Carnegie Mellon University

Engagement in Writing

Author: Diane Langston
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 1989

Rhetorical theory has traditionally offered an explanation of engagement based on the writer's instrumental or epistemic motivations for writing. However, people engage with writing tasks that offer neither of those motivations, suggesting that research should attempt to characterize how writers engage with tasks that are not inherently engaging.

Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter posit that expert writers engage with tasks partly because they integrate personal goals as they draft a response. The researchers also contend that the use of assignments in which the rhetorical context is highly-specified may interfere with novices' practice in making tasks engaging for themselves. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work in domains other than writing complements the model suggested by Scardamalia and Bereiter, indicating that individuals set conditions for engagement by adjusting the task demands to match their abilities.

This dissertation reports a study that explores how a model of engagement devised from the work of Scardamalia and Bereiter, and Csikszentmihalyi fits with the activities of expert and novice writers approaching school-based writing tasks. Five experts and five novices were given two tasks, one relatively open-ended and one highly constrained. The content specified in the second task was not appropriate, so the writer was asked to devise a memo that went against his or her judgment. Interviews about each session were conducted after preliminary analyses of the protocols. Analyses included: (1) number of personal goals articulated during the session; (2) number of those that were instantiated in the texts; and (3) number suppressed. For responses to the highly-specified task, additional analyses examined (1) changes writers made to the content specified in the task; (2) reasons for the changes; and (3) how each group used personal goals. The findings support the model of engagement based on previous research. Expert writers integrated many personal goals and imposed high standards based on such goals, while novices did not use personal goals on either task. No effect of the highly-constrained task was demonstrated on the measures involving articulated personal goals. However, the low number of personal goals articulated by novices appeared to result from beliefs about school-based writing and "rules" they devised for responding.