Rocky Mount, N.C.—When writing researchers gathered at the Writing Research Across Borders Conference in Paris, France, in February, Dr. Kedra James from North Carolina Wesleyan College was among the invited guests. She joined members of the International Society for the Advancement of Writing Research to present her work at the Universite Paris-Ouest Nanterre La Defense. Her participation was made possible by an award from Wesleyan’s Teaching and Learning Center.
“I was grateful to have the opportunity to get new information to bring back to students and to help me think of ways to make positive changes to my syllabi for next year,” Dr. James said. At Wesleyan she teaches basic writing, composition, business writing, and next year will add a communication/speech class. Before coming to Wesleyan last fall as an assistant professor of English, she had taught various types of written communication at Kansas State University and at the University of Alabama.
She came to Wesleyan well-qualified to help students improve their writing skills as well as to conduct her own research. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English with a journalism emphasis at Tougaloo College, then completed a graduate certificate in technical and professional writing and her master’s degree in English, language, rhetoric, and composition specialization at Kansas State University, and finally her Ph.D. in English, composition, rhetoric and English studies at the University of Alabama.
Dr. James believes that one of the challenges facing English professors today is how to teach academic writing in a technical society that is moving toward writing in digital spaces, such as Twitter and Facebook, and on cell phones. “That form of writing carries over into academic writing,” she said. “If students communicate in this way, that’s the type of writing they’re used to, and it’s hard to stop cold turkey.”
Students write better when they focus on their ideas, she said. “We talk about how we can present the ideas in a more academic form. I think students do believe academic writing is necessary, but they struggle with it. They use their home language, with its cultural aspects, when they communicate with friends and family. It’s a habit. They’re aware—it’s just that they have slip-ups. When you’ve been talking with your family and friends in a certain way, you can’t get out of that in one semester.”
Some students traditionally dread English class, and Dr. James understands that. “It’s a stereotype,” she said. “Some defeat themselves before they enter the class. They may have had some bad experiences. It takes time to write several pages. I try to address some of that in the classroom and discuss what the issues are and make them feel comfortable, to do away with self-doubt.”
Dr. James’s conference presentation in Paris was titled “Blurred Lines: African American Students Making the Transition to Academic Writing.” Her research made the point that African American students must be knowledgeable of African American English and the African American rhetorical tradition in order to appreciate their culture and heritage as well as to help make the transition to academic writing.
In addition, Dr. James pointed out that her research findings also apply to students and English professors who are not African American and who do not teach at historically black colleges and universities. “Whether students speak African American English or Southern American English or other kinds of regional or cultural dialects, writing instructors can work towards helping students transition from their home language to the university discourse by creating a safe space and a discourse community where conversations about multiple Englishes can occur.”