Vignette: Writing with Students to Make an Academia with More Room

Rachael Shah

My most formative scholarly research experience was also my first. Once a week, I would wake at 5 a.m. to pack six breakfast sandwiches, gather post-its and markers, and drive as the sun rose pink and orange to the south side of Tucson, where a group of 10th graders would be standing outside the school computer lab, ready. These students were my co-writers.   

We were researching Wildcat Writers, a high school-college partnership program that linked secondary and university classes for field trips, writing exchanges, and public projects. In the spirit of participatory action research (Fals-Borda and Anisur-Rahman) and participatory evaluation (Cousins and Chouinard), the student researchers themselves sought to understand how Wildcat Writers was impacting their peers, with implications not only for our local program but also for public writing pedagogy more broadly. They completed human subjects CITI certification training, designed research questions, crafted surveys, consented research subjects, hosted focus groups, and coded grocery bags full of data with colored sticky notes and highlighters. Together, we presented our findings at Wildcat Writers teacher trainings and an academic conference, and we co-authored my first scholarly publication, a book chapter about our process.  

The field of Rhetoric and Composition has long claimed a commitment to valuing student writing, and one generative expression of that commitment is inviting students to write with us as we shape the field. While our disciplinary expertise offers insights into writing instruction, we experience this instruction as teachers—and the view from the front of the room is different than the view from a desk. As my student co-author Aria Altuna stated simply, “Who you are changes what you see,” emphasizing that the perspective of the instructor is partial. In the words of another co-author, Jalina Vidotto, “It’s really the students who know.” Tenth grader Oksana Perez added, “—not just old men in white coats,” challenging gendered and ageist assumptions about who writes research. If we invite them, our students are highly capable of generating knowledge about writing pedagogy. 

In fact, my student collaborators were able to gather better data about Wildcat Writers than I could alone. As the students wrote in our book chapter, “When presenting the surveys in classrooms, we were the ones to enter the room and explain the purpose and necessity of the survey and consent form,” and were therefore able to get more candid information from peers, “as opposed to a possibly intimidating professor” (Wendler et al. 4). They were also able to interpret this data with a richer understanding of the context. Of course, this is not to claim a sentimental “purity” for the insights of students; as is true for all of us, students’ viewpoints can be clouded by hegemonic discourses like racism, hampered by a lack of awareness of contextual factors, or prone to overgeneralizations of experience. Reflecting on similar projects, Kim Flores acknowledges that such participatory research may not have the same exacting methods as traditional scholarly work—“But it is rigorous and brings together multiple points of view.” Ultimately, Flores asserts, work that incorporates participants as co-researchers is “often more important, more effective, and certainly more useful” than research completed by a scholar alone (41).  

The traditional model of solitary scholarship felt isolating to me as a graduate student. I had come to graduate school as a committed teacher and an ambivalent scholar; fresh from coordinating a community literacy program with urban youth, I often felt that academic research was hollow. Co-authoring research with high schoolers was more energizing. Keeping a writing date with a group of students and huge sheets of butcher paper was much easier than keeping a writing date with a computer and a stack of books. It’s a different composing experience to take notes while students determine your research question, to maneuver around other bodies while building piles of survey data around the room, to be forced to translate academic phrases into student-friendly prose, to use the process of writing an academic article to teach writing. I was feeling a tension between my commitments as a teacher and as a researcher, and co-authoring with students allowed me to integrate these identities in a way that centered me.  

But I remember being struck at the time by how academia was not set up for this kind of work. I went in endless circles with the IRB at my institution, trying to communicate that the youth I was working with were co-researchers, rather than research subjects—there was no way to fit this project into the boxes on the IRB form. Even once I gained initial approval, the youth co-authors were faced with completing human subjects research certification, a process that took us the better part of a semester, as the modules were full of academic jargon. And when we submitted our draft, one of the reviewers missed the fact that the youth were co-authors, even though we had clearly stated this multiple times in the chapter. The message we were receiving about who writes research—and who does not—was crystal clear. It was a message I found myself constantly trying to counter, both for the students I was writing with and for academics who encountered their work.  

It’s a message I still find myself pushing against, as I now teach graduate students myself. While bright spots like the undergraduate poster session at CCCC, the Xchanges Journal that highlights undergraduate work, and recent books co-authored with students (e.g. Toth et al) are encouraging, participatory action research with students is still relatively rare in our field. I introduce participatory methodologies to my graduate students in the hopes of offering them formative writing experiences that disrupt conventional notions of where knowledge comes from. I want my students, many of them first generation or local secondary teachers, to understand that they can be academics while huddled over flipchart paper with queer youth in a community center, while sketching out ideas on napkins with English majors in the union, or while working side-by-side with first-year composition students on a draft. Because when I realized that I could be an academic in a high school computer lab, eating a breakfast sandwich with one hand and passing out sharpies to teenagers with another, this was an identity formation that allowed me to make a home for myself in Rhetoric and Composition. By writing with students, I invented a discipline for myself that had more room. 

Works Cited

Cousins, J. Bradley and Jill Anne Chouinard. Participatory Evaluation Up Close: An Integration of Research-Based Knowledge Evaluation and Society. Information Age, 2012.

Fals-Borda Orlando, and Mohammad Anisur-Rahman. Action and Knowledge: Breaking the Monopoly with Particiaptory Action Research. Apex Press, 1991. 

Flores, Kim Sabo. Youth Participatory Evaluation: Strategies for Engaging Young People, Jossey-Bass, 2008. 

Toth, Christie, et al. Transfer in an Urban Writing Ecology: Reimagining Community College-University Relations in Composition Studies. Forthcoming with CCCC Studies in Rhetoric and Writing series, 2021.

Wendler, Rachael, Aria Altuna, Timothy Crain, Oksana Perez, Savannah Sanchez, and Jalina Vidotto. “An Architecture of Participation: Working with Web 2.0 and High School Student Researchers to Improve a Service-Learning Partnership.” Higher Education, Emerging Technologies, and Community Partnerships: Concepts, Models, Practices, edited by Melody Bowdon and Russell Carpenter, IGI Global, 2011, pp. 1-14.