As we undertake similar efforts in the future, we may ask students to share their writing or trace their experiences throughout the curriculum.

Our findings are significant on a local level as we make curricular changes and consider developing a major. While helpful in this way, these findings are but a single data point in a much larger story our discipline needs to tell about itself through more systematic study of student perceptions of their experiences in undergraduate degree programs. If students across multiple Rhet-Comp programs are giving voice to the same tensions, then we might want to examine what it is about our discipline that reifies them. If, on the other hand, we notice that different institutional contexts produce different tensions, then we can begin to look for patterns there, too. In either case, we should pay greater attention to how these tensions manifest within and across institutional contexts. Doing so will allow us to be more upfront not just about what we know and who we are as individual programs and as a larger discipline, but also what we are undecided or conflicted about. Most importantly, it will help us understand how we might make those tensions more productively visible in our undergraduate programs.


  1. We would like to thank the Department of Writing Studies, Rhetoric, and Composition at Roger Williams University for supporting this work. In particular, we’d like to thank Dr. John Madritch, who was chair during the time we conducted this research, for financial support, and Dr. Jennifer Campbell, for reading and commenting on an early draft. (Return to text.)

  2. See discussions by Anne Aronson and Craig Hansen; Randy Brooks et al.; Catherine Chaput; Rebecca de Wind Mattingly and Patricia Harkin; Greg A. Giberson and Thomas A. Moriarty; and Jim Nugent. (Return to text.)

  3. The core concentration, which is a university requirement for graduation, is defined as “a five-course exploration of one liberal arts discipline or one interdisciplinary studies area unrelated to the major.” (Return to text.)

  4. Approximately 30% of incoming first-year students opt to take Introduction to Academic Writing before How Writing Works. (Return to text.)

  5. HSRB Protocol Number: 20171209. (Return to text.)

  6. In consent forms approved by the Human Subjects Review Board, students were provided the option of using pseudonyms. (Return to text.)

  7. Ryan P. Shepherd provides a useful definition of this type of transfer: “forward-reaching transfer is when a learner is encouraged to reflect on future contexts where new knowledge could be used” which is “what we do when we ask our students to think about how lessons from the class might be used in other classes or their future workplace.” Shepherd also provides an extensive review of additional scholarship on forward-reaching transfer in composition studies (109-10). (Return to text.)

Works Cited

Aronson, Anne, and Craig Hansen. Writing Identity: The Independent Writing Department as a Disciplinary Center. A Field of Dreams: Independent Writing Programs and the Future of Composition Studies, edited by Peggy O'Neill, Angela Crow, and Larry W. Burton, Utah State UP, 2012, pp. 50-61.

Brooks, Randy, et al. Redefining the Undergraduate English Writing Major: An Integrated Approach at a Small Comprehensive University. What We Are Becoming: Developments in Undergraduate Writing Majors, edited by Greg A. Giberson and Thomas A. Moriarty, Utah State UP, 2010, pp. 32-49.

Chaput, Catherine. Lest We Go the Way of Vocational Training: Developing Undergraduate Writing Programs in the Humanist Tradition. WPA: Writing Program Administration, vol. 31, no. 3, 2008, pp. 15-31,

Clements, Amy, et al. Thriving through Disruption: Leveraging Alumni Experience to Support a Liberal Arts Writing Majors. Weathering the Storm: Independent Writing Programs in the Age of Fiscal Austerity, edited by Richard N. Matzen, Jr. and Matthew Abraham, Utah State UP, 2019, pp. 101-109.

de Wind Mattingly, Rebecca, and Patricia Harkin. A Major in Flexibility. What We Are Becoming: Developments in Undergraduate Writing Majors, edited by Greg A. Giberson and Thomas A. Moriarty, Utah State UP, 2010, pp. 13-31.

Driscoll, Dana Lynn. Connected, Disconnected, or Uncertain: Student Attitudes about Future Writing Contexts and Perceptions of Transfer from First Year Writing to the Disciplines. Across the Disciplines: A Journal of Language, Learning and Academic Writing, vol. 8, no. 2, 2011, pp. 1-29,

Giberson, Greg A., and Thomas A. Moriarty. Introduction: Forging Connections among Undergraduate Writing Majors. What We Are Becoming: Developments in Undergraduate Writing Majors, edited by Greg A. Giberson and Thomas A. Moriarty, Utah State UP, 2010, pp. 1-10.

Hesse, Douglas. Review Essay: As Writing Professionalized, Asking What, How, and Why. WPA: Writing Program Administration, vol. 34, no. 1, 2010, pp. 179-92,

Livesey, Matthew, and Julie Watts. Embracing the Humanities: Expanding a Technical Communication Program at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. Writing Majors: Eighteen Program Profiles, edited by Greg Giberson, Jim Nugent, and Lori Ostergaard, Utah State UP, 2015, pp. 85-97.

Nugent, Jim. Introduction. Writing Majors: Eighteen Program Profiles, edited by Greg Giberson, Jim Nugent, and Lori A. Ostergaard, Utah State UP, 2015, pp. 107.

Patton, Michael Quinn. Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods: Integration Theory and Practice. 4th ed., Sage, 2014.

Shepherd, Ryan P. Digital Writing, Multimodality, and Learning Transfer: Crafting Connections between Composition and Online Composing. Computers and Composition, vol. 48, 2018,

Wardle, Elizabeth. Creative Repurposing for Expansive Learning: Considering ‘Problem-Exploring’ and ‘Answer-Getting’ Dispositions in Individuals and Fields. Composition Forum, vol. 26, 2012,

Yancey, Kathleen Blake. Mapping the Turn to Disciplinarity: A Historical Analysis of Composition’s Trajectory and Its Current Moment. Composition, Rhetoric, and Disciplinarity, edited by Rita Malenczyk, Susan Miller-Cochran, Elizabeth Wardle, and Kathleen Blake Yancey, UP of Colorado, 2018, pp. 15-35.

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