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Measuring ownership of creative versus academic writing: Implications for interdisciplinary praxis
Author: Justin Nicholes
Justin Nicholes uses creative writing approaches to language and ownership to argue for “meaningful literary construction” in learning contexts in a paper of interest to both writing and language educators, as well as creative writing students.

Abstract

One manifestation of David Hanauer’s (2010, 2012) meaningful literacy instruction approach, in which the content of writing is the student’s self and life, begins academic-writing instruction with poetry writing. The present study sought to test out the soundness of a writing sequence that starts with creative-genre writing followed by academic-genre writing. Online-survey data came from undergraduate and graduate English majors at an Eastern U.S. public university and a Southern U.S. private university (N = 76). Data set-appropriate Kruskal-Wallis H tests and Mann-Whitney U tests revealed a hierarchy of ownership, with story ownership higher than argument-paper (< .001) and research-paper (< .001) ownership, with poetry ownership higher than argument-paper (< .001) and research-paper (< .001) ownership, and with argument-paper ownership higher than research-paper (p = .001) ownership. Undergraduates reported feeling more ownership over story writing (= .007) while postgraduates reported feeling more ownership over research-paper writing (< .001). No differences appeared between those who spoke English as a first and English as an additional language. These findings have application for English and interdisciplinary instruction at all levels of higher education and to guide future writing-studies and interdisciplinary empirical research.

 

Keywords: writing ownership; writing instruction; meaningful literacy instruction

 

Introduction

The question of how to embed what we might call academic genres, such as researched arguments, in classroom contexts in a way that still resembles how those genres tend to be used in social practice outside of college has long challenged writing instruction (Wardle 2009). Since the meaning of genres emerges from context-specific needs and social practice, genres and language in general resist easy replication (Bawarshi & Reiff 2010; Berkenkotter & Huckin 1995; Dias, Freedman, Medway & Paré 1999; Freedman & Adam 1996; Kamberelis 1995; Widdowson 1994). One answer to this question is meaningful literacy instruction (Hanauer 2012). For Hanauer (2012: 106), instruction in English-as-an-additional-language classrooms could overcome barriers of decontextualized classroom language by making language learning a “personally contextualized, meaningful activity,” accomplished in Hanauer’s work through a writing sequence beginning with several weeks of autobiographical poetry writing. The books of student poetry that have come from Hanauer’s (2010, 2012) approach were meant to represent thematic units that learners then explored further in academic writing genres, for instance in researched arguments. Though Hanauer (2012) was discussing instruction of English-language learners, all learning, as van Lier (2004) argues, is really language learning, an argument that makes the meaningful-literacy instruction approach applicable to writing instruction generally. All writing instruction could perhaps give writers the opportunity to express autobiographical selves, meaning “the writer-as-performer” or “the ‘self’ which produces a self-portrait” in writing (Ivanic 1998: 25), in artistic forms, with artistically expressed topics becoming topics of later academic genre writing (Hanauer 2010, 2012).

The field of creative writing has long emphasized the importance and the presence of the autobiographical in relation to benefits for and even expectations of students of classroom creative-writing experiences. Wendy Bishop (1993), for instance, refers to the autobiographical quality in creative writing as possibly offering “therapeutic aspects of writing” (504). Bishop (1998) also describes specific writing prompts in the creative-writing classroom that make explicit attempts to have students write autobiographically, such as the prompt she entitles “Autobiography—Past, Present, and Future”, in which students are asked to fictionalize their lives, “to move the self (as a character) through time” (103-104, emphasis in original). For Murray (1991), however, it is not only creative writing that makes both implicit and explicit reference to a person’s autobiographical understanding of him or herself. Murray (1991) writes that “all writing, in many different ways, is autobiographical... our autobiography grows from a few deep taproots that are set down into our own past childhood” (67). The purpose of the current study was to contribute to answering the longstanding question of how to make writing instruction meaningful (in terms of making a student’s self and autobiography the material of writing) by getting a better sense of how students currently feel about the creative and academic genres they commonly encounter in academia—specifically, the creative genres of the short story and poem and the academic genres of the argument and research paper. Doing so might help to address a larger question of how to treat classroom-contextualized language not only in composition classes but also in classes involving writing in other disciplines. It would further explore how the kind of writing sequence that Hanauer (2010, 2012) has discussed might earn additional empirical support to justify its use more widely in higher education.

In addition to anecdotal positions in the field of creative writing praxis, findings from relevant empirical studies have suggested that creative and other deeply personal writing have numerous benefits for instruction. For instance, creative and personal writing have been implicated in the following:

  1. engaging students in motivated activity (Chamcharatrsi 2013, 2015; Dyer & Friederich 2002; Garvin 2013; Hanauer 2010; Iida 2012; Niemi & Multisilta 2015);
  2. raising awareness of semiotic capacities of language (Cahnmann-Taylor, Zhang, Bleyle, & Hwang 2015; Chamcharatsri 2015; Lapidus, Kaveh, & Hirano 2013; Pardo 2014);
  3. creating space for identity negotiation (Early & Norton 2012; Garvin 2013; Holmes & Marra 2011; Hughes & Morrison 2014; Simpson 2011; Zhao 2014, 2015; Zhao & Brown 2014);
  4. establishing voice (Hanauer 2015; Hughes & Morrison 2014; Iida 2010; Maxim 2006);
  5. promoting viewpoint-taking (Liang 2015); and
  6. having literacy-transfer potential to academic writing (Iida 2012).

Regarding students’ preferences for either academic or creative writing genres that they may encounter in college, earlier work has shown university undergraduates preferring narratives about people rather than objects, and not caring if the genre was fiction or nonfiction, with the most favoured feature of classroom genres being that they gave students chances to enter real or imagined people’s minds (Barnes 2012). Past empirical work has also shown students perceiving creative writing, such as poetry writing, as relatively less rule-governed and artificial (in their terms), and especially as a more “natural” way of using language, in comparison to academic writing (Spiro & Dymoke 2016). The present study fits into this body of empirical work by taking a starting position that students and instructors view creative writing as engaging and rewarding. The present study then builds on this body of work by measuring how creative writing compares to academic writing in terms of ownership, which is something the field has not yet quantified.

Ownership has been defined as a cognitive-affective state “in which individuals feel as though the target of ownership or a piece of that target is ‘theirs’” (Pierce, Kostova & Dirks 2003: 86). Ownership implies a relationship between that target and a person’s sense of self, even becoming perceived as an extension of self (Dittmar 1992). In identifying the needs underlying psychological ownership, specifically the need for efficacy and effectance, the need for having a place, and a need for self-identity (Pierce, Kostova & Dirks 2003), Karahanna, Xu and Zhang (2015) defined psychological ownership motivation, noting that different needs might motivate different actions. Hanauer, Frederick, Fotinakes and Strobel (2012) also found academic project ownership correlated positively with agency, personal significance, and mentorship among science majors. These papers helped with conceptual and operational definitions of ownership. Here, writing ownership is defined conceptually as the feeling that the writer really cares about the writing he/she has done and that the writing produced is personally important for the writer.

To summarize, the purpose of the present study was to explore Hanauer’s (2010, 2012) meaningful literacy instruction approach, which includes a writing sequence that starts with creative writing on a theme that is later explored further in academic writing by comparing reported levels of ownership among four types of writing: two creative (story, poetry) and two academic (argument, research paper). This study aimed to have practical value by giving writing-curriculum designers quantified insight into what genres students felt the most ownership over, as well as whether feelings of ownership over creative and academic genres may differ between undergraduate and graduate students.

 

Method

Design, research questions, and participants

An online survey was sent to all students majoring in English at an Eastern U.S. public university and a Southern U.S. private university. Of all the students invited, 76 students decided to participate. Those participating English majors were asked to rate how much ownership they felt for each genre on a 5-point Likert scale. Two research questions directed my investigation:

Research Question 1: Do students feel different levels of ownership over poetry, short story, argument, and research-paper writing?

Research Question 2: Do undergraduates and postgraduates differ regarding ownership over creative and academic writing?

Regarding gender, 53 (70%) of the 76 participants identified as female, 18 (24%) identified as male, 1 identified as another gender, 1 preferred not to answer, and 3 did not answer. Regarding educational level, 39 (51%) reported that they were undergraduates, and 37 (49%) reported that they were postgraduates (including 29 PhDs, 7 M[F]As, and 1 recent graduate). Regarding first and additional languages, 57 (75%) reported using English as a mother tongue while 19 (25%) reported using English as an additional language.

 

Instrument

The instrument used in this study underwent content and construct validity measures as well as internal-consistency reliability measures (Litwin 1995). The verbal definition of writing ownership was as follows: Ownership over writing is the feeling that the writer really cares about the writing he/she has done and that the writing produced is personally important for the writer. I operationalized the concept of ownership by modeling items in Olckers’ (2013) instrument for psychological ownership. These questions were workshopped with an expert panel consisting of several doctoral candidate researchers studying applied linguistics, as well as a professor of applied linguistics who had contributed to literature on project ownership. After consulting literature on psychological ownership (Dittmar 1992; Karahanna, Xu & Zhang 2015; Pierce, Kostova & Dirks 2003) as well as project ownership (Hanauer et al. 2012), and talking through these verbal and operational definitions with a panel of researchers, I concluded that my operationalization of ownership reflected the domain. After validation of the instrument for content validity, I attempted to ensure construct validity by piloting the survey to check for practical application with more than a dozen PhD candidates in applied linguistics and asking them to report back on what the instrument seemed to be measuring. The feedback led to rewording of some items for clarity. The resulting instrument included three carefully worded items that asked about ownership. These three questions were asked four times, in relation to poetry, short stories, argument essays, and research papers. Participants responded on a five-point Likert scale that ranged from Strongly Disagree to Strongly Agree (Table 1).

 

Table 1: Poetry writing ownership instrument

When I write poetry,

Strongly Disagree

Disagree

Neither Agree Nor Disagree

Agree

Strongly Agree

I feel a strong personal connection to my writing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I feel that what I wrote is an important part of me.

 

 

 

 

 

I feel emotionally connected to my writing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, internal-consistence reliability was measured with a Cronbach’s coefficient alpha statistic for the 3 items for each of the ownership measurements. Results were as follows: α = .95 (poetry), α = .96 (stories), α = .89 (arguments), and α = .94 (research papers). Internal-consistency reliability warranted averaging data from survey items into single scores for data analysis.

 

Data Analysis

Following the checking of core assumptions and a process of mean imputation for missing scores, I ran a non-parametric Kruskal-Wallis H test to see if significant difference appeared among reported levels of ownership for poetry, short stories, argument papers, and research papers. After finding statistically significant difference among the four genres with the Kruskal-Wallis H test, I ran non-parametric post hoc tests using a series of Mann-Whitney U tests to find which genres prompted significantly different ownership over others. Figure 1 summarizes the analytical procedure that I used to answer the first research question.

 

Figure 1. Schematic outline of data analysis process for the study of ownership by genre.

 

For the second research question, I checked data sets for core assumptions and then ran data set-appropriate non-parametric Mann-Whitney U tests of difference for poetry ownership, short-story ownership, argument-paper ownership, and research-paper ownership. Figure 2 summarizes the analytical procedure that I used to answer the second research question.

 

 

Figure 2. Schematic outline of data analysis process for the study of ownership by educational level.

 

Results

Table 2 presents the means, standard deviations, and 95% confidence intervals of likelihood for reported levels of ownership for stories, poetry, argument, and research writing. As can be seen, participants reported more ownership over creative genres (stories and poetry) than over academic genres (argument and research-paper writing).

 

Table 2: Means, standard deviations, and 95% confidence intervals for reported levels of ownership by four genres

 

M

SD

Lower Bound

Upper Bound

Stories

4.22

.841

4.02

4.41

Poetry

4.15

1.00

3.92

4.38

Argument

3.65

.965

3.43

3.87

Research

3.07

1.07

2.83

3.32

 

As can be seen, a hierarchy of owned genres appeared, with stories being most owned, followed closely by poetry, then by argument and research papers. Notably, the lower bound of the 95% confidence interval for story ownership overlapped pointedly with the upper bound of poetry ownership, indicating little difference in ownership felt for these two writing genres. The lower bound of the 95% confidence interval for both story and poetry ownership, however, did not overlap with the upper bound of argument-paper or research-paper ownership. Additionally, the lower bound of the 95% confidence interval for argument-paper ownership did not overlap with the upper bound of research-paper ownership. The direction of these differences indicated clear differentiation among data sets.

Shapiro-Wilk tests for normal distribution showed data sets lacked normal distribution: story (p < .001), poetry (p < .001), argument paper (p = .002), research paper (p = .009). Therefore, a Kruskal-Wallis nonparametric test was conducted to test for statistically significant differences among reported levels of ownership of poetry, short stories, argument papers, and research papers. The test indicated that reported levels of ownership differed significantly, χ2 (3, N = 76) = 60.53, p < .001. To further explore the source of the difference regarding ownership of genres, I ran a series of Mann-Whitney U tests for post hoc comparison, finding that:

The mean rank for poetry ownership (76.49, n = 76) was not significantly different from that of story ownership (76.51, n = 76), z = -0.04, p = .997. However, I found the following statistically significant differences:

1. The mean rank for poetry ownership (89.78, n = 76) was significantly higher than for that of argument-paper ownership (63.22, n = 76), z = -3.78, p < .001.

2. The mean rank for poetry ownership (98.29, n = 76) was significantly higher than for that of research-paper ownership (52.71, n = 76), z = -6.18, p < .001.

3. The mean rank for story ownership (90.45, n = 76) was significantly higher than for that of argument-paper ownership (62.55, n = 76), z = -3.98, p < .001.

4. The mean rank for story ownership (99.13, n = 76) was significantly higher than for that of research-paper ownership (53.88, n = 76), z = -6.43, p < .001.

5. The mean rank for argument-paper ownership (88.47, n = 76) was significantly higher than for that of research-paper ownership (64.53, n = 76), z = -3.38, p = .001.

Table 3 presents the means, standard deviations, and 95% confidence intervals of likelihood for reported levels of ownership for story, poetry, argument, and research writing by academic level, undergraduate (n = 39) or postgraduate (n = 37).

 

Table 3: Means, standard deviations, and 95% confidence intervals for reported levels of ownership by academic level

 

M

Under/Post

SD

Under/Post

Lower Bound

Under/Post

Upper Bound

Under/Post

Stories

4.49/3.93*

.670/.913

4.27/3.63

4.70/4.23

Poetry

4.21/4.09

1.03/.983

3.87/3.76

4.54/4.42

Argument

3.52/3.79

.955/.970

3.21/3.47

3.83/4.12

Research

2.63/3.54*

1.05/.890

2.29/3.24

2.97/3.84

* p < .05

 

As can be seen, undergraduates reported feeling more ownership over creative genres than postgraduates while postgraduates reported feeling more ownership over academic genres than undergraduates. Notably, as indicated by confidence intervals, only data sets of undergraduate and postgraduate story ownership, as well as undergraduate and postgraduate research-paper ownership, did not overlap. The direction of these differences indicated clear differentiation of these data sets.

Shapiro-Wilk tests for normal distribution showed data sets lacked normal distribution: undergraduate (p < .001) and postgraduate (p = .001) story ownership; undergraduate (p < .001) and postgraduate (p < .001) poetry ownership; undergraduate (p = .073) and postgraduate (p = .016) argument-paper ownership; and, undergraduate (p = .060) and postgraduate (p = .020) research-paper ownership. Therefore, nonparametric Mann-Whitney tests compared the 2 groups (undergraduates, n = 39) (postgraduates, n = 37, including 29 PhDs, 7 M[F]As, and 1 recent graduate) over measurements of story, poetry, argument-paper, and research-paper ownership, finding that:

1. The mean rank for poetry ownership was not significantly different for undergraduates (40.36, n = 39) and postgraduates (36.54, n = 37), z = -.781, p = .435.

2. The mean rank for argument-paper ownership was not significantly different for undergraduates (35.74, n = 39) and postgraduates (41.41, n = 37), z = -1.13, p = .260.

However, I found the following statistically significant differences:

1. The mean rank for story ownership was significantly higher for undergraduates (44.90, n = 39) than for postgraduates (31.76, n = 37), z = -2.71, p = .007.

2. The mean rank for research-paper ownership was significantly higher for postgraduates (48.04, n = 37) than for undergraduates (29.45, n = 39), z = -3.70, p < .001.

 

Do students feel different levels of ownership over poetry, short story, argument, and research-paper writing?

Ownership seems to be felt significantly more for creative genres than for academic genres. Meanwhile, ownership seems to be felt significantly more for argument papers than for research papers. Students do not seem to feel different levels of ownership between story and poetry ownership. In addition, no significant difference appeared between feelings of ownership between participants who reported using English as a first language (n = 57) and participants who reported using English as an additional language (n = 19).

 

Do undergraduates and postgraduates differ regarding ownership over creative and academic writing?

Undergraduates seem to feel significantly more ownership for stories than postgraduates do whereas postgraduates seem to feel significantly more ownership for research papers. Undergraduates and postgraduates do not seem to differ regarding levels of ownership for poetry or argument-paper writing.

 

Discussion

The results of the study presented here suggest that students feel significantly more ownership over creative genres than they do over academic genres; however, the results also suggest that postgraduates feel significantly more ownership over research writing than undergraduates. These findings suggest that, both for English-as-a-first and English-as-an-additional language writers who are majoring in English, writing ownership may be situated in creative writing. These findings therefore offer support for further exploration into the efficacy of writing-assignment sequences that start with creative writing and lead into academic writing (e.g. Hanauer 2010; Nicholes 2015). As in Hanauer’s (2010, 2012) operationalization of the meaningful-literacy instruction approach, this may justify an instructional writing sequence in which students explore and express a personally meaningful topic through a literary genre, with this topic later becoming the topic for argument- and research-paper writing.

The finding that ownership seems situated in creative writing also raises a number of important questions. Since “features of an educational program may increase or decrease the degree of project ownership that a student experiences” (Hanauer et al. 2012: 379), these findings warrant discussion of what contextual dimensions are shaping students’ perceptions of these kinds of writing. As Spiro and Dymoke (2016) found, students may tend to equate academic writing with something they perceive as artificial and remote whereas creative writing, for example poetry writing, may be perceived as a less rule-governed and even more “natural” way of using language.

 

Implications for Future English and Interdisciplinary Practice and Research

While the findings here suggest that, at least in English, and especially in composition courses where the topic is writing processes and writing genres, a writing sequence that begins with creative writing and leads to academic exploration of themes is supported. Still, it is necessary to see if these findings hold true across first-year composition, across the curriculum, and in the disciplines.

One area of application may be in relation to college-student retention. Empirical studies have already established that undergraduate research experiences have positive and significant correlations with feelings of belonging in academia and with expectations to persist in college (Hanauer & Bauerle 2012; Hernandez, Schultz, Estrada, Woodcock & Chance 2013; Jones, Barlow & Villarejo 2010; Kortz & van der Hoeven Kraft 2016; Tamer & Stout 2016). Future research should explore how engagement and ownership of undergraduate research projects can be increased when imaginative or creative autobiographical writing precedes the project itself. Such ideas are not new in science education. For instance, Hadzigeorgiou (2016) has long supported interdisciplinary praxis that fosters a sense of wonder for science content, calling imagination central to science education. The undergirding assumption in such teaching is that a “wonder at” attitude toward science is a prerequisite for conceptual understanding and mastery in the sciences (Hadzigeorgiou & Fotinos 2007: 18). In addition to college-student retention generally, then, this kind of writing sequence investigated in my study deserves further exploration in relation to what role imaginative writing plays in relation to content learning in various disciplines.

 

Limitations

The findings of this study must be considered in relation to this study’s limitations. The online survey was sent to two IRB-approved sites, which involved listservs used to disseminate the survey to undergraduate and graduate English majors. It may be, however, that mostly those students already interested in creative writing chose to participate. Future studies are needed that explore participants’ lived experiences with creative and academic genres, and how participants may perceive certain genres as owned, or able to mediate agentive meaningful literacy activity. This study also only surveyed English majors. It is possible that English majors already perceive literary genres as meaningful in their discipline, where literary analysis and creative writing may be prized as part of that discipline.

To conclude, Wendy Bishop (1993) referred to the autobiographical quality in creative writing as possibly offering “therapeutic aspects of writing” (504). For Murray (1991), however, “all writing, in many different ways, is autobiographical” (67). It is this autobiographical quality in writing, especially in creative or imaginative writing, that is in need of being systematically explored in future studies across the curriculum and in the disciplines.

 

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Justin Nicholes is a PhD candidate in English (Composition and TESOL) at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, USA. His research explores life storytelling and autobiographical writing as identity performance and transformative experience. 

 

 

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