From a Fall 1994 Presentation at IATE
Invited article published in the Spring 1995 edition of the Illinois English Bulletin 

The Echoes Project:
Students as Researchers and Writers
on Topics About Their Local Community 

     On a grey-black, Friday afternoon in December, the wind blew across the prairie scattering the remainder of the fall leaves.  My attention kept skittering from my computer screen to gaze out my fourth-story office window to watch winter begin.  I couldn't capture the tone of the article I was writing on the Echoes Project.  "Surely," I told my resistant self, "I can capture this Project.  The tenth Echoes will roll off the presses early next year."  While I cajoled, bargained, and pleaded with my computer screen, I searched for the voice that was hiding under a granite writer's block, when my phone began to ring.

     The first call swirled lyrical cadences, as Jane, one of my students in the Advanced Composition class who were writing the current Echoes book, began to describe an e-mail message she had just received, "FROM AFRICA . . ."  She had chosen for her topic on local history a woman for whom a prestigious lecture series is named.  Her search for primary sources to document the achievements of the first American female to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics from a European institution had led her to locate a mathematics professor on the east coast who was currently on a sabbatical leave in Africa.  The professor's response to Jane's request for information was more than positive: it was enthusiastically affirmative as she asked the student to co-author a book on this woman pioneer in mathematics.

     Curiosity, tenacity, and research had melded to lead this one student to contact university archives, family members, acquaintances, and colleagues to discover the essence as well as the facts on her topic.  Indeed, her assignment had become hers.  I was only an interested bystander now, an occasional source for information and someone with whom to share such delightful news.  Jane's sense of ownership of her topic, her research, and her writing exemplifies the best of the Echoes Project and why I persist in using this project as a vehicle to teach students how to think, to research, and to write.

     A brief overview of the Echoes Project's history may reveal this project's adaptability and applicability to diverse teaching situations.  I began this project out of the determined exigency I experienced in 1977 when I returned to high school teaching in a small, rural western Kentucky town.  Neither the school nor the surrounding community provided enough research materials to fuel the intellectual curiosity I wanted my students to develop in research writing.  What this area did have was a rich history, which was virtually unpreserved in written form. 

     What I did at that juncture in my teaching career is what Mina Shaughnessy labeled as "Diving In" (238).  I knew from my experience in originating and directing a regional university's Writing Center what was NOT working in many of the area high schools: the students neither understood the research and writing processes nor did they have any particular interest in acquiring them.  Since I've always enjoyed conducting research and writing, I tried to analyze The Why and The How of my learning such activities and then to apply the same experiences from my student-days to my teacher-days.  Two ideas emerged: I liked to "discover" information and then to "share" it.  So writing about the local community and for the local community seemed reasonable.  The community itself could provide the research base from which to work.  It could also provide the audience for whom to write.  Having made these two decisions, I announced to my senior English students that "we" were going to write a book.  And then we muddled through my inexperience of knowing what producing a student-researched and written book meant to produce the first Echoes.  The experience with this book was a huge success--with the students and with the members of that community.  I eventually conducted the Echoes Project six times with my high school students, and each time the teaching process became a little more organized and a little more refined.

     I then decided to conduct the project as a formal research study with a freshmen-level, required writing class at a nearby community college to attempt to analyze the project's value as a pedagogical approach to teaching research writing.  I expected more from my college students than I had from my high school students, both in quantity and quality.  And once again I realized, this time through careful ethnographical analysis of the project and through case studies of five students, that the Echoes Project fulfills, and often exceeds, my professional objectives for research writing and that the students generally become engaged in the processes and in the production of a good final product.  This duality of importance of stressing "process and . . . product" (Lunsford 159) fulfills the immediate and the long-term goals I have for student-writers.

     When I accepted a position at Eureka College, a liberal arts college with a campus-wide emphasis in writing, I knew that I would attempt to conduct the Echoes Project in yet another academic environment.  I was, however, concerned about the relationships between our students and members of the local community.  Unlike the first seven Echoes, the eighth one was going to be researched by individuals who were, for the most part, cultural outsiders.  These students were not the sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, or grandchildren of the local citizens--rather they came from around the world to live in the dorms and to attend classes.  Recognizing the potential caveat, I, nevertheless, began another Echoes Project.  My initial fears were negated entirely when a young woman from Japan conducted eight local interviews to elicit the material she needed to write about Eureka College's mascot, the Red Devil.  She, like all of the students, had been welcomed and encouraged by the members of the local community.
     Now, the tenth Echoes (the third volume at Eureka College) has been written and will be back from the printers early this spring.  From high school students, to beginning college-level writers, to upper-level undergraduate writers, the Echoes Project has proven to be effective.  The three essential components of the project that transcend locality and current writing level of the students are (1) having students choose a topic about the local community, (2) encouraging the students to work collaboratively with each other and other members of the academic community and the cultural community, and (3) publishing the students' writing for a public audience.

     The first of these components, having the students choose a topic about the local community, is not a new idea.  Most notably, Eliot Wigginton opened the national dialogue in this area in 1966 when he began his Foxfire approach to teaching research writing to his high school students in Rabun, Georgia, by having them leave the classroom and interview local individuals to glean and to preserve the wisdom of how to perform time-honored tasks.  He found that by having his students write on local topics the experience added "a real dimension to those skills in the language arts that had not been taught in a real way before [his emphasis]" ("Using" 30).  Thomas Denton also found that his community college students in Poughkeepsie, New York, were committed "to a writing project in which the content derives from their own purposeful investigation of subjects with their local community" (iii).  Wigginton's and Denton's experiences are neither isolated nor idiosyncratic; Johnston, working with upper-level college students in China; Simons, teaching high school students to become folklorists; Haynes, documenting college students' family histories in Saskatchewan; and others have had similar positive teaching experiences in framing writing topics in the lives and cultures of the communities of their students.  From Rabun to Poughkeepsie, from high schools to colleges, instructors have confirmed that teaching composition and research skills by having students write about their local community is a powerful pedagogical tool.

     The Echoes' students have chosen an incredible range of topics from their local communities; they have researched and recorded the histories of all-black grade schools and high schools which were prevalent prior to the desegregation laws, studied the Tobacco War, recorded how to cure country hams, learned about the institution of slavery and the underground railroad, and documented the origins of churches, banks, radio stations, a railroad, and an electrical company.  The students have also written about numerous individuals, and again the range of their interests has been extensive from the "seventh son of the seventh son" who could remove warts by the "laying on" of hands to the first woman sheriff in Kentucky, and from President Ronald Reagan during his college years (as my current school's most famous alumnus) to "Big Six" Henderson, a retired "revenooer" in the Golden Pond area during Prohibition.  Regardless of the academic community, I've noticed that students have questions about their surrounding community.  This spark of curiosity is legitimized by the classroom assignment.  By providing a formal context to guide the students' curiosity, they are granted permission to begin to dig for the shards of uncontextualized information which exist in attics, courthouse documents, archives, and memories.

     After determining a topic on "local history," which my students have defined to include any event which happened last year or before and relates to anyone who ever existed in "this" community, they begin their researching and writing.  I require multiple drafts throughout this process so that the sheer weight of the resultant information does not totally enervate the student-writers.  Students are encouraged to help each other and to tap the much larger communities of the college and the cultural area. 

     This sense of, and use of, community to work collaboratively is a second major dimension of the Echoes Project.  The second phone call that gray Friday illustrates this dimension.  Remy began her call with "I just had to tell you what happened."  She had chosen to research a beloved English professor at Eureka College, who because of Retinitous Pigmentosa had the unique challenge of teaching without the benefit of notes or texts visibly prompting her lectures: she was blind.  During Remy's research on this remarkable woman, she contacted the woman's sister, who was also blind as a result of the same disease.  The relationship between the student and the sister was created by a single voice-thread over the phone.  Remy's news was that she had contacted Heart of Illinois Talking Books which was going to copy her final article in braille so that Remy's new phone-friend could read about her sister for herself.

     The sense of community had started in a single classroom as the students collaboratively discovered and shared facts from the college's archives or photos unearthed while browsing through old newspapers or the names of "someone who might know someone" on a classmate's topic.  The classroom boundaries began to blur as the class members overcame shyness to interview coaches, classmates, friends, and family members to glean every possible memory about Eureka College's national basketball championship, an evolving theatre program, the origins of the local radio station, and even citizens whose ancestors had fought in the Civil War.

     When the students left the perimeters of the campus to climb the bell tower of the Woodford County Courthouse and to scour surrounding communities' libraries and historical societies, the boundaries separating academia and its surrounding cultural contexts were mere mists.  And as the students picked up the phone and dialed long distance information to search an entire area code for a possible family member, even the mists vanished, and the community for these students began to encompass the whole world.
     Working together as a community, the Echoes' students incorporate collaborative learning that has been advocated by so many composition researchers; Bruffee, Spear, LeFevre, Bissex and Bullock, Knox-Quinn, and many others have all written in support of the concept.  Isenberg also noted that such group work is most like what college faculty members do when they publish jointly in "collaborative authorship" (12).  Even research outside the composition field has revealed significant support of collaboration; researchers in the field of psychology in analyzing industrial productivity found that "group-level feedback increased productivity an average of 50%" (Prichard 337).  Both academia and industry share the realization that increased productivity results from group effort to solve shared problems.
     This venture of sharing, sense of community, enhances the very objective of learning which is inherent in every classroom.  Bruner notes that the very process of a person internalizing language "depends upon interaction with others" (Beyond 350).   To allow students to know that the search for knowledge does not exist solely in a classroom or a textbook but rather it reaches as far as their imaginations can dream is the ultimate goal of this project.  Of course, it is idealistic--education can never be less.  Of course, it is scary, for the students because they seldom have been given permission, let alone expectation, to reach so far and to risk being totally rejected and by total strangers at that, and for this professor because I neither have all the answers nor do I have all the solutions.  But together as a community of learners bound by a common goal, we can start their projects in a very traditional classroom and dare to communicate with someone in Africa or someone who cannot see the eventual words inked on the page.

     The community is also the nameless, faceless "other" of the public audience who will eventually read the articles printed in an Echoes book.  This is the community who transcends not only this place but also this time.  This part of community is also the third essential part of an Echoes Project: having students write for a public audience.  So as articles are being written, and re-written, a public audience is constantly kept in mind.  Composition research generally supports the idea that students' grasp of audience as a rhetorical consideration is very important for the quality of the final written product (Roen and Willey; Pfister and Petrick; Black).  Students with a clear sense of audience have a stronger sense of plans and goals (Glassner) as well as an awareness and use of revision strategies (Monahan).  Yet few students, particularly high school students, are writing for a public audience; Applebee's 1986 Writing Report Card reveals that "only about 6 percent [of the eleventh graders in the U.S.] have had work printed" (65).  My experiences suggest that this percentage may be even lower in certain academic settings and that few of my students have written for a truly public audience in that their prior publications have been nearly exclusively for the high school or college newspaper, which often has a somewhat narrow vision of who "the public" is.

     So my students and I are often entering a totally new area when they write for the public.  This awareness does seem to focus their efforts to be accurate in their research and to be careful in their editing.  Of course, the articles are constantly being polished for the public.  Our collective goal is writing perfection but always there are glitches: missed commas, even omitted words such as a last draft where "-ship lists" was somehow left out so that the "members [omitted information] were placed in the cornerstone for future generations."  That slip we caught, thank goodness; the elders of this town may have unearthed the courthouse cornerstone over that error, or at least jokingly commented on considering it.  A major part of the relevance of writing for a public audience is that students must constantly "re-vision" (Gere 93) their papers from another's perspective in order to communicate with clarity and accuracy, using those upper level cognitive skills so sought after in composition teaching (Flower and Hayes; Kutz and Roskelly).  The students also willingly go over their finished and, as in the "cornerstone" example, even graded papers "one more time."  Together we struggle to create a paper artifact of which the students-writers will be proud enough to share with their grandchildren.

     Because the topics lead to research, and research is both the result of and the context for community, and community circles back to embrace research which allows the students to discover their topics more completely, I find it difficult to describe this project in the linear constraints of writing.  The process of describing what students do as they proceed through what they initially perceived in their writing journals as "impossible" is similar to trying to describe eighteen novel plots simultaneously: each student's progress as a researcher and a writer is a story and a story which evolves over a semester.  But from the first day of class until after the deadline for their final drafts of their articles, the students delve into an extended research project and locate for themselves the voice their data demands and the tone which only they know can capture their topics.  And eventually, as one student wrote in his journal the day he handed in his final paper, "I feel like I can conquer the world--I can't wipe the smile off my face."

     Over 277 students from a high school, a community college, and now at a four-year liberal arts college have completed an article for one of the ten Echoes books.  Telling parts of two of their stories has allowed my computer screen to keep scrolling away the lines I've finally been able to knock loose from under my writer's block to relate a way to teach students to not only write a twenty-page, primary sources research paper but also to want to write it.

     As I paused to think how to conclude this paper and noticed the afternoon had grown calm and crimson in the rays of the setting sun, I heard a gentle knock on my office door.  "Just a minute," I muttered to the unseen person, and then I knew I had to type just a couple of more sentences before I could stop.   Whoever is on the other side of the door (and only a student still working on an Echoes' article would come to my office late on a Friday afternoon), whatever the hurdle we have to overcome or whatever the shared joy we are about to celebrate, I know that this mutual search for facts, for processes, for possibilities is exciting as a teaching assignment and that I must share it with my teaching colleagues.  Being excited by a research writing assignment after conducting it ten times may be the secret joy of this project that makes it so valuable for this English professor.  The rewards for my students lie in the academic realization that they can conduct research on a local topic, that they can work collaboratively within a community within a community within a community, that they can write publishable papers, and they can do what they had initially perceived as impossible.  And knowing all of that for myself and for my students is not bad for a grey-black Friday afternoon.  Not bad at all.   

December 1994

Works Cited

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