Methods of Courting the Disciplines

This week, we seemed to have two separate categories of reading: one body of literature was looking at qualitative methods and a case study, as it were, of how Katherine Kelleher Sohn investigated Appalachian women’s literacy practices since college. The other grouping was a conversation about academic conventions of citation and literature review.

Kehhelher Sohn’s methodological choices proved enlightening for a novice who has never conducted primary research. Specifically, I was intrigued by a) how she narrowed down her case subjects, b) how she transcribed her interviews for the book, and c) how she triangulated (I believe this term applies here?) the interpretation of her data.

In narrowing her case subjects, I was struck by the objectivity and purposefulness of Kelleher Sohn’s criteria. While she admitted her personal interest in the women’s stories of choice, she also began with very specific qualifications which would provide an appropriate variety of attributes, and a specific answer to her research question about Appalachian women’s literacy practices. While, as a women interested in the complexities of female social practices, it might have been tempting to use some of the more outstanding case stories in her study, Sohn instead followed the advice of her dissertation director to find a sampling of “typical rather than atypical cases” (11). Similarly, after narrowing her search to eight women, all of whom she wished to shadow, she chose her three primary cases for their length of time out of school, their variety in academic achievement, and their variety of career choices. These particular practices gave me a very concrete idea of how one might go about shaping a qualitative study for a very specific inquiry.

The purpose of Sohn’s which probably most impressed me, was her desire to, through this study, was her desire to reveal to those who “would pride themselves on their multicultural awareness,” their own prejudices against a demographic of people usually mocked by outsiders as ignorant sub-sapiens. Sohn confides to her reader the anger she feels, in particular, at people’s assumption that a southern accent indicates either “a lack of intelligence or a sign of cuteness” (12). However, although she seeks to prove this stereotype wrong, in her transcription of the interviews, Sohn made the decision to standardize the English. She did this, partly under the consultation of D.E. Walls who claimed that representing subjects’ dialect either confuses readers, or “reduces the mountain characters to little more than ignorant, comic fools” (qtd. on 18).

I understand Brandt’s plea that most compositionists do not have the linguistic training to properly transcribe dialectical nuances; however, this withstanding, I find Sohn’s choice rather  disappointing, especially considering her project. Surely the answer to re-writing stereotypes of an ethnic group should not be to erase the very signal of their difference: their language. If scholars judge people with a “southern accent” as “ignorant” then how is it helpful to portray them as “intelligent” according to scholars’ terms? The implication is that we know these women are intelligent/educated because the don’t talk like those rednecks, thus failing to prevent future prejudice. It’s like ambushing Debois a lighter brown before he airs on prime-time in an interview about racism. If we want to correct mis-coorelation and ignorant prejudice, we need to be brave enough to hold the real person up to the reader to “see for themselves” who they are–isn’t this the point of ethnography, to a large extent?(And, as an aside–as to Wall’s claim that dialect transcription will “slow the reader down” and “confuse” them–surely in a group which prides themselves on having labored through the prosaic likes of Derrida, there can be no excuse for complaining about the intellectual labor required to properly understand a subject of study. Scholars should not cower at the prospect of having to read an accurate representation of the very topic of their scholarship.) Having said all of the above, this may be one of the only qualms I have about Sohn’s work, and even this is a minor and arguable point. Certainly I owe her much more respect than criticism.

To move on to our second group of readings. I found that the discussion about literature reviews made me much more aware than I have been of the different possible expectations various committee members may have of your work. I personally cannot help but hope that in writing my dissertation, I will be able to take the more purposeful, context driven approach to citation which both Rose and Maxwell propose. However, I also plan on writing a lengthy review of the field as an earlier exercise, because as Boote and Boise argue well, a novice cannot begin to enter the conversation until they can prove they have been listening.

I found it interesting to compare Stake’s clear purpose of “understanding what is happening much more than improving what is happening” (2) an interesting contrast to Sohn’s work, in which she very openly states, in her introduction, that she intends to both learn from and positively impact the community she is studying through her research. In this way, she aligns herself with feminist research practices (Sullivan and Porter); something Stake seems to cautiously and politely hesitate to support. I also found Stake’s background in quantitative research very interesting, and look forward to learning more about his perspectives about their differences. Certainly his claim that qualitative research avoids the problem of over-simplification in our attempts to see and understanding the “complexity of things” is very moving (3).


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