Must Our Writing Instruction Be Research-Based?

At first pass, this might seem like a no-brainer. “Of course our writing instruction should be based on research about writing!” we want to say. But some strong versions of this claim have given me pause. “If you’re not in writing studies, you no longer get to write those articles about how students can’t write,” Amanda Fields recently said on Twitter. “All you have to do is scratch the surface of composition history and theory to understand how ridiculous you sound when you claim that students can’t write.” I think she was referring to the same Robert Zaretsky piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education that I mentioned on Friday. That piece (and my post) is probably also what Elizabeth Wardle was thinking of when she tweeted that “there is something to know about teaching and learning writing. Our students deserve to be taught from research-based practices. Otherwise you are actually harming them.” Can we really dismiss experience-based criticism of student writing as “ridiculous”, merely because it doesn’t come from a professor of writing studies? Does it “actually harm” our students to be taught how to write by teachers who, let’s say, “merely” do a lot of writing and reviewing themselves as part of their own scholarship? That’s what I want to think about.

Consider a more modest activity. Suppose we weren’t talking about the basis on which we teach writing but the basis on which we offer advice. Does writing advice have to be research-based? I can’t imagine that Fields and Wardle would insist on it. After all, a lot of the advice we pass on to our students comes from working journalists and novelists, i.e., people who have a demonstrated ability to write but have neither the time nor the desire to study it formally. They just have their experiences to draw on, and they’re often happy to share them in the form of tips, or sometimes even “rules”, for good writing. Do we dismiss Stephen King’s writing advice as baseless because he doesn’t have a PhD in writing studies? Or do we just take it with the requisite grain of salt? I think the answer there is obvious and I think we’d have to grant that Zaretsky is an accomplished enough scholar to offer academic writing advice in this spirit.

And research, in fact, also has to be taken with a grain of salt. I used to cite Arum and Roksa’s Academically Adrift to my students, hoping to persuade them that “research shows” that writing makes you smarter and group work makes you dumber. (I didn’t say it exactly like that.) But then I read Freddie deBoer’s critique and realized that it wasn’t as simple as that. I still believe that writing is good for you and that group work is better for learning how to work in groups than for learning course content, but I no longer declare this to be demonstrated by “the research”. (I still sometimes mention it, I must admit.) The point is that the rhetorical force of an appeal to research isn’t univocal. To invoke research is always to invite critique and this commits you to a longer conversation. At the extreme end, we have research like that of the Cornell Food Lab, which had a great influence on the management of, e.g., school cafeterias, until it was discovered to be of doubtful quality. Interestingly, the problems were not discovered by peers and practitioners applying the insights, but by outsiders who were intrigued by the lab’s director’s methodological claims.

Indeed, application itself can become a source of error. If you’re going to provide research-based instruction you’re going to have to translate a study’s results into implications for your own practice. You’ll have to prepare a lecture that will work with your particular students and design an assignment that is relevant for them. If the study is going to guide your own practices, you have to be very sure that you understand its results. Even if a certain intervention has been found to have a positive effect, it may be that too much of it will end up having a negative effect. Or it may be that the effect depends on doing or not doing something else at the same time, or before, or after. Failing this, the whole thing may either be a waste of effort or outright harmful. I should say that I’m less worried about “doing harm” than some writing scholars — like Wardle, quoted above — but if we’re “actually harming” our students when we don’t base our pedagogy on research, then surely that possibility remains if we misunderstand that research?

Wardle describes pieces like Zaretsky’s as expressions of “frustration with a few student writers” from which teachers draw “conclusions based solely on their own experiences, histories, and biases.” Against this, she demands “not personal feelings and frustrations, but research-based evidence grounded in more than a sample of one.” Indeed, “the field of rhetoric and composition [has] spent decades gathering such research about student writing,” she tells us.

This all sounds very impressive and it seems perfectly reasonable to value such research. But isn’t she here pitting it against a straw man? Is it fair to characterize Zaretsky’s ideas about student writing as grounded in a sample of one? Hasn’t he been exposed to hundreds, even thousands of student essays by now? And can’t he also claim to have thought about the problem for decades, i.e., his whole career? Is it accurate to say he’s merely expressing his “personal feelings”? I imagine his experiences are a lot more serious than that, and he has probably even carried out a few experiments to test his ideas. Also, though he may use only a few students as examples, he is obviously presenting them as representative of a general problem. He’s not saying it holds for all students, only that there is a significant group of students that can’t write as well as he’d like. Importantly, it’s his considered opinion that they could write better if he took the time to teach them. Does he really need to carry out a fullblown study of writing practices to support that claim? Can’t he just express his experience-based opinion and see where the discussion leads?

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