If you ever have the pleasure of chatting with Sarah Peterson Pittock about her research, as I did a few weeks ago, you might feel a little like you are back in grad school. You know the feeling: walking into that seminar you’ve been dying to take, only to realize just how much you need to catch up on. Thankfully, Sarah is a generous and patient teller of her research story, which is one that illustrates the power of rhetoric and composition as a discipline to energize new questions, methods, and areas of focus. The scholarly projects and conversations Sarah has made herself a part of during her decade at PWR constitute a complex arc, running from historical work on remix in women’s biography writing in the long eighteenth century to pioneering writing center research measuring the effectiveness of tutor-talk as scaffolding.
A Stanford alumna, Sarah earned her MA and PhD in English Literature from the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she wrote a dissertation titled “Bluestocking Culture: English Literary Women's Reading, Letter Writing, and Sociability, 1745–1785.” From 2005-2010, Sarah taught for the Writing Program at Boston University, before returning to Stanford in 2011 to join PWR. She served as the Associate Director of the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking from 2013-2018, an experience that laid the groundwork for several articles on writing center pedagogy. Sarah also serves as the coordinator for Writing in the Major (WIM), and as the Director of the Bing Honors College.
When I asked Sarah what specific influences might lie in the background of her identity as a scholar, she pointed me rather to an “aspiration—and that’s to write something grounded in archival work that also makes a theoretical contribution--like Jacqueline Jones Royster's Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women. In this book, a compelling history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century essayists claiming ethos and making change also describes a significant afrafeminist rhetorical theory and pedagogy; for example, Jones documents the ways the essayists invent and intervene.” This is a distinction Sarah teaches to her students.
Sarah’s flurry of publication activity in recent years has been focused in two main areas. One of these areas addresses women’s biography during the long eighteenth century, with particular focus on the writing of the autodidact Mary Hays and how the modern concept of “remix” illuminates Hays’ cultural meaning for feminist praxis across time. Hays was the author of an influential and widely underappreciated encyclopedia of women “worthies” originally published in 1803. Sarah brings her work to life anew in the article “Mary Hays’ Female Biography: Feminist Remix,” published in the journal Women’s Writing in 2017 (later republished in the Routledge collection Mary Hays’s Female Biography: Collective Biography as Enlightenment Feminism, eds. Mary Spongberg and Gina Luria Walker).
Sarah’s account of Hays is grounded in an inherent commitment to interdisciplinary possibility that will resonate for those of us who, like Sarah, arrived at rhetoric and composition via literary studies or other pathways. Concepts encountered in PWR catalyzed the research, and allowed her to “re-see” work that had taken place previously in the context of literary studies. The idea of “remix,” as it is used in rhetoric and writing studies, became a powerful means to reclaim Hays as a practitioner of a “pragmatic and improvisational approach to research and writing” (224), a method that “performs its own cultural work by arguing a causal relationship between literacy and critical consciousness” (225). Hays has been unfairly dismissed by some for supposedly cutting and pasting from other biographies, but Sarah shows how her process, through its commitment to amplifying the voices of other female writers and biographers, should in fact be read as the very core of Hays’ feminist sensibility. In twenty-first-century rhetoric and composition studies, our question is usually “how do women become writers,” while in the eighteenth-century it was “how do women become learned.” Yet Sarah shows how these questions, too, may be continuous. Through the lens of remix, it becomes possible to see, in a figure like Hays, how women have become and flourished as writers and speakers across time.
The second focus of Sarah’s research emerged during her work at the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking. As she describes the experience, when she became Associate Director in 2013, she realized that to become a writing center leader, she needed to engage writing center scholarship. This work culminated in a series of articles Sarah has published during the past three years, including an article on the PWR Writing Specialist initiative in the Writing Across the Curriculum Journal, as well as a chapter on the cross-training of writing and oral communication tutors that appeared in the edited collection How We Teach Writing Tutors,co-authored with former Hume Center Assistant Director Erica Cirillo-McCarthy (Middle Tennessee State University).
The cornerstone of Sarah’s writing center work, however, is the research project she designed and co-authored with former Hume Director Julia Bleakney (Elon University), titled “Tutor Talk: Do Tutors Scaffold Students’ Revisions?”, which appeared in the Writing Center Journal in 2019. This project was partly inspired by the amount of time she spends with graduate students on research proposals; Sarah sought to pursue her own in-depth encounter with qualitative research design, including IRB processes and coding. The study—which Sarah describes as a “huge learning experience”—responds to and builds upon an earlier scheme developed by Mackiewicz and Thompson in their book Talk About Writing that describes “tutor talk” as scaffolding for learning. Tracking ten tutoring sessions and their outcomes, Sarah and her co-author add to the conversation by showing that cognitive scaffolding techniques, such as pumping, reading aloud, and responding as a reader, as well as instruction and motivational scaffolding, are a significant element in prompting subsequent student revisions They also look at cases where students apply not only revisions discussed during the session, but pursue new directions in their writing as evidence of possible transfer from techniques practiced in the session. Coining the term “degrees of influence,” as it applies in tutor talk, the study articulates factors that determine how a student acts in the aftermath of a tutoring session, with special focus on instances when a student both applies and goes beyond what occurred in the session.
What might be next for Sarah? A few possibilities lie on the horizon. Since leaving her Hume Center role in 2018, much of Sarah’s time has been spent designing new courses for the Notation in Science Communication and Education as Self Fashioning. She’s also launched a new PWR 2 course on the rhetoric of medicine. For future research, she may return to a large number of conference papers on eighteenth-century topics, which, like her work on Hays, could be reexamined through the lens of rhetoric and writing studies. Topics include possible work on the ways eighteenth-century women writers appropriated the classical figure of Aspasia, as well as on the enduring and unexpected friendship between the salon hostess Elizabeth Montagu and the classicist Elizabeth Carter. Sarah has also become interested in storytelling, and is curious about how it might play a bigger role in her teaching and research.
When I asked Sarah if there were any examples from her reading or experience that might capture how she thinks about the relationship between her research and her teaching, she directed me to an amazing scene from the end of Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion. In the passage, the heroine and a male character discuss the relationship between evidence and experience for women writers and intellectuals. It only seems appropriate to let Sarah tell you about this herself:
“Two characters, both bookish, are debating the inconstancy of women. He [the male character] insists all of literature affirms women as fickle, unreliable creatures. The heroine, Anne Elliot, though reserved, underestimated, and too-often unheard, retorts, ‘if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.’ He asks, ‘But how shall we prove anything?’ And Anne Elliot continues by acknowledging lived experience, that ‘we each begin probably with a little bias towards our own sex, and upon that bias build every circumstance in favour of it which has occurred within our own circle.’
“While the two come to an understanding—both sexes can heed their better angels and love faithfully—they don't solve the problem of reliable proof. Instead, Austen reminds us of the privileges of education and ‘the pen’—their conservative tendencies as well as their responsibilities. In this short passage, she's asking us to read critically (who's writing? how are they interested and why?), and to acknowledge our own social locations as we read and make arguments. I try to do all of that always as I'm conducting research and I hope to teach my students the same.”