One of my first experiences in academic writing happened during the first week of my freshmen English 102 course. My professor, a slight woman wearing a cardigan with an affinity for English literature, stood at the front of the classroom and spoke to us about a short writing assignment due by the next class. At the time, I was 20 years old, and scared. I was paying for college myself, had signed up for classes on my own, and felt truly alone in my goal to earn an Associate’s degree since that goal was not supported by my parents or siblings who hinted routinely that they thought my place was on the family dairy farm, building my parent’s business. Compounding that fear, it had been over two years since high school, and I was worried I would not remember how to write for a school assignment, or worse, that I had never really learned to begin with. Would I embarrass myself? What was my writing supposed to look and sound like?
It’s an amusing story to look back on now, because that writing class ended up being one of the most challenging and reassuring classes for me as I learned how to write academic papers. I have not thought about that moment of slight panic and being alone for years, but the memory came back to me during our first face-to-face class this semester when we talked about linguistic diversity, and how presumed mistakes in student writing are traditionally seen as errors, when in fact, they can reveal strengths in student communication, strengths that can be called out, and celebrated. Not every student in that first class finished English 102 with me. I wonder if their experience would have been different had our professor been more aware of the language diversity in her students, and called out our strengths in communication, instead of our deficits.
For our team of researchers in English 713, that is the goal of our qualitative research project: to gain a sense of the linguistic diversity of UW-Milwaukee students and how that diversity can be viewed as not something to change to write well, but something that can be valued outside of academics. Sara Goldrick-Rab and Jesse Strommel write in their article, Teaching the Students We have, Not the Students We Wish We Had, “the work of higher education — as with all of education — has to begin with a deep respect for students. They are not mere data points, not just rows in an online grade book. Students are human first.” Appreciating where students are linguistically is one step in the direction of deep respect for where students are, not for where we wish they were in their writing journey.
The first step of beginning our research project was completed on Monday night, February 11th to answer the question of how we would hold each other and ourselves accountable for learning and growth. Over the past week we added information to a “Collaboration Contract” document to share what our personal and professional needs were. In class, we coded the data from patterns we found across our responses, and working in small groups, synthesized the feedback into four categories of expectations: Communication, Workload, Accountability, and Respect. To complete the process, we each signed the contract and then turned our attention towards writing a research question. Multiple ideas for a potential research question were shared, with no clear plan reached before the end of class.
But that is okay. Although an often-quoted self-help book encourages aspiring successful people to “begin with the end in mind,” our work on the collaboration contract helped provide a set of expectations for moving forward. We know how we will arrive at the end, even if we do not know yet what the end result of our research will be. While I felt alone during my first weeks of class in English 102, I did not have that feeling in English 713. Here, I am surrounded by a group committed to shared expectations and professional goals. We have a purpose to gather data to support a conclusion about the diverse languages, dialects, composition practices, and resources that UW-Milwaukee students use in their daily lives as they move across campus spaces. And, the results of our research has the potential to shape our own, and our campus’ view of student language and writing, from a deficit, to an understanding of linguistic diversity and complex communication navigation skills.