Friday, January 18, 2008

Reading :: Composing Research

Composing Research: A Contextualist Paradigm for Rhetoric and Composition
By Cindy Johanek

When I was working on my PhD, in 1994-1999, one of the big points of contention in writing studies (rhetoric and composition, professional communication, business communication) was the issue of research methods. Well, maybe "big" isn't the right word, since rhet-comp folks were not (and still are not) generally trained very deeply in empirical research methods, and the studies in question were often not well designed and/or came from outside the field. In any case, we had just left the 1980s, when Carnegie-Mellon's alliance with cognitive psychologists yielded several studies using think-aloud protocols and experiments, and entered the 1990s, when compositionists discovered qualitative research methods such as ethnography. The methodological discussions, sometimes characterized as "wars" (although I think wars tend to be larger and bloodier), were partially about the warrants, epistemologies, and theoretical frameworks that the field would accept. In any case, we had reached a sort of detente by the time I began my dissertation, and in 1998 I was able to characterize my work-in-progress as a "mixed-methods" approach, one that "transcended" the "quantitative-qualitative divide."

In 1998, coincidentally, Cindy Johanek went on the market with an award-winning dissertation in hand, one that examined the state of research in composition. Johanek, who studied psychology as an undergraduate, had been surprised in graduate school by the way quantitative research was negatively characterized in her English graduate courses and how qualitative research was valorized with thin justification. In response, her dissertation -- which eventually became the book Composing Research -- examined the state of research, took arguments against empirical composition research to task, and argued for a "contextualist paradigm" for rhet-comp research.

Like me, Johanek characterized her work as transcending the quantitative-qualitative divide. Unlike me, she didn't just roll her eyes when people made disparaging and ignorant remarks about research. Rather, she really took these arguments to heart, even comparing them to bigotry in one analogy (pp.108-109). Aghast at the number of "studies" based on anecdotal evidence, she determined to lay out the case for principled research that begins, not with methods or methodologies, but with context (p.108). "We have fallen into an odd, unbalanced rhetorical stance that comes from the stories we tell," she charges, "stories that appeal heavily to audience emotions but stories that are also uniquely personal to the writer" (p.110).

The heart of the book, more or less, is a table on p.112: "A contextualist research paradigm for rhetoric and composition." This heuristic contains several questions that researchers should ask themselves, with the x-axis representing rhetorical issues and the y-axis representing research issues. This heuristic (I'm not sure I would call it a paradigm) should prove useful to new composition researchers who are trying to work through the beginning stages of a research project, conceived as an argument to a particular audience.

I very much wanted to like this book, but I couldn't find anything terribly solid to hold onto; the argument did not seem to be strongly stated or signposted, or perhaps the text wandered. In addition, other things bothered me.

First, qualitative research gets short shrift here, I think. Judging from the marginal notes that someone penciled in the library's copy of this book, I'm not the only one: next to an evaluation of a study on p.186, they wrote "qualitative [does not equal] anecdotal!" Yes: even though Johanek mentions qualitative research once or twice, in places such as this one, she seems to be equating qualitative research with anecdotal research, and doesn't mention -- leave alone examine -- qualitative methods such as case studies, grounded theory, or discourse analysis (she mentions ethnography in passing). On the other hand, she demonstrates how to set up a quasi-experiment and calculate standard deviation.

Johanek also writes a diatribe against MLA citation style in Ch.7, which I found even less convincing that Charles Bazerman's argument against APA style. It's a little outdated too, from my perspective, since tech comm journals are moving toward APA and Written Communication also uses it.

Finally, she complains about the inadequate textbooks designed to train composition researchers. I can certainly understand this, but look at the amazing surplus of good research texts in related fields, such as education. These are mostly quite applicable to the research we do in comp-rhet. Johanek curses the darkness, while I have preferred to light a candle (see my recent reviews of qualitative research texts).

So here's the question: Do you use Johanek's book in your graduate qualitative research course? I considered it, but in the end decided not to. Not only does it have a short shelf life, it also portrays the field's research too narrowly and dichotomously. I might, however, photocopy that matrix and pass it out.

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1 comment:

Collin said...

In fact, I've photocopied that matrix for students in a methods course, but had the same trouble justifying spending either a week of class or my students' money on it. There were parts of it that I thought were okay, but not enough of it to recommend to the course...