The Rhetorical Turn and the New Epistemology–Taber and Cross Readings

One of the themes I found interesting in our readings for the week was the question about the place of critical theory in Ethnography. For a field such as Composition, which since its inception has been heavily influenced by the Theory (with a capital T) movement in English studies, it seems difficult to imagine their primary research method not being heavily influenced by cultural and critical studies. Yet, because of the fine line which qualitative research seems to walk between positivist and post-positivist audiences, the place of critical interpretation seems to be a rather tough question.

As a side note, while it’s not openly mentioned in either Taber’s thesis, or the Cross article, having taken a class in writing program administration, there seems to be a very good reason why composition scholars find themselves in this methodological limbo. For a faculty member to gain any sort of grounds with administration for change in an institution’s writing program, the WPA knows that its absolutely crucial to present administration with the numbers–what quantitative data do you have to support that 1. this is a problem (if it’s not broke don’t fix it), 2. that your method will fix that supposed problem (after all, you’re just a humanities scholar), 3. that solving your problem will have ANY long term benefit for the institution as a whole where it matters . . . MONETARILY?! For this reason, as excellent an idea as it may be to have a “pure” phenomenological approach to ethnographic research, if WPAs were to stick to this logic, their research really would be little more than fanciful, philosophical musings; in other words: powerless. And this, obviously, is exactly what critical studies wishes to avoid. For this reason, I think Cross has a good point in calling for, not a “pure” method, but discussion/interpretation which is balanced between the subjects, observers, data, and researchers’ (their audiences’) voices.

Back to the question of the place of critical theory in Ethnography: I would agree with North (as well as Taber and Cross) that ideally, Ethnography would be Hypothesis generating rather than testing. However, like most of the Compositionists employing ethnography at the moment, according to Taber’s generalization,  I also think that there is a place for developing theories of writing from situated data. That is, I do believe that generalizing is possible, without claiming positivist authority or paradigm for one’s work/data. Taber’s criticism of Brant, who calls for a “new economic order” based on one study, and (especially) Thais and Zawakie, who propose their school’s program for the entire nation, is very smart and well taken. However, on the other hand, Brant isn’t (from what I understand) calling for change based on the quantitative authority of her data–that is, she’s not claiming that you can extrapolate the data numerically (which in this case would be a methodological fallacy); she’s claiming that the experiences of her subjects are diverse and common enough that the a nation-wide change would benefit all, including those with equally different stories who could not give their testimony within their study.

I guess what I’m saying is that perhaps, North was attempting a logical argument which was based on faulty (or no long applicable) premises: that quantitative data is the only type of information which is able to be applied to a broader knowledge of a field. Like Cross, I agree that few people, almost no people, are strict phenominologists anymore because of what scientific advances have taught us over the last three decades, and that our epistemological framework has changed from being objective to rhetorical. In other words, the rhetorical turn across the disciplines has allowed for us to accept that positivist data isn’t necessarily objective, and qualitative data isn’t strictly subjective, but rather, that all types of information gathering are limited in their interpretation, and the successful application/adaptation research is determined by how well you tailor your evidence to convince particular audiences. Thus, contemporary Composition research focuses on providing a variety of evidence, in order to suit the needs of the equally demanding audiences: Administrators and Scholars.


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