Developing as a Writer

July 10, 2010

Cathy Compton-Lilly

Cathy Compton-Lilly

Students develop as writers over a number of years, interacting with a complex array of influences. Individual and environmental conditions work to advance—or inhibit—students’ abilities to express themselves.

How students learn to see themselves as writers is a question that has fascinated UW-Madison education professor Cathy Compton-Lilly for decades.

She watched African American students develop into skilled writers over a 10-year period. Her case study of one of them, Peter (a pseudonym), shows how he accumulated what’s called writing capital.

For her study, Compton-Lilly gathered and studied samples of Peter’s writing, weaving them together with notes from her interviews with him, his mother, his grandmother, and his high school English teacher. She explored the complexities of being a successful writer in school and considered how Peter’s accomplishments were contextualized within school and society.

Many researchers describe their work as longitudinal, but little of that research extends beyond 2 or 3 years. Compton-Lilly argues for longitudinal research over longer periods—5, 7, 10 years or more.

Over the 10 years of her case study, Compton-Lilly observed how Peter developed habitusas a writer. Habitus is a social, historical, and collective construct: A student’s habitus is affected most by what is compatible with his or her past experiences. What resonates with existing habitus is most likely to inform his or her evolving habitus.

In first grade, Peter attended a large urban school where 97% of the students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. The city had the 11th highest child poverty rate in the nation. The school was on the state’s list of “schools in need of improvement” and was at risk of being taken over by the state if test scores did not improve during that first research year.

Peter existed within a social field of schooling that values particular ways of being, and of being a writer. Specifically, writing success in contemporary classrooms requires honoring the conventions, organization, and craft of writing. Peter’s writing success was confirmed by his ability to pass tests and achieve institutionally sanctioned benchmarks.

However, success within this social field involves more than simply writing abilities; it involves other ways of being that are valued and productive within the school context. Good behavior, high grades, and academically productive relationships with friends are also valued. Compton-Lilly focused on four dispositions that contributed to Peter’s habitus as a writer. These dispositions relate to behaving well, making good grades, being a friend, and being a writer.

Peter’s development of habitus was grounded in his early experiences with literacy and his mother’s (and his grandmother’s and even his great-grandmother’s) commitment to literacy and education. But a series of contingencies threatened to complicate Peter’s educational future beyond high school. While in high school he said that he planned to study journalism in college, but he had not taken a journalism class and was not involved in producing the school’s news sheet. He said that he wanted to study journalism at Columbia University but seemed unaware that Columbia did not offer an undergraduate journalism program.

While Peter passed all his high school classes with Bs and Cs, he did not always complete his schoolwork. Although Bs and Cs were considered good grades in Peter’s urban high school, they are not competitive in the larger field. When Compton-Lilly had her final interview with Peter in May of his 11th-grade year, he had not taken either the PSAT or the SAT. He had no timeline for completing college applications, and his high school English teacher was unsure of his future as a writer.

Peter was interested in college but lacked knowledge of some of the processes that accompany college admission. His grandmother offered strong support, but he worried about his mother’s and his father’s situations. With middle-class resources, many of these issues might  be alleviated, Compton-Lilly says.

While Peter’s habitus as a writer and as a student had problematic gaps, it did involve action and movement—albeit sometimes awkward and stumbling—toward goals. It brought constraints grounded in his past experiences but also a wealth of possibilities. This notion of habitus explains both the limited success of many of Peter’s peers and the notable success of some who manage to navigate complex social fields by activating existing capital in unique, creative, and strategic ways.

The larger picture
Compton-Lilly says three intersecting fields complicated Peter’s potential as a writer: education, literacy, and economic advantage. Each of these fields operated on Peter individually and in combination. They functioned together as part of larger social and economic systems that act on, and through, students to maintain existing social and economic structures. They privilege the privileged and disadvantage the disadvantaged. A few strategic and lucky students do gain advantage; this reassures educators and the larger public that equity exists and that natural ability and hard work prevail.

Compton-Lilly’s study illustrates the potential power of long-term qualitative research. It’s only by looking back over 10 years that we can see how Peter accumulated writing capital, how that capital supported the development of his habitus as a writer, and ultimately, how social and economic fields constructed over long periods served to limit that habitus.

Certainly some children do succeed, and Peter may easily be among those success stories. But for every child from underfunded, inner-city schools who succeeds, far too many are denied their potential, and the status quo prevails.

More information is available here.