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Overview: Why Study Person-Based Response

The following journal entry comes from Nicole, a student in one of my first-semester college composition courses. She is writing during the final week of class:

The other day I had some good friends in from out of town. They stayed with me until yesterday. Well, on Wednesday, when I went to class, I left my journal sitting on the table w/ a few other things (poems) that I've written. When I got home my friends told me that they had read all of it (which I don't mind). I was so surprised at their reaction. They loved it. One of them even asked if she could have a copy of one of my poems. I never realized how good it feels to be complimented in that way by your peers. It actually made me want to write more. I also wanted to thank you for your support of my writing. I know it is only essays and journals, but I still appreciate the praise. I've found myself revising and really thinking about my papers, just to make sure that they can live up to the previous ones.


Nicole's reaction to her peers' responses to her journal, as well as her thoughts about my responses to her writing, demonstrates the thesis of this dissertation. People write for the response of other people. They appreciate not only praise but what Burke calls consubstanciality. They desire to touch something human in their audiences, to connect in a way that can transcend their sense of separateness, to unite, if only for a moment, with another human being. They want person-based response, and when they get it, they are motivated to write both more and better works. As Nicole puts it, " I've found myself revising and really thinking about my papers, just to make sure that they can live up to the previous ones."

As a publishing writer, I began my graduate studies and my teaching in the composition classroom with first-hand knowledge of what Nicole voices. I knew why I wrote. The idea of audience was not only academic theory, but the reality that gave purpose and passion to my work. Thus, it was only natural that I try to dramatize that audience for my students. If I wanted them to love writing, I knew that I needed to take them seriously as a reader, to really listen to what they were saying (not just how they said it), and then to comment as a person, not a mere grader of their work. As I did so, I began to notice two things: one, students, as with Nicole, seemed to be motivated by person-based response. Some said they enjoyed writing for the first time, and most produced both more and better writing. And, two, I noticed that my own experience confirmed the findings of what I was reading by postmodern composition theorists, who, as opposed to those writing 25 years earlier, have moved from a preoccupation with student text to a preoccupation with students themselves (or students as persons). In response to these two phenomenon, I decided to focus my doctoral research on further theoretical elaboration and empirical confirmation of what I now call "person-based response."

This dissertation is the result of such efforts. In it I will show how postmodern epistemology, rhetorical theory, and composition studies support such a view of teacher response. Furthermore, I will articulate person-based response in four tenets and support these both theoretically and empirically, the latter through a major descriptive quantitative analysis of first-year composition students. The dissertation will conclude with student stories that put faces on the statistics in the empirical study. Thus, the purpose of this work is to offer a postmodern alternative to text-based teacher comments, one that privileges persons over text, and one that operates on the premise that human students write for human response. The study is wide-ranging in scope, including both history and present practice, both epistemology and theory, both insights from rhetoric and composition, and both qualitative and quantitative methodologies. Yet this attempt does not answer all the questions, but rather sets the stage for more carefully defined ones to follow. It is intended for both scholar and theorist, empirical researcher and teacher-practitioner. It is my hope that these strategies of person-based response can be used to explain, predict, and shape student writing.


Two Qualifying Remarks: A Dedication

Before briefly summarizing the chapters to follow, it is important at the outset to offer two qualifying remarks about my study. First, to make my case for person-based response, I imply the existence of two types of composition teachers, one, person-based; the other, text-based. Yet, in reality, both are straw figures. The stereotype is much like teachers of the infamous current-traditional paradigm, shadowy figures whom many of us postmodern theorists like to critique, but whom we would be hard-pressed to produce in the flesh. For while there are those who still urge students to memorize and practice formal rules of grammar, it is hard to find one who does so exclusively. Even in the most current-traditional classroom, one can find elements of other pedagogical paradigms at work (possibly group work, which suggests a constructivist's approach or journaling, which suggests expressivism). Similarly, teachers engaging in many text-based comments (doing things such as marking every error of punctuation) might also address a student by name or respond to their content, both elements of person-based response. And even the most person-based responder will want to point out errors in the text as critical to successful communication between persons. Thus, it is best to think of the strategies as a continuum, with teachers gravitating toward one pole or the other. My argument in this dissertation is that postmodern theory advises and empirical studies suggest person-based response as the most productive side of the continuum.

Second, while person-based response strategies might be shown efficacious in advanced writing courses, such as upper-level literature or technical writing classes, I am concerned primarily in this dissertation with their use in the formative classes, such as secondary English and beginning college composition. Since my emphasis here is on the ability to produce effective student attitudes, which writing apprehension theorists say is necessary for effective writing, it follows logically that the primary audience for my words should be those classroom teachers most likely to shape these attitudes. It is to these traditionally overworked and underpaid professionals, charged with such great responsibility, that the following words are respectfully dedicated.


A Synopsis of Chapters

Chapter II: Toward an Epistemology

for Response Research

Any postmodern discussion must, by definition, begin with epistemology. Postmodernists want their interlocutors to make clear their presuppositions from the outset, including what world view they represent, what will count as knowledge in their arguments, and what criteria will be used to test this knowledge. In this chapter, I begin with a discussion of Berlin's noetic fields, Foucault's epistemes, and Kuhn's paradigms to explain this postmodern concern with epistemology, and then I proceed to discuss the two major epistemologies (modernism and postmodernism) competing for control in the late 20th century. I point out the advantages of postmodern thought, things such as honesty regarding the inherent bias of language, the possibility of a discussion of ethics (which naturally follows this insight) the problematizing of communication with more emphasis on the way messages are received, the introduction of new researchers and new research methodologies to the field of composition, and a healthy introspection regarding one's own research. Postmodernism also has its problems, most importantly, the philosophical self-refutation, intellectual suffocation, ethical and pedagogical paralysis, and the methodological limitations that come from Kuhn's idea of incommensurate paradigms. Finally, I suggest an epistemological ecumenism that embraces the best of postmodernism while avoiding its pitfalls, and I show how such presuppositions will inform my own research for this dissertation.


Chapter III: A History of Response Theory:

Foundations for Person-Based Response

In this chapter I began by briefly surveying the history of rhetorical theory as it relates to issues of person-based response. What begins as a discussion of ethos (what kind of speaker can persuade what kind of audience?) among such classical rhetors as Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian, concludes with the concern of 20th century rhetors for individual audience differences and, especially, Burkes's contention that a writer must connect with these audiences through the process of consubstanciality. Next, I demonstrate through the more recent history of composition theory how theorists have gone from discussions of text-based to person-based issues, from the late 19th and early 20th century focus on rating and grading essays to the late 20th century focus on genuine readers. Finally, I position my own studies in the ongoing research of teacher response theory. Specifically, I show how they answer a recent call for more research into student attitudes, and how they address the strengths and weaknesses of the 1993 Connors and Lunsford study.


Chapter IV: The Tenets of Person-Based

Response: An Apologia

In this chapter, I offer a theory of response that privileges persons over text. It is based on the finding that there are two major trends in current teacher response: one text-based, a legacy of modernism and founded on the principles of New Criticism, which locates meaning in the text, and two, person-based, founded on postmodern thought, which locates meaning in the writer and the reader. My contention is that not only does person-based responding work most effectively to produce better writing, it also represents the ethical high ground. These are strategies that privilege genuine readership over correctness, writer successes over errors, student voice over an ideal text, and faith in process over evaluation of product, all value persons over things, an ethical principle upheld by systems as varied as existentialism and Christianity. Phrased in the imperative, these practical/moral tenets of person-based response are as follows:

This chapter examines in detail the theoretical support for each of these tenets.


Chapter V: Preliminary Empirical Support

for Person-Based Response

To demonstrate the validity of my research methods used in the major empirical project (see Chapter VI), in Chapter V I show that this work did not originate in a vacuum, but grew out of several preliminary studies that helped hone its research questions and statistical design. This chapter presents a brief synopsis of these studies, including a classroom assessment, two focus groups, and two descriptive quantitative analyses.


Chapter VI: Empirical Support for

Person-Based Response

To test empirically the four tenets of person-based response and to examine related issues such as the effect of grades and teacher ethos on student perception of teacher comments, I surveyed student-writers at West Texas A&M University, a 6,000-student state university located at Canyon, Texas. In November of 1996, I asked the Director of Composition to distribute questionnaires to teachers in all sections of English 101 (the first semester of first-year English). The questionnaire operationalized the tenets of person-based response into statements with which students could state their degree of agreement or disagreement as measured on a five-point Likert scale. Some propositions were stated negatively to avoid thoughtless or hurried responses, and were subsequently recoded for analysis. Of the 25 packets given to teachers, 17 were returned (a 68% return rate) with 303 student questionnaires. Students responded to related statements in a highly consistent manner. The overall reliability for the Likert-type responses on this instrument (as measured by Cronbach's alpha) was .94. In a marked contrast to the Connors and Lunsford findings, students in this study perceived teacher comments in an overwhelmingly positive way. All the tenets of person-based response correlated strongly with student motivation. In other words, when teacher comments were perceived as coming from a genuine reader, who emphasized student successes, encouraged student voice and style, and believed in student progress, the students said they both wanted to write and believed they could write better essays. In addition, student attitudes were affected by their perceptions of their teacher's competency and their grade expectations in the class. The survey also had some weaknesses, including the low response rate for a canvas-type survey. I conclude this chapter by discussing these in detail and making recommendations for future empirical research.


Chapter VII: Teacher Practitioner Support

for Person-Based Response

In this chapter, I trade the role of a scholar-researcher for that of a teacher-practitioner to tell my story of how one group of my beginning composition students reacted to person-based response in the classroom. From an exit survey I gave each of them, in which they were to analyze their progress as writers in the class, I select eight students to tell their reactions to my comments. The stories of Angela, Stacy, Matt, Crystal, Brian, Jason, Ted, and Renee, put faces on the statistics presented in the preceding chapter and show why these responding strategies are embraced by both students and teacher. In addition, I identify what may be the greatest collective strength of person-based response, a phenomenon I call "group consubstanciality."


Chapter VIII: The Future of Person-Based Response

In this final chapter, I look at the future of person-based response beginning with the most promising research, connecting these strategies with the writing apprehension construct. Developed in 1975 by Daly and Miller, the writing apprehension survey and writing apprehension scale have been used and studied extensively by communication theorists. The construct has been shown to predict numerous student attitudes and behaviors, including their writing ability, their grades, their time spent writing, and their involvement in advanced writing classes. In this chapter, I suggest giving the writing apprehension survey in conjunction with my own survey to see if the two correlate. If they do, it can be suggested that person-based response aids in lowering student apprehension about writing with the corresponding changes in writing quality, and that these strategies, having been connected to a highly reliable construct, are themselves reliable. Also in this chapter, I suggest assessment of various vehicles for person-based response (methods such as conferencing and the use of audio tapes), and a study of the relative effectiveness of various person-based pedagogies (including activities such as invention heuristics, transactual assignments, portfolio grading, and collaborative learning). The dissertation concludes with a look at the concept of group consubstanciality and an example of how it was produced in one class through a student e-mail discussion. Thus, this dissertation ends where it began with the place of response in communication, students writing well because they write with a purpose, to connect with other human beings.

On to Chapter II

Respond or view responses to my dissertation.