PAB #2 – Driscoll

Driscoll, D. (2009). Composition Studies, Professional Writing and Empirical Research: A Skeptical View. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, Vol. 39 No. 2, 2009 195-205.

s200_dana.driscollDana Lynn Driscoll
(link for CV)

“Both professional writing and the larger field of rhetoric and composition have sustained a complex and troubled relationship with empirical research.  Since the field’s inception, the question of the place of empirical research as a whole and what specific types of methods (qualitative, quantitative) are acceptable has generated a significant amount of controversy. While Haswell has provided evidence as to what has been occurring within the field, he has not provided a consideration of why it has occurred or what the solution may be” (199).


Dana Lynn Driscoll’s (2009) “Composition Studies, Professional Writing and Empirical Research: A Skeptical View” picks up where Richard Haswell’s analysis in his 2005 “NCTE/CCCC’s Recent War on Scholarship” leaves off, while attempting to synthesize the benefits of RAD-based research with the current social constructivist ideology of contemporary Rhet/Comp scholarship.  Whereas Haswell’s scholarship worked to establish the fact of the NCTE/CCCC’s opposition to and segregation of meaningful, data-driven analysis and empirical research, Driscoll endeavors to position Haswell’s claims within the politics and ideology of the field in order to give a sense of why social constructivists (either intentionally or unintentionally) oppose and segregate RAD research from the emotional, anecdotal, and naturalistic publications at the forefront of the modern discipline.  Based upon this sense of where opposition to empiricism comes from within the discipline, Driscoll then attempts to resolve the apparent conflict through the ideal of empirical skepticism of both ancient and modern philosophy, arguing that this skeptical approach can demonstrate RAD’s value to some of the more subjective and personalized researchers of the modern NCTE/CCCC.

A large part of Driscoll’s argument stems from the fact that many modern scholars in Rhet/Comp simply lack the context to objectively define “empiricism” or understand its role in research—either because they were never trained in research philosophy or protocols, or because they do not consider empirical research to be “a means of making knowledge” (197).  Additionally, Driscoll’s argument hinges on establishing—both for her claims and for Haswell’s—that the argument is not for empirical research as a superior form of scholarship, but rather for the establishment of a pluralist model of scholarship that is capable of embracing empirical replicability as a valid and necessary facet of meaningful research.

Additionally, Driscoll argues that a subset of the ideological schism is the debate over the qualitative and quantitative inquiry, which divides even the opponents of “the influence of positivism,” some of whom claim that all empirical inquiry is positivistic, while others claim that only quantitative analysis is problematic.

In the end, Driscoll presents the epistemology of the skeptical school of antiquity as a scaffold for understanding and synthesizing the values of the naturalists and the empiricists, arguing that “although few composition researchers can ever claim to reach a state of quietude, research can promote a culture of skepticism about all of inquiry and scholarship, leading to the ability to critically question and reflect on our field’s knowledge base and assumptions” (200).  She provides a four point model for applying skeptic ideals to the process of Rhet/Comp research:

  1. Skeptical researchers should be skeptical of everything, including their own findings.
  2. Empirical research never claims to prove but rather provide evidence.
  3. Empirical research does not build itself upon that which has been assumed but rather that which has evidence.
  4. Empirical researchers are interested in gathering evidence from as many sources as possible—and hence, do not privilege any one data collection method.

Analysis and Questions

I remember Driscoll’s article being the first article to ever truly draw me into Rhet/Comp research as a field of interest.  Her response to Haswell is reasoned, equally empirical (though far more qualitative), and avoids either the alarm-sounding or the hand-wringing of most of the disciplinary navel-gazing for which the humanities in general (and English and Philosophy scholars in particular) are so renowned.

In the end, reading Driscoll, and reading Haswell as her primary text, I can’t stop thinking about Gary Olson.  At CCCC 2000 in Minneapolis, Olson famously announced the “death of composition as an intellectual discipline,” condemning “political-professional careerism” and predicting a “new theory war” to complement the “theory wars” of the past decade.  I was enamored when I first heard about his speech, assuming it would be a brilliant and incendiary screed against disciplinary in-fighting and shoddy, intentionalist, subjective scholarship. Imagine my horror when I realized the disingenuity at the core of his claims—what Olson really desires in his CCCC address is to place himself on the winning side of a battle over reigning hegemony, and he calls for adversarialism as a virtue.  He has no interest in defusing segregation, or in promoting more accurate scholarship, only in making sure that his restroom facilities are cleaner, his space on the bus more convenient, his friends treated with the respect they deserve as they trod over the withered corpses of their ideological (and research) adversaries.  The “death of composition” is not an event that came and went years ago with the death of meaningful, responsible scholarship, but a threat on his part if scholars don’t side with him in the upcoming social-epistemic schism.

Even as a strong believer in social-epistemic notions of expression, voice, argument, pedagogical structure, evaluation, and ideological positioning, I have always been disturbed by the disregard the average scholar in Rhet/Comp has for evidential research.  Perhaps it’s the ex-STEM in me, but I’m a firm believer, first and foremost, in teaching my students responsible information hygiene.  If arguments can’t stem from truth, knowledge, and evidence, what point can that argument possibly have?  If evidence is poorly analyzed, poorly collected, poorly managed, poorly represented, what value can that evidence have?  If truth is filtered through the intentionally subjective felt sense or personal narratives of the scholar without due consideration and recognition of the influence that perspective can have rhetorically and factually, what good is that truth?  How, in simpler terms, could anybody be a college student–or worse, instructor–and not be an informational skeptic?

In the end, it’s telling that Olson can call for war–and be praised as a foundational text of the disciplinary question.  Meanwhile, Haswell makes call for equity and research hygeine, to an end of the war–he’s not (to be fair) relegated to the dustbin, but his work is largely only celebrated by technical writers and researchers.

I’ve been attending CCCC for several years now.  Subjectively, I’m sad to say that I see many more people banging the war-drums under Olson’s banner than I see calling for research hygeine (or research at all, really.  I saw panels in Tampa last year where four speakers presented, and not one had a single source, citation, or piece of data for their (easily researchable) claims.)  It seems, anecdotally, that the consensus model of theory/data is, for better or worse, still primary among many scholars in the NCTE/CCCC.

…perhaps I could do some kind of quantitative research to prove it.

These two articles are from ten and six years ago!  You can’t use them for historical context!

First of all, that’s not a question.  Second of all, I understand that concern.  However, I think that there is a real value in noticing that these articles (especially Haswell) are the start of a renewed conversation that is forwarding empirical models as having value, and the lack of those models in previous years being a detriment to the field.

Additionally, these may not be the formative history of the Rhet/Comp field, but they are the originating documents of my history in the field.  I came across Driscoll reading about applications of philosophical skepticism in research as a mechanical engineering ethics student.  From there, I found the remainder of the field intriguing and began to study Comp Theory in earnest.  Also, I believe, for better or worse, that these defenses will, unquestionably, be a major turn in the historical record of the future field.

Why does data-driven analysis even require a defense in English?

I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to really answer this question, but I do feel like Driscoll’s “fear of positivism” explanation is insufficient, and Haswell’s “it doesn’t” is technically correct, but unhelpful.  In every other discipline outside of the creative arts (and even occasionally there), data is roundly acknowledged to be absolute in its value and contribution to knowledge – not in its perfect accuracy, mind you, which seems to be how many Rhet/Comp scholars dismiss it as naive or biased.   The fact that data and language are inherently rhetorical does not change the fact that on a sliding scale of objectivity, they are a better representation of the real state of things than pure theoretical analysis, or personal narratives, or anecdotal lesson structures.  Many Rhet/Comp theorists fear empirical positivism.  People fear what they do not understand.  By the commutative property, perhaps Rhet/Comp theorists don’t understand empirical positivism.  Maybe we need to defend the need not for empiricism, but for teaching humanities students empirical values in the first place.

Do you feel prepared to engage with empirical data in English?

I do.  But I don’t feel like that preparation is a product of my liberal arts education, rather stemming (hah) from my STEM background.  I can’t speak for other students, either here at ODU or in my past collegiate endeavors – but I did have a sense in the past that students of capable intellect frequently avoided or outright rejected research-heavy and data-driven theory out of hand, almost as if it were a product of math anxiety without the presence of any necessary math.  I recall one classmate of mine several years ago rejecting Saussure’s structural linguistics simply because she could not interpret the basic diagrams the theorist used to explore ordered signification.

What can I do to promote empirical approaches in my work as a Rhet/Comp scholar?  

I think this is going to be one of my big personal outcome questions all semester.  I’m going to continue thinking on it.  I’ll let you know.


Driscoll, D. Composition Studies, Professional Writing and Empirical Research: A Skeptical View. Journal of Technical Writing an d Communication, Vol. 39 No. 2, 2009 195-205.

Driscoll, D. (2015). [Personal photograph]. Retrieved from

Olson, G. The Death of Composition as an Intellectual Discipline. Composition Studies, Vol. 28 No. 2, 2008 33-41.


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