Saturday, April 21, 2007

Reading :: Worlds Apart

Worlds Apart: Acting and Writing in Academic and Workplace Contexts
By Patrick Dias, Aviva Freedman, Peter Medway, and Anthony Pare

Worlds Apart is an unusual book, at least for mainstream writing research. Unlike most efforts in our field, it has multiple authors, and those authors coordinated related research projects to produce a multisite comparative research study aimed at answering the research question: "What are the relationships between writing as it is elicited in the university and writing as it is generated in the workplace?" (p.3).

How did they set out to answer this question? I found their approach to be interesting, perhaps more interesting than the research question itself. To answer the question, the authors "selected four matching university and professional settings" (p.10) and investigated each with the same data collection and analysis methods. Data collection methods included
  • inventorying the genres in each domain
  • document tracking
  • conducting research protocols of designated readers
  • ethnographic observation of designated readers
  • ethnographic observation of writers involved in tasks of composing
  • interviews
  • participant validation (pp.12-13)
Data analysis methods included syntactical, rhetorical, and conceptual analyses of writing; analyses of oral discourse surrounding the texts; and sociolinguistic analyses of production and reception of texts (pp.13-14).

The methodology was informed by the theoretical frames the authors used: situated cognition (drawing primarily on Lave); genre studies (based in North American genre theory and its use of the Bakhtin Circle's work); activity theory (via Wertsch); situated learning (via Lave and Wenger); distributed cognition (via Hutchins); and semiotic theory (via Peirce, Bakhtin, and Voloshinov). If that sounds like a lot of ground to cover, well, it is: Although these frames all have a similar sociocultural orientation, they also have some significant differences -- particularly situated cognition, distributed cognition, and activity theory, as Bonnie Nardi argued in Context and Consciousness. As a reader, I found myself wondering why all of these frames were pulled in. Are we supposed to focus on the similarities? In that case, why not narrow the number of frames rather than providing such an extensive discussion and set of resources? Or are we supposed to become aware of the contrasts? In that case, why not systematically highlight these, perhaps in a summary table, so we can see how a synthesis works better than the frames in isolation? My sense, based on the discussions of the studies themselves, is that the authors all had their favorite frames and decided to finesse the issue rather than to agree on a unified theoretical framework. Each frame was invoked in one or more of the component studies. Consequently, some coherence problems are introduced in the studies, leading to some theoretical difficulties in comparisons across studies.

The studies themselves were solidly conducted, but didn't present many surprises for anyone familiar with workplace writing studies. I did appreciate some of the examples from the studies, and some of the phrasing. For instance, the authors declare that "genres are both text and context, and altering the regular features of repeated documents has a ripple effect out to the practices used to create, distribute, and interpret texts, and to the settings within which these documents operate" (p.123). (I am not fond of the concept of "context," but I get what they mean.) Similarly, the authors declare that "when students leave university to enter the workplace, they not only need to learn new genres of discourse, they need to learn new ways to learn such genres" (p.199).

In the conclusion, the authors explain that writing is "a complex network of activities in which the composition represents only one strand" (p.222). Again, this is not a terribly new insight, but it's given new weight through the studies.

All in all, Worlds Apart provides an empirically grounded summary of writing as it is understood in sociocultural approaches. Although the insights are not new, those who have not assimilated the theoretical literature will find it to be a valuable overview; those who want to design empirical studies of writing will draw inspiration from its methods and methodology; those who need to make arguments about writing in the disciplines will find it to be a valuable source of evidence.

No comments: