Composition Research Agendas in the 1960s and 1970s

Richard Lloyd-Jones

History, Reflection, and Narrative: The Professionalization of Composition, 1963-1983

This relatively short piece discusses one veteran rhet/comp professor’s experience with administering writing research for national organizations like NCTE, NAEP, and other groups during the 1960s.  In his introduction, Lloyd-Jones notes a key theme that is spun throughout his essay: namely, that all rhetoric is political; hence, all writing is also political because it is about delivery.

L.J.’s research team started by working through dissertations to provide legitimacy for composition as a field that needed research.  As a result of this work, L.J. and his team were told by Braddock that “composition, in comparison with research in the physical sciences, was just emerging from the age of alchemy” (75).  L.J. also mentions that the field was so young that the researchers often shared their knowledge of the field with one another, creating a “essentially oral quality” in composition studies until the early 1970s.

L.J. notes that there were many problems with the tests initially used by ETS to rate students writing.  First, the writing prompts had no rhetorical purpose.  He also noted that the prompts, while attempting neutrality, often had class or gender bias.  This created specific responses from different groups of writers.  These biases, combined with the inadequate training of the graders, created pretty poor research results.

In retrospect, L.J. notes that he learned a lot in his participation in this study because of a recognition that gender, class, and S.E. played determining factors on the kinds of work the team received in their research.  He also rails against the administrators, politicians, deans, and others that expect hard data at the expense of more accurate yet ambiguous answers.

Introduction and Chapter

Gesa Kirsch and Patricia A. Sullivan

Methods and Methodology in Composition Research

I found this piece to be really useful.  In the first couple of pages, K&S offer some useful definitions:

1.  Method – a technique or way of proceeding in gathering evidence

2.  Methodology – the underlying theory and analysis of how research does or should proceed

In addition to these definitions, they pose a series of questions that researchers should heed:

1.  What problems emerge in the process of inquiry, and what issues are raised by a particular methodology?

2.  What constitutes data?

3.  How are data used in producing knowledge, generating theories, and building models?

4.  What kinds of questions can and cannot be answered with a given method of research?

5.  How does the researcher resolve these problems and issues?

After noting that qualitative research poses serious problems for the researcher-to-subject relation, and encouraging researchers in rhet/comp to use multiple research methods, K&S get to the really useful part of their introduction: how to do effective, productive research.

While rejecting the claim that adopting a single methodology would be the best thing for the field (10, 248 – North & Irmscher), K&S argue that the “plurality of perspectives . . . may be taken as a sign that we are growing more confident in our identity as a research community and that we are beginning to understand the complexity involved in adapting research methodologies that have their origin in vastly different disciplinary traditions” (10).  In arguing against the single method system, K&S offer these reasons:

1.  single methodology research “determines what is included in and excluded from the study of composition”

2.  “to declare one methodology most suitable for composition studies is to declare other methodologies less suitable, less valuable, and less intellectually worthwhile” (253).

In arguing for methodological pluralism, K&S offer the following grouping in favor:

a.  the diversity of research questions raised by scholars

b.  the broad territory encompassed by rhetoric and composition

c.  the multidisciplinary backgrounds of researchers (255)

In carrying out methodological pluralism, K&S encourage an open discussion of :

a.  the researchers relation to the subject (the researcher’s presence and authority are never neutral)

b.  the purpose of the researcher’s questions (they must be grounded in the subject’s experience and be relevant to the subject)

c.  the researcher’s agenda (it is never disinterested) (256)

Later in the article, K&S make mention of the POMO conception of methodology.  The note:

new approaches to research also reflect the current discussion of the socially constructed nature of knowledge that has been central to poststructuralist debates of the last two decades.  Poststructuralist scholars  in a variety of disciplines have argued that all research is limited and partial, shaped by the cultural and historical context of the researcher as well as by the participants, and that the meaning of research is constructed, not discovered (Kuhn, Geertz, Rorty) (260)

More Methodological Matters:  Against Negative Argumentation

Ellen Barton

CCC, Vol. 51, No. 3 (Feb. 2000). pp. 399-416

In this article, Barton laments her perception of how the field of Composition is increasingly pushing away empirical, quantitative research.  She frames this shift in the rhetorical tactic of “negative argumentation” or the arguing against unnamed, but implied subjects.  Barton’s contention is that qualitative researchers are falsely accusing empiricists of using “traditional, imperialistic hegemony” in their research practices (401).  Furthermore, because quantitative researchers don’t incorporate collaborative and reflexive design and analysis their work is ethically suspect (401).

Barton ties this shift in research to a the field’s emphasis shifting from product to process.  This likely explains why Tom Newkirk is the focus of much of her invective (not that it’s not deserved).  In this shift, Barton claims that the field looses a couple of things:

1.  the devaluation risks losing sight of the ethics of empirical frameworks, thereby exacerbating the continually simmering conflict with regard to nature, place, and value of empirical studies

2.  in devaluing empirical studies, the field may lose it’s ability to ask certain kinds of questions about oral and written language and the complexities of its production in various contexts.

3.  as a result of devaluing empirical research, the field may lose its ability to make appropriate methodological choices for investigating problems of value, thereby impoverishing the methodological education we offer to new practitioners in the field (403).

The Making of Knowledge in Composition – Introduction

Stephen North

In the introduction to his book, North recounts a personal experience that led him to a disciplinary question.  After working with a student for some time in preparation for exams, North probed his student about wide-ranging disciplinary questions of synthesis and analysis.  Unfortunately, because of the somewhat unorganized and messy nature of the field, the student couldn’t answer the questions . . . and neither could the examiner.  This is what ultimately led North to trace the development of Composition as a field through an analysis of specific individuals and professional organizations.

Some useful definitions:

a.  modes of inquiry – the whole series of steps an inquirer follows in making a contribution to a field of knowledge.

b.  methodological communities – groups of inquirers more or less united by their allegiance to one such mode, to an agreed-upon set of rules for gathering, testing, validating, accumulating, and distributing what they regard as knowledge (1)

In the first chapter, North traces the evolution of composition as a discipline.  He grounds the founding of Composition (with a capital C) in the education reform movements of the post-war period.  Instead of working with Progressive educational principles, the reform movement sought to use English (the tripod – language, literature, and writing)  to meet the responsibilities of being a world power – especially in light of how Sputnik demonstrated Soviet intellect and capability.

In addition to demonstrating the history of the discipline, North also notes how Composition, since it’s very inception, has had something of an identity crisis.  This crisis is manifested in the results of the Braddock essays (alchemy metaphor), the kinds of knowledge that the field was going to privilege and the kinds it would exclude (for example, the Practitioners), and the unclear aim of the Composition course (service course, expression?  what to do?)

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