Sunday, March 27, 2011

Some diverse reading this week: three short chapters on methodologies for studying writing; the methodology chapter from Danah Boyd’s dissertation, and three articles describing studies of online writing.  The common thread is the emphasis on (or at least the capability of) researching online writing.  The chapters on methodology come from Digital Writing Research: Technologies, Methodologies, and Ethical Issues, edited by McKee & DeVoss, and they describe the diary method, mobile technologies, and video/screen capture.  These methodologies allow researchers to follow their subjects in absentia by reminding them to log their activities or monitoring their computer screens.  The benefits of these methods are that the researchers can be much less obtrusive, letting subjects do much of the observation for them.  The drawbacks are that the subjects might forget to record their activities or find the frequent updating cumbersome.

The four actual studies that we looked at this week had common methodologies; namely, the researchers examine online writing and interview some of the writers to look more deeply into the writing acts.  The differences come in the types of writing each study analyzes.  Leon and Pigg write about just two graduate students, examining their online presence as they move toward professionalization.  Danah Boyd’s dissertation examines teenagers and social networks; as a dissertation, its scope is much larger than the other article-length research.  Boyd carefully lays out her methodology, noting its possible pitfalls (distance, scope, and age of subjects).  She reasons through her choices for each of these difficulties, providing solid groundwork for the research to come.  Liew and McKee each address online writing as resistant or confrontational, Liew as a student speaks back to his teacher via a blog, and McKee as students participating in online discussions come into conflict with one another.

The articles this week give a broad introduction to the possibilities of online research and to some of the ethical issues.  As Boyd and others point out, the number of subjects available to us online is many times that which we would have access to locally, but communication with them can present logistical problems.  

Monday, March 21, 2011

Ethical Implications in Qualitative Research

A couple of great articles this week!  First we have “Turning in upon Ourselves: Positionality, Subjectivity, and Reflexivity in Case Study and Ethnographic Research” by Elizabeth Chiseri-Strater.  “All researchers are positioned,” she begins.  Exactly to what extent researchers are aware of this, how they negotiate it, and how it appears in their research make up the balance of the article.  Some researchers consciously write their positioning into their research; I thought of Van Maanen’s confessional ethnographies as she described this type of awareness. While the remnants of positivism might lead researchers to fight the tendency to write themselves into their studies, Chiseri-Strater celebrates it: “Turning in upon ourselves prevents us from removing our selv(es) from our research process, from our connections with our informants, or from our written translation of data to text” (119). In other words the researcher should be aware that one subject of any study will always be the researcher herself.

Thomas Newkirk contributed “Seduction and Betrayal in Qualitative Research.” I already had some reservations about certain types of qualitative research (similar to Dan’s comments in class last week), and this article certainly added another nail to the coffin.  When we do qualitative research, especially ethnographic or classroom-based research involving populations with which we have or build a personal relationship, we are immediately faced with a dilemma.  We can either be “objective” (read really big scare quotes here) and risk hurting someone’s feelings if we report negative results, or we run the risk of manipulating our findings to avoid that hurt.  While Newkirk offers possible ways to mitigate these pitfalls (discussing the dangers at the time of consent, giving the subject the right to offer alternative interpretations, and the possibility of intervention in the situation), even these solutions only lessen, but do not remove, these openings for damage.

Both of these articles are from Ethics and Representation in Qualitative Studies of Literacy, edited by Gesa Kirsch and Peter Mortensen.  The introduction to this volume was also on our reading list for this week.  The editors identified three key areas that continue to challenge those doing qualitative research on literacy: ethical dilemmas, often involving the relationship of the researcher with the subjects of the study; issues of representation, that is, what stance does the researcher take herself, and how does she position her research subjects; and institutional and social contexts, the set of givens which often begin as invisible, but result in major influences, both recognized and unrecognized, on qualitative research and its publication.  I was surprised at the number of times the word “pain” recurred in this introduction; the researcher may be in pain from a situation that prompted the research or from incidents in the research itself.  The subject(s) may be in pain either as a result of the research or as a result of factors unrelated to, but scrutinized in, the research; there may be pain in any number of relationship configurations relating to the research.  As researchers move away from the positivistic (and basically unrealistic) view of researcher as completely objective and unrelated observer, awareness of actual emotions, including pain, caused and uncovered by the research process has increased.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Old Believer Women in a Postmodern World

Title: Old Believer Women in a Postmodern World: Changing Literacy, Changing Lives
Where you can find it: This dissertation has not been published.  I was lucky enough to obtain an interlibrary loan copy from one of the two US libraries that has it.
Audience: Compositionists, scholars interested in literacy studies and qualitative research.
Genre: Qualitative research: case study/ethnography.
Epistemology:  Post-positivistic—Graber finds “themes” rather than hypotheses.  The research is very specific to the Old Believers, so the dissertation would not be read as generalizable to literacy in other contexts.
General focus: Graber examines literacy in the lives of women of the Old Believer sect who have enrolled in classes at the community college where she teaches.  She seeks to determine how their newly acquired literacies affect their lives.
Research questions:  Graber lists the following research questions:
  •  What is motivating Alaska’s Old Believer women to pursue higher education?
  •  How does advancing their literacy impact their roles and self-perceptions as women in this highly traditional culture intent on preserving cultural boundaries while being unavoidably exposed to modern culture and ways of thinking?
  •  How does expanding their literacy enhance their lives and/or create conflicts and complications? (64) She links these research questions to three paradoxes:
  1. Their desire to preserve their 17th century cultural values against the backdrop of rapid technological and social change.
  2. Their desire to pursue higher education in contrast to the inherent complications that becoming "better education" creates in their lives.
  3. The impact of conflicted cultural views that education is a woman's responsibility rather than an inherent "right." (53) 
Lenses/theories at work: The similarity of this work with Katherine Sohn’s dissertation cannot be denied, and indeed, Graber thanks Sohn in her Acknowledgements section.  Sohn and Graber both graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, two years apart, and I believe that Dr. Carole Bencich was dissertation advisor for both of them.  The three of them, together with Jenny Staben, published an article in CCC (2003) on how to successfully write a qualitative dissertation.  
        The dissertation has no traditional literature review; rather, Graber offers a 10-page "Conceptual Framework" chapter which lays out her approach to literacy. 
Methodology: Graber included both quantitative and qualitative data.  In addition to the extensive data she gathered on her six main subjects, she interviewed principles of schools in Old Believer villages, located articles in the media about literacy in the villages, and interviewed faculty at her own community college.  After interviewing the six subjects, she selected three to follow even more closely, shadowing them at work and in their daily lives.  Graber claims that the diversity of sources she draws upon helped her with triangulation.  She also triangulated via “follow-up contacts, member checks, peer debriefings, and negative case analysis” (78).
The Research found: Graber organizes her findings around 7 themes: Legacies of literacy & work, Attitudes toward education, Technology, Internal and external motivations for pursuing higher education, Perceived benefits of higher education, Conflicts and complications, and The paradox of literacy.    
  •  The researcher was both very well-informed about the Old Believers and sympathetic to them.
  •  The research (both background/context and the case studies themselves) was detailed and specific.
  •  The dissertation was interesting and well-written.
  •  I’m not sure how this information would help anyone else unless they were also working with Old Believers or some similarly conservative sect (i.e. Amish).
  •  It does not seem that those doing qualitative research on literacy and women can come up with many findings other than that literacy gives them more agency.
  •  Much of the tone and findings are nearly identical to Sohn’s dissertation of two years earlier.
Implications: Further research could be done with the Old Believers, but as long as they resist education as a group, potential subjects will be limited.   This work would serve as a good model for an ethnography/case study based on another people group.