Big Data(s), Small World(s)

This perhaps should be two different posts, but since I don’t have that much time, I’m going to suggest some kind of connection(s) here.  Maybe they’ll connect, maybe not.

For 516 this semester (this week, actually), we’re reading Jessie Moore et al’s “Revisualizing Composition: How First-Year Writers Use Composing Technologies,” coming out in the future (!) March 2016 issue of Computers and Composition. It’s a large survey that’s been going on (on and off) for a few years of over 1,300 students at a bunch of different colleges and universities about their use of “composing technologies,” which includes some of the usual things– paper, pencils, word processors– some things kind of in-between– email and blogs, for example–and some things that aren’t often considered as writing tools in writing courses, things like Facebook, Twitter, and cell phones.

The short version of their results is while a lot of what they found is not surprising (students still use paper and pencils a lot, they mostly write alone, etc.), a lot of it is interesting and unexpected– for example, the heavy use of cell phones. Further, writing pedagogy isn’t really keeping up in that we don’t do enough to integrate new technologies into school writing, “how classroom instruction can better prepare students to write effectively with these technologies when they use them for self-sponsored genres, and whether any kind of transfer occurs when students use these composing technologies to write for academic and self-sponsored purposes (10).” Though I suppose that kind of depends a bit on over-generalizing classroom instruction perhaps.

The other big data that I thought was pretty interesting as of late– really big data– was the Open Syllabus Project. There was an article about all this in The New York Times and Aaron Barlow has an interesting post about this where he digs in a little deeper into the syallabi for courses in “English.” Among many other things, Aaron notes:

The first thing that jumps out is that Allan Bloom has little to worry about. Most of the works on the list were considered ‘canonical’ even before the rise of Feminist Studies, African-American Studies and that shibboleth ‘politically correct.’  Only seven of the works aren’t by Dead White Men and only four are by African-Americans.

I haven’t had much time to play around with this database yet, but I had a sort of similar conclusion by looking just briefly at the “Open Syllabus Explorer” interface. Here are the “top ten” books assigned across all courses:

1
The Elements of Style
Strunk, William, 1869-1946
2
Republic
Plato
3
The Communist Manifesto
Marx, Karl, 1818-1883
4
Biology
Campbell, Neil A., 1946
5
Frankenstein
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, 1797-1851
6
Ethics
Aristotle
7
Leviathan
Hobbes, Thomas, 1588-1679
8
The Prince
Machiavelli, Niccolò, 1469-1527
9
Oedipus
Sophocles
10
Hamlet
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616

The thing I find most striking here– and frankly, most bizarre– is that this “top ten” is probably pretty close to the “top ten” list of 30+ years ago when I started college, and it probably isn’t too far off to the “top ten” list when my father was in college 55 or so years ago. So, at least at first blush, the reason why people grumble about how higher education resists change is because data like this suggests that higher education resists change.

Of course, the problem with both of these chunks of “big data” are the specifics of the sources and samples. While the Moore et al study is impressive for a field where there just aren’t a lot of big studies, they have some problems that they acknowledge in terms of sampling of race. Further, almost all of the students in this study were first year students (and I have to think that juniors/seniors/graduate students would have somewhat different answers to writing genres that matter to them), and the institutions were pretty much limited to the places where Moore and her co-authors worked. I haven’t poked too far into the methodologies for the Open Syllabus Project yet, but what they say is the project “leverages a collection of over 1 million syllabi collected from university and departmental websites.” That’s pretty impressive in all kinds of different ways; however, as anyone in academia knows, one of the most consistently inaccurate places to find data about what happens in academia are departmental websites.

The other lesson I take away from both of these studies involving big data is why it’s still important to triangulate this data with smaller studies and exploration. For example, there’s this bit of puzzlement from the Moore et al study:

More surprisingly, students also report using blog technologies for e-mail, writing academic papers, texting, commenting on status messages or posts, writing research papers, and taking lecture notes. In spite of the academic-oriented genres in this list, students predominantly used blog technologies for entertainment or personal fulfillment. Again, we’re left asking what “e-mail” means to students when they see themselves doing it with blog technologies. Exploring this flexible use of genre terms would help inform the field’s understanding of how students are using the composing technologies available to them for all the writing they complete in their daily lives. (10)

It’s an interesting problem/question. If had to make a wild guess, I’d say that for at least a small percentage of respondents, “email” is an almost generic term for “Internet stuff.” But again, that’s just a guess. If there was a way to do some kind of focus group or case study with some of the folks who filled out the survey in the first place, there might be a better answer.

And I’m particularly sensitive to the news from the Open Syllabus Project that the top book assigned is Strunk and White, which is a book my students and I are reading right now! Now, I have a feeling that my approach to this book in a course called “Writing, Style, and Technology” is a little different than the approach of most faculty teaching this book. While I want my students to benefit from S&W’s advice (and really, they do have some good advice in there), I mostly am trying to get my students to read against the text, to try to dig into and question what’s going on here. It’s difficult for a lot of my students to do this, but I try.

Anyway, the point is the Open Syllabus Project (and the project of the Moore et al piece, for that matter) is good at presenting some really interesting observations, ones that I would have never guessed, such as the popularity of The Elements of Style. But this kind of big data doesn’t answer the smaller question of “why?”

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