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Zachary Dixon, Angela Eward-Mangione

Big data and writing studies merge at USF colloquium

TAMPA, Fla. – According to the Computer Sciences Corporation, by 2020, data production will be 44 times greater than it was in 2009. The interpretation and usage of large sets of data is soon to become an integral part of how we receive and process information. The University of South Florida College of Arts and Sciences is ready to embrace this change. On Jan. 24, 2014, the Big Data and Writing Studies Colloquium took place in the Marshall Student Center at the USF Tampa campus.

This event was spearheaded by doctoral candidates in the Department of English, Angela Eward-Mangione and Zachary Dixon. As co-coordinators of the event, Eward-Mangione, who is seeking a Ph.D. in English specializing in literature, and Dixon, who is specializing in Rhetoric and Composition, were responsible for covering all of the logistics -- from the original inception of the idea to the day of the event.

“A lot of my involvement stems from my previous research in big data and composition,” Dixon said. “We wanted to bring the idea of big data to a wider academic audience. We had visitors from the College of Business, College of Education and three or four other graduate-level programs here on campus. We had speakers at the event who were all the way from Sweden and Estonia. It was really about being able to open the conversation up to as many disciplines and voices as we could get.”

While using big data isn’t always thought of as something that could be used improve writing, the Department of English has been able to use it improve the program at the student level.

“There’s the saying that ‘less is more’ and ‘bigger isn’t always better.’ I think in this case, bigger is better,” Eward- Magione said. “If I wanted to look at a study of comments that writing instructors gave to their students, I would have to wait months for people to send in their samples. I would have to hire a team to go through and aggregate these comments. Whereas, with big data I can do more with less, and I can do it faster and easier.”

The First Year Composition program already has started making use of big data. All freshman students use the program MyReviewers, an online software used to collect student writing. Students can complete peer reviews and instructors can comment and develop structured rubrics on the site. Instructors use the data to analyze trends in student writing so they can better adjust their teaching methods to student needs.

“[MyReviewers] creates our own local big data reservoir,” Dixon said. “We have more than 100,000 student essays and exponential amounts of comments that we can pull from. As a research university, this is a great resource for us. I think we can merge other disciplines in with that to explore other research interests.”

Eward-Magione and Dixon were able to secure speakers from universities all around the country and showcase the work of their fellow doctoral candidates. Eward-Magione said she was most excited to meet Susan Lang, the director of writing at Texas Tech University.

“She’s really been a pioneer for big data methodologies in writing studies,” Eward-Magione said. Lang wrote one of the seminal texts on the subject, “Data Mining: A Hybrid Methodology for Complex and Dynamic Research,” which was published in 2012.

Dixon was most excited for presentations by John Skvoretz, Ph.D., from the Department of Sociology and Alon Friedman, Ph.D., from School of Information, both of which are in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“They brought a really great alternative perspective,” Dixon said. “They do a lot with big data in other disciplines and other research fields, and the tools that they bring to the table are really interesting.”

In this growing research field, students are able to benefit in a variety of ways.

“Here at USF in the First Year Composition program, big data completes the circle of assessment and response to student needs,” Dixon said. “They benefit by getting classes that are more in tune with their needs and desires as students.”

Dixon also said students can derive personal benefits beyond a more tailored curriculum.

“I think it is a promising research venture and having skills in negotiating quantitative data like that is really valuable for anyone looking to be in academics or even in the private sector,” he said. “Companies like Google and Amazon, and even the National Security Administration, are all heavily invested in mining the kinds of data that we produce by digital interactions.”

Both Eward-Magione and Dixon hope to see the Big Data and Writing Studies Colloquium become an event that is held on campus every year. They hope to involve more disciplines and secure speakers from a wider range of areas.


Filed under:Arts and Sciences English Sociology School of Information Events 
Author: Justine Figueroa