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Andrea Lunsford: Writing and the Profound Revolution in Access

Andrea Lunsford, the director of Stanford University's Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR), is the force behind the "Stanford Study of Writing," a longitudinal study that investigates how today's students write, including everything in-class assignments, formal essays, and journal entries to emails, blog posts, and chat sessions. In this PIL interviews, Andrea discusses how college students integrate writing with research and learn the process of critical inquiry. ((Interview posted: July 12, 2010)

 If you ask someone about Andrea Lunsford, you're likely to hear two things: she's a gift to her students and an inspiration to her andrea lunsfordcolleagues.

Andrea is Stanford University's Director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR), an innovative curriculum and teaching program she established in 2000. During her remarkable career, she has revolutionized the way that college students learn how to write, research, and present arguments.

Andrea is also the force behind the large-scale Stanford Study of Writing. The longitudinal study investigated how today's students write by analyzing 14,672 writing samples, including everything from in-class assignments, formal essays, and journal entries to emails, blog posts, and chat sessions.

What was Andrea's conclusion? "Everyone can be a writer—technology isn't killing our ability to write, it's reviving it."[1]

We had a chance to catch up with Andrea this summer. We shared some of our findings from Project Information Literacy (PIL) with her and asked her thoughts about how college students integrate writing with research and learn the process.

PIL: How would you say the expectations for course-related research assignments (writing and research) change between high school and college? What do students find to be most difficult during this transition?

Andrea: Although I taught high school for five years, most of what I know about high school curricula and students now comes from my contact with teachers who attend the Bread Loaf Graduate School of English. I've taught there off and on for twenty years, and it seems to me that high school standards have remained pretty static during the last decade. Certainly many high schools have embraced the writing process, and some are pushing for students' abilities to engage in new literacies, but they are hampered on all sides by bureaucracy and by state mandates such as those imposed in Florida and Texas.

When students get to college, they find that the demands are much greater: they are expected to write across a range of genres and media, often with little or no instruction outside of their beginning writing classes, and if a college gives AP credit for writing then they get no instruction at all.

To respond more specifically to your question about research, the profound revolution in access to research materials is affecting everyone, at all grade levels. The question now is who has access to research materials, not only through search engines like Google but through the kinds of databases that school libraries pay for and make accessible to students.

Students at Stanford, where I teach, generally don't want to go to the library, thinking that they can do all their research in from their dorm rooms. They learn, eventually, about the rich resources available them through our Library databases (which they can access from their dorms) but also about the amazing primary resources available to them on campus, from Special Collections to the Martin Luther King Papers project to the Hoover Archives (which has some 85,000 posters related to the world wars, for example), to the Cantor Museum to many science labs; all these places open their doors to undergraduates for research. I don't think many high school students have opportunities to work with such primary materials or to carry out scientific research as members of a research team.

That's a pretty big transition, but a very exciting one.

PIL: At Project Information Literacy, we just finished collecting data for our large-scale student survey (8,300 respondents from 25 U.S. campuses). In one question, we asked respondents about their research styles: the techniques, practices, workarounds, and approaches that students tend to apply from one research assignment to the next. What we found intrigued us. The majority of respondents had developed techniques for tackling the writing part of research assignments. Some of the most frequent practices were writing a thesis statement early on and/or working in their own opinions into their papers. When it came to conducting research, though, the respondents had fewer techniques they put into frequent practice. Do you find students have more know-how about the writing process, than they do about the research process?

Andrea: Yes, I do and especially for working with primary materials, as I noted before. My students start with Google and Wikipedia—and there's nothing at all wrong with that; in fact, I often do so myself! But there's a world of material available beyond these sources and students need more systematic and specified ways of searching for information. I often think back to my own years in college and in graduate school, when I spent days in the stacks and searching through card catalogues. In a way, that kind of search was easier because it was delimited: all the world is open for research now, so it's no wonder students need more guidance.

PIL: Throughout our ongoing research, we have found that librarians are tremendously underutilized by college students. In last year's students' survey, we found that respondents were likely to use library resources, such as the library catalog or scholarly research databases for research assignments. When it came to consulting a librarian about a research assignment, though, only 2 in 10 students reported doing so. Why do you think students tend not to ask librarians for help with research assignments?

Andrea: Librarians have been my heroes for years: they have been on the front lines in the digital revolution (and also in the struggles over intellectual property: librarians were the ones, for instance, who stood up to the Bush administration's attempts to get at the names of those who checked out library books!). Every one of our sections of first-year writing has a librarian assigned to it, and the instructor and librarian work together to prepare a workshop for the class, held in the library.

Once students begin to see all the strategies the librarians have for finding information and evaluating it, they are impressed. Really impressed! So they start to use the librarians more often after that session. I recently visited Eastern Kentucky University, where they are building a new super-duper writing Center (It's called the Noel Center) in the library. I was impressed with the entire vision, but was especially taken with the fact that in one area of the Center they would have offices for research librarians who would be right on the spot when students were there working on their writing. That seemed to me to be an ideal way to take a writing center to a new level.

PIL: We just completed a study that analyzed the handouts that instructors distributed to students for research assignments (191 handouts from 25 U.S. college and university campuses). The handouts frequently specified how many sources students needed to cite—41% of the handouts required students use between one and six research sources. Do you find students have an understanding of how they can actually use sources (and choose among what they find) for research projects, beyond filling a quota, of say, six sources?

Andrea: The research Karen Lunsford and I have done showed that students nationally have great difficulty in integrating research into their own writing, and I observe that at Stanford as well. (To be fair, I observe it in my own writing as well: it is very difficult to learn to write so that YOUR ideas and topic take center stage, with sources playing a clearly-integrated, seamless role.)

So I think we need to spend time in our writing classes working with how to use sources most effectively: this happens very well in peer and small group settings where students can compare efforts. (I can't help thinking here of my colleague Marvin Diogenes and his Composition Blues Band—they perform usually at WPA and CCCC. One of their "greatest hits" is a song called "Three to Five Sources," which parodies such assignment parameters!)

Because students have such difficulty with this part of writing, we have worked up an assignment we call "Texts in Conversation," which asks students to choose several sources that are very important to their topic of research and then write a brief essay that brings them into conversation with one another, probing where they agree and disagree and setting them in the larger research conversation surrounding the topic. Students tell us this is the most difficult assignment of the term, but once they have done it, they are in a much better position to move to writing a research-based argument, which is the culminating assignment in our sequence.

PIL: New media forms—from Wikipedia to blogging and texting to social network sites, like Facebook, have changed and affected how students write. What three changes, brought on by new media, do you see as the most significant to how we understand and teach our students?

Andrea: I would point to changes in audience and audience awareness (the whole world can now be your audience, introducing a huge set of problems in trying to find effective ways of addressing an audience); the increasingly collaborative and participatory nature of writing (Google.docs and Google.wave, to mention only two), allow groups of writers to work together in real time to create documents of all kinds. Students today are much more accustomed to producing and disseminating knowledge rather than simply consuming it.

In other words, we're seeing a vast shift from reading as the holder of cultural capital to writing; and a growing sense of authority among student writers, who see quite clearly that they can use writing to make (good) things happen in the world: this is, in fact, how students in our longitudinal study came to define good writing.

[1] See "Clive Thompson on the New Literacy," Wired Magazine, August 24, 2009.

Andrea Lunsford is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor of English and Director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR) at Stanford University. Previously, she was Distinguished Professor of English at The Ohio State University (1986-2000), where she served as Vice Chair of the Department of English, as Chair of the University Writing Board, and as Director of the Center for the Study and Teaching of Writing.

Andrea's books include a new edition of The Everyday Writer (Bedford/St. Martin's, 7th edition: 2011) and Everything's an Argument, co-authored with John J. Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters (Bedford/St. Martin's, 2010).

Smart Talks are informal conversations with experts about the challenges of finding information and conducting research in the digital age.

Smart Talks is an occasional series produced by Project Information Literacy (PIL). PIL is an ongoing research study, based in the University of Washington's Information School and supported with contributing funds from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

PIL is an ongoing research study, based in the University of Washington's iSchool with support from contributing funds from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Smart Talks are open-access; no permission for its use is required from PIL, though we ask that this source is cited as: Project Information Literacy Smart Talk, no. 2, Andrea A. Lunsford, "Writing and the Profound Revolution in Access," July 12, 2010.