University of California, USA
Thesis: When First-Year College Composition Isn’t
Research Supervisor: Dr. Jerry Lee

It is common in colleges and universities in the United States that a freshman-level writing course, also known as composition, is compulsory. These classes are designed around concepts of freshmen competencies with goals appropriate to freshmen students; the course’s goal is of preparing freshmen for the demands of writing at a college level. Yet, for different reasons, students that are sophomores, juniors, and seniors commonly take freshman composition. In fact, at the University of California in Irvine, during one term, only 30% of the 967 students were freshmen. It is unlikely that the institutional requirement will change and it is also unlikely that in the near future freshman composition will be populated solely by freshmen.
This reality is the object of my study. As a mandatory course, what is the experience of non-freshmen taking the class? What do they gain from the course as it designed? Do they participate in the class in a different way than freshmen? What might be more appropriate curricula than the conventional design? My research indicates that Activity Theory could be an effective approach to exploring these issues.
I anticipate that Cultural Historical Activity Theory offers an effective apparatus with which to conduct this work. Instead of analyzing narratives or motivations per se A.N. Leontev considered “what is in between the social intercourse” (Russell 509); in contemporary theory, M. Cole and Yrjö Engeström’s version of activity theory posits the “activity system as the basic unit of analysis of behavior, individual and collective,” with actions comprising activity (Postholm 44). This is pertinent to the study of composition because it allows for consideration of the institution, the student, and the object upon which the student needs to perform satisfactorily to succeed in class. For Cole & Engeström “an activity system is any ongoing, object-directed, historically conditioned, dialectically structured, tool-mediated human interaction” (510). Additionally, this system allows that the elements in the activity system, along with the activity system itself, are not static – changes are possible over time as are the shifting of circumstances; this is the reason the theory is referred to as cultural and historic (Postholm 43). By allowing for the shifting of power and the inclusion of motivations, CHAT allows for information to be gathered that could also be construed in a narrative form. Or, to reverse the perspective, CHAT allows for narrative to be analyzed and converted into data. David R. Russell nods to the value of this by writing that “many collectives (such as disciplines, professions, governments, industries, and educational institutions) have long-term objectives and motives beyond conversation, which condition-but do not determine-participants’ actions (including writing) in powerful ways…we include these objects and motives in an analysis, moving in a principled way from broad collectives (social languages, in Bakhtinian terms) to the micro-level behavior of writing for some specific purpose and vice versa” (507). In fact, CHAT as a method “complements the case study design” (Lampert-Shepel 211).
As I understand it, how questions are mapped onto the CHAT paradigm will determine which power dynamics – which tension between points – is explored (Collins 105). But, in addition to looking at individual-level dynamics, CHAT allows that in any realm of study there may be multiple systems at play. The current use of the theory allows for multiple “generations” to be considered. This is necessary to “uncover the anatomy of [these] actions as successive, momentary instantiations of a wider and more stable system of collective activity” (Engeström 2000).
Institutionally, granting that it is true that human systems are constantly changing, it is worthwhile to record how students are performing within their relationship to the freshman writing program. So, exploring the efficacy of the freshman writing program expectations upon the student experience and how the program’s goals are vetted by students could be enlightening. Or, alternatively, affirming. Of course, in the course of discussing how each student engages these challenges and transitions other issues may naturally arise furthering the characterization of current activity in freshman composition.