Shumway, David.  “Science, Theory, and the Politics of Empirical Studies.”

  • S. starts by acknolweding that the conflict between science and the Humanities in the English department extends all the way back to the philological projects of English researchers at the turn of the century.
  • S. urges those in Rhetoric and Composition to “abandon our prejudice against the bogey of empirical research and recognize this work for what it is:  a sometimes useful form of argument” (149).
  • S.’s article traces literary theory’s critique of empirical studies – because research in cognitive psychology (Flower & Hayes, etc.) was the most prominent in the 10 years before the publication of the article, S. uses cognitive psychological research as the “bogeyman” empirical research that theory attacks.
  • Literary theory:  “I mean poststructuralist theory and critical theory, whose major exponents (e.g., Derrida, Foucault, Althusser, Adorno) are not mainly literary scholars and whose theories are not directed mainly at literary interpretation. Thus literary theory, as I am using the term, does not concern literature so much as the conditions of possibility of language and other sign systems, as well as the knowledge or truth they claim to represent.  Such theory often understands these issues in specifically social and political contexts” (149).
  • Focus of the article:  Berlin’s “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class.”  S. notes that Berlin ties cognitive rhetoric’s instrumentality to its epistemology (151).  By this Berlin means that cognitive studies of rhetoric have a positivist epistemological orientation; or, said differently, “It fails to recognize that the real is an ideological construct and instead assumes that ‘the existent, the good, and the possible are inscribed in the very nature of things as indisputable scientific facts, rather than being seen as humanly devised social constructions always remaining open to discussion” (151-2).  S. claims that Berlin claims indisputability because of cognitive rhetoric’s utilization of the “verification principle.”  S. argues against this position, claiming that cognitive rhetoric – and empirical studies in NARC in general – aren’t inherently instrumentalist and “entail no particular epistemology at all” (152).
  • S. claims that “because no literary theorists has produced a sustained study of empirical research in NARC, we may assume that theorists’ opposition to such research is rooted in their critique of science” (150).  S. notes that theorists attack science on two basis:  science as theory of knowledge (Heidegger, Gadamer, Derrida) and influence of science on social and political life (Adorno, Horkhemier, Marcuse).
  • S. claims that the work of Flower rejects a pure positivism or “naive empiricism” because she advocates “observation-based theory building” that assumes a postpositivism that “acknowledges both the relative nature of knowledge and the social and cognitive process of interpretation of educational research” (154).  Yet, because of her reliance on traditional positivists position that empirical research provides “greater access to the real”, her argument struggles (154).  Further, because cognitive rhetoric is instrumentalist – it looks for the most effecient method of completing writing tasks but emphasizes that students shouldn’t question the tasks themselves – it is problematic.
  • If we strip out the “objectivist rhetoric” from the empirical program, we get an elaborated form of literary theory wherein empirical researchers provide rich instances or evidence in support of a particular theory (155).  If empirical researchers proceed on these grounds, then “literary theory can have no objection to empirical research on epistemological grounds” (155).  As such, S. argues that “we should not avoid empirical studies because the results they produce are somehow illegitimate but that we should do them with the full knowledge that they will not allow us to escape the limitations imposed on us by our theories and by ideology” (156).
  • Why is science so powerful?  “Science, or the claiming of science, is a form of power (Aronowitz), in part because nonscientists do not understand the skeptical nonabsolutist character of science” (156).
  • What does a cultural studies/literary theory composition class look like?  It is a “necessity shelter” or “a place for questions to be raised, but not answered, for problems to be investigated but not solved” (157).
  • Shumway closes by noting that ignoring particular methods of knowledge production is just silly – “Each of us must advocate the production of knowledge that best serves our interested ends.  Those who share the goals of social justice and equality need to design arguments to serve those ends, and they should use any available methods that do not violate those ends” (158).

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