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.

Tirrell’s Historiographic Cartography of Rhet/Comp


Tirrell, Jeremy. “Mapping a Geographical History of Digital Technology in Rhetoric and Composition.” Diss. University of North Carolina at Wilmington, 2009. Dissertations and Abstracts International. ProQuest. Web. 20 Feb. 2011.

Purpose, Genre, and Format

A Proof-of-Concept Dissertation, which provides a pragmatic demonstration of a theoretical claim, using a quantitative study.

Historiography in the format of a Social Science Study (Introduction, Methods, Findings, Discussion, Conclusion), accompanied by a the Digital Rendering of the collected Data–the proof of concept itself.

Methods of Data Collection, Representation & Interpretation

Written from a data perspective, using theorists’ “functional concepts and techniques” useful to his project, but not attempting to defend any particular philosophical stance (47). He pulls from English studies, Digital Media studies, Geographic and Architectural studies.

Did an analysis of six Composition journals related to digital technology, quantifying the significant, recurring terms which appeared in all issues between 1994-2008.

The journals are Computers and Composition Online, Currents in Electronic Literacy, Enculturation, Kairos, PRE/TEXT: Electra(Lite), The Writing Instructor.

Created two, integrated, thematic maps, using GoogleEarth platform,
representing two diachronic sets of data:

  1. a proportional point symbol map that plots the location and magnitude of relevant data
  2. a concept magnitude map that tracks the distribution and prominence of recurrent terms

Information can be viewed in layers, or all at once, and all data is plotted by year, so the viewer can slide the “time line” left and right to watch how the data changes threw time.

The map is dynamic and interactive, in that the audience can explore the data in different levels, and also in that data can be added to the system, in order to extend and continue the research and its rendering.

All data is publicly accessible in both online and offline formats. The Online Map location is (however, the site expired on 2/27/2011).

Research Question/Concept Being Proven

Digital mapping technology offers us a new way of studying histories. In particular, the graphic representation of quantitative data can produce a qualitative understanding of historiography, which is impossible for solely textual work. While textual  historiography is limited to linear narrative-making through the close reading of people and events, digital mapping, although not superior to qualitative inquiry, provides valuable knowledge-making, by rendering a distant reading of multiple events and histories simultaneously (36).


Three very broad audiences

1. Rhetoric and Composition Scholars and Instructors: need to know our history of engagement with digital technology

2. Researchers: can adapt method of digital mapping

3. Administrators: can use map of department’s geographical diversity as evidence of institutional value

His literature reviews are primarily targeted to 1) Rhetoric and Composition–doing a lengthy review of the discussion surrounding historiography of Rhet/Comp and 2) Researchers and digital cartographers–with extensive review in the Methods section regarding cartography and the digital mapping of quantitative research.

Doesn’t assume that his audience has any background in digital cartography and the types of digital projects available online.

Grounding the Need for his Research

Tirrell goes to great lengths to argue for and demonstrate the use of his project on various levels. He does this by:

  • providing past precedents of very significant geographic mapping projects used by academics, the government, and grass-roots communities;
  • Citing philosophers and scholars within Rhetoric, Composition, Literature, and the Humanities who argue for the need of quantitative studies of the humanities and their history
  • Providing elaborate description of Rhet/Comp’s debates regarding the rhetorical nature of history, and history writing, arguing that his methods will provide a new and valuable form of historiography, which will practically benefit the field, as well as other fields in the humanities.


Post-Epistemology, or Rhetorical Epistemology, meaning that Tirrell rejects the post-positivist belief in a subject/representation divide or dichotomy (46).

For Tirrell, there is a real word which can be accurately known through quantitative measures. At the same time, he supports the fact that all knowledge production: textual, graphical, linear or simultaneous, is rhetorical in nature–meaning that the selection of information in necessary in any explanation, argument, or investigation human’s conduct.

He claims that histories usually privilege time and people as actors, largely because of the history’s grounding in text, and the need to therefore create a unifying, linear narrative, which cannot represent space. Tirrell suggest that geographic studies using quantitative data can tell more multiple histories, by showing where ideas appear and how they move over time. In this way, space becomes an active element of history, rather than a neutral container for human and temporal action.

Tirrell eschews the question of how we know and interpretation, however, by refusing to address the issue of causation, in favor of simply providing factual information which reveals correlation. He does not attempt to explain or investigate the material situations within the various locations he maps, but simply displays who said what, when.

What I’ve Learned from this Project

  1. A dissertation allows one to make many, many, arguments, about different topics, communities, conversations, and methods. This is accomplished by addressing your project in layers, and by providing the appropriate literature reviews for the various topics and communities you desire to speak to.
  2. Literature Reviews should be proportionate to the audiences you desire to attract/appeal to.
  3. Mixed methodology is accepted and encouraged within the Rhet/Comp field, especially when enacted in a meticulously thorough manner.
  4. Rhet/Comp researchers can build investigative tools which they intend to be used and revised by future scholars–COOL!
  5. If you are attempting to address several audience which would be considered interdisciplinary with your study, there will be large portions of your study which will be uninteresting to some of your audience members. The trick is to demonstrate that although some of your research may not be in a given audience one of your audience’s field, it is still rigorous, and relevant to the field.