Semester Reflection: Research Requires Risk

As hard to believe as it is, the semester is over. Almost. And lots of studies show that reflection is a beneficial method for transfering knowledge. Soooo, Here we go for transfer: Three global principles I learned from this class.

1. Scholarship works with texts, scientific research works with numbers, and qualitative research works with faces. Now, this is a huge generalization–but I think it works. If we put these three on a continuum, qualitative work would be in the middle (obviously), and can include either of the other two.

2. I have developed a pragmatic definition of research that is situational and rhetorical, but which I am still devleoping, and would like feedback on.

According to IRB, research can be generalized to larger populations. What it doesn’t specify is, to how great of a larger population? I think that any larger population will do, but the size of that generalizable population will effect how much respect/clout/funding the research will get. For example, a study which claims to be applicable to all college students in the nation (Academically Adrift) will necessarily get more attention, funding, and respect than a study by a WPA which will benefit the six other writing teachers in the nation who are seeking to create an honors composition course in collaboration with a musicologist. Both studies ask valid questions (what works?) both may use controlled environments and methods to seek an answer to that question through various complexities of coorilations, and both will produce data that will in turn (when interpreted) create knowledge which can be put to use by others.

The amount of people the research serves doesn’t necessarily determine its innate value or validity…to those for whom it is useful. One helps more people, but the other helps people that could never be helped by a gigantic study of large populations. The later need a study which examines the nuances of “how things work” (to use Stakes’ definition of qualitative research). And, there are also many types of quantiative or scientific research which deal with qualitative information/data before working the numbers. So, there is a place for them both. But, incase you thought I was being too accepting:

3. I do not believe that what Rhodes calls “psychography” (proto-ethnographies which are more interested in telling a narrative which proves a hypothis than they are in conveying longitudinal experiences had in immersive evironments) I don’t believe that psychographies are research. I believe they are scholarship. Scholarship looks at texts and works to determine their meaning by comparing them with other texts and theories of texts–including critical/cultural theory. As a student of literary, cultural, and textual studies, I love scholarship, and do not contest it’s value. But there’s something research has which scholarship doesn’t, and that’s risk. At the end of the day, the worst thing that can happen in scholarship is that you can miss your deadline, or not get published (maybe loose tenure). However, in an inquiry based study, your hypothesis could be proven wrong, you could not find the answer, or your data could contradict the theoretical framework you set out to prove. And you would still report these findings. That doesn’t happen in scholarship. In scholarship, you can simply write about your topic from a different angle or use a different theorist, or just not publish. This may not be a good way to divide up types of knowledge-formation, but something in my gut tells me that this is an important factor. The rhetorical risk of inquiry matters in the way that it is composed–that’s my hypothesis. Thoughts?

In other news . . .

Because I really like longitudinal, qualitative research, I had felt at the beginning of the semester that immersive ethnography was the only type of qualitative research I could do. But hearing Hiedie McKee say, over skype last week, “why would I be reading about this, when I could be talking to these people?” made me realize that I didn’t have to do a full-scale ethnography to find valuable information, and I didn’t have to do my research all at once. I can begin by “talking to” some of the people I respect and want to understand. I can begin exploring without being Ms. Mega-Awesome, and Perfect Super-Researcher (and yes, I do feel that we read a few of those: Heath, Boyd, Caroll, etc). This was an exciting and refreshing revelation.

Top Readings:

Robert Brooke, “Ethnographic Writing” from Voices and Visions

Digital Writing Research: Technologies, Methodologies, and Ethical Issues edited by McKee and DeVoss

Jerremy Tirell’s dissertation, “Mapping a Geographical History of Digital Technology in Rhetoric and Composition.”

Dana Boyd’s dissertation, “Taken out of Context”

Other’s favorites: Stake’s Qualitative Research, Lee Ann Caroll’s Rehearsing New Roles, Heath (how can you not?) ,

Favorite Skype Visiting Author: Katherine Kelleher Sohn

Experimenting with Mixed Methods: Tinberg and Nadeau’s Study of Student Expectations

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Tinberg and Nabeau’s study on The Community College Writer: Exceeding Expectations. Theirs is a fairly broad investigation into the challenges facing first year college students, but essentially tries to understand how first year composition student’s experiences prior to and during their first semester in college matches up to their various teacher’s expectations .

The literature review and methods were both very helpful to me in demonstrating the process of composition research. Those who know me will not be surprised to hear that I particularly enjoyed their combination of ethnographic and social-studies research methods. On page 17, Tinberg and Nabeau explain that their “purpose . . . is primarily descriptive: we intend to account for the nature of student writing tasks at college–and the degree of success achieved in meeting the writing challenge”; yet, in their literature review, they acknowledge that “research can be and out to be conducted on a scientific [read, positivist] basis, while at the same time grounded in specific writing situations” (15). Elaborating on what they mean by scientific: “producing replicable, well-designed research studies” which they hope to balance with “reproducing the specific and localized scene of writing.”

The question is, do their methods successfully facilitate this dual desire? I believe that the study does indeed produce valuable knowledge from which other institutions may glean applicable information for their own curricular design; however, I also believe that certain aspects of their methods could have been refined in order to ensure more consistently generalizable results.

For example: admirably, Tinberg and Nadeau administered their first student survey at four different institutions, in four different states. This was, in my opinion, very impressive in light of comp. research norms. However, their student cohort, from which the bulk of the study data was truly derived, was comprised of students only from BCC (Bristol Community College).

I think that because the study focused so much on the past experience of students, and particularly because the primary data was gathered at a community college, where students will most likely all be coming from one very specific town, city, or location, the data would have been much more generalizable if the PIs had followed through with their ambition to survey four very different institutions in four very different locations.

Kairos Web Text Winer: Delegrange’s Epistemology of Arrangement and its Implications for Composition Research


Delegrange, Susan H. Wunderkammer, Cornell, and the Visual Canon of ArrangementKairos 13.2 (Spring 2009). Web. 17 Feb. 2011.

Audience and Rhetorical Stance

Mainly written toward computer compositionist and rhetoricians, particularly those following classical rhetorics; composition and new media teachers.
Written from the rhetorical stance of the researcher as inquirer and  teacher, working with and reinforcing a critical tradition.

Method of Inquiry

Scholarship: Philosophical deduction based on critical theory, textual analysis/example, but also qualitative investigation of historical and physical artifacts (Wundermakers and Cornell’s Shadow  Boxes, student research projects).


That digital media presents the possibility of arranging visual arguments which invoke wonder–a state of learning which happens at the suspended moment between ignorance and first understanding. She suggests that the history of wundermakers (wonder-) offers us a rhetorical theory of arrangement, based on the assemblegde of evidence that will encourage epistemological discovery through associative-connections, which will in turn encourage ethical action. the reader/viewer to explore various perspectives and make epistemological connections not possible without the specific arrangement.

Theoretical Backbone/Critical Tools

Aristotle’s Rhetorical Cannons–Arrangement (Dispositio)
Greek term, techne (explored by Heidegger) indicating the productive arts

Barbara Maria Stafford’s Visual Analogy: Consciousness as the Art of Connecting (1999) –offers a cannon of literary tropes which can be used to examine visual argument
Nicholas C. Burbules’s Rhetorics of the web: Hyperreading and Critical Literacy  (1998)–offers several terms and criteria for evaluating online work

Cites Madeleine Sorapure’s “Between modes: Assessing students’ new media compositions” Kairos 10.2 (2005)

Epistemological Stance

Postpositivist: based on the belief that knoweldge is made through human interaction and construction. Seeks to find ways to promote learning and knowledge-making through “wonder”–traditionally defined as a mental state of suspension between ignorance and enlightenment that “marks the end of unknowing and the beginning of knowing.”

“Constructing digital Wunderkammer thus becomes an embodied pedagogical perfor-mance, a strong model for a postmodern understanding of multiple perspectives and subjectivities. Through multi-linear, multi-modal visual arrangement and manipulation, they shape a path to rhetorical action through a technology of wonder.” (“Mental/Physical”)


  • 16th and 17th c. wunderkammers: cabinets of wonder or curiosity.
  • Rooms were made up of naturalia, artificialia, and scientifica. Scientifica included insturments of measurement–such as telescopes, mirror boxes, distorting lenses, and microscopes–placed within rooms which would allow audiences to investiagte or explore other artifacts within the collection (“Manipulating”).
  • Linnaeus’s classification system, a taxonomy birthed out of a wunderkammer (“Cabinets”).
  • Joseph Cornell’s bricolage art work, made of often random, fond objects, placed in artistic order.They consisted of physical artifacts composed of  “fact upon fact upon fact—that he accumulated about people, events, places, and phenomena” (Hartigan qtd. in Delegrange “Repitition/Small Variation”); an example of techne’s making as knowing.

    Cornell often revised his works, even those owned by others. He also provided “instructions” for owners on how to interact with his works–showing the knowing by doing aspect of techne media (“Making/Showing”).
  • DVDROM The Magical Worlds of Joseph Cornell that accompanies the centenary celebration Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay, Eterniday; A multimedia exploration where you can rotate and take apart Cornell’s works, read his diary, listen to voices of friends or curates, and look through his collections of unused materials.

“…from a perspective that values the particularity of multiple voices and embodied perspectives, there is no definitive path through the material on this DVD, no overarching ideo-logical or interpretive scrim through which the viewer is asked to understand Cornell’s work. It is a stunningly, excessively rich, visual, auditory and verbal space, an exemplar for combinatorial, knowledge-making pedagogical performances in manipulatable, multi-linear, new media.” (“Pulverizing”) (emphasis added)

Praxis/Application/Case Study

Delegrange’s intermediate writing students at Ohioh State use the concept of techne to create new media projects which advocate civic participation and service

“Students investigate their own environment; they collect, arrange, and manipulate evidence to gain multiple perspectives on a single building in their post-industrial downtown area; and they use this evidence to compose nuanced proposals for the use of urban space. . . . Arrangement thus functions as both a method of invention and a means of intervention, situated squarely on the streets and sidewalks of their home town.” (“The Assignment”)

The assignment has 3 steps:

  1. Collect primary, archival data about their location–“photographs, postcards, maps, deeds, advertisements, newspaper clippings”–and compose a power point chronicalling the building’s history.
  2. Collect their own primary data about the building–their own photos, and interviews with owners, inhabitants, employees, and patrons–and draw a use-map of the building’s current use.
  3. Create a final new media proposal advocating civic involvement and future use of the space they investigated.
    They ask themselves the following questions about each argument they construct:

What are the predominant similarities?  differences?
What seems to “go” with what? why?
How are different media related?
What is unexpected in this arrangement?
What is missing?

Delegrange provides a student’s project as a case study/example: Austin Hart’s work on the Ohioh State Reformatory (prison)

Performance of Argument

Delegrange successfully structures her web text according to the principles she theorizes in her argument: the new media arangement juxtoposes text, images, animations and a video in such a way that they compliment, support, and reinterpret one another.

The trope of the shaddow box is what dominates the text’s overall structure/use-map as a digital text. She suggests in her introduction that the sections of the text may be read in order, but that the nature of her projects suggests other paths

The case study at the end, that is, her student’s own project, is what made this article come to life as research–because one realized that she was actually teaching research methods as a form of knowledge-making within communities/contexts; this strongly supported her epistemological claims and scholarly research.

Implications for Qualitative Reseach: My Own Conclusions and Thoughts

Many of Delegrane’s arguments about arrangement and new media could be similarly applied to the craft of qualitative research:

  • She suggests that tools of measurement can act as elements of inquiry and draws attention to the markedly subjective, yet productive perspective that they offered in the wunderkammens.

“…when we look at the early use of such technologies as microscopes, magnifying globes, and refracting lenses, we do not find the hard distinctions made today between scientific and personal exploration…” (“learn/play”)

“These devices served as the articulating link, the connection between macrocosm and microcosm, that constructed and transformed simple resemblance into generous understandings of the relationships of the cosmos.” (“Manipulating”)

  • She implies that arrangement can inspire invention (rather than only the other way around). This is similar to Brooke’s argument, that new topoi often emerge from qualitative data, as one tries to arrange the various observations and experiences into a meaningful whole.
  • Joseph Cornell’s work, which she points to as a case study for mixed media production, was built out of “found objects” collected over time, and often encouraged an epistemology which connected the micro and macro understanding of places or ideas:

“Many of Cornell’s constructions made use of the evocativeness of the partly-seen, using screens with holes, frosted glass, layered paper and wood, sand, bottled objects, and mirrors to provide multiple perspectives while never revealing all, insisting that the viewer both accept the ambiguity and continue striving to construct meaning in the gaps.” (“Partly Seen”)

  • While Delegrane focuses on the new media aspect of her Intermediate Writing assignment, we might argue that the assignment requires students to do ethnographic, qualitative research of a space; they use archival data, explore the spaces themselves, and conduct interviews, in order to assess the value and potential of that space to a community.

Brooke and Latourean Inscription in Ethnographic Methods

Robert Brook’s chapter in Voices and Visions, entitled “Ethnographic Practice as a Means of Invention, Seeking a Rhetorical Paradigm for Ethnographic Writing” has no doubt been my favorite reading in methods of research thus far. As always, I find that Latour’s philosophy clearly elucidates the practice and process of research, especially as it relates to texts. Brooke uses Latour’s concept of inscription to describe three key moments in his composition process where the observation and articulation of his subjects was crucially shaped by his rhetorical needs and goals.

1) In his observation notebook, Brooke found that his comments about and vision of the classroom he observed were selective, based on a set of categories (heuristic topoi) which he was predisposed to conceive of, based on his field, past readings, and conversations with his teacher-subject.  In other words, his inventive process, by which he explored particular ways of understanding his subject, shaped how he observed and specifically, what he wrote down in his journal.

2) His daily notes, written after each observation, revealed Brooke’s attempts at meaning-making through writing, by more clearly organizing his observations into patterns, interpreting behaviors, making predictions, and labeling phenomena based on theoretical topoi.

3) A year later, Brooke’s composition of a CCC article from his data, involved negotiating meaning out of a tension between his own memory of an event, his data, and a very specific audience, while simultaneously trying to locate himself within the discipline to which he is speaking. These tensions actively shaped the articulation of his observations, his theoretical basis, and his argument.

I so appreciate the emphasis Brooke places on the difficulty these negotiations create for the author, who is attempting to condense, refine and sharpen meaning from such a vast body of observations, experiences, and thoughts. This is especially so, notes Brooke, for the ethnographer trying to speak to two separate audiences: an academic discourse community, and the community who was observed.

This last section of the article reminded me very much of two other texts: Dian Davis’s introduction to Inessential Solidarity, in which she meditates on the impossibility of scholarly conventions in the face of discussing metaphysical ethics, and Annemarie Mol’s book, The Body Multiple, in which she splits her text into two, simultaneous, parallel sections in an effort to address adequately both her ethnographic observations (placed on the top half) and the literature of theory and methodology (placed on the bottom). Such an extreme bifurcation of composition is the perfect example of the incredible tearing that the tensions Brooke describes can lead to within the writer’s mind–and I think Mol’s solution is a very creative and effectual one.

Another aspect of Brooke’s work which helped me, as an aspiring researcher, was the “behind the scenes” look that “Ethnographic Practice as a Means of Invention” gave, after having read “Underlife and Writing Instruction.” Although most ethnographies lay out their methods, I still feel there is a lot of process which is left like “the man behind the curtain” which the reader can only guess at (unless you’re Brooke, who like Toto goes and tears the curtain down!). Brooke’s three moments of inscription gave me a much clearer idea of what my own process of observation and composition might look like, on a practical level, while conducting a study. Additionally, his literature review in the beginning of the chapter is the most simply and clearly graphed picture of the field I’ve read yet.

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.