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

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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.

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.