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Making the Invisible Visible in Writing Classrooms: An Approach to Increasing Textual Awareness using Computer-Aided Rhetorical Analysis

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

Writing and Communication

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


Necia Werner Carnegie Mellon University

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Dr. Necia Werner is an Assistant Teaching Professor of English and Director of the professional and technical writing programs at Carnegie Mellon University. Werner serves on the advisory committee (AdCom) of the IEEE Professional Communication Society, and as an Associate Editor for the teaching case section of the IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication.

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Suguru Ishizaki Carnegie Mellon University

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Suguru Ishizaki is an Professor of English in the Department of English at Carnegie Mellon. His current research interests include pedagogy of communication and design for students and professionals in the technology/engineering disciplines, and computer-aided rhetorical analysis.

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This project outlines the results of an interdisciplinary collaboration between English and Statistics to develop and implement a set of technology-enhanced learning (TEL) aids that, when combined, can help students more quickly—and literally—“see” both the rhetorical and linguistic elements that comprise the assignment genres in first-year and technical writing services courses. Specifically, our project entails the use of a tool for doing corpus-rhetorical analysis of textual genres, developed and refined over the last 20 years, which has heretofore successfully demonstrated its strength as a research tool to sort corpora into identifiable genres (for example, identifying the statistically significant patterns and moves that differentiate histories, comedies, and tragedies in Shakespeare’s plays), as well as its potential as an educational tool in a graduate-level writing course for design students.

In this paper, we describe what we learned from extending this tool for rhetorical and statistical analysis to our first-year and technical writing service classes. We provide a walkthrough of how the tool analyzed corpora from the genre set of assignments in both classes, and importantly, how it helped us visualize and communicate to students the elusive “transparent corridor” of skills that build upon one another across assignments, genres, and classes. Additionally, we describe a new set of technology-enhanced learning (TEL) tools, developed for usability with students and teachers in mind, to help students see for themselves how their own composing decisions compare with their classmates along dimensions pertinent to the assignment genre. We also share preliminary data analysis of instructor interviews that highlights the challenges and gains of using TEL tools that make use of statistical data for teaching writing. Our aim in this project, to be continued and refined further in future semesters, is to help student writers see that their composing moves are, in fact, decisions that can be adjusted and refined to meet the rhetorical demands of different genres.

This project contributes to our understanding of how to teach students about making compositional decisions that combine both linguistic and rhetorical strategy. However, the project also contributes toward a research-based curriculum articulation and alignment for foundational writing instruction at the university level. At many institutions, the first-year writing program and subsequent technical writing service course reach the largest number of students with writing instruction. For many undergraduates, these courses comprise the entirety of their writing-focused coursework. Ideally, then, these foundational courses are meaningfully linked for students, and lay the groundwork for them to notice how their learning can carry forward into other classes and genres. At our own institution, this need for a “transparent corridor” of learning outcomes across these core courses recently came to the fore; in response to updates to the general education and core requirements of our STEM units, particularly those of Computer Science and our largest campus unit, the College of Engineering, we tripled the annual number of technical writing service course sections to accommodate increased demand.

Perennial challenges to building that transparent corridor between classes are many and well documented, including lack of student motivation to learn writing skills, a miscalibrated self-assessment of abilities, and beliefs that writing skills are a “gift” as opposed to something that can be externalized and taught. Additionally, fostering students’ ability to notice genres as recurring rhetorical and linguistic patterns rather than classroom-specific isolates, and to see their own composing decisions in these genres as decisions that can articulated, is ironically both a central tenet of many writing classrooms and, arguably, the most challenging to teach. Our project offers a means for giving students new ways to notice text surface alongside genre, and to combine situation with language in their compositional decision making. We believe that this awareness of text surface will travel with students throughout their university experience and beyond.

Werner, N., & Ishizaki, S. (2017, June), Making the Invisible Visible in Writing Classrooms: An Approach to Increasing Textual Awareness using Computer-Aided Rhetorical Analysis Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--28644

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