SoTL Scholar Spotlight: Kiera Allison

By Kristin Sloane

Kiera AllisonMeet our 2021-22 SoTL Scholar Kiera Allison! Kiera is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, teaching courses in Writing and Rhetoric. She’s also an opera singer; therefore, performance informs a lot of her work and comes into play in her SoTL project. She shares more about what she has learned as a result of her research and time in the program.


Q: Why did you want to join the SoTL Scholars program?

A: Having started as a scholar of literature before making something of a career-shift as I moved into Writing and Rhetoric—which is a whole other world of pedagogical and theoretical ideas—I came to realize that my intuitions as a writer and a researcher were no longer working. I was not used to dealing with living human subjects, or forming researchable hypotheses around what goes on in classrooms. So, I wanted to refine my skillset, get a different angle on how writing could happen, and also have a community that would hold me accountable.

Q: What is the focus of your SoTL project?

A: In the broad sense, it's about vicarious learning, which is how students learn from each other and how that impacts their own performance. The provocation was this “monologue swap” assignment that I’d been using in my public speaking classes—an import from theater work I’d done years earlier—where students write a script and then give it to somebody else to perform. So you’re creating this situation where the author is not the speaker and the speaker is not the author, and that does really interesting things to students’ approach to the writing and performance process. I found they developed a different kind of rhetorical awareness, a different sense of responsibility toward the work itself. Many of them said they felt more confidence when speaking somebody else’s words.

So I ended up turning that into a study on vicarious learning in college writing. I wanted to know what students were experiencing with this assignment, and whether that had any effect on their overall self-efficacy as writers.

Q: What’s the status of your project?

A: I did some initial data collection in Fall 2021. We're in the second stage of collection this semester. This will be a multi-phase project because ultimately, vicarious learning is a fascinating concept, but it is not well measured. There aren't any really solid existing surveys addressing vicarious learning as a component of writerly self-efficacy (although it’s essential to the way college writing has been taught for the last fifty years).

Ultimately, what I'm working toward is developing and validating my own survey. But in the meantime, I’m just doing some initial qualitative and quantitative research to generate language and map out correlations. I’m having students reflect on their experience with the monologue swap exercise so I can see what words they're using, and I’m giving them self-efficacy surveys at the beginning and end of the semester so I can see if there are any larger trends in writing confidence. I've collected some data, I'm starting to analyze data, and we're moving toward a conference presentation and an article coming out of that. But in the longer term, the hope is to develop my own instrument for measuring vicarious learning in college writing classrooms.

Q: What were your research findings?

A: The thing that really stood out to me looking at the data from the fall was that the success of the project and students’ comfort with it had so much to do with what I call “other-awareness.” I noticed there was this trend in students’ responses: they would either think of the partner-swapping element as kind of an annoyance or error—like, “this person is not me; why do I have to teach this other person because it would be so much easier if I just presented my own script?”—or they would approach it as an interesting challenge, like “how do I convey my ideas, my voice, my intentions to this other person?”

So I’ve been focusing on the language students use to describe their relationship with the other, and whether that percolates into their reflections on other aspects of the writing process—particularly the social/collaborative processes of editing and revising, offering and receiving feedback, thinking about the relationship between author and reader, etc.

Q: How has the program changed or informed your teaching?

A: It's not all immediately applicable, but one thing I am increasingly convinced of, both based on the survey and my general observations, is that social learning is so important to a classroom environment. I've been seeing this pattern where the success of a class, and the quality of learning that happens in it, is not so much a factor of the individual intelligences of the students, but of how well they work together as a group. I think this project has made me increasingly committed to the idea that the learning will not happen unless the community is in place for students to learn from one another.

This is the first semester that I have employed the buddy system, where there's a group of two or three other people whom students get in contact with if they were absent from class or missed details about an assignment. Their ability to thrive is, I think, so fully contingent on them having somebody other than themselves to explain things to them. … My intellectual commitment to the idea of vicarious learning has translated into this pragmatic sense that students need to have a community, and I need to create that for them if it’s not already in place.

Q: What did you appreciate most about the program?

A: So much. But if I had to narrow it down to one thing, it's the opportunity to consider my own relationship to data. I talked at the start about “intuition,” and that’s traditionally how I’ve worked as a researcher—like I’m reading a body of literature and I’m sensing a pattern, and I’m following that pattern and seeing where it takes me, how it connects to other, larger historical or cultural or psychological developments. You kind of get a sense that something is happening, and then you try to pin it down. With SoTL, you’re developing systems to go with your intuitions—developing a specific, measurable research question; deciding what your data will look like and how you’ll go about gathering it; finding the measurable thing at the center of a larger set of hunches.

This is a total non-sequitur, but I did my dissertation on 19th-century rhythm so part of me is always obsessed with measuring things; but being able to bring that into the context of pedagogical research is just fascinating and tremendously helpful because it's given me a lot of focus.

I’ve also loved having the opportunity to see how people in other disciplines do research—the kinds of questions they ask, the instruments they use. I’m in a research group with two engineers and one person in special-ed(ucation), and they’ve been such an essential resource, especially in the beginning stages of this project as I was trying to figure out my instruments and data. One thing they really helped me accept—and this was critical—was the imperfectness of measures: like, you’re never going to find some absolute, singular unit that perfectly captures the reality you’re trying to grasp. That recognition was really liberating. Being able to conceptualize this whole realm of quantitative data as, basically, a system of proxies, best guesses, and steps towards something that is ultimately never measurable—that was just so revelatory. And it's the kind of thing that I only discovered because I was stationed with people on the STEM side of the college. At the end of the day, it’s those conversations that have really informed my research and really given it energy.


For questions about the SoTL Scholars program, email cte-sotl@virginia.edu. For questions about the SoTL Scholar Spotlight series or if you're a SoTL Scholar alumni who would like to be featured, email Kristin Sloane at ks8yx@virginia.edu.

 

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