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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Examining First-Year Non-Dominant Students' Experiences As Academic Writers: An Identity Perspective

  • Author(s): Panayotova, Dora
  • Advisor(s): Bunch, George C.
  • et al.

This dissertation reports on a study investigating the identity of first-year university students as writers. The longitudinal project explored how students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds construct their identities as undergraduates and as academic writers in their first year. The research was qualitative and interpretative, and used identity and identity in writing as theoretical lenses. The setting was a 4-year institution of higher education in California. The participants were 4 first-generation college attendees from educationally underserved communities participating in the Equal Opportunity Program Bridge program at the university. Data collection included interviews with the students and faculty, observations and field notes from classes, students' written coursework and other student-produced documents, course materials and documents, and conversations with students about specific pieces of writing. By researching the participants in different academic settings (e.g., courses, lectures, tutoring, support services) and through examining their writing, this project illuminates how students' understanding of self is affected in the process of negotiating academia.

I examined how students construct their identities as undergraduates and as academic writers from the texts and discourses available to them. Student identities are inextricably linked to the writing process and their writing products--student papers. I found that the participants in this study experienced complex power relationships as they attempted to build their identities in institutionally acceptable ways. Both the immediate educational contexts (e.g., students' disciplines, discourses, and majors) and the larger social structures that position students (e.g., race, gender, and sexuality) affected students' academic writing. If the participants could not reconcile their personal worldviews with the ideologies they perceived to be associated with a particular discipline, they switched to another major. Larger social structures (outside the academic context) that shaped the participants' understanding of themselves (such as race, ethnicity, and sexuality) interacted with nonacademic identities shaped through lived experiences and personal histories. Both the larger social structures and the influences from the more local, academic contexts were traceable in the participants' writing.

This study demonstrates the potential of an identity lens to reveal and understand the personal connection between a student's writing self and her written products. It provides a heuristic model of student writing identity that connects how students' identities in contexts outside their texts (extratextual identities) relate to their textual construction of author and authority (intratextual identities). The findings suggest that students would benefit from writing assignments that are not only culturally appropriate and relatable, but are also socially relevant and explicit in discussing race, gender, and class. I conclude by arguing that faculty in writing and other disciplines and staff in learning-support programs and services, like researchers, view student identity as relational and situated, and as pertinent to the academic experiences of undergraduate writers.

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