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

Danah Boyd, New Media, and Discourse

Our readings this week were all very interesting, and mostly related to online composition and studies of its complexities.

Dana Boyd’s dissertation was a fun read; I now understand why she is such a popular author, especially as a blogger. Her writing style and voice are incredibly personable as well as intelligent. I hope I can develop a similar communication style. In Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics, Danah did an ethnographic study of teen’s cultural and social practices with new media networks during the rise and fall of MySpace (c. 2004-2006).

Her methods were truly impressive:  she scoured hundreds of thousands of profiles on sites as various as LiveJournal, Xanga, MySpace, and Facebook, while also observing chatrooms, immersive online environments, and other sites of teen interaction. in addition to her online investigation, she traveled to ten different states to formally interview 94 teens in their home towns. Wherever possible, she used random sampling, and her involvement with technology companies gave her access to data not usually available to users. Her triangulation included her subjects–teens themselves–as she interacted with them about her research over the 2.5 years of her study. It also included adults within the communities where the teens she interviewed were located. No doubt that her intern, Sam Jackson, and other new media scholars also helped to shape her analysis and interpretations of these communities.

Her theoretical foundation is interesting to me, because without ever mentioning ANT she describes the importance of investigating networks of practice without privileging either online or offline environments, people, objects, or sites–but rather moving along all these axises equally (50-55). She bases this approach on the writing of Jenna Burrell, whom I will have to read. Like Mol and other Praxiographers, she also rejects the divide between subject/object as essence and representation, saying that the wired and offline lives of students are not equivalent to a show and a backstage reality, but are rather intertwined in their communal practices.

I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony, as I read Leon and Pigg’s article about “Graduate Students Professionalizing in Digital Time/Space.” In it they point out the way students are using their computers as tools to multi-task in research and professional networking–this, as I click back and forth between three PDF readings, my University email, Danah Boyd’s blog, and this WordPress draft. Do I, as Leon and Pigg found in other graduate students, feel guilty for my hours of virtual exploration? Well, I did, especially when I first experienced sitting down to do one task and three hours later found that I had about 50, but not finished the first I set out to do–but I think that a couple years of experience have relieved me of that anxiety. I now know that it is indeed more productive, at times, to allow yourself t be led on. At other times, pressure will provoke you to stay focused, so that you can, for example, finish a blog post due for class in a few hours ^_^. For another interesting perspective on this topic, see Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From Video, located in my “Animation Communication” blog post.

In “Your Views Showed True Ignorance: (Mis)Communication in an Interracial Online Discussion Forum,” Heidi McKee investigated a discussion which took place in blackboard regarding affirmative action and multiculturalism. Her methods included receiving permission from some of the students to quote their posts (82 out of 185), as well as personal interviews with the five major participants in the conversation. She asked the students how they would like to be represented in her article, explaining how she would describe herself: as a white middle-class woman who attended a predominantly white school. I think this was a great example of how ethnographers can share representational power with their subjects. I also felt that this was an interesting take on the “ethnography” as a genre–and felt that it did fall into a subcategory of the genre’s parameters. Perhaps the most excellent aspect of her paper is that it was hypothesis generating rather than hypothesis testing. She asked the students open ended questions, and her conclusions after the interviews were different than her hypothesis going into the study. She concludes that discursive writing practices can appear differently to different cultural and racial subjects, and what may appear tame to one group, may actually be very damaging to another.

In “Digital Hidden Transcripts: Exploring Student Resistance in Blogs,” Warren Mark explores a 15 year old student’s discursive resistance toward his teacher, exemplified in online writing. What may be unexpected about this study, is that Marc (the subject) is a student as the Fly High College, a school for boys in Singapore, where the author taught English for four years. I wish that there had been more discussion about the racial, linguistic, national, and economic implications of this interesting fact. Otherwise, Mark did an excellent job of incorporating the student’s own writing and voices into his work.

Van Maanen, Genre Development, and its Relation to Paradigm Shifts

This week, our reading focused on works by Robert Brooke, Van Maanen, and continuation in Stake’s Qualitative Methods. This post will specifically discuss Van Maanen.

In Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography, Van Maanen lays out several sub-grenres of ethnography, which he calls “tales”, defined by their narrative and rhetorical  conventions. There are three major categories and four smaller ones we did not read about:

  • Realist: objectively toned, portraits of a culture; assume personal field’s theoretical beliefs and unapologetically use them to interpret culture.
  • Confessional: more focused on the narrative-making than the culture, per say;  often, the ethnographer is the hero, or center of a “character building conversion tale” (77); epic; acknowledges the limitations and difficulties of the researcher’s work, but having confessed them, still argues for the validity of their knowledge-making.
  • Impressionist: focus on particular moments of observation, told in a dramatic style; more interested in the non-normative case than the normative; rely less on theoretical interpretation, and allow the dissonance of the tale to provoke reader’s own conclusions
  • Critical
  • Formal
  • Literary
  • Jointly told

I especially appreciated his summary of how rhetorical conventions change withing the genre of ethnography:

“Only during the first third of this century did ethnography itself become a recognizable topical and literary genre set off from similar written products such as traveland-adventure stories, fiction, biography, social history, journalism,statistical surveys, and cultural speculation (Clifford, 1983a; Marcus and Fischer, 1986). Shifts within ethnography occurwhen, for example, new faces enter the field, novel problems areput forth, funding patterns change, or, of special interest here, new narrative styles develop as older ones fade and become somehowless convincing and true. 6 These changes may be gradual andmay pass without notice, or they may shock and awaken slumbering writers and readers of ethnography unprepared for the blurringor overthrow of previously uncontested ways of doing things.” (6)

I feel it would be safe to say that this process holds for most written genres of communication. A genre/field/method of investigation emerges as particular cultural interests intersect with problems of praxis and sponsorship to create a new disciplinary matrix from which new ways of speaking and writing, crystalize, so that epistemological negotiations can continue to move forward. Van Maanen’s description of the evolution of ethnography is almost the Composition parallell to Kuhn’s description of paradigm shifts in science, with the Latourian notion of articulation /enrollment. But of course, that’s the rhetoric of science scholar coming out in me.

A final note: last week, syntaxfactory posted a thread on Blogora about “accidental cannon formation” in methods of research. We might see Van Maanen’s study of the rhetorical patters in various ethnographic methods as different types of delivery tailored to particular audiences, to garner ethos within those communities (certainly this makes up a large portion of Van Maanen’s analysis).

Narrative Based Healthcare

Searching around Amazon to find out what’s been published on Medical Rhetoric, I came across this 2003, London-based study/workbook that aims to provide healthcare professionals with a model for investigating the needs of the patients in order to improve their services: Narrative Based Healthcare:Sharing Stories–A Multiprofessional Workbook.

The book shows how collecting ethnographic-like qualitative  data about Diabetes patients with a particular condition can be translated into meeting the needs of patients who, ordinarily, in a clinical setting, are not able to communicate those needs to health professionals.

I haven’t read the book, but I’m going to find a copy; it provides specific assignments, templates, and further reading, so I’m considering looking at it as an example of qualitative research in Medical Rhetoric/Communications.

The publisher, BMJ Books, produces medical text books in primary care and evidence based medicine (EBM). The first author, Trisha Greenhalgh, has written many books on these two topics as well as technical writing types of text books such as How to Read a Paper, a bestselling EBM textbook worldwide.

Educational Controversy–What is “Learning” Anyway?

I’d like to start by thanking my classmates Dan, Susan and Karen for setting an example for me as I adapt to this new genre of blogging. It’s proving fun, but challenging, and their bloggs are giving me an idea of where I might go with my own public space.

Most of our ethnographies we read this week revolve around educational controversies–sororities, censorship, and the effectiveness of the public college education. I say controversies because in each case, a moral accusation lurks behind the exigence of the study. In Storm in the Mountains: A Case of Censorship, Conflict, and Consciousness James Moffett recounts the truly mind-blowing circumstances which led to the Virginia Text Book Riots of 1974-75. Parents in rural Appalachia, in particular, Kanawaha county VA raised an objection to the state’s adopted language arts curriculum, which transformed into a protest, which transformed into outrage and mob chaos. As the facts quickly disappeared behind sensationalism, and political process gave way to anarchy, an often powerless and voiceless population gained a hearing in the courts of educational history, even if it was by means of radicalism, misunderstanding, and injustice. A promising scholar and curriculum designer lost a lifetime’s worth of credibility, a generation of educators was impressed with a deep fear and defensiveness toward parents, and text-book companies took on the motto “never again.”

I was left with a deep sense of tragedy: for the “common man” who, when desiring change, does the only thing he knows how: “go home and sit down”; for a state whose inability to communicate over vast caverns of cultural difference led to indelible mark of strife; and for the utter havoc that was wreaked on individuals and communities through the insidious power of false information, inflamed by the sparks of zealous belief. I cannot help but believe that such an event constitutes a kind of collective trauma, an EmerAgency which has left a lasting scar on the educational system of the nation. It would be interesting to see what types of Memorials might arise out of such memories.

Pledged by Alexandra Robins and Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by  Arum and Roksa, both deal with University life and culture–although the first is written by a journalist, and the second is based on a quantitative study. Sustaining the (vast) methodological differences and implications, both set out to question the value of current cultural practices in higher education–be it Greek life, or the study habits of  students in general. While I would have to perform a full reading of Pledged to comment on its conclusions, Academically Adrift finds that students who remain more focused on individual study and less on university social life improved their critical thinking and writing at a substantially higher rate than those living out the traditional college experience. The assumption seems to be one in line with a WAC mentality–that writing is the best way to both develop and test intellectual growth. I would like to buy/read the books methods section, if only to learn more about how they interpreted their data. According to The Community College Spotlight, the study employed the Collegiate Learning Assessment essay test “that asks students to solve real-world problems, ‘such as determining the cause of an airplane crash, that require reading and analyzing documents from newspaper articles to government reports.’” The circumstances in which such standardized tests are administered often fly in the face of much Composition research which indicates that writing effectively requires in-depth knowledge of particular topics, research, time, multiple drafts, and collaboration.

The New York Times did an interview with Arum which also reveals the very simplistic view of “learning” which the general public has, and which the study seems to capitalize on in its ability to gain attention. In the interview, Arum says that “areas like critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication. . . . are the general skills that most people believe should be at the core of undergraduate learning.” I think many here at USF would agree. However, from a compositionist’s standpoint, such standards often seem to dismiss factors such as the time required to ingest new knowledge, much less learn to perform it within a new discourse community and professional culture, which Composition has tried so hard to bring to scholar’s attention through qualitative studies. The assumption is that “learning” is a monological thing that can be appropriately demonstrated by a standardized critical thinking test after two years of nothing but GED classes. To be clear, I agree that the current University system might undergo some reform in it’s proclaimed priorities and concerns regarding student education–however I am in agreement with critics of the Adrift study who object to its lack of attention to disciplinary specialty.

(As a tie-in to the first reading by Moffett: it is interesting to note that Josipa Roksa is from the University of Virginia, and the ABC article cites The University of Charleston, in West Virginia as one of the institutions dedicated to “beefing up” their writing assignments within majors as a response to the study.)

I think this project segues well into the Spencer Foundation CFR which Dr. Moxley passed to us last class (before he had to release us early because of tornadoes, and long drives home), requesting research about how individuals and institutions within the educational infrastructure use data to improve and shape pedagogy and policy. The national response TO this study would be a fantastic case to answer just such questions. The Foundation specifically calls for inquire into “how individual teachers, faculty members, as well as principals and department heads, learn how to use data and how they can work together to understand, interpret and apply data in their specific professional contexts.”

So, I haven’t gotten to Stake’s Qualitative Research yet, but for the sake of time, and to end on an entertaining note, I’ll just say that I was struck by his conception of research as collecting more information than any one person could experience, because it reminded me of this (my apologies for the painful English dubbing):

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.