Theses Doctoral

In Company with Others: Commentaries as Conversational Community Practice Towards Philosophical Thinking

Callahan, Nicole A.

In the interest of fostering deep student transactions with texts, the purpose of this research is to study a particular approach to teaching writing, and to observe and investigate the impact of a dramatic shift in the methods and frequency of assignment of writing in a college-level philosophy class, and the ways in which the students and instructor negotiate this new territory and these different demands over three cohort years, from Fall 2014 to Spring 2017.
This dissertation is an empirical study of what happens when an inquiry-based apprenticeship approach to teaching academic writing (Blau 2011) is employed in a required sophomore- level interdisciplinary humanities course in a highly selective college. This classroom research project seeks to undertake an examination of whether students can be successfully inducted into the academic community through a particular assignment in a Philosophy course. This writing assignment, the “commentary,” encourages students to focus on questions and therefore functions as an instance of writing-to-learn, which belongs to a long tradition across disciplines and cultures. This dissertation will also undertake an examination of the potential capacity of the commentary to create an academic discourse community of practice that supports critical reading and interpreting of literary and philosophical texts.
The strategy of this new method is to have the students write twice-weekly 300-500 word commentaries of exploratory and sometimes argumentative writing on assigned texts twice a week, posting the writing in an online discussion board. They receive responses immediately, from each other, and get credit for completing the assignment (on time, relevant, and of appropriate length). The instructor never replies to their postings and never grades their postings on a scale or for quality. Students simply earn credit for completing the full number of required commentaries.
The research is not experimental, but rather a qualitative observation of the effects of an approach established by the instructor in this class and in other similar classes as an adaptation of a model for learning academic writing through participation in an authentic academic discourse (Blau). The approach represents an enactment of situated learning theory (Lave & Wenger) in a college classroom and is constructed to advance academic learning while providing an opportunity for situated performative assessment indistinct from instruction.
The place of the commentary in this course is established in a literary and historical context as it is authorized, valorized, and illuminated by a tradition of writing-to-learn grounded in the ideas of Isocrates, Quintilian, Cicero, and Montaigne. It is also supported by current seminal research in writing instruction, including James Moffett’s theory of abstraction in writing (1983), Sheridan Blau’s pedagogical applications of apprenticeship systems (2011), James Gee’s theories of discourse analysis (2001), and John Dewey’s “How We Think” (1910). Where decorum permits, there will be deeper meditations and excursions into and elaborations on the auto-ethnographic metacognitive writing of Michel de Montaigne, exploring the history of the practice of writing to learn and its relationship to critical thinking and Dewey.
My analysis is situated in examining the culture of writing in this class and the markers of growth in thinking in student writing, using tools out of ethnography and the tradition of teacher research. Based on asking the initial question, “What happens when students write regular commentaries on their reading of difficult texts?” analysis of the collected student writing explores students’ attempts to channel curiosity into productive interpretive techniques, embrace uncertainty, make meaning and connections, and grow in the capacity to welcome and seek out productive confusion and doubt.
I will focus primarily on whether this assignment contributes to the construction of a class culture whose implicit and explicit rules, conventions, and patterns of interaction are consistent with those that characterize the knowledge-building communities of the kind that colleges and universities aspire to in their departments, organized research units, and professional associations. I am also interested in exploring whether this shift in the culture of writing impacts whether students come to perceive themselves as contributors to the construction of knowledge as members of an academic community.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Blau, Sheridan
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 8, 2017