In a zone of shadows: The experience of writing outside the teacher's presence
The purpose of this semester-long study of college writers was to understand what students experienced when they were provided with a zone of shadows, that is, an opportunity for extended, self-directed, and ungraded writing projects. Such projects were completed outside the teacher's presence yet within the space of a required composition course and in addition to teacher-directed class assignments. One of composition's central debates is about the nature of writing as primarily an individual and personal or social and public activity. My study's significance rests on its attempt to investigate how completing private, ungraded writing while also fulfilling public course requirements might affect students' overall perspectives about purpose in writing.
Data collection included in-depth interviews with students enrolled in two sections of an upper-division writing course that incorporated private writing projects with public course assignments. I was the teacher for one of the sections. Students' perspectives about writing were also obtained from opening surveys. Written updates about the progress of the private projects and final reflective essays were additional sources of data.
A phenomenological and poststructuralist approach to this qualitative study allowed me to examine meaning as both subjective and constructed, yet to understand that contradictions and ambiguities were often fundamental and unresolved components of each person's experience. Since I was the researcher but also one of the teachers in this study, my own role also required such poststructural scrutiny.
My findings point to a possible direction for classroom practice since most student participants experienced a blend of affective, cognitive, and social constructivist elements within the context of self-directed, private, and ungraded writing. Rather than feeling divided by individual or social purposes, as the current expressivist and social constructivist debate suggests might be possible, students in this study experienced an ongoing, holistic, and sometimes simultaneous integration of private and public purposes while fulfilling their composition requirement.