I wrote this research proposal for my Writing Center Theory and Practice class. I hope to turn it into a full-blown project next semester:
Being a first-generation student means crossing boundaries. When I left for college, I did not realize what an impact my first-generation status would have on my life for the next four years (not to mention the impact it would have on my graduate career). Suddenly, I was an outsider. My continuing-generation peers had access to a language and set of expectations that I did not have. Unlike them, I did not know how to play the role of a college student, how to model myself according to the expectations and unsaid rules of academic life. It was a new world. I am not alone in having had this experience. Research shows us that first-generation students have a tougher time adjusting to college life than continuing-generation students. Many studies claim they have higher drop-out rates, lower GPAs, and less self-esteem than their peers. There are many reasons for these problems: less familial or financial support, issues with academic preparedness, and problems with self-efficacy and study skills. Several researchers have pointed out the ways in which collaborative learning environments or writing teachers can help first-generation students adjust to and succeed in college. However, there is little research being done in the way of peer tutoring in writing. Can writing centers serve as a point of intervention in the often-stressful lives of first-generation students?
With the rate of first-generation students enrolled in college increasing every year, more and more attention is being paid to the ways they operate within academia. Most of the research has focused on their lack of academic preparedness, the hurdles inherent in not having grown up in households that promote collegiate perspectives, and the few resources available specifically for first-generation students. Some research also shows the ways in which low GPAs and low self-esteem can combine to make college untenable for many first-generation students. However, there is not as much information about what the actual college experience is like for the first-generation students who do stay in school. In her excellent article, “Academic Literacy Perceptions and Performance: Comparing First-Generation and Continuing-Generation College Students,” Ann M. Penrose states:
“First-generation students differ little from their [continuing-generation] peers in initial expectations for success or in performance in college. Where the two groups diverge is in the experiences they have as college students – their comfort level or quality of life, in this case intellectual and social life in the academic community. In other words, what distinguishes FG from CG students is not whether they can succeed but the cost of their success.” (Penrose 447)
The haunting final sentence here echoes many of the concerns facing those who study first-generation students right now. With so much research already supporting the fact that first-generations students struggle, the task is to understand the exact ways in which they struggle. The current scholarship in the field attempts to reckon with this problem. We know first-generation students have problems. The question is how do we now make their lives easier in practice and not just in theory?
Several researchers and authors attempt to lay out a game plan to help first-generation students through campus support. One way to do this, many scholars agree, is through collaborative learning efforts. Jeff Davis, in his book The First-Generation Student Experience, is a major proponent of study groups meant to not only teach better study skills to first-generation students but to also provide them with a social outlet that lets them model themselves on their non-first-generation peers. The idea is that first-generation students seek models of behavior that they believe are beneficial to continuing-generation students (Davis 42). Peter Collier and David Morgan agree that behavior modeling and the teaching of study skills could help first generation students, as “university success requires mastery of the ‘college student’ role” (Collier 425).
To take the importance of study groups one step further, I propose there are benefits to collaborative learning that are particularly relevant to first-generation students. Part of this is certainly due to the first-generation student’s desire to model oneself appropriately to university behavior, examples best given through observing others (Davis 42); but it is also due to the fact that first-generation students may actually be more open to community-based learning based on their backgrounds (which are usually, though not always, working-class or low-income). A recent psychology study shows that one of the disadvantages faced by first-generation students lies in the promotion of “independence” as an important value by American universities. Continuing-generation studies, who usually grow up in middle-class families, are taught that independence is an important value, with time given over to individual hobbies or talents for the children in the family. Meanwhile, working-class, first-generation students are more likely to have grown up in households extolling the virtues of “interdependence” (Stephens). Therefore, “first-generation students are likely to experience the university culture’s focus on independence as a cultural mismatch – as relatively uncomfortable and a clear divergence from their previous experiences” (Stephens). In light of this concept, collaborative learning may benefit first-generation students in ways previously ignored. Mentoring, social interaction, and skills-learning are all important to first-generation students, and a collaborative learning environment may help them succeed because they are already attuned to its operations and advantages.
Along with collaborative learning, some research argues that first-generation students might benefit from careful attention from writing teachers. Ann Penrose, in particular, notes that one of the most difficult aspects of college a student most overcome is the change in discourse. First-generation students are especially vulnerable to learning a new, academic discourse. “Because literary practices enact the values and customs of a community, they represent a critical site of vulnerability for those who are uncertain of their membership. It is in written texts that newcomer’s outside status is most clearly and tangibly exposed” (Penrose 457). Penrose goes on to explain that because first-generation students are more aware of the differences between the way they communicate at home and the way they communicate in college, they see the distance between discourses as being much larger than their continuing-generation peers. Therefore, “writing teachers and researchers need to continue to explore pedagogies that will concentrate their efforts not just on validating personal identity or on demystifying the conventions of academic communities but also on helping students forge identities as members of those communities” (Penrose 459). Helping first-generation students gain access to the discourse involved in academia can play a major role in their acclimation to college overall.
So far, research supports the need for writing support and collaborative learning groups for first-generation students. Reading this work makes me wonder if there is a way that writing centers can bridge the gap between these two concepts in order to provide a model of writing and learning in a college setting that will especially benefit first-generation students. The collegiate experience expands far beyond the classroom and interactions with faculty members. Many universities sponsor orientation or mentor groups for first-generation students in their freshman year. However, there is a vital need for support systems that extend through a student’s entire college career. Writing centers might be a successful model for support: teaching important skills, providing peer interaction, and helping first-generation students break through the barriers of academic discourse. With so much research and anecdotal evidence showing that the socially-fostered (and often negative or doubting) mindsets of first-generation students may be the real culprits in their struggles with academia, it is necessary to help them adjust to the operations and unseen rules of the academy.
Peer tutoring, such as our work here at the University of Notre Dame Writing Center, allows students to interact on multiple levels. They are learning writing skills and consulting on specific problems in writing, of course. But they are also communicating and interacting with students who have been successful at entering the halls of academic discourse. Peer tutoring allows first-generation students access to the modeling Jeff Davis prescribes (see above) while taking off the pressure involved in institutional organizations and faculty interactions. Better yet, writing centers are open-access. They welcome students from every year of study and discipline. They can come and go as frequently as seniors as they can as freshman. At a time when many colleges are forced to slash budgets for institutional support of marginalized students, writing centers may be a cost-effective way at providing students with the kind of support that is needed for all four years or more of undergraduate study (and, depending on funding, during all the years of graduate study), while requiring only a handful of faculty or staff members to oversee it. I am not suggesting that writing centers are cheap or easy to run, but they serve several important purposes on campus at once (skills-based tutoring, social interaction, mentoring/positive student reinforcement, etc.), allowing them to serve as points of intervention across several key components of college acclimation.
This research proposal provides an argument for the need for research into the effectiveness of writing centers in helping first-generation students adjust in college. Because I am personally invested in this project as both a writing center tutor and a first-generation student, I want to continue my research in this area of study that has largely been ignored by scholars thus far. There is quite a bit of research about the benefits of peer study groups and writing teachers, but how can we combine these two areas in a way that will allow writing centers to become more than just depositories for writing knowledge? By continuing my research of academic and psychological studies related to first-generation students and by using anecdotal or survey evidence from first-generation students and writing tutors, I hope to make an argument for the ways in which a university writing center can serve as an intervening agent in the academic and campus lives of first-generation students. I realize the research may not always go where I expect it to go, and I know that heartbreak can often lie in the path of studying the things about which we most care. But I am willing to take that risk in pursuing this project.
Collier, Peter J. and David L. Morgan. “ ‘Is that Paper Really Due Today?’: Differences in First-Generation and Traditional College Students’ Understandings of Faculty Expectations.” Higher Education 55.4 (2008): 425-446. JSTOR. Web. 19 Nov. 2012
Davis, Jeff. The First Generation Student Experience: Implications for Campus Practice and Strategies for Improving Persistence and Success. Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2010. Digital.
Penrose, Ann M. “Academic Literacy Perceptions and Performance: Comparing First-Generation and Continuing-Generation College Students.” Research in the Teaching of English 36.4 (2002): 437-461. JSTOR. Web. 19 Nov. 2012.
Stephens, Nicole M., et al. “Unseen Disadvantage: How American Universities’ Focus on Independence Undermines the Academic Performance of First-Generation College Students.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 102.6 (2012): 1178-1197. EBSCOhost. Web. 20 Nov. 2012.