Sunday, January 30, 2011

Qualitative research-what is this animal?

Mostly I'm confused about what qualitative research is and how it is supposed to function.  For our readings this week, we have a little information about Pledged, a book whose cover boasts the chests of three coeds.
 OK, I'll buy that these girls went to college, but what this has to do with rhet/comp from there eludes me.  Wat this book written from a scholarly point of view? (I don't think so.) My impression is that the author, Alexandra Robbins, has found a niche that she can exploit--but not in a scholarly way. 
Then there is Storm in the Mountains by James Moffett.  While this book at least obliquely deals with the teaching of language arts, again, I don't see it as research into composition.  It is a case study of community reaction against a textbook series, written by the author of the textbook series. 

What's going on here?  My suspicion:  Writing instructors are, I believe, lovers of the book, of reading, of language.  I'll bet most of us read a lot.  We love a good story, and we have chosen a discipline in which we can try to pass that love on to our students.  Then we read to keep up in our discipline-- and we are confronted by the stereotypical bad academic writing: nominalizations, passive tense, obfuscation, the use of big words for the sake of sounding profound, etc. etc.  So what are we to do?  We've fallen into our own trap of bad writing in order to get published in order to get promotions or tenure.  So we look to other disciplines (anthropology?) for help, and find the qualitative study.  At its best, the qualitative study is a well-told story that also sheds some light on the discipline.  At its not-so-great, the qualitative study has bad metaphors, disconnected narrative, and very little scholarly insight. 

I don't have a solution to this dilemma.  I think that scholarly writing should have a point, should advance thinking in the discipline, should be, at least to some extent, verifiable.  If it tells a story, so much the better.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Lit Review as Scholarly Activity

This week we read about lit reviews, much to my surprise!  Why I should be surprised that there are articles about lit reviews, I don’t know, but I was. I think part of the problem is that there is one term, “lit review” for two distinct genres.  There is the lit review section of a research article and the lit review section of a dissertation.  These two sections do both look at previously published literature on the topic, but other then that, their purposes can be quite distinct.  For an article, a lit review is almost never comprehensive; the purpose of a lit review in an article is to show that the author is familiar with the previous work in the field and to outline the approach this article will take.  For a dissertation, there can be several purposes of the lit review, according to David Boote, Penny Belle, and Joseph Maxwell.  According to Maxwell, Boote and Belle believe that a dissertating scholar must show a mastery of the discipline by incorporating a comprehensive lit review.  Maxwell’s own view is that mastery can be demonstrated as the scholar discerns relevant from non-relevant articles; this act of discernment, more than completeness, shows that a scholar has mastered a discipline.  
If the dissertation is being used as a comprehensive exam, as the authors maintain that some lit review sections are, then the lit review section has a purpose apart from its purpose within the dissertation.  I believe that some of the disagreement between Maxwell and Boote and Belle can be attributed to lack of clarity about the purpose of the lit review within the dissertation.  In Qualitative Research, Robert Stake similarly distinguishes between conceptual and systematic lit reviews.  Rather than having a “right” and a “wrong” way to do a lit review, as the authors above argued, Stake links the conceptual review, which he describes as bridging disciplines, to qualitative research, while a systematic (i.e. comprehensive) review of literature within a discipline is used more commonly for quantitative research.
The article that I loved, however, on the lit review, was written by Shirley K. Rose, and entitled “What’s Love Got to Do with It?”  Rose uses Kenneth Burke’s concept of identification to describe citation practices as a means of identification or division as the author of the article or dissertation seeks to establish identity within the disciplinary community.  By citing better-known scholars, the aspiring scholar moves into one or another “camps,” a choice which the rest of the disciplinary community can easily identify by the positions of the scholars cited.  My only complaint about this article is that Rose wrote it before I could think of it.  

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Ethnography or Storytelling?

In her book My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student, anthropologist Rebekah Nathan lives in a foreign community (a college dorm) for a year and studies the population.  As an anthropologist, Nathan understands what it means to write ethnography; she probably had to write at least one other during her graduate education.  The book that results from her study is not scholarly, but it is not especially personal either.  While it might have been a temptation to tell the story of her year among undergraduates as memoir, Nathan avoids this temptation, whether from professional habit or by purposeful intent.

Ethnography is one type of research that has also been used by compositionists.  Stephen North challenged the field to avoid mixing methodologies, but I wonder if that is really the problem.  Granted, our class has not yet read ethnographies written by compositionists, but my theory heading in is this: compositionists are generally attracted to the field because they love good writing--they love to read stories.  Ethnography, more than any other methodology (except for case study) reads like a story.  Without having been trained in ethnographic methods, as anthropologists like Nathan are, compositionists equate writing ethnography with telling a story.    Although they look the same, their ends are quite different.  Perhaps this is one reason that Micheal Taber found shortcomings in the ethnographies he analyzed for his thesis.

In "Thinking and Rethinking Research Methodology" (Business Communication Quarterly 9/1/96), Geoffrey Cross makes a distinction between empiricist and interpretist ethnologies.  These two categories seem to have a relationship to positivism and post-positivism in that empiricism and positivism both point toward knowledge "out there" that can be "discovered" through research; post-positivism and interpretism are more likely to see knowledge as constructed by the researcher.  Cross also points out that ethnology has different "rules" based on which discipline's version of ethnology one is examining.

Given that composition has borrowed ethnography from some discipline and does not claim to have originated it as a methodology, what should be the guidelines for compositionists who wish to perform ethnographic research?  Or should there be guidelines at all?  This takes us back to Micheal's question of generalizability.  No one disagrees that what appears to be ethnographic research in composition/literacy results in good stories.  The question becomes at what point can the story be generalized into knowledge that can be assimilated into the field and built upon?  This is the question that I hope we can move toward answering in this course.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


Welcome to Tonight's Research, companion blog to Tonight's ReadingThis blog will chiefly be a response and interaction to the readings, discussion, and thoughts emanating from Dr. Joe Moxley's Qualitative Research class at USF.