Emig’s The Composing Process of Twelfth Graders

Last week in CCR 635, Advanced Research Methods, we read and discussed a few frames in which to view empirical research in the social sciences (and in particular, writing studies). As I mentioned here last week, Smagorinsky’s Written Communication piece (2009) on the Method section and Hayes, et al’s second chapter from Reading Empirical Research Studies (1992) were particularly grounded. Before discussing Emig, then, I wanted to jump back and outline some of the definitions that Hayes, et al use in Section B of their second chapter on types of empirical studies. I used Bubbl.us here to help break this down (see image).

Types of Empirical Studies from Hayes, et al.

It doesn’t take a masters degree to figure out that Emig’s The Composing Process of Twelfth Graders is a case study, a kind of descriptive study, but what’s interesting about it is why it had to be one. According to Hayes, et al, it’s because descriptive studies are necessary when “the researcher does not have specific hypotheses to test” because “the domain is not yet well explored” (23). As Nystrand points out in “The Social and Historical Context for Writing Research,” Emig’s study is often the first plot in sketching a history of composition research in North America, even though it wasn’t necessarily the first empirical study. In the preface to Composing Earl Buxton of NCTE notes that Emig’s method emerged from an “adaptation of the case-study method” from Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, and Schoer’s Research in Written Composition. What seems significant about “Composing,” however, is such studies continued sponsorship from NCTE. As Nystrand argues, previous studies “were isolated and unsupported by professional networks and support systems, including doctoral programs training writing researchers and overseeing dissertation studies, as well as refereed research journals and professional organization special interest groups devoted to such research” (11). Both Research in Written Composition (1963) and The Composing Processes of Twelfth Graders (1971) were published by NCTE.

If the “characteristic outcome” of descriptive studies is to “formulate hypotheses,” (Hayes, et al) it would explain why Emig lists four “hypotheses” in the introduction to the study. At first I interpreted “hypotheses” as a traditional definition: as theories as to how these writers might compose going into the study (pre-data collection). However, as I read on (and revisited Hayes, et al), I understood them more as outcomes of the study, formulations for further research. So if I’m reading this correctly, then, the idea is that future researchers might conduct additional descriptive correlational or experimental studies to follow up on some of Emig’s findings. Like what?

In Chapter 7: Implications, Emig outlines some of the possibilities, including a similar study with a larger sample size and wider range of abilities (one of the weaknesses of this study is that all but two writers are good to exceptional — see bottom of page 29); a study comparing the composing processes of high school writers versus adults, longitudinal studies throughout a sample’s schooling, cross-cultural studies and others. But according to her, “the most promising aspect” of the study is the composing aloud protocol, the 6th dimension of a more or less linear process she uses as her mode of analysis throughout the study (a dimension that is, interestingly, “recursive”). On this dimension she argues for techniques that would allow for “finer calibration,” including the use of time-lapse photography or a stylus to track the starting and stopping motions throughout a writer’s process (96). Emig’s wish to use other technologies to mark the nonverbal actions of the writer to better measure this dimension of the process speaks to the difficulty of relying on such data (as a classmate mentioned last week, composing aloud is hard). It made we wonder if other studies have been done with cameras and electronic devices since this one to see how writers compose. (I imagine so.) It also made me wonder if anyone has captured data with eye-tracking devices used in usability testing.

Having the chance to read Emig’s study after all these years of secondary and post-secondary teaching and training made me realize the effect this study had on the process movement, whose theories have dominated 2 of the 3 institutions I’ve taught at (can you guess which one isn’t included?). See the table there for a summary of findings.

Summary of Emig's findings

If there’s a weakness to these findings it’s the linearity of the modes and the binary of school v self (as Nystrand notes, “the social 80s” shed light on the weakness of cognitive models and their inability to conceptualize audience with any complexity).

Finally, I have to say I was relatively shocked by the tone of condemnation Emig takes toward teachers throughout the study and especially in the last section. For example, in the chapter about Lynn (her primo sample subject), she writes “there is the inescapable impression that Lynn is more sophisticated than her teachers, both as to the level of her stylistic concerns and to the accuracy and profundity of her analysis of herself as a writer” (73). On page 98 in the Implications chapter she also argues that a pervasive “teacher illiteracy” exists: that teachers don’t read contemporary work (a bunch of white dudes, plus Gloria Steinem is in her list), don’t write compositions, and, as a result, show students anachronistic models of writing and “truncate the process of composing”; teaching composition in America in the late 60s/early 70s “is essentially a neurotic activity” (99). As a result of this assessment, Emig argues for more reflexive (as opposed to extensive) writing, offering more generous opportunities for students to compose so that they spend more time prewriting and planning, reformulating, and talking with one another about their work. The implications, it seems, could be rewritten as tenets for the process movement.


Works Cited

Emig, Janet A. The Composing Processes of Twelfth Graders. NCTE, 1971. Print.

Nystrand, Martin. “The Social and Historical Context for Writing Research.” Handbook of Writing Research. Ed. Charles A. MacArthur, Steve Graham, & Jill Fitzgerald. New York: Guilford Press, 2008. 11-27. Print.