Faculty-Student Research Findings Accepted for Presentation at International Writing Conference

February 18, 2014  |  by Michael Freedman

Dr. Joseph Little

Dr. Joseph Little teaches during one of his 300-level English courses this semester. This summer, Dr. Little will travel to Amsterdam to present research he conducted with five of his students at NU.

A study conducted by a Niagara University professor and five of his students has been accepted for presentation at the International Conference on Writing Research, one of the foremost writing conferences in Europe.

Dr. Joseph Little will travel to the University of Amsterdam this August to present the group’s findings related to Sheryl I. Fontaine’s analysis of the four core functions of “freewriting,” the act of transcribing one’s unedited thoughts for an uninterrupted period of time.

Undertaken as part of one of Dr. Little’s 300-level English courses (Writing and Well-Being), students examined 163 freewrites for their final paper, the results of which Dr. Little is now comparing with his own findings in preparation for his presentation this August 27-29.

The students listed as co-authors are Matthew Brause (a philosophy major from Baltimore, Md.), Kathryn Dickie (English, Cadyville, N.Y.), Allina LaMorticella (communication studies, Niagara Falls, N.Y.), MaKayla Olden (education, Ayer, Mass.), and Bethany Young (hotel plan development and operation, Dansville, N.Y.).

“These students conducted a very thorough investigation of anonymous, online freewrites, with the intent of determining how the data would corroborate or refute Fontaine’s four functions of freewriting. In addition, we believe that we have found potential fifth and sixth functions that are not accounted for in Fontaine’s study,” said Dr. Little, who possesses an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara. “I’m grateful to work at a university that encourages this kind of faculty-student collaborative research.”

The abstract of Functional Variety in Freewriting: A Response to Fontaine appears below:

In the two decades since James Pennebaker’s (Pennebaker and Beall, 1986; Pennebaker, 1997) pioneering work at the intersection of writing and healing, a generation of studies has yielded impressive, sometimes startling, results: Freewriting, we now know, is correlated with improved health responses among patients suffering from illnesses ranging from asthma and rheumatoid arthritis (Smyth et al., 1999) to cancer (Zakowski et al., 2004) and compromised immune systems (Petrie et al., 2004); freewriting is also associated with psychosocial improvement among writers confronting and re-organizing the experience of past traumas (Pennebaker, 1997).

In all of these studies, the act of freewriting itself has been identified as the independent measure, the various measures of well-being understood as the dependent measures. Neglected in this research are the kinds of psychosocial work being accomplished by the freewriting.

Only Fontaine (1991) has investigated the functions of freewriting, in this case among approximately 200 of her students’ anonymous writings. Fontaine then concludes that freewriting serves one of four functions for the writer: to record real or imagined experiences, to make plans or set goals, to problem solve, or to evaluate one’s personal experiences including emotions. That’s it, that’s all.

In the proposed short presentation, I will present the findings of our examination of 163 anonymous freewriting entries collected through the Internet. (This ongoing work is a collaborative effort among myself and several students in my Writing and Well-Being class, and has been approved by our university’s research ethics board.) I will begin by offering descriptive statistics regarding the degree to which our data corroborates Fontaine’s four functions of freewriting. I will then introduce a fifth, sixth, and possibly a seventh additional function of freewriting, which is not accounted for by Fontaine’s study. These findings will shine light on the role of inner speech in the practice of freewriting as well as further the conversation in general on the myriad purposes that draw people to freewriting as an effective self-management tool. I will close the presentation by suggested future avenues of research for writing scholars interested in advancing the important discussions taking place at the intersection of writing and well-being.

For more information on Niagara University’s English programs, please call 716.286.8628 or visit www.niagara.edu/english.