On April 8th, our research team held its first workshop focus group to gather visual data about the unique ways in which UWM grad students use language to communicate. We asked participants to come to the event prepared to craft visual pieces representing the ways in which they use language in the different settings and contexts of their lives. As you might imagine, this prompt and flexibility allowed for incredible creativity! Several members of our research team participated in the event and we welcomed two additional graduate students as well. Though this turnout might be on the smaller end, the event played out wonderfully in terms of the environment and creative data we collected.
During this first event, my primary role was as observer of behavior and the stages of the workshop activities. I’d like to share some of those details here to let you in on this component of our team’s research and as a means of hopefully encouraging other researchers to consider integrating this type of composing event into your own research endeavors.
Prior to the evening of our event, members of the team reached out to fellow graduate students via a standardized email invitation and through one-on-one personal contacts. We also created flyers and posted them around campus.
When the time for the workshop was approaching, the research team set up craft materials at our advertised location for participants to use in the construction of their visuals.
Once our start time rolled around, Rachel welcomed the participants and explain a bit about our purposes and what we expected – essentially, create a visual artifact using any materials available that represents your unique language use across various contexts. I observed most participants approach the table of crafts shortly after Rachel’s announcement and some start their work by taking notes on their own paper. Some grabbed scissors and construction paper to start, while others went for the printed maps of the campus, Milwaukee, or the United States.
What the participants were constructing ended up ranging from conceptual maps of things like foundational language use to geographical maps illustrating the differences in language use depending on the individual’s location. In their visuals, some distinguished between “internal” language versus language used to communicate with others and in different contexts. One participant used the visual metaphor of a “machine” that sorts and enhances language choices.
I found it interesting that participants did not appear to notice me observing them or to pay attention to much outside of the object they were creating, and I think this demonstrates that everyone was comfortable in the space and with the task. As the first participants began to finish up their projects, after about 35 minutes, they approached the indicated interviewers and I watched as the pairs comfortably settled in at the furthest back table in the room, speaking at a normal level.
Our two interviewers prompted with a basic question asking each participant to explain their piece, then listened and audio-recorded that explanation. During these explanations, most participants used some form of physical gesturing toward the visual pieces they created, which has some on the research team to consider video recording future interviews in order to capture these meaning-making gestures.
After the event, our team also discussed some of the barriers that may prevent more UWM graduate students from participating, most about logistics of location and convenience of scheduling. I also continue to ponder ways we might better entice graduate students who are unfamiliar with fields such as composition, translanguaging, and literacy studies; how might we word our recruitment materials to help them readily see the value of what we’re seeking? But, this is one of those important, ongoing questions about our field more generally!
Overall, the mood of the event and the fascinating creative pieces, no two alike, we collected are already exciting indicators of the data we will continue to gather and give people the space to create. If you’re a graduate student at UWM, we hope to see you at one of our future composing events!