PAB #1 – Haswell

Haswell, R. (2005). NCTE/CCCC’s Recent War on Scholarship. Written Communication, Vol. 22 No. 2, April 2005 198-223.

HaswellRichard H. Haswell
(link for CV and CompPile listings)

“They have been at scholarship for a long time.  Only in the past two decades have they been at war with it.  It might be more accurate to say that they have been at war with part of it, but if that part turns out to be vital to the whole, then with its defeat falls the whole.  The scholarship these organizations target goes by different names: empirical inquiry, laboratory studies, data gathering, experimental investigation, formal research, hard research, and sometimes just research” (200).


Richard Haswell’s (2005) “NCTE/CCCC’s Recent War on Scholarship” explores the history of support (and lack thereof) for RAD (Replicable, Aggregable, and Data-supported) research and empirical study in the two largest professional organizations for composition pedagogy, the National Council of Teachers of English and the Conference on College Composition and Communication.  The highly controversial article earned Hasewell both scorn from many of his colleagues in the NCTE, as well as a nomination for the CCCC Examplar Award.

Calling on his audience to recall the ideology of Stephen Witte, founder of Written Communication, who had passed away in the previous year, Haswell notes that the giants of the field of composition had long appreciated the value of empirical knowledge—and had, when necessary, defended it and its practitioners as Witte did for Hillocks’ 1986 “Synthesis of Research on Teaching Writing.”

Leaning on this traditional support for empirical research from established scholars, Haswell proceeds to establish a present schism in empirical scholarship, which he argues is many decades gone at this point (Witte hopes on Hillocks’ behalf that within twenty years he will witness “the marriage of discovery and validation in composition” (199).  At Haswell’s writing, this was not the case eighteen years later.  He likens the “war” of his title between the professional organizations and data-centric researchers to that of a “silent, internecine, self destructive [one], for instance the body’s attack against its own immune system.

Following this brief history and association of his own argument with well-respected theorists and researchers within the organizations in question, Haswell argues that he doesn’t need to defend the value such research provides to composition professionals, pointing out that “a method of scholarship under attack by one academic discipline in the United States but currently healthy and supported by every other academic discipline in the world does not need defending” (200).

Following this introduction and positioning statement, Haswell proceeds to document the forms and functions of research in postsecondary writing instruction for the previous fifty years.  In part, his stated goal in doing so is to establish that empiricism was widely accepted and sponsored by the aforementioned professional organizations, only to later become “radically unsponsored.”  He limits his historical analysis to only those presentations and articles which fit the definition of RAD scholarship, using two specific bodies of research as case studies to help restrict, define, and map this form of scholarship, considering facets of RAD including sampling, recording, data analysis, as well as demonstrating what replicability does and does not look like in the field of composition theory.

Based on this refined definition and understanding, the author then proceeds to analyze the ways in which NCTE/CCCC has begun the process of excluding and isolating RAD research from the early, voguish social-epistemic thinkpieces that had begun to flood the field in 1972, creating categories of segregation including endurability and ephemerality, an entirely subjective (and prognosticatory) standard that disallows almost any analytic research based upon specific data values—as well as any data-based research which has not yet been replicated by independent scholars.  Haswell concludes this section of his article and argument by demonstrating that the standards set by the NCTE allow the NCTE/CCCC to claim a (comparatively paltry) percentage of their supported scholarship to be RAD-based—but the truth is that even this pittance is an over-representation of the real state of research in the field of composition.

Haswell - Fig1

Figure 1: Haswell compares truly “RAD” research with non-RAD research protocols that may ignore questions of replicability and aggregation.

Haswell concludes the article by tracking publishing trends within and without the NCTE/CCCC publications (College English, College Composition and Communication, and Research in the Teaching of English) for specific, typical forms of RAD research, including: bibliographic RAD studies of research papers, RAD analysis of skill gains from writing course participation, analytic commentary on results from peer writing critique, and bibliographic analytics.  Based on his mapping of the decline in RAD scholarship support, the author concludes from his research that “the overarching pattern in all of this is a severe decline in NCTE/CCCC’s support of data-supported, aggregable research into their own professional topics during the past two decades [~1980-2005]. But […] there are other patterns, perhaps more disturbing.  The most obvious is that the decline is not paralleled in other academic disciplines, even elsewhere in the social sciences. Rather, it is the opposite; for RAD, research publication in three of the activities close to the heart of college composition instruction—the research paper, course gain in writing skill, and peer evaluation—has continued to grow everywhere else. For 25 years now […] the theoretical scholars have argued that such research is outmoded. A look at the numbers asks for whom are the theorists speaking” (215).

Haswell - Fig2

Figure 2: Haswell maps the decline in CCCC publication of research bibliographic entries against the consistent growth in the same on CompPile.

Analysis and Questions

I’ll provide more analysis of my personal engagement with this text in my PAB post for the second, responding article from Dr. Driscoll.  That said, I think that Dr. Haswell raises a very important alarm in this article, and I’m saddened to say I don’t think it’s one that many people in the field in general have yet heeded.  The Technical Writing and Communication crowd have certainly latched onto many of Haswell’s arguments–but it’s safe to say that they were predominantly in his camp to begin with.  Fortunately, bibliographic research shows that Haswell’s “Recent War” is more oft-cited than many of his opponents, but those citing him are already converts.  Haswell doesn’t often appear alongside more popular fare by Berlin, Murray, Emig, and Lunsford in pedagogical texts, nor in disciplinary anthologies.  His article is found in research manuals, in TW-specific histories, in specialist texts much more frequently than in general disciplinary surveys.  His argument, while profound, is as much victim to the erasure of the academy as that research which he praises is.  He’s not searching for paradigm-shifting realizations that order universal chaos and throw the humdrum of the academy into turmoil.  He is, in other words, “not sexy.”

When I think about the theorists who worked so hard to redefine and refine the field in the early years, I feel like they couldn’t have wanted this for the discipline–I can’t imagine why any scholar would oppose more or better knowledge in their field.  I feel that scholars have a moral obligation to the truth, and as a graduate student I count myself in that obligation.  I don’t know everything, but (to horribly misquote Plato) at least I know that not knowing is a step in the process towards knowledge.  To reject empirical research because one fears the creep of positivism into one’s personal expressionist ideology seems no different (to me) than someone refusing to read new theory because they finally got a grasp on the old one.

I love data.  I have to love data, because otherwise how can I instill a love of data in my students?  I respect any argument for more information.  And I will never be able to understand the argument against providing that data.  Paper is cheap.  Ink is cheap.  Let’s have more knowledge.  I have a subscription to College Writing.  80% of what makes its pages is… fine.  But it’s not frequently contributing to any great confirmation or upset of knowledge or paradigms.  I would say the same of College Composition and Communication.  Pulling a random issue from the shelf (Sept. 2014 – “Locations of Writing”) I find 19 articles.  Two are (in any way) empirical (Rueker and Miller).  I can’t think of a special topic more inviting of empirical data, or less inviting to vignettes, than the analysis of the physical locations and conditions under which students write.  And yet, there it is.  Two articles with empirical data, and ten vignettes that don’t even include a single footnote, illustration, citation, or bibliographic entry.  Half aren’t even about college writing.  That was literally the first publication I had within reach.  I’m sure I could replicate the experiment ten dozen times with the same results in my apartment library alone.

Is this productive?

I can’t see how it is.  I mean, ten more scholars get a CV entry in CCC.  There’s a utility value there, I suppose.  I can’t imagine anybody read a self-indulgent vignette about the feeling of isolation the author senses writing in a crowd while paying too much for coffee and staying too long for free WiFi and thought “finally, the breakthrough that will let me reach out to my students and make them see the value of careful, academic discourse.”  I can’t imagine too many people read the self-indulgent vignette, period, but that’s another question in academic publishing entirely.

Is the field doomed?  

I can’t say that I know the answer to that question, but I know the answer is not “absolutely not.”  I know in a general sense what eventually happened to other humanities disciplines that walked away from formative research to engage in personal narratives as paramount to knowledge and the interpretation of disciplinary questions.  We’ve seen the declines in African American Studies and Women’s Studies departments following this model. It’s not a comfortable future, probably, at least for a while.

What are we doing here? 

Sometimes I wonder.  I wasn’t planning to go to CCCC 2016 this year because I was feeling burnt out by the absence of (or at least difficulty locating) any scholarship that felt real or substantial.  Last year I presented on a panel with three other scholars, dealing with questions of technical writing and textual production.  I presented on how print methodologies changed distribution and production of activist texts in inner city print cooperatives.  I’d say of the four, one was less empirical than my own, the other two significantly moreso.  All said, it was a very data- and artifact-driven panel.  Three conference attendees showed up.  Even our moderator stepped out early.  I’ll be the first to admit that I’m bitter.  I’ll be the first to label myself a cynic.  I’ll be the first to point out that I’m a hypocrite, too–my proposal for this year was accepted; I’m going.  My new presentation’s not the slightest bit empirical.

I’m supposed to be writing about personal course outcomes.  Maybe I’m looking for proof that I’m not circling an intellectual drain.  Maybe I’m looking for proof that we all aren’t.

This was all so much easier for me when it was literature – at least literature is “just cultural,” is admittedly canonically-segregated.  Compositionalists are playing with other people’s core epistemological assumptions at the most formative periods in their lives – within writing, the most personal act they’ll ever engage in at the university – and the stakes are impossibly high.  Who wouldn’t want to know–not feel, or think, but know–as much as possible before engaging in that?  This is the language arts equivalent of brain surgery.  We’re tinkering with people’s minds.  I don’t think enough people pay attention to the moral imperative that includes, not only in the classroom, but in the discipline’s most essential scholarship.

Let’s call this the “Crisis-of-Faith PAB” and never speak of it again.  I don’t like history.  I especially don’t like history when it’s still happening.  I do like Haswell – he seems like a truly sincere scholar.


Locations of Writing. College Composition and Communication. Vol. 66 No. 1, September 2014. Print.

Haswell, R. (2005). NCTE/CCCC’s Recent War on Scholarship. Written Communication, Vol. 22 No. 2, April 2005 198-223.

Haswell, R. (2015). [Personal photograph]. Retrieved from CompPile.


3 thoughts on “PAB #1 – Haswell

  1. I, too, felt a crisis of faith as I worked through the initial readings in our class, and as I have watched English department after English department disintegrate or be radically transformed by administration, I have been asking the same questions you ask here, wondering if I should continue paying for another degree in the field while trying to find footholds of research opportunities to give me some grounding and hope. Thank you for airing some of the dirty laundry of the field! Favorite quote: “Maybe I’m looking for proof that I’m not circling an intellectual drain. Maybe I’m looking for proof that we all aren’t.”

    Liked by 1 person

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