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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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Reading :: Designing Qualitative Research

Designing Qualitative Research
By Catherine Marshall, Gretchen B. Rossman

I just finished reviewing Maxwell's Qualitative Research Design, and here I am reviewing Designing Qualitative Research. I suppose there's a finite number of titles you can give to this sort of text. At any rate, Designing Qualitative Research is a fine book, but suffers from comparison to Maxwell's more economical and clearly organized text.

Not that Designing Qualitative Research is a monster text, by any means. The body is only 152 pages (Maxwell's is 115). But whereas Maxwell's book was an overview of principles, Marshall and Rossman's book gets into more details about discrete qualitative research approaches as well as details about data collection and analysis. At present I'm on the fence about whether this is a better approach: I think that a student could design a reasonable study solely based on what s/he learns from this book, a claim that I couldn't make for Maxwell's book, but the discussions are necessarily quite constrained.

Like Maxwell, Marshall and Rossman settle on developing a research proposal as the objective readers should accomplish. But unlike Maxwell, Marshall and Rossman use the generic sections of the research proposal as an organizing scheme for the book: the chapters roughly correspond to these major sections. The advantage of this organizational scheme is that it puts the nascent argument front and center, really demonstrating that research design is an argument. But that's not as big an advantage as it sounds; a research argument has to underlie the design, and breaking the text into proposal sections results in segmenting that argument. I'd have to work around this if I were to use this text in my grad class.

Pragmatically, Marshall and Rossman include a welcome chapter on managing time and resources -- something that many QR texts don't address -- and a chapter on defending qualitative research. In addition, they use many, many vignettes throughout the chapters to illustrate the concepts they are trying to teach. These features make the book easy to follow and, I imagine, easy to apply for graduate students and advanced undergrads.

Overall, this book is a solid entry. I don't think I will use it in one of my classes (I still like Creswell), but if I were asked to do so, I would be happy to use it.

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Reading :: Qualitative Research Design

Qualitative Research Design: An Interactive Approach
By Joseph A. Maxwell

I've been meaning to read Qualitative Research Design for some time. Not only have I seen it cited, students of mine have recommended it to me as a good introductory book for grad courses in qualitative research (I usually use one of Creswell's books). So I finally got to it over the break. And I'm glad I did. The book isn't comprehensive by any means, but it's a good, solid, compact, clearly written discussion of how to design a qualitative research study.

The book was written in 1996 [Note: The above Amazon link is to the second edition, published in 2004], back when qualitative methods were less accepted in the social sciences, so Maxwell spends portions of each chapter discussing how to argue for qualitative research designs to skeptical audiences. This gets a little wearying. But he also lays out the basic components -- purposes, conceptual context, research questions, methods, and validity (p.5) -- and methodically goes through these components and their relationships. He also includes solid, cumulative exercises in each chapter, something that should benefit students at undergrad and grad levels. (The exercises should also help scholars who are reading up on qualitative research for the first time, and cumulatively they lead to a developed QR project.)

The chapter on methods is a bit thin, but I think that's by design. It's not feasible to go into much depth on the basic methods, so we get a high-level overview with cursory descriptions of data collection and analysis methods; readers will have to look elsewhere for descriptions detailed enough to actually implement a study. Fortunately, Maxwell recommends texts for us to read on these issues, particularly Miles and Huberman's excellent text on qualitative analysis.

The final chapter is on research proposals, and Maxwell reminds us here of what I always like to tell my students: your research design is an argument, and you need to be able to identify your claims and demonstrate how your research decisions will support those claims. While being sensitive to the differences of proposals in different fields and written to different agencies, Maxwell gives us good advice and includes a sample proposal.

Finally, Maxwell provides an appendix of recommended resources for those who want to read further.

Overall, a really impressive text. I borrowed this one from the library, but now I'll have to buy my own copy.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

How to make money

You've seen the new Macintosh Air commercial, in which the astonishingly thin laptop is pulled out of a manila envelope? Manufacture a padded laptop case for the Air that looks like that manila envelope. Post pictures to BoingBoing. Create some Machead buzz. Cease manufacture after six months. Give me a small percentage of the profits.

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Reminder: JBTC special issue on social software

Just a reminder that I'll be editing a JBTC special issue on social software. See the cfp. No proposal necessary, inquiries welcome, full manuscripts due May 1. An article in this special issue could make your career and bring you universal acclaim. No pressure.

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Microsoft's supposed patent on physiological monitoring

According to one report, Microsoft has submitted a patent application for a system to monitor the physiological state of users in order to help them.
Microsoft submitted a patent application in the US for a “unique monitoring system” that could link workers to their computers. Wireless sensors could read “heart rate, galvanic skin response, EMG, brain signals, respiration rate, body temperature, movement facial movements, facial expressions and blood pressure”, the application states.

The system could also “automatically detect frustration or stress in the user” and “offer and provide assistance accordingly”. Physical changes to an employee would be matched to an individual psychological profile based on a worker’s weight, age and health. If the system picked up an increase in heart rate or facial expressions suggestive of stress or frustration, it would tell management that he needed help.
I have no idea how true this report is (it sounds fishy and, even if true, unworkable in practice). But the reason we pick up on it, and the reason Drudge gave it a red link last night, is that it just sounds like Microsoft: centrally administrated, intrusive, oriented toward "helping" people before they ask or even if they don't plan to ask. It's Clippy the helpful paperclip, but this time he doesn't just monitor your software activities, he monitors your physiological state. And this time he doesn't just interrupt your work, he asks your boss to intercede. Or if you want a more recent analogy, it's like Vista's security feature, constantly asking if you want to allow or deny an action.

Microsoft seeks patent for office 'spy' software - Times Online

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State of the mobile phone industry

It's remarkably positive, with enormous growth in all sectors. In South Korea, users replace phones every six months, coinciding with fall and spring fashions. In Britain, young urban professionals are increasingly obtaining two phones each. In Japan, mobile internet access is close to overtaking PC-based internet access. And in Australia, SMS is reported to be as addictive as smoking -- and globally, it is taking its place in the set of media available to users, with its own usage expectations:
And why is SMS text messaging so addictive? it is the most discrete (secret) form of communication and it is also the fastest way to communicate. It is preferred by kids in school attempting to cheat in class to busy business executives who need something more powerful than wireless email on a Blackberry. A May 2007 survey by 160 Characters found that 84% of active users of SMS text messaging expect a reply within 5 minutes !!! On email we're happy to get a reply within 24 hours. On voicemail who knows if we ever get a reply. Like we've reported, even the Finnish Prime Minister says on his voicemail recording, don't leave me voicemail, send me SMS. Or how about the Finnish libraries who send alerts via SMS and the Finnish dentists who replace cancelled appointments via SMS. One in five London car drivers pays the congestion charge by mobile phone using SMS text messaging. One in two Helsinki public transportation user pay for the single tram tickets using SMS text messaging. Or the heavy users, 10% of British students thumb out 100 SMS text messages per day - in South Korea 30% of students average 100 SMS text messages sent per day. What is the global average? 2.6 SMS messages sent per day. The leading countries, Singapore users average 12 per day and phone owners in the Philippines are the world leaders averaging 15 SMS sent per day. Even laggard USA is following in lock-step with this growth curve and now USA cellphone owners average over 1 SMS sent per day. (My emphasis)
Besides Huatong Sun, no one in writing studies appears to be studying SMS use in earnest. That has to change.
Communities Dominate Brands: When there is a mobile phone for half the planet: Understanding the biggest technology

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Reading :: Group Cognition

Group Cognition: Computer Support for Building Collaborative Knowledge
By Gerry Stahl

Group Cognition is a perplexing book. The fourth book in MIT Press' Acting with Technology series, it focuses on the topic of computer support for building collaborative knowledge, drawing largely from the literature of computer-supported cooperative learning (CSCL). As Stahl explains in the introduction, the book represents his journey over a decade of CSCL research as he came to see individual cognition as a secondary effect of group cognition, and CSCL as a way to help support, improve, collaborate, and transform individual cognition. So far so good -- I'm interested in this issue as well, and so are many others in CSCW and related fields.

What makes the book perplexing is that the chapters are based on Stahl's published research and talks over the past decade, and they appear to be only partialy revised. So we get a chronological evolution of Stahl's thinking, research, and methodologies, but they are not well framed, so it's difficult to tell what Stahl's current arguments are and how the previous arguments fit into them. Since the evolution is quite visible -- Stahl starts with rule-based modeling and ends up with a distributionist understanding of CSCL demonstrated through conversation analysis -- the book really needs more framing than it has for us to avoid becoming lost.

At one point in Ch.6, Stahl explains that this approach is not accidental: "In this draft of the chapter (still not considered a final static document but a recapitulation from one particular moment in an ongoing process), I am trying to narrate a story about how theory and practice have been comingled in our research" (p.132). Whatever the merits of this approach, it makes it difficult for us to sort out which claims are still operative, what claims aren't, and when they've decayed. It's, in a word, slippery.

Let me see if I can make it less slippery. From what I can piece together, Stahl discovered two things -- the sociocultural perspective and Conversation Analysis -- partway through the decade of research under discussion. He now wants to tell everyone in CSCL about these two things, and he spends a lot of time in the later chapters unravelling conversations syllable by syllable in the manner of conversation analysts. The portion of the book before this epiphany is primarily about modeling CSCL without a sociocultural theoretical framework. The portion after the epiphany involves applying an activity theory-based framework and CA to several studies, but it's a straight application without much theoretical or methodological development. In addition, the later chapters tend to go over the same short piece of dialogue multiple times.

If you have a CSCL background, you might find Stahl's journey to be useful. If you're familiar with CA and sociocultural theory, though, I don't think you'll turn up many new insights.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Olympics rule against cyborg

Amputee Barred From Olympics - New York Times

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Reading :: The Devil's Highway

The Devil's Highway: A True Story
By Luis Alberto Urrea

The Devil's Highway is this year's First Year Forum book at the University of Texas, meaning that every introductory Rhetoric and Writing course uses it. The book, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, tells the true story of a disastrous border crossing in Arizona in which 26 men attempted to walk across the desert to a US town. Only 12 made it.

The story is compelling, well researched, and meant to help readers think through the issue of border policy. Unfortunately, the book's prose is less compelling. The author, not content with a gripping story, continually looks for ways to infuse supernatural and religious symbolism into the book whether it fits or not. Here, for instance, he makes a big deal of the fact that one procurer is named Moses and the desert guide is named Jesus:
He has another alias, too. His boyhood nickname among friends was sometimes Chuy, the diminuitive of "Jesus."

This is his true name: Jesus.

Jesus led the walkers gathered by Moses into the desert called Desolation.

Jesus had the inevitable birthday of December 25. (p.68)
It's like the book was ghostwritten by John Stossel. Not only do these dramatic paragraph breaks make the book longer, they impair the storytelling, distracting from the very real tragedy. Like a cook who can't resist one more grind of pepper, Urrea relentlessly looks for symbolism and tries to tell a quasireligious overstory when just one story would do. And unfortunately this immoderation made me wonder how much I could trust his descriptions. Were things in Veracruz or Sorona as bleak as his prose suggests, or was he just laying it on as in the passage above?

Similarly, the conclusions he draws are troubling. Urrea condemns border policy as insane and unworkable, but in the Reading Group Notes at the end of the book, he admits that he has no answer to the problem. Intractable problems shared by multiple interests, of course, tend to lead to fragmented public policy. The closest Urrea comes to an answer is when he argues that illegal immigration helps the US economically, implying that the borders should not be vigilantly maintained. The argument, however, is entirely economic -- no discussion of how maintaining a permanent, permanently vulnerable underclass of noncitizens affects a working democracy built on principles of equality, or on how an open border policy disproportionately affects certain states, counties, industries, landowners, or workers in particular market segments.

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As the writers strike goes on, other writers seek to make TV irrelevant (exhibit B)

Striking Writers to Launch Online Video Co., Seeking $30M+ « NewTeeVee

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As the writers strike goes on, other writers seek to make TV irrelevant (exhibit A)

Shadow Unit: award-winning sf writers create "fan site for a show that never existed" - Boing Boing

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