April 23, 2020
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On day one, from Quest for Justice to an introductory biology course, Kenyon College is a writing school.
A two-year study organized by Jenn Fishman '94, associate professor of English at Marquette University, and funded in part by a grant from the Mellon Foundation, aims to construct a definition of what this writing emphasis means for Kenyon and will explore the College’s relationship with writing on every level.
“We’re trying to find out what writing is in these really large, expanded definitions that we hope will help everybody at Kenyon do whatever they do better, whether it’s faculty who offer writing instruction in a sophomore seminar or … people who want to found a new group,” Fishman said.
Research began last spring with two surveys, one for faculty and one for students. According to Fishman, roughly half of Kenyon faculty responded to the survey, as did 162 students. The survey questions were designed so researchers could learn more about whether Kenyon students see themselves as writers, and, if so, how.
As a Kenyon alumna, Fishman particularly wanted to develop questions that would encompass relationships and experiences that “form around dining tables in Peirce or study tables in Ascension,” she said. The survey also included a narrative question that addressed the basis of the project. It read: “Kenyon has a long and storied tradition of writing. Describe the primary role you believe writing plays today in the overall life and culture of the College.”
Because of the amount of data they received, Fishman and her team have yet to draw final conclusions.
According to Joseph Murphy, director of the Center for Innovative Pedagogy, the goal of the project is “to get people to tell us what’s important to them about writing, what they’re doing in their classes and simply to make a snapshot of ‘here’s what writing is like.’”
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Murphy said he aims to take that snapshot of how Kenyon students and faculty actually feel about writing’s role in academia and compare it with their expectations of those beliefs. “The direction may be that we’re perfectly happy,” Murphy said. “Or there may be parts of the writing culture that we decide don’t match our expectations. And then do we change what we think or do we change what we do?”
Fishman and Lee Nickoson, an assistant professor of rhetoric and writing at Bowling Green State University who is also affiliated with the project, will be on campus in mid-October to begin the next phase of research, which involves meeting with the 26 seniors who responded to an invitation to participate in their project.
“[The senior] case studies will be built around writing portfolios that each student will create based on his or her own writing from the last four years,” Fishman said. Then, Fishman will return again this spring to conduct one-on-one interviews with those same students, and will spend next fall at Kenyon interpreting her research for interested parties.
“I think we’ll get a really rich sense of how writing is at Kenyon in the sense that no one department, field or type of student owns it,” Fishman said. Murphy agreed, adding that he thinks writing is “a big chunk” of Kenyon identity, and he expects the research to reflect specifically how and why writing matters so much.