Sunday, September 19, 2004

Reading :: Opening Spaces: Writing Technologies and Critical Research Practices

Originally posted: Sun, 19 Sep 2004 10:04:34

Opening Spaces : Writing Technologies and Critical Research Practices

by Patricia Sullivan, James Porter

Reading Yin's classic on case study research last week led me to dig up my copy of Sullivan and Porter's Opening Spaces, a 1997 book from the Computers and Composition series that is perhaps the only computers and writing book to deal primarily with research methodology. I remember having a love-hate relationship with this book when I first read it. And I'm here to report that this relationship is indeed intact.

Let's talk about the love first. Sullivan and Porter do a good job of demystifying research, starting with the unusual and illuminating example of a basketball game: the game can be observed and described in different ways, using different methods, and from different perspectives. I can imagine grad students, and even undergrads, catching quickly onto the basics of research by the end of this chapter. Clearly, Sullivan and Porter understand research as inquiry rather than as a set of steps that will result in transcendent knowledge. This understanding of research is forefronted all the way through the book, resulting in some valuable insights about the design-research-report cycle. Great. Research as praxis -- one of the central themes of the book -- seems like a valuable theme to develop.

But then we get to the problems. Some of these are due to the series, which has low production values and I think has been edited with a rather light hand. Certainly the chapters are uneven, the prose sometimes gets bogged down (more on that in a moment), and the book as a whole doesn't follow the arc set by that strong first chapter. I expected a book on methodology. I got a book on, well, critical research practices.

So what do they mean by critical research practices? Well, there's a disorienting mix of postmodern uncertainty and foundational certainty.

The foundational certainty is in Sullivan and Porter's embrace of liberation theology's precepts (pp.118-128). In their adoption and amplification of Paolo Freire's work in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Sullivan and Porter enthusiastically elaborate on forms of oppression, differentiate between oppression and power, and confidently declare, "Once oppression is identified, there can be only one ethical stance toward it: Oppose it" (p.122). We're not just talking about overt forms of oppression such as genocide in Sudan, but also covert ones such as computer interfaces: "The Macintosh interface may represent a form of oppression (cultural imperialism), but it's certainly better than the old DOS command-line interface" (p.122). They go on to identify the foundational principle, "liberate the poor," and confidently state: "Given conditions of fundamental inequity, or faced with a situation of oppression, this is the only ethical stance to take. It's the chief operational principle in such situations, and it's a principle not present in the U.S. Constitution" (p.123). I find this argument unconvincing because it assumes hierarchical relationships; suggests that conflicts necessarily have a dimension of oppression; and labels oppressors unambiguously as wrong. Do I really need to point out why these factors are problematic?

This litany of absolutist statements is generally confined to Chapter 5, the chapter on politics and ethics. It is sharply contrasted by other parts of the book, in which they give rein to postmodern uncertainty -- the starts and stops, the on-the-other-hands and the that-is-not-to-says -- and this makes for some joyless and tedious reading. This is partially a stylistic problem, I think, as the postmodernists cited by these authors (Foucault; Deleuze & Guattari) tend not to engage in these unending rounds of hedging.

Why they couldn't strike a balance between these two poles is beyond me. But then again, this book really is all about poles. In Chapter 4, they discuss "postmodern mapping," a vague term that essentially involves setting up pairs of binaries in a cartesian grid and eyeballing where different things should be situated in those binaries. As the authors explain in the concluding chapter, multiplying binaries is a way of complicating and questioning them: Western society is so used to binaries that this way is easier than trying to abolish them outright, they say. So we get poles in spades, poles that intersect other poles that intersect others in a grim recursion.

Well, I got a little carried away by the "hate" part of this "love-hate" relationship. Let me conclude with a little more "love": the book really does have some valuable insights and some valuable case studies, and it's a rare methodology book in the subfield of computers and writing. Chapters 1 and 3 are particularly valuable. I'll probably end up copying these chapters for my grad-level qualitative research class next spring.

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