Thursday, November 01, 2007

Reading :: Digital Writing Research

Digital Writing Research: Technologies, Methodologies, and Ethical Issues
Edited by Heidi A. McKee and Danielle Nicole DeVoss

I have been hearing about this edited collection for a while, but was surprised to find it in my mailbox two weeks ago. Editors Heidi McKee and Danielle DeVoss were nice enough to send me a copy. It was perfect timing, I thought, because I would have something to read on the plane to El Paso.

That didn't quite happen -- I raced through the book and finished it the day before the flight. Like most collections, this one is uneven, but it has a lot of good stuff in it, some of which I haven't seen anywhere else. I'll most likely use chapters -- at least -- in my next graduate-level research course.

The collection's Introduction serves as a good overview of computers and writing research, something that I would have loved to have at the beginning of the semester (I'm teaching a grad course entitled "Computers and Writing: History, Theory, Philosophy" and was casting around for an overview like this one.) C&W research has not always been conducted -- or published -- with high standards, something that is unintentionally made clear by the editors in their discussion of the 1990 controversy in Computers and Composition over Marcia Halio's study claiming that students who used PCs wrote more effective essays than those who used Macintoshes. The editors and blind reviewers should not have greenlighted this study for publication: this gatekeeping is supposed to protect scholars who are just learning the ropes, not just to make sure good studies are published. But since the editors and reviewers decided to publish the study, twenty C&W scholars wrote withering rebuttals criticizing the study's deeply flawed methodology.

The good news is that this collection attempts to raise the bar for C&W research. It does this in a number of chapters. I'll cover just a few here, but many are worth a look.

First out of the gate is Banks and Eble's "Digital spaces, online environments, and human participant research," which gives necessary background on institutional research boards and outlines some of the difficulties in applying standard IRB guidelines to digital writing research. It's not a glamorous article, but it's very valuable and will definitely go in my next course packet for my qualitative research class.

Another interesting chapter was Beatrice Smith's "Researching hybrid literacies," in which she discusses the methodological and ethical obstacles that researchers need to hurdle as they research in hybrid virtual/physical settings such as outsourced work environments. Smith compares traditional ethnography with the sorts of methodological issues faced in such spaces.

Bill Hart-Davidson's chapter on diary studies is characteristically smart and introduces a research technique that has been shockingly underused in writing studies. His communicative event models provide a great way to visualize mediated sequential activity. Geisler and Slattery's "Capturing the activity of digital writing" similarly leverages another underused technique, video screen capture, and nicely illustrates how to systematically analyze it.

Finally, Becky Rickly publishes the results of a survey about which I've been hearing for a couple of years. In "Messy Contexts," she demonstrates wide variations in how digital writing research is conceived and taught at the graduate level, and argues that researchers and teachers need to adopt a more rhetorical, situated approach to research.

All in all, the collection has some valuable pieces, and I plan to keep it on my shelf so I can point out specific pieces to specific grad students. And, yes, I am certainly going to get a copy for the CWRL too.

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