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Mere Rhetoric

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history.

Oct 12, 2016

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and outsider about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. Today we’re going to talk about the method to the madness, if madness were writing studies research. That’s right, we’re going to talking about a little edited volume called Writing studies Research in PRactice and you never knew methodology could be so fun.


But first, if you’re a regularly listener to the show, can I recommend you get on iTunes or whereever you find your podcasts and give Mere Rhetoric a review? It doesn’t have to be long or laudatory, but it would be nice for when I prepare reports for folks like the Humanities Media Project at the University of Texas. This way I can let them know that people like the show and want it to continue.


Or if you want to, you can email us at and a word about that: sorry! I recently realized that my email forwarding on that gmail account wasn’t correctly forwarding to my personal email, meaning that many of the lovely email people had been sending hadn’t been getting to me! As you can imagine, I am properly mortified, and I will begin to respond to the backlog and get on people’s requests for episodes as I respond. I thought no one had been writing! But now that I know, I’ll be (1) a lot more satisfied with the lovely responses and (2) getting back to everyone who emailed by didn’t get a response.


Okay, now on to the show. Writing studies research in practice is a relatively new book, published in 2012 and edited by Lee Nickoson and Mary P Sheridan. It would be a nice addition to a doctoral course on composition research and methods, or for an advanted graduate student who is beginning to think about the kind of research she wants to do to approach a new project. Honestly, I’m not sure I’d recommend it for a straight-up novice in research in compositoin. And here’s my reasoning why: this book mostly complicates some of the “traditional” methods of composition research, which might be a little disorienting for someone who isn’t familiar with the tradition. It’s a little like getting a triple-cake-chunk pineapple swirl mix-in sundae for someone’s first introduction to ice cream.


It consists of three main parts: part one “reimagining traditional research practices” talks about strategies we think we know well, like narratives or ethnographies.Part two, revisioning research in composition looks at controversal strategies like teacher research and autoenography, and part three reconceptualizeing metholodology and sites of inquiry. So you can hear how this text emphasizes the variation rather than the plain ol’ vanilla of research. There is a feminist methodology bent, which probably isn’t surprising because Sheridan and Nickoson are great feminist researchers and they themselves recognize that there are a few big, meaningful gaps in their book, including, like case study-research and surveys. Pretty much it leans heavily on lived research, like ethnography.


Here are some of the highlights of the text. First off, Doug Hesse, one of my favorite human beings and the reader on my dissertation has this fantastic chapter on “Writing Program Research” where he tells the story of how, plagued by the rumblings on campus that “students can’t even write a single correct sentence,” he “analyzed errors in a random sample of 215 papers selected from a corpus of 700 papers written by first-year students” and discovered “at least 85% of sentences were error free”--empirical proof that students can, in fact, write many correct sentences (144). But writing research isn’t just about snarky research design to stick it to your supercillious colleagues. Writing program research, like its cousin teacher research, seeks to advance actual practice as well as knowledge in the field. As Lee Nickoson puts it, “Teacher research is the study of a writing class conducted by one who teaches it with the ultimate purpose of improving classroom practice” (101). That means you care intimately about the results and you aren’t willing to sacrifice quality teaching for research, but that you create a holistic identity as teacher and researcher (105). You are always still a human being. That theme is also at the heart of Suresh Canagarajah’s chapter. We’ve done an episode on Canagarajah before and how deeply I love that man, so I refer you to it, but in this collection, he talks about autoethnography, an “emic and holistic perspective” where researchers “study the practices of a community of which they are members and they are visible in the research” (114).


Quick sidebar to define one of the terms there. Emic, means insider, and it’s opposed to Etic, which is outside. Etic is the traditional perspective of ethnography: some white guy, probably British, and I’m thinking with a pith hat and a monocle, goes to Papua New Guinea or somewhere and frowns disapprovingly and makes notes in a notebook while the native eat bugs. Emic is about coming from the inside, where traditions and culture are part of the researcher’s understanding, so the research isn’t just observations and interviews, but also their own understanding. Autoethnography is the ultimate in this emic perspective, where researcher and subject are the same person.


For narrative research, the individual is often also tied up. Debra Journet objects to the perspective that “narrative has sometimes been presented as a n almost direct way to represent qualities of personal experience” (15)--there are, she argues, many times of narrative that aren’t just personal, but a whole “range of narrative genres” (16). Cynthia Selfe and Gail E Hawisher, for instance, in their chapter about interviews point out that “we had grown increasingly dissatisfied with containing our questions to a standard set of prompts that elicited information but did not easily encourage follow-up questions and did not always encourage the kinds of narrative responses we found so richly laden with information” (39). These narrations don’t always come when the same list of questions are applied to each interviewee as traditionally happens in interviews. And because it’s Cynthia Selfe and Gail Hawisher, you know technology is going to come into play, and indeed, they talk about how participants in their interviews often supplement their answers with digital media, and how publishing should also include video clips and sound as well as alphabetic and static image representations (44-45).


And lest you think digital research is going to be 100% easier than other types of research Heidi A McKee and James E Porter present “the ethics of conducting writing research on the internet” The internet is such a strange space for research because it isn’t entirely anonymous and it isn’t entirely private. When you study a text on the internet, some are obviously public, like a professional blog, but others have an expectation of privacy, or at least a limited audience, like the forum posts on a website for recovering alcoholics. Many people may feel like they are interacting in a space of limited publicity when they send text messages or post in a forum or even join a game like World of Warcraft, and they feel this way despite any small print on the site to the contrary. So even if sometime is technically permissible by your IRB department, you will want to considerate about consulting with representative audiences, being open about being a researcher online, and being aware of the regulations and laws of the online spaces you research (256).


No matter what kind of research you do, the volume as a whole seems to say, be thoughtful about the participants you involve, the audiences you are writing for and your own involvement in the subject. Things aren’t always cut and dry in research and what starts as, for example, a survey, may end up expanding into a series of interviews or ethnographic observation. Research in writing studies is so variable and there are so many ways to do it, from discourse analysis to autoethnography. We study texts and we study people. We want to make sure that we do it responsibly, thinking about how what we claim to be studying will impact the folks we study, the folks we’re writing to and, ultimately, to us ourselves as researchers.