Introduction and Chapter 1 of Janet Emig’s ˆThe Composing Proccesses of Twelfth Graders”

Summary of Introduction:

In the introduction of this research report sponsored by the NCTE Committee on Research, Janet Emig explains the catalyst for this case study–up until that point, 1971, a coherent and consistent understanding of the composing process was virtually absent. Inspired by the 1965 “Research in Written Composition,” which identified the need for a case study to investigate the “factors affecting the learning of composition,” Emig conducted a case study of eight twelfth graders of above average and average ability to record an account of their writing behaviors. In four sessions each, autobiographies of their writing experiences and verbal accounts of their composing process were taken. According to Emig, four hypostheses were formulated from this study:
1. 12th graders enage in 2 modes of writing: reflective (a longer mode that focuses on writer’s thoughts and feelings about his or her experience) and extensive (a shorter mode that focuses upon writer’s conveying a message or a communication to other)
2. Differences between 2 modes are evident in attempts to compose aloud
3. An implied or explicit set of principles governs selection and arrangements of components–lexical, syntactic, rhetorical, and imagaic
4. extensive writing is school-sponsored; reflective is self-sponsored.

The long term suggestions Emig identifies that grew out of the data collected during this case study are:
1. change way composition is taught in American secondary schools.
2. train and retrain composition teachers, encouraging teachers to compose both reflective and extensive texts.

At end of introduction, Emig admits case study has limitations–small and skewed sample, difficult and somewhat artificial, verbal composure of texts by participants, failure to correlate data with outside “objective” measures of writing ability. However, she also emphasizes value of study:
1. represents unique effort to use case studies for discovering student’s writing abilities
2. new kinds of data about writing process were elicited
3. focused on writers rather than writing product.
In the final line, Emig expresses hope through this work and others like it, learning and teaching of composition may “someday attain the status of science as well as art.”

Summary of Chapter 1:

In Chapter 1 of Emig’s book, she presents the kinds of data that had been collected concerning established writers before her case study, points out the weaknesses of each study in describing how writers behavor or act during the composing process, and neglect to answer many of the major and interesting questions about students as writers such as:
How does one’s community affect student writing? How can pre-writing be characterized?
What governs lexical, syntactic, and rhetorical choices writers make? How do out of school and inschool writing differ and how? Etc.

Sources of Data and Their Limitations which Emig explores throughout chapter:

1. Accounts by and about Established Writers:
Emig claims these accounts focus on the various modes writers write in and the description writers give about their working methods and attitudes when writing in these modes. Emig claims descriptions are unhelpful because descriptions of working modes are idiosyncratic, and the retrospective nature of the descriptions lead to innacuracy of exact accounts. Also, Emig points out, most of these modes were imaginative works that had received some acclaim and therefore, many writers are unwilling to disclose their actual methods of writing. Laslty, Emig points out these descriptions focus on feelings and difficulties writers experience rather than the writing act itself.

2. Dialogue between Writer and Attuned Respondent:

These dialogues, which often occur between writer and highly skilled respondent, focus on imaginative works in progress, specifically formal problems specific to a text, technical criticism of each other’s texts, and evolving theories of rhythm and versification. Therefore, these dialogues are unhelpful in discerning the composing process because they focus on only a part of text or process rather than the whole process.

3. Analyses by others of Evolutions of Certain Pieces of Writing:

These analyses focus on different moments of evolution in certain pieces. Emig explains that because the analyses are coming from an outside perspective, much discrepency exists between the analyst’s descriptions at the original writer’s. Emig does point out, however, that using a writer’s notebook and drafts of sources of information about the writing process are good ideas. Analyses of writing styles have also been produced in past, but Emig claims no generalizations about these style have been created so no dilineation of the writing process and thus no consistent characteristics across writers has been created. Again focus has been on product rather than writing act.

4. Rhetoric and Composition Texts and Handbooks:

In these texts and handbooks, which give students dicta and directives about how to speak and write, no evidence is provided to prove the dicta and directives lead to more successful writing. Rather, mechanical descriptions of the composing process have been conveyed without consideration of writer’s feelings about subject matter and how those feelings may influence the writing process.

5. Research:

a. Theoretical studies of creative process–
Emig’s cites Graham Wallas’s creative process, which involves preperation, incubation, illumination, and verification and the Malcolm Cowley’s theory that composition occurs in four stages–germ of story, conscious meditation, first draft, final revision. From these and other descriptions of the creative process, Emig points out that proccesses of creation exist–an important discovery–even though none appear to be exactly the same.

b. Empirical Researh About Adolescent Writing:
Emig points out most of this research focuses on product rather than act, but does highlight Tovatt-Miller’s and Rohman and Wiecke’s studies which clearly identifies three basic writing stages: pre-writing, writing, and rewriting. Yet, Emig claims both these studies focus on writing instruction rather than writing behavior.

After describing these three major sources of data, Emig points out the disagreements, which lead to their unreliability. For instance, in comparing accounts of how writer’s write to textbook instructions on the matter, disagreements revolve around the steps a good writer takes in composing processes, the exact components in the writing process, the procession of steps a writer takes when composing, and the lack of data to prove that some steps taken in the writing process actually lead to better writing.

Despite this conflicting data, Emig concludes by pointing out that some useful methodological or theoretical models for her inquiry did arise in her literature review. Namely, interviewing, questions about pre-writing, and theories of creativity. Most importantly, Emig explains, the four stage description of the writing process, dilineated by Helmhotz, Wallas, and Cowley, serves as the center of dilineation of the writiing process in her study.

Thought/Reaction #1:

Emig ends introduction by expressing her hope that composition will “attain the status of science as well as art”–a hope in her eyes which is a fear in mine. I understand the great value of the cognitive investigation of the writing process, and I do not intend to undermine the shift of focus from the writing product to the student act of composing. This shift still has obvious and important lasting applications and implications and can be credited for the instruction of composition turning away from current traditional models to a more productive practice that helps students more clearly understand the acts good writers perform in the pre-writing, drafting, and revising stages of writing. However, when I think of science, I just can’t help but think of equations and formulas and tiny rabbits bleeding from their eyeballs in the name of medical progress.

I wonder sometimes if we don’t use our students in the name of instructional progress much like those poor rabbits. Just the other day, for example, I tried a new heuristic in my WRT 105 class, which was designed to help students better understand how to synthesize sources to build an argument during the drafting process. I spent the entire class implementing this new experiment and, to my dissapointment, the students seemed utterly confused at the end of class. We all have frustrating experiences like this one; I know I am not alone. And I know ultimately that using the classroom as a labratory for creating new instructional formulas is beneficial in the long run for our field as a whole. I just can’t help but wonder sometimes, however, if using WRT 105 classrooms as the laboratories of our field has detrimental consequences on our students, research, and pedagogy.

If we are depending on our WRT 105 classrooms or the equivalent at other schools to drive our pedagogy, are we really doing a disservice to our students and our discipline? Are we limiting our investigations of how writers write to a space that is filled by mostly by the most privileged in our country? What implications does the classroom as laboratory have on the instutionalized oppression that Eileen speaks of in her last blog?

Emig’s case study is based on six white students, one black, and one Chinese-American from a variety of secondary schools in terms of ethnic backgrounds and socio-economic status. Six of these students were selected by the chairman of the English departments at the students highschools who deemed them “good writers.” Two girls and a boy were selected as NCTE Achievment Award winners, and two others were characterized as students as “interested in writing but not particularly able.”

What would Royster and Williams say about this demographic? Should we be concerned that the majority of students were white? That no other ethnicities beside black Americans and Chinese-Americans were represented? What consequences does this lack of representation have on the validity of the study and the long term implications of the study? What would we discover about the writing process if we conducted a study from a more well rounded demographic about writing processes in a number of different genres in a number of different rhetorical situations?

Another obvious question is what does a “good writer” mean? What were the English Chairmans basing their assessment on when they deemed those particular students “good writers”? Why did the two students who were lableled “not particularly good writers” labeled as such? Why are “bad” writers not included in this study? Would it have been helpful to compare the acts of “good” and “bad” writers?

These are just some of the questions that come to my mind and will stick with me as I read the rest of the book.

I also am particularly interested in Graham Wallas’ four stage process. The incubation stage is often glossed over in composition courses in part because of time constraints. But I agree with Wallas that the incubation time is a very important stage because it seems to be the time when epiphanies come, whether it is in the middle of the night, the middle of a shower, or the middle of a conservation or reading about a topic alltogether different. As Emig also points out, more time in incubation allows writer to choose subject matter that is “more cognitively or psychically complex.” More so, writers often spend more time in contemplation than planning. Therefore, I cannot help but wonder how our students writing would change/differ if they had time on their side. Even though most real life situations don’t permit us the time to fully explore a topic before and during writing, would it be beneficial to use and discuss the benefits of time. In relation to this issue, I think a good question to ask for students to freewrite to before they turn in a final paper is: Do you feel this paper is finished? why or why not? What would you have done if you had more time? Why? What would have been the result have been if you did have more time?

Also, Wallas’ stages make me wonder how limiting the “prewriting,” “drafting,” “revising,” and “post-drafting” labels can be. How might our pedagogy be different if we rethought these writing stages? Are these stages the same in all genres anyway????

Emig’s study challenges us to think through some of these issues…..



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7 responses to “Introduction and Chapter 1 of Janet Emig’s ˆThe Composing Proccesses of Twelfth Graders”

  1. As I was reading through the transcripts of Lynn’s discussion with the “investigator” (whom I imagine is Emig herself), I stumbled across a section that speaks directly to your science-as-classroom observation. It actually made me laugh out loud.
    Lynn says, “It seems all the teachers I had would give us interesting courses were either doing research or working on their PhD’s and I think they’re using all our material….” Haha! This conjured up an image of us photocopying their material for analysis in a course, or using them to test out our research. It’s hysterical that this student was astute enough to acknowledge that we are using them as guinea pigs as well as subjects for our own learning processes.
    But yeah, is it detrimental to our students, research and pedagogy? I say no. You mentioned “testing” out your new heuristic with your 105ers and the confusion that resulted from it. Yet, you really weren’t testing out if the exercise worked with every 105er or with every college freshman, you were seeing if it worked with these 105ers. And maybe it didn’t, but from that experience you probably learned something about those particular students and what kind of heuristic they would have needed to understand something more comprehensively. So I think developing new heuristics, “testing” them out, seeing which ones work for what kinds of students and learning from those that don’t work out, is actually contributing to the field, to your research and to the development of your pedagogy. It is enabling you to learn exactly what your students need to learn and the ways in which you need to draw on these needs to create/adapt heuristics and/or teaching methods. Not to mention, Lynn defines our classes (researchers/PhDs) as the most “interesting,” so I think the students appreciate our attempts to shake up traditional classroom practices and pedagogies.

    Emig’s comment about her desire for writing to attain the status of science intersted me as well. I think she might have been thinking (or actually this could be my thoughts as a result of Becky’s class) that the field needs to conduct research that provides evidence and factual information and as a result, will be respected as a “real” subject like science. As without both qualitative and quantitative research, as we’ve learned in Becky’s class, our field lacks credibility; our thoughts, investigations, interpretations, observations, analysis aren’t enough–we need proof!

  2. You’re attempting to design exercises that will help them concentrate on and improve their writing – in what way is that impersonal or cruel, as your comparison with bleeding bunnies implies? You are not seeking a gain for yourself at the expense of other living creatures, regardless of the harm – in fact, the reason the example of your class so disturbs you is your compassion as their teacher and writing guide. You hoped to supply them something useful and meaningful to their writing process; keep in mind that that is not always equivalent with “easy.”

    Sometimes, learning involves struggle. This is the reason I often think our society’s aptitude for equating learning with fun is detrimental. Sometimes it’s bloody hard! (I mean, are we new and guest CCRers having “fun” right now?;) And, if we extended your metaphor, consider the consequences: both individually and globally, teaching could not evolve.
    Also, I think of the occasions when I myself have been “experimented” on as a student: in a recent course on Writing Center Theory and Praxis, my professor decided to make his metaphor likening tutoring to improvisation literal. In that classroom, everyone participated in improv at the beginning of lessons. It was a wonderful yet unexpected way to explore the subject, and I do believe it allowed a completely different sort of insight into tutor-tutee interactions. Without my professor’s willingness to “risk” this experience not working or being useful, it would have never come to pass…As Lynn points out and Tanya reiterated, these moments can be some of the most “interesting.”
    Frankly, I’m always interested in alternative ways to “get at” pedagogy. Becky Howard’s comments in our CCR 732 course about wether we choose for it to be reading intensive or writing intensive, plus Collin’s commentary about the event-model of writing and course work still have me thinking. Writing at the “upper” levels of college/ grad school often seems absent from the classroom. I started speculating to myself about the possibility that this may be the reason so much of the field’s scholarship focuses on FYC. So often, FYC is the place where concentrated “public” efforts at writing happen – this is also an alternative to the view that it shaped our field and is the reason for our existence, etc. Perhaps a more positive – not to say, idealistic – outlook. But where is the writing happening in our courses? Not in the classroom, that’s certain. And we certainly theorize a lot about a thing we rarely do together. To go back to the (scary!) scientific analogy, how many bio majors (chem, etc.) go through schooling without recourse to labs?
    Ultimately I agree with Tanya’s thoughts that Emig wants our field to garner the respect scientific fields enjoy. Therefore we must make an effort not to rely on single experiences and results, which can be highly personal and arbitrary, but to also keep in mind the need any field has for a common ground, which is often easier to locate in empirical results rather than private opinions which evolve over time…

  3. P.S. Is that a Constantin Brancusi sculpture I see as your page header? I knew I liked your taste!

  4. Pingback: Snoopy’s Credo: “To dance is to live; to live is to dance” « Walking Amongst the Pre-Raphaelites

  5. I was thinking as I read Emig that this could be more of an attempt to build a credible, data-filled case against early emphasis on the red pen than an objective, scientific study of the composition process. We refuse to forefront technical “errors” in The Writing Program, so somewhere the case was made. It worked.

    On the other hand, OCC has one 099 with a text called English for Boneheads. I’m not sure all the students take the title ironically. It’s probaby a great textbook on grammar, building incrementally on the parts of speech. The trouble is that grammar is neither language nor thought.

    Sondra Perl built on Emig’s earlier research and I think improved its yield. But I’m not sure she improved on the evidence. You can keep cutting a process into smaller links, but do you really understand more about it? There’s an illusion in graphs and charts.

    I found it interesting how much writers lie about writing, according to John Ciardi. I believe him. He’s right. We don’t know enough to describe writing because we don’t know enough to describe cognition. Emig says that herself as a proviso (5).

    Anyway, the book was new ground, and like others, I thought the selection was not really of “average” writers at all, but of skilled writers. Lynn positively sounds like a genius.

    These kids are scary. I never wrote that way, certainly not for anybody with a tape recorder.

    I want to read John’s obscenities. The whole key to this composition thing might lie there!

    Last comment: nobody at all as far as I know has ever gotten a real handle on creativity (18). You can describe all its conditions, and all its results, but not the thing itself. Creativity seems to be a liability for students, judging from the study. I loved Emig’s comment that “no form of American society requires for success from its members more cognitive and psychic versatility and organization than the American high school” (56).

  6. legries

    Tanya and Terri, I understand the points you are making about the value of empirical research in our field. Of course, there is great value and testing out heuristics does driver our pedagogy forward. What concerns me though is something that you point out ,Tanya, in explaining that Emig might have meant that composition should be considered more of a science in order to help our discipline seem more “real.” The underlying assumption there is that a discipline based on theory is not real. This assumption is problematic because it sets up a dichotomy between the empirical and the theoretical, a dichotomy that is still ongoing in the field of comp and rhet. This problem concerns me because rhetorical theory seems to be fairly absent from comp studies (big claim, but see Radcliffe’s “The Current State of Composition Scholar/Teachers:
    Is Rhetoric Gone or Just Hiding Out?”). I raised this same issue on Trish’s blog because I looked at the current CCCCs mission statement and noticed that theory was not privileged as something that CCCCs is concerned with. This lack of theory is especially problematic when thinking of Holbrook’s claim that composition is feminized. Femininity = lack of theoretical knowledge. Perhaps, I am sliding down a slippery slope, but I would argue that one disservice making our field seem more real by making it seem more scientific is priviliging one kind of intellectual work over the other sometimes to the detriment of our students.

    In response to Trish’s response on her blog to Perl’s case study, for instance, I asked where is Tony in this report of findings??? Rather than presenting his voice so we can get to know him, Perl seems to dissect {I am sticking to by lab animal theme here for argument’s sake.] Tony much like a computer or machine is dissected in order to understand how it’s parts work together to function as a whole. The consequence of making Tony invisible is that her description of this “unskilled writer” depersonalizes the human being holding the pen. This depersonalization leads the reader to making assumptions about Tony, assumptions of which are set up by the brief bio–”20 year old Puerto Rican high school drop out from the Bronx who is now an ex-Marine.” I can’t help but think that this scientific study of this “unskilled writer” only adds to the assumptions we still have that posit basic writers as minority members. I wonder just how much damage this scientific study does in the name of furthering our understanding of the scientific process of writing.

    Eileen asks what would happen if we put Tony and Lynn in the same classroom, and I think one thing that would become obviously clear is the difference in skills obtained in communities that reep benefits of privilege and those that don’t. Of course, I am making an assumption here because I don’t know where Tony attended school, what the demographics of that school was, what his home literacy practices were like, etc. But that is exactly the point I am making. Not knowing the literacy influences Tony had growing up, combined with the brief bio and the portrayal of his “unskilled” writing habits, leads me make judgments that Royster and Williams would shiver at. I think Shirley Brice Heath’s case study in WAYS WITH WORDS better demonstrates how science and humanity can come together in ways that Perl could have better synthesized. No offense to Perl but in her empiracal reportings in her article, poor Tony is bleeding from the eyes. What other ways are we causing our students to suffer?

  7. I’m thinking again about those “professional” creative writers. if Ciardi says all writers lie about the writing process because they have to, because it is impossible to describe, what about a writer with extraordinary observational powers who wrote not only the first stream-of-consciousness in Anna Karenina, but also observed his own perceptions, Tolstoy? What did he say about the process? It seems that not all the possible resources are being tapped here. Vladimir Nabokov described inspiration as a moment of non-verbal crystalline prevision of the finished work.

    But I’m also wondering if there is not a purer way to discover “composition” in some form that isn’t linked to language. Paradoxically, written composition that is original can begin in what is conventional. some of the most original work is done by writers going beyond already fixed forms they know well. Shakespeare absorbed the template of Marlowe’s Senecan tragedy, internalized it, reproduced it (in Titus Andronicus) and went on to write King Lear, an entirely different kind of tragedy. If a young writers (John, for instance) might be skillful and fluent because he is very good at following a template, that means he could be at a stage in his writing good “professional” writers also pass through on their way to more painfully produced original work. The whole issue of “convention”confuses the process of composition. Maybe we should be looking at the development of writing as a series of acquired and discarded conventions.

    I’m wondering if the phenomenon of not completely writing down composed thoughts on the page has something to do with an incomplete grasp of the convention of paper-pen-printer’s ink as WRITING we take for granted.

    Composition might occur in a purer form, as I said. One of the purest examples I can think of is the connection of the tapped-out word “water” with running liquid water in Helen Keller’s life. Lorenz, I think, calls this an act of genius. (That example is not really about language, it’s about connection.)

    And if you’re wondering how I’m going to bring horses into this, when I graze Buddy and he steps on his halter rope I tell him “you’re on your rope.” (He would figure this out anyway.) He learned in a short time to move his hoof because of the verbal signal without the “reminder” of yanking his head with the rope. He does this many times in a row, which makes him a smart horse. But occasionally, he does not move his foot, in effect telling me he does not really need this signal, that he is not a mechanically compliant horse.
    What if a student does not really need writing? What then?

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