Michele A. Eodice is the Associate Provost for Academic Engagement and director of the Writing Center at the University of Oklahoma. She earned a Ph.D. in English, writing her dissertation on co-authoring and collaborative writing in the classroom. For more information about the Meaningful Writing Project, visit the project's website (meaningfulwritingproject.net) and check out the book The Meaningful Writing Project: Learning, Teaching, and Writing in Higher Education.
Seth: First, I wanted to ask about the early stages of the meaningful writing project. It was a big task to say the least - what inspired you and your collaborators to take it on? When you began to think about what makes writing projects meaningful, what were some of the angles and issues related to that question that you found most interesting or wanted to examine the most?
Michele: Like many research projects in many fields, the idea to execution time is a bit long. With my two colleagues, we started to have conversations many years ago that asked a similar question to the one we landed on for our survey. We were all working with students in a writing center at the time and we could not help but want to know what students were experiencing in terms of writing. There are not enough studies in the field of composition and rhetoric (my field) that actually attempt to directly address students/solicit their voices about their experiences. Not only that, we wanted to learn what their perceptions were and how they found some writing more important, significant, or meaningful for them.
Seth: So, how did you actually go about planning to do the real project? As you started to conduct the research, was there anything surprising or unexpected? Were there any challenges in working towards figuring out the answers to the questions you were interested in?
Michele: After a few attempts to find grant funding, we were awarded $10,000 to launch the project. Note that in our field that is a pretty significant amount of money. Note too that as stated above, things like this take time and persistence; clearly we were pretty invested in the project. [And to stress this again for graduate students reading this: I worked with two graduate students for over 3 years as they applied and were denied fellowships. Finally each was awarded one! (a Ford Fellowship and a Fulbright).]
We three were experienced at qualitative methods within a constructivist frame, meaning that we approached research with a theory that says writers are influenced by many things, but they construct how those experiences impact them (we should not make those determinations).
Because we were surveying/interviewing students, we did need IRB approval. Gaining this takes time and effort; each of our institutions offered some bureaucratic complication that set us back. Ultimately we value human subjects protections so we kept on with the applications. Multi-site work is important, but IRB at each of our schools was approaching this aspect differently.
Our instinct was to make the questions brief and not overwhelm the respondents. Crafting the question – which is essentially a 2-part question: what was the most meaningful writing project of your undergraduate career? Why was it meaningful? – took time and thought. Simply put, we decided what we wanted to know/hear from students and asked them. We ended up with about 700 viable responses, which, again, for our field represented a relatively large data set. With answers from three different institutions and additional demographic information, we were able to get a real snapshot of seniors in our study.
The framework is basically a social sciences framework that combines qualitative responses (students own words) and looks at these responses by valuing lived experience. Working with the data, for us, meant immersion and coding. It took us almost two years to determine codes, test them out, and code each response. We met weekly for 2 hours on Skype/Zoom to code together synchronously.
This is a grounded theory approach, where we meet the data without a pre-determined theory of what it might mean. The meaning of what students said emerges from their words. We ended up with 22 codes. This method of analysis gets you very familiar with the data and opens up the possibilities for seeing more connections and patterns.
Seth: To you, what were the most (or, alternatively, the least) surprising results from the project? What are the most important things for college instructors giving writing assignments to take away from the project?
Michele: Well, we should have been surprised (but unfortunately we were not surprised) that 28 students completed the whole survey only to tell us that they never did have a meaningful writing experience. We looked a little closer at that and we believe that what we found other students had been offered in an assignment was missing from their assignments. This confirmed our main finding: if the conditions are set up such that students can make a personal connection to the writing project and if the parameters of the assignment are expansive enough to allow some choice and some opportunities for students to imagine their future selves in that work, students are more likely to experience a meaningful writing project. We let the data define what was meaningful meant and this is what it meant to students.
On the survey we asked students to name the course/instructor so we had the opportunity to contact some faculty at each of our schools. We surveyed and interviewed faculty about their approach to teaching writing in their discipline. Naturally there were a range of answers – many had unknowingly created very effective writing assignments. Our conversations with faculty confirmed our belief that students are doing lots of writing across the disciplines, and often with faculty who are thoughtful and intentional about crafting assignments. While they did not articulate this in terms that our field uses, they were engaged in the best practices of teaching writing across the disciplines. This is a good news story, actually. I think one of the messages we want to send to faculty is > keep it going.
Seth: Next, I wanted to transition to asking questions specifically about two different kinds of philosophy writing assignments. Often in ethics or political philosophy courses, instructors assign students to write an argumentative paper about some major or hot-button ethical issue. This seems like a good start for meaningful writing projects (and students often do find writing these types of papers meaningful), but based on your findings what could instructors do to more intentionally foster meaningful writing experiences with these types of assignments? On the other end of the spectrum, many philosophy writing assignments cover material that is important in the history of the discipline but is very abstract for students (e.g. asking students to respond to Descartes’ argument against radical skepticism, or to discuss various theories of knowledge, etc). Are there ways to make these types of writing assignments more meaningful to students?
Michele: As you know, Seth, I am interested in pedagogy more than I am interested in writing! So, I think one of the primary reasons students struggle when writing is because they really don’t understand the concepts they are assigned to work with/argue with. The learning that needs to take place prior to writing is often viewed like this > okay, read this and let’s discuss in class for 20 minutes. This is not enough time/not the best method for learning new and challenging material. Reading outside class, bringing notes and questions (required to get in the door) and then a very intentional facilitation of group work to learn the concepts/teach them to each other.
A writing assignment that invites them to, say, demonstrate their understanding of radical skepticism by creating a scenario (from life, with humans!) can function as a bridge to a more academic assignment, where they need to build an argument in the ways that philosophy builds arguments. All of this to say – scaffolding works.
If we offer one 10-page paper at the end of the semester and are usually disappointed in the product, why don’t we just ask ourselves/students: what would make the process of understanding ethics, logic, Eastern philosophy, existentialism etc. more meaningful for students? Some jaded faculty might not see meaningfulness for students as the necessary goal – but they can often be persuaded once they see the impact on the final product when they offer this kind of attention.
Philosophy at OU has a good reputation for making writing a central piece of the student experience and offers support for that. Like history, the writing is the thinking: philosophy is writing and writing is doing philosophy. It might be interesting to ask your seniors the questions we asked (when you do a final exit survey) and see if the findings are similar to ours.