Composition as Methodological Flat-leaver

Flat-leaver: (n) A person who leaves a group of people to go with another group, without excusing or dismissing her/himself. Or in this case it may be a field/ discipline…

Haswell (2005) argued that both NCTE and CCCC initially sponsored empirical research and later “radically” unsponsored/ flat-left it.

Haswell (2005) seemed to be in agreement with Barton (2000) that the promotion of, or positive argument in favor of research methods that are reflexive and have dialogic relationships between researchers and informants can amount to a negative argument against empirical research methods. Thus, leaving Composition Studies with a dichotomy that is counterproductive, according to Haswell. He asked what the consequences of this methodological “warfare” may be for the field. Barton (2000) concluded that these types of argumentation limited the field by limiting the range of research methods seen as ethical:

“But the implication of this negative argument is that research that does not incorporate collaborative and reflexive design and analysis is (vaguely) ethically suspect. Unfortunately, research explicitly declaring its allegiance to the ethical turn far too often makes such negative arguments, presenting a narrow view of the field which implies that only certain methodologies incorporate ethical research practices.” (401)

Barton argued that negative argumentation works to reify a particular type of small scale case study type of methodological design as the ideal research design (402-403). On page 403, Barton (2000) listed three implications of Composition Studies’ move to privilege the collaborative, reflexive design over empirical models:

  1. Risks losing sight of the ethics of empirical frameworks
  2. By devaluing empirical research the field may lose its ability to ask certain types of research questions about oral and written language and the complexities of its production and interpretation in various contexts
  3. The field may also lose its ability to make the appropriate methodological choices for investigating problems of value which could have a trickle-down effect on the education of new practitioners in the field

Barton (2000) said that negative argumentation regarding empirical research could be countered by recognizing that not all composition research should be designed as collaborative and reflexive. She asserted that even some ethnographic studies could benefit by having more distanced relationships between the researcher and participants and remain ethical, especially ones that explore naturally occurring language events and pointed to her own research (“Discourses on Disability”) as an example (404).

In the battle of the methods, Barton (2000) argued that ethics could be a common factor in both non-empirical and empirical research and establish an area of conflict resolution: “The ethics of all research demand that subjects participate with full consent and that researchers present data in its full complexity, and the way that these standards are met by empirical studies needs to be better known in the field of composition” (405). She highlighted way that empirical and non-empirical research methods exist on a methodological continuum and could be used together in order to complement each other in a variety of investigations.

Despite all of these possibilities, Barton (2000), Haswell (2005), Roozen and Lunsford (2011), and Brandt (2011) agree that the field’s professional journals do not reflect the full methodological range equally.

“…during these two decades, NCTE/CCCC defined scholarship broadly but supported it selectively. More exactly, they have been hostile to one kind of scholarship while promoting the rest, with their exclusion of one kind and support of the rest growing more and more entrenched. Most crucial is that the kind of scholarship they are killing off happens to be essential to the rest they nurture. Define scholarship as broadly or diversely as they want, when essential nutrients are cut off, eventually the whole system will die. As when a body undermines its own immune system, when college composition as a whole treats the data-gathering, data-validating, and data-aggregating part of itself as alien, then the whole may be doomed.” (Haswell, 2005:219)

Brandt (2011) highlighted how the emergence of specialized journals within NCTE emphasized specific and separate pedagogical and research missions. She implied that the fields fracturing as evidenced by these journals s had an effect/ taught readers, researchers, WPA, and teachers how to think and be within the field. These texts piece together an interesting cycle where researchers give primacy to non-empirical research, publish it, devalue empirical research through explicitly through negative argumentation, or implicitly, readers pick this “sinks in” (Brandt, 2011) to the reader and the cycle begins afresh. Or does it begin with the reader? Surely it must be more complicated than my “chicken or the egg” metaphor. But understanding this cycle or just choosing a spot in it to disrupt the cycle may be essential to creating more methodological balance and using our full range.

“A number of disciplines have moved to incorporate both quantitative and qualitative work, but only a few disciplines, perhaps only our own, make use of the entire range of research methods from empirical investigation to humanistic inquiry. Composition has this range to offer, but this potential of our field is severely limited if, to repeat Lloyd-Jones, ‘the ethical badge of membership in our guild’ is not extended to ‘all that can be gathered (25).” (Barton, 2000:410)

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3 thoughts on “Composition as Methodological Flat-leaver

  1. LaToya, thanks for putting this excellent summary together. Now I don’t have to re-read the readings 😉

    It seems like our field is trying (and has been trying for a while) to find a balance between research methods while staying true to an ethics of research. Probably, the belief that “collaborative and reflexive” research is the most ethical kind of research is a belief positioned against social-science positivism that studies people as though they were molecules. I’m wondering if we haven’t, as Haswell suggests, taken that belief to its unwarranted extreme, which is that anything BUT collaborative and reflexive research is UNethical.

    In the words of Mr. Miyagi: “Must find balance, Daniel-san.” Or to appropriate a comment by Einstein: Hard quantifiable data is vital; without it, our qualitative heuristics are blind. But qualitative heuristics are important, too; without them, our hard data is lame.

  2. Hey LaToya and Seth,

    Thanks, as always, for the insights!

    What bothers me most about this ongoing debate is the seeming anxiety over disciplinary status or preeminence that so often seems to lurk behind these narratives about “warfare” against “scholarship.” Though Haswell tries his best to leave the tent open for any and all types of scholarship, he admittedly frames his argument in a hyperbole about warfare against (seemingly “real”) scholarship. I do like how he takes the offensive, rather than simply trying to defend empirical research against those who are hunting positivists. But in the end, though, if the argument is just to shore up our “discipline” as legitimate, it feels too low-stakes for me to buy in to the vitriol.

    After reading in Haswell that rhet/comp is not included as a discipline in the National Research Council, for instance, I went looking to see what that meant. It turns out that the National Research Council is part of the National Academies, which, according to their website, “produces groundbreaking reports that have helped shape sound policies, inform public opinion, and advance the pursuit of science, engineering, and medicine.” They are an organization dedicated to aggregating social science and hard science research for public policy needs. “Disciplines” such as history, philosophy, and Literature are also largely unrepresented. Are we to take that to mean, then, that Haswell really wants comp to be a social science and not a member of the humanities? Cue Miyagi-via-Seth: “Must find balance.”

    What makes us strong as a (non)(meta)discipline, I think, is precisely this straddling of the social sciences and the humanities. Extremist arguments to either pole seem short-sighted an anachronistic at this point. I must admit, though, that what excites me most about the pendulum finally swinging back toward RAD research in our field (and, given the recent Dartmouth summer seminar in research methods and Written Communication’s thriving as a journal, it most certainly has) is the potential ability to influence policy at the K-16 level. Becky Howard has been talking a lot about this need to be able to be heard outside what Haswell calls our field’s “internal epideictic” in order to be able to influence educational policy. Her work in the Citation Project and its redefinition of plagiarism through RAD research is a case-in-point that policy-makers in both government AND educational institutions are thirsty for RAD research that can function as proofs for why they are engaging in policy reform. If we don’t help to provide this as a field in our given cultural moment, we are leaving policy influence up to for-profit lobby influences of organizations like Achieve and ETS. These are the stakes in educational policy that Linda Adler-Kassner referred to last semester when she skyped into Steve’s class.

    See y’all later.

  3. LaToya, nice synthesis!

    I think that this divide between empirical and qualitative (“ethical”) research that came up in all of the readings made me really appreciate Barton’s critique. I’ve been whole-heartedly reading and participating in the “ethical” turn in methodology, agreeing that yes–reflexive, participant-focused and friendly research IS the most ethical! But, Barton’s piece really made think about the cost of setting something up as “ethical” or not. Essentially, by establishing qualitative research as more ethical, the field has been excluding other forms of research. Really, in a lot of ways, Barton’s critique made me weary of thinking of the characterizations of ethical that we associate with methodology, but also pedagogy. But, then that does bring me back to Allison’s point regarding shifting definitions of ethical. Is research ethical simply by effectively and fully explaining every important aspect of the method and methodology? (Didn’t it seem as though Barton’s piece hinted at this, at least a little?) Is it possible to explain ethical research methods and methodology? What is excluded (rightly?) from this category?

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