“Don’t Sweat the Technique”: On Spinuzzi’s Rhetorical Research Approach

Spinuzzi, Clay. “Lost in the Translation: Shifting Claims in the Migration of a Research Technique.” Technical Communication Quarterly 14.4 (2005): 411-46. Print.

“Don’t sweat the technique.”  -Rakim

While I’m sure Clay Spinuzzi has never met Hip-hop legend Rakim, it seems fitting that they rendezvous in this post. Spinuzzi’s claim that as researchers, particularly in comp/ rhet and technical communication fields, our emphasis should be more on technique and its rhetoricality as opposed to rigid and limited views of method. In essence, he urges us to not “sweat the technique,” (Rakim’s terms) but to embrace it or them and employ as needed in response to one’s context and rhetorical situation.

To clarify, Spinuzzi makes his distinction between method and technique by stating:

“Whereas a method (from methodos, way of inquiry) is a way of approaching a problem within a particular problem domain, a technique (from techne, art of knowledge applied to making things) is a step in implementing method – an investigative tool that might be deployed in various methods.”  (413)

Spinuzzi uses prototyping as his technique of choice in this article and “translates” this technique to apply to four different contexts with varying socioeconomic environments, power structures, and goals. For Spinnuzi, translation is the process in which a technique is made flexible, while still retaining enough coherence  (416). This process elucidates the ways in which research techniques are rhetorical and “adapted to the locally grounded and contingent arguments we make, even as those techniques are presented as stable and unchanging building blocks” (413). Spinuzzi’s argument that research must be approached as rhetorical aligns with Johanek’s (2000) view that not approaching research in such a way “ignores the very thing to which we claim to be rhetorically most sensitive: context” (88).

In addition to necessarily being responsive to context in a rhetorical approach to research, this approach also allows us as researchers to reflect on and assert our own agency because we have to consciously and rhetorically adapt our approach for our research projects (414).

Spinuzzi uses Latour’s (2004) breakdown of social power and action to explain a research technique as a token that can only be “moved” and effective when it is translated to fit the new context and goals of the stakeholders (both human and nonhuman).

Lest all of this seem very abstract, the four case studies that Spinuzzi presents work well to illustrate the numerous adaptations made by researchers and other stakeholders in order to use the prototypes in very different contexts. While the details of the particular case studies are not particularly interesting to those working outside of technical communication, or labor movements, the take-aways inform both research methodology and pedagogy.

For one, Spinuzzi makes a strong case, in my opinion, for research to be viewed as rhetoric wherein the research components are arguments, but in my case he was already preaching to the choir. In this light, instead of learning research methods the focus should be learning research argumentation and instead of doing research to researching rhetorically. With this understanding, although Spinuzzi does not address this, we can view the composition process as well as the research process rhetorically. This reinforces the notion that research documents, although they need not be grounded in social science, need to be conceptualized and written about persuasively (Smagorinsky 2008) and that we need to consider all available means when contemplating methods and methodology (Barton 2000, Johanek 2000).

The key to researching rhetorically is remembering our agency as researchers and that our research approaches, must be just that– ours – because they in-and-of-themselves are our arguments, and that we make and structuring the arguments we use (441).

The end result of employing rhetorical research skills behind the scene, such as translation, is the appearance of a smooth and seamless research technique; no sweat.

With this in mind, I wonder why this rhetorical approach to research hasn’t been a given in Rhet/Comp?

What ideas, possibilities, concerns, and questions does this approach raise for the scholarly work you want to pursue?


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)