What is Language? Challenging Our Intuitions and Assumptions

What is Language? Challenging Our Intuitions and Assumptions

Coulter Stage




Wake Forest


Researchers: Zak Lancaster, Maddie Mosley, and Keru Luo

Data mining has traditionally remained outside humanistic inquiry, and therefore most research on student writing in U.S. English departments has relied on small-scale qualitative approaches and introspective judgments. In this multi-year project, student-researchers and faculty-mentors used concordancing software to tease out patterns of language use in nearly 20,000 student essays. These patterns, impossible to detect in traditional “close reading,” are the linguistic footprints of writers’ strategies and tacit beliefs about academic argumentation. Our comparison-based examinations have pinpointed differences between expert and student writing, novice and advanced student writing, and domestic student and Chinese international student writing. In some cases, the results offer concrete linguistic evidence that elucidates teacher intuitions, for example how and when student writers over-generalize. In other cases, results reveal unexpected patterns that challenge entrenched teacher beliefs—for example, revealing that experts are more personal and informal than students and advanced students express more cautious claims than new students. The proposed presentation compiles this work by presenting three key findings from the aforementioned comparisons, in a print poster and auto-running Powerpoint accompanied by two student researchers. In so doing, the presentation turns the otherwise tacit linguistic footprints of student writing into discoverable and representable trends.