Heidi McKee certainly seems to be the expert on digital writing research ethics, so I look forward to our chance to interact with her during the next class period. For this week, we read three of her articles, two written with James Porter (“The Ethics of Digital Writing Research: A Rhetorical Approach” and “The Ethics of Conducting Writing Research on the Internet: How Heuristics Help) and the singly authored “Ethical and Legal Issues for Writing Research in an Age of Media Convergence.” This last article lays out some of the issues specific to new media: issues of representation (self, participant, and third-party), issues of informed consent, and issues of intellectual property rights. The other two articles offer an approach to dealing with these and other ethical issues rhetorically. McKee & Porter suggest that the researcher identify two or more binaries that affect the question at hand, for example, the nature of the internet space where the material was originally posted (privateàpublic) or the personal sensitivity of the information contained in the posting. It is then easy to identify the cases where no additional care needs to be taken (publicly posted, non-sensitive information) and the cases where informed consent needs to be carefully solicited (privately posted, sensitive information). The borderlands between these two extremes is where the careful ethical reasoning needs to take place, in a process that McKee and Porter have developed from the now nearly forgotten theological technique called casuistry.
I’m going to pause here and respond to Dan’s blog. I’ll start with ethnography. Ethnography began as a way for a researcher to learn about a previously unknown or little known culture and to share that knowledge with others. When composition began to adopt ethnography as a research method, some of the parameters of the study were fundamentally changed. No longer was the researcher travelling to a foreign land to describe new customs. Instead, the research was done in familiar communities. Once the element of alienation was removed (anthropologist “translates” strange culture for academic community), the effect was that ethnographies served to highlight the differences between communities (instead of us all being American, we are now Appalachian, Alaskan, Christian, Amish, Hispanic, etc. etc.). So it is difficult to generalize from studies whose purpose is to do the opposite of generalization. I’m going to go along with Dan on this one and say that I wish there were fewer ethnographic studies being done in rhet/comp; I don’t see their usefulness. There is still a place for the literacy memoir (Lives on the Boundary), but beyond that… I don’t see it.
But research in general—I think that goes too far. I think Dan lists some problems and issues with research (not enough theoretical support, not enough practical application), but those problems can be fixed and aren’t intrinsic to research. Research with theoretical support, sufficient data, important research questions, and an ethical approach can yield important information for our field. Without it, we’re all just guessing. Where would process theory be without The Composing Process of Twelfth Graders? The solution isn’t to toss out research, it’s to do research the way it should be done.