WILLA v10 - Investigating the Role Gender Plays in Adolescents' Writing Processes and Products

Volume 10
Fall 2001

Investigating the Role Gender Plays in Adolescents' Writing Processes and Products

Elizabeth Blackburn-Brockman
Central Michigan University

Writing teachers today should be able to identify gender bias at the word and sentence levels in our students' writing-sexist job titles or pronouns, for example, in Bill's personal narrative or Josh's informative essay, gender--biased humor or stereotypes in Alice's multi-genre research paper. Men or women, feminists or not, I hope we would agree that these outmoded word- and sentence-level choices should be eliminated or at least examined. Given this shared belief, it stands to reason we would also be able to recognize a gender-based, document-level pattern in our students' writing collectively, especially if it were emerging right before our eyes.

Or would we?

I ask this question for good reason: an epiphany I had after completing a teacher-as-researcher project with eleven students who were writing in either appointed or self-selected leadership roles in everyday extra-curricular activities, like youth groups, service projects, and school clubs. Accustomed to exploring gender bias at the word and sentence levels alone, I initially overlooked what in retrospect I recognized as a gender-based, document-level pattern collectively in the adolescents' writing. In identifying this gender-based pattern, I don't suggest that teachers ignore sexist word- and sentence-level choices. I do suggest, however, that we should explore gender bias at the document level as well. In doing so, we'll be better able to determine how gender influences adolescents' writing processes and products and, equally important, how gender intersects with other personality features to help "construct" adolescent writers.

Describing and Validating the Gender-Based, Document-Level Pattern

The gender-based, document-level pattern emerging from my subjects' writing without exception demonstrated that the boys in the study-Adam, Brian, Charlie, Gregory, and Heath, Irv, & Jack-had accepted and then defined leadership roles resulting in documents I describe as competitive (fund-raising letters or ski trip proposals) designed to achieve personal or organizational goals of attainment. In contrast the girls-Dana, Emily & Ellen, and Fran-had accepted and then defined leadership roles that resulted in the writing of what I labeled noncompetitive documents (newsletters or committee guide-lines) that were designed to be helpful to or to make connections with audience members (see Appendix A for a description of each document and a more detailed analysis of how each document fulfills the definition that I assign to it). Additionally, as a preliminary research step, I examined the writing of over twenty additional adolescents who wrote documents ranging from prospecting letters for baseball scholarships to an American Sign Language dictionary; with the exception of only two students, their documents fit the gender-based pattern, too.

Although the subjects' documents were not collected for the express purpose of comparing gender roles and genre, and acknowledging the limitations of defining a person's writing processes and products using a single rhetorical task, the gender-based pattern I discovered parallels findings from Gilligan, Flynn and Tannen, three important gender studies in the field.

The first study, Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development , was the first to show the moral development of adolescent girls is different from that of adolescent boys. Gilligan posits that unlike boys, girls develop "an ethic of caring" as a feature of their moral growth, so they make decisions based primarily upon relationships or other people's concerns. Elizabeth Flynn's "Composing as a Woman," shows that first-year college students' personal narratives divide by gender. Though exceptions exist and topic features are open to interpretation, "narratives of the female students [tend to be] stories of interaction, of connection, or of frustrated connection. The narratives of the male students [tend to be] stories of achievement, of separation, or of frustrated achievement" ( p. 428 ). Finally Deborah Tannen, in You Just Don't Understand. Men and Women in Conversation , focuses on the distinctly different ways men and women use talk. Her research demonstrates that regardless of social context, men talk primarily for hierarchical purposes (in order to compete and achieve goals) and women talk primarily to make connections with audience members (in order to forge relationships).

Tannen's, Flynn's, and Gilligan's gender studies, combined with my teacher-research project, draw attention to a significant gap in what Tobin ( 1994 ) describes during the "early process" movement:

Most early process theory and pedagogy paid remarkably little attention to students on the margins, to differences in race, class, and gender . . . As a result, the implication seems to be … perhaps that differences in race, gender , class, or culture were not particularly relevant or significant [in writing classrooms] (my emphasis). ( p. 10 )

With our attention drawn to the lack of focus on the influence of gender in writing and writing instruction, it's time for writing teachers and their students to explore the role gender plays in writing processes and products. The question that remains is how.

Conducting Investigative Research to Under-stand Gender

According to Virginia Monseau in the "From the Editor" column of the November 1999 issue of English Journal devoted specifically to gender, teaching students about- gender in writing processes and products isn't going to be easy because of "our students' ingrained values and insecurities" ( p. 10 ). Moreover, as Lisa J. McClure notes in the same EJ issue, "Oftentimes students, especially adolescents, are reluctant to believe anything they are told by adults" ( p. 80 ). In other words, if teachers simply explain how, or that, gender functions in writing processes and products, students are unlikely to believe it. As a result, McClure advocates asking students to conduct "investigative research . . . [in which they] collect and review… [gender-related] data and draw their own conclusions" ( p. 80 ). I couldn't agree more. An excellent example is from Mary E. Styslinger's "Mars and Venus in My Classroom: Men Go to Their Caves and Women Talk during Peer Revision." Styslinger and her students collected data by taping students' conversations during peer responding sessions. By reviewing the transcribed tapes, Styslinger and her students made a surprising discovery, that students' peer responding interactions divided along gender lines. As a result, Styslinger claims "the social nature [of peer responding] and [its] dependence on intimacy and collaboration . . . is naturally biased toward female students" ( p. 54 ). Indirectly calling into question the hands-off, teacher-as-only-facilitator model so popular in the last few decades, Styslinger claims that during peer responding sessions writing teachers should provide "more encouragement, direction, and advice" ( p. 55 ).

To complement Styslinger's research focusing on composing behaviors , students can also conduct text-based investigations. Even a process-oriented writing teacher could encourage students to complete investigative research by conducting rhetorical analyses of written products, just as I eventually did in my teacher-research project. Before initiating a text-based investigation, however, it's important to resist an obvious, ideologically based approach: working towards gender equality by insisting especially that our female students write competitive documents. As Robert Perrin ( 1999 ) notes, English teachers have an obligation to help both boys and girls "learn about the power gender has in [their] lives" ( p. 85 ).

So what can we do? How can we create opportunities for our students to discover for themselves the implicit power of gender, without, at the same time, seeming to deliver ideology? Part of the answer lies in… an entree for students into new and unexplored topics. Part of the answer, however, must lie in pedagogy, in offering students directed opportunities to discover meanings, not a meaning. It is a complex, multidimensional challenge. ( 83 )

As a starting point, I suggest three fairly common writing assignments. These writing assignments, however, have the power to become entrees in Perrin's sense of the word because they ask students to pause between drafts to explore the role gender is playing in their emerging texts:

Assignment #1. Assign an application letter (which inherently promotes competition) or a thank you letter (which inherently makes connections). After students have written a draft or two, ask them to submit for peer review their unsigned papers with all gender references eliminated. Then introduce Gilligan's, Flynn's, and Tannen's studies, explaining that their findings suggest that the boys in the class are more likely to write comfortably the application letter or the girls are more likely to write comfortably the thank-you note. Then ask students to read the anonymous documents carefully to predict if a boy or girl wrote each one, and to support their predictions with specific textual references. Last of all, compare and discuss class findings. More specifically, examine if the findings of the class's text -based investigation reinforce or refute Gilligan's, Flynn's, and Tannen's claims, and how so.

Assignment #2. Assign a personal narrative and give students complete freedom in topic selection. After the first or second draft, introduce Flynn's study and ask students to determine if their topics reinforce the male or female patterns that Flynn describes and that the field has generally accepted as true. In what ways do the topics fit the gender models, and in what ways do the topics defy them? Ask students to exchange papers and make similar evaluations of their classmates.

Assignment #3. Ask students to keep a portfolio of their written work during the course of the year, or if the school has a writing portfolio system in place, ask students to pull their portfolios from the school files. If all gender references were removed from the documents in the portfolio, would a reader know whether the portfolio belonged to a girl or boy? What specific features in which specific document provide evidence for gender identification? What specific features within the portfolio would make it difficult to determine the writer's gender?

These assignments are most obviously designed to be entrees for students to investigate the role gender plays in writing processes and products. However, especially in regard to Perrin's claims that teaching about gender roles as being a multidimensional challenge, these assignments not only investigate gender roles, but are designed to reveal how gender intersects with other personality features that "construct" an individual, and how, in turn, that 'constructed self influences the individual as a writer. To clarify, I introduce Fran and Gregory, two subjects from my teacher-research study. As Appendix A shows, Fran's newsletter for youth group members and Gregory's application letter for a research apprenticeship reinforce Gilligan's, Flynn's, and Tannen's findings. However, their documents also extend findings if one considers the writers' other socially constructed values. Fran, for example, was writing as a member of a church whose clergy believed youth participation could bring lapsed families "back to the fold," and Fran agreed. This value reinforced and made it even more likely she would comfortably write a newsletter to forge relationships with active and potentially active church youth. In contrast, Gregory claimed his religious leaders had ingrained in him values of humility, which contradicted the purpose of his application letter. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, Gregory struggled to write a competitive document, in spite of Flynn's, Gilligan's, and Tannen's findings suggesting otherwise.

These two examples suggest teachers should encourage a fuller awareness of gender, including the way gender intersects with other socially constructed values grounded in, for example, family history, religious beliefs, political interests, personal biases, and/or ethnic background. In doing so, writing teachers will help students grow into mature writers more fully cognizant of the multidimensional role gender plays, along with other competing social forces, defining them and, in turn, influencing their writing processes and products.

Classroom Implications

What good will come out of a heightened awareness of gender in writing processes and products? How will gender awareness benefit writing teachers and their students?

First of all, attempting to heighten our students' awareness of gender will undoubtedly heighten our own. In turn, we may suddenly realize, as Mary Styslinger did, that a valid writing assignment or activity has a gender bias toward male or female students, and we can respond by tweaking it. Similarly, a heightened awareness of gender may help us to become more effective second readers. I remember a student, for example, who claimed she was an expert babysitter, but she struggled greatly while writing about the topic. Her problem? She feared audience members would perceive her as an overly confident know-it-all. I recall another student who initially planned not to participate in a public, coffeehouse-style reading because his essay was just too personal" when it, in fact, only showed he loved his sister. Looking back now, I'm convinced both of these former students' struggles were at least in part gender based. Had I responded explicitly to this rhetorical feature of their work, our writing conferences would have been even more productive and, more importantly, had broader application and, in turn, more far reaching effects.

And this notion of far reaching effects leads me to a second point. In her essay, "Reading the Writing Process," Lisa Ede claims that heightened self-awareness was the starting point of her growth into becoming a far more effective writer. Equally important, she makes the same claim regarding self-awareness and her students:

I began to study myself; I became my own laboratory rat. In an informal but systematic manner I observed myself, taking notes on my own writing process during and, especially, at the end of drafting sessions. And learn I did. I learned that I needed to resist my tendency to fiddle endless with sentences, that I needed to focus on developing my ideas and to forestall concern with style until later in the process. I learned that I could actually work too hard and long on my writing, that I could often be more productive if I stopped writing while I was still fresh enough to articulate questions and problems for the next day's work… I know from my own experience, then, that thinking about and attending to the writing process can help a motivated writer, if not all writers, become more productive and efficient… In my twenty years of teaching I have watched students analyze-and change-their writing behaviors. ( 32-3 )

As writing teachers, we can't help but nod in agreement over Ede's claims. After all, most of us know writers can improve their writing processes by paying attention to their composing behaviors . Will a heightened awareness of gender, however, foster immediate and collective change in students' writing processes and products? And will we able to measure that change in quantifiable terms during one or two semesters? To both questions, the answer is probably no. But when has immediate gratification ever been the goal of secondary -level English teachers? When we say, for example, we're interested in helping students become life-long learners or grow to be adult readers , there is an underlying assumption; that we won't witness the end result, that we won't see the harvest. Similarly, we are fully cognizant our students' growth as writers continues long after our classes end. To continue the metaphor, we plant seeds. There is no question that, thankfully, some of those seeds blossom during our classes. Others, however, must germinate and given its complexity, gender will undoubtedly fall into this second category. But this fact shouldn't alter our resolve. By identifying gender as a rhetorical variable in classrooms today, our students tomorrow are more likely to transcend the language boundaries society has constructed. If, how-ever, we opt not to identify gender-based language boundaries, our students may never recognize that they even exist. We then put our students at risk, for those language boundaries have the potential to be barriers, or even blockades.


In Seeing for Ourselves: Case Study Research by Teachers of Writing Glenda Bissex claims "a teacher-researcher is an observer, a questioner, a learner and a more complete teacher. A teacher researcher is an observer. 'Research means looking and looking again,' says Ann Berthoff. This new kind of RE-search would not mean going after new 'data' but rather RE-considering what is at hand" ( p. 4 ).

By returning to what was originally at hand for me-an already completed teacher-research project-I discovered a gender-based, document-level pattern that paralleled findings in three other significant gender studies. Had I not the inclination or time to return to the study, however, I would not have realized the powerful way gender had influenced my subjects. For this reason, I propose that English teachers follow Bissex's and Berthoff's lead, but that they do so, as McClure, Styslinger and Perrin recommend, with their students working alongside of them. By using the lens of gender to RE-examine, RE-consider and RE-evaluate students' already existing writing processes and products, both writing teachers and writing students will learn the powerful role that gender plays in constructing writers.

Works Cited

Bissex , Glenda. (1987). "What is teacher research?" in Glenda Bissex and Richard Bullock, (Eds). Seeing for ourselves: Case-study research by teachers of writing , p. 4-5. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Ede , Lisa. (1994). Reading the writing Process. In Lad Tobin and Thomas Newkirk. (Eds.) Taking stock: The writing process movement in the '90s ,p. 31-43. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Flynn , Elizabeth. (1988). Composing as a woman. College Composition and Communication , 39 (2), p. 432-35.

Gilligan , Carol. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women's development . Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

McClure , Lisa J. (1999). Wimpy Boys and Macho Girls: Gender Equity at the Crossroads. English Journal , 88 (3), p. 78-80.

Monseau , Virginia. (1999 ). From the Editor. English Journal 88 (3), p. 10-11.

Perrin , Robert. (1999). 'Barbie Doll' and 'G.I. Joe': Exploring Issues of Gender. English Journal , 88 (3), p. 83-85.

Styslinger , Mary E. (1999). Mars and Venus in my Classroom: Men Go to Their Caves and Women Talk during Peer Revision. English Journal , 88 (3), p. 50-55.

Tannen , Deborah.(1990). You just don't understand. Women and men in conversation . New York, NY: Ballantine.

Tobin , Lad. (1994). How the writing process was born-and other conversation narratives. In Tobin, L. & T. Newkirk (Eds.) The writing process movement in the 90s , p. 1-14. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


This project was possible because of the cooperation of students, faculty and administration at Bexly High School and an academic challenge grant funded by the English Department at Ohio State University. I extend special thanks to Andrea Lunsford for asking me in the first place to consider the role gender had played in the writing processes and products of Adam, Bram, Charlie, Dana, Emily & Ellen, Fran, Gregory, and Heath, Irv, & Jack.


Adam . As a high school senior, Adam wrote a college application essay for the University of Michigan, his "reach" school. The purpose of Adam's essay was to recreate his struggle and eventual success in his very first BHS honors course. By showing admission officials that he could compete with outstanding students, Adam hoped to raise his own status and to address the one fact he knew about his audience; that they might doubt his academic credibility. Because admissions wait listed Adam before rejecting his application, Adam believed his document was a success because acceptance was never his criterion for evaluation; consideration was.

Bram . As a student in a composition course, Bram wrote a note to his teacher regarding the final draft of an assigned paper. His purpose in writing was to persuade his teacher to give him the grade he believed he deserved: an "A." And because he earned an "A," Bram was convinced that his document had been successful.

Charlie . As a church youth group president, Charlie wrote two sets of funding-raising letters to raise the money necessary for every interested youth group member to participate in summer work camps. Because the letters were instrumental in raising the needed money, Charlie said they were successful documents-regardless of whether they matched conventions in his English classes.

Dana . As the 1994 BHS Environment Club Vice President, Dana wrote two letters to faculty members regarding the school's recycling program. The previous year, officers had ineffectively run the program, so Dana wanted to let the faculty know in the first document that important changes had taken place in the club's leadership. She hoped that these changes would assure faculty members that "things were going to be different." The second letter functioned primarily as documentation that Dana was fulfilling her responsibility as VP. Otherwise, club members might incorrectly assume she wasn't doing her job. Dana judged both documents successful because she was convinced that audience members would be pleased to know that environmental club members were working hard.

Emily & Ellen . As committee members for a newly established Student of the Month Award, Emily and Ellen co-authored guidelines for members serving on the same committee during its second year. The first year had been such a struggle, and so Emily and Ellen hoped to eliminate the problems and frustrations they had personally encountered. They believed their document was a success because it would automatically help the new committee members.

Fran . As a church youth group president, Fran wrote a monthly newsletter to members. The purpose of the newsletters was to keep members informed about upcoming events, so that they would be more likely to participate. Fran claimed that of all the writing she wrote during her high school career, the newsletters were the most important because they made a difference in real life.

Gregory . By virtue of excellent science grades and his minority status, Gregory wrote an application letter for a highly selective research apprenticeship at a hospital. Though he didn't like singing his own praises and he worried about applicants who might need the job more, Gregory wanted an unusual summer work experience and he needed the money, so he knew that his purpose in writing was to show why he was the most qualified. Because the letter resulted in an interview, Gregory judged his document successful.

Heath, Irv, & Jack . As members of the self-proclaimed "Colorado or Bust Writing Team," Heath, Irv, and Jack wrote a letter to their principal proposing a school-sponsored ski trip. From the start, the boys convinced themselves that their proposal would be accepted. First of all, the school sponsored other trips to exciting, far-away places, like London and Paris. Next, the boys were convinced that taking the time to write would impress the principal so much that he would have a hard time saying no. When the proposal was rejected, Heath, Irv, and Jack were initially very angry.

As this list illustrates, each of the documents was written with specific and differing purposes. However, four of the eleven subjects were adolescent girls, and each wrote a document primarily to make connections or to be helpful. Dana, for example, was introducing new club officers to the faculty and then documenting her work so others wouldn't criticize her, Emily & Ellen were helping future committee members, and Fran was informing youth group members about upcoming events so they would be more likely to participate. In contrast, the boys all wrote to achieve goals of personal or organizational attainment. And their documents tended to be competitive in nature. Adam, for example, was applying for admission, Bram was petitioning for an "A," Charlie was raising money, Gregory wanted a job, and Heath, Try, & Jack were proposing a school- sponsored ski trip. Though one might argue the documents written by Charlie and Heath, Irv, and Jack were written out of altruistic concerns, a closer examination of the authors' motives suggestions otherwise. It's true, for example, that Charlie really did believe in the church work camps, but it's also true that he wrote knowing that his fund raising experience would "look great on a resume" because he planned at the time to pursue a career in fund raising and development. Similarly, Heath, Try, and Jack all believed that the student body would value a school-sponsored ski trip. On the other hand, the boys also knew that their parents had all agreed the only ski trip the three boys could take together was a school-sponsored trip. As a result, it's fair to say that all of the girls wrote primarily to make connections, and all of the boys wrote primarily to achieve goals of attainment.

Reference Citation: Blackburn-Brockman, Elizabeth. (2001) "Investigating the Role Gender Plays in Adolescents' Writing Processes and Products." WILLA , Volume 10, p. 27-32.