Paper #1 – Subdiscipline History: Empirical Research

The Virtue of Inquiry: recent history of empirical study
and the Rhet/Comp theory wars

“All empirical work is a subjective and social act, influenced by particular communities’ belief systems, work agendas, and assumptions about what is important to study […] Like other scholars in English studies, empirical scholars make subjective decisions about what is interesting to study, what evidence may be appropriate (or appropriated), how evidence may be evaluated, and what inferences to draw from evidence. […] Indeed, the discursive practices of empirical rhetoric position us in relation to other inquiry in the field. Moreover, empirical work is a complex rhetorical act in that we use evidence to convince each other of the plausibility of assertions about the experience” (Schriver 273).


A Question of Context

Depending on how one looks at it, the history of research empiricism in rhetoric and composition studies is either as old as (or older than) the field itself, or is a recent development in the field as a whole stretching back only a few scant decades.  This is in part because much of the data utilized in Rhet/Comp studies is functionally better described as being part of generalized pedagogical theory and behavioral studies than of composition specifically; while empirical research protocols have held sway at various points throughout the twentieth century, much of early empirical (positivist) study has been designed for and applied across multiple fields of pedagogy and sociology, only to be accepted if and when it supported the generally preferred paradigms of the current-traditional rhetoric (see Becker, 1958, Kaplan, 1964, Popper, 1959, etc.).  However, a vast majority of writings within the discipline on the issue came about as part of a general push towards empirical analysis and modeling during the mid-1970s to late-1980s (Schriver, 1989).

While there is a long history of specific empirical texts in the field, I am more intrigued by an interpretation of the historical influence of traditional empirical research in Rhet/Comp which preferences two texts separated by two decades as the foundations of a renewed empirical movement: Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, and Schoer of The University of Iowa’s NCTE committee report Research in Written Composition (1963) and George Hillocks Jr.’s Research on Written Composition: New Directions for Teaching (1986).  Hillocks, writing out of the University of Chicago, referenced Braddock et al. heavily and catalogued the progress of empirical study in the years between the two.  Hillocks, building upon the research protocols posited in Research in Written Composition, created a text that stood as a monolithic body of evidence in support of empirical models of pedagogical study at the beginning of what would come to be known as the “Theory Wars” of the late 80s and early 90’s (Olson, 3), a period during which cross-disciplinarity and intersectionality took reign at the forefront of a pursuit of more solidified intellectual discourse which prefaced and couched, in many ways, the compositional elements of Rhet/Comp squarely within the rhetorical concern.

In this expressionistic, ambiguous, postmodern, and social-epistemic environment, criticisms quickly arose against Hillocks’ indexing of formative research in the field, excluding as it did “research dealing only with oral language and pieces which were essentially anecdotal, hortatory, historical, curricular, or literary” (xviii).  However, empirical research rose to its station in the discipline largely to fill a vacuum, and many significant scholars of the field came to support the field’s contributions to the discipline as a whole, including expressionist pedagogues like Lil Brannon and C.H. Knoblauch, process theorists such as Lester Faigley, and many of the most influential scholars of the 80s and 90s.  Empirical, replicable, accessible research on student skills as well as on relationships between curricular and labor questions and course and programmatic outcomes reconnected teachers to proven, current, and best practices, and connected and validated the work of English departments and compositions programs to the university as a whole.

“Hearts and Minds” – (un)structured opposition to RAD

However, the history of empirical research is not the history of a subdiscipline, but rather a cautionary tale of the wholesale rejection of a subdiscipline.  Inspired by Social-Epistemic ideologies and the “social turn” within the field in general while being bolstered by the strong positioning of Kenneth Burke’s earlier opposition to positivist empiricism, several prominent theorists and practitioners have argued against all empirical research as inherently produced by positivist and prescriptive thought—a position largely held because many postmodernist theorists have never been formally trained in empirical research philosophies and protocols.

Even when histories of research in the field of Rhetoric and Composition are provided, empiricists are usually nowhere to be found despite towering contributions to the general body of knowledge within the field.  When they are recognized, it seems to be lip service at best: McComiskey notes that “prominent among these modes of inquiry [within the field of rhetoric and composition] have been historical studies; theory building; empirical research (from qualitative studies like ethnographies to quantitative studies like experiments and meta-analyses); discourse analysis and interpretive studies; feminist and teacher research; and postmodern investigations” (132).  And yet significant bodies of research indicate that empirical research is not embraced within the discipline (and sees less and less support over time in preference to more subjective forms of study).  Richard Haswell’s “NCTE/CCCC’s Recent War on Scholarship” (2005) and Dana Lynn Driscoll’s “Composition Studies, Professional Writing, and Empirical Research: A Skeptical View” (2009), for instance, demonstrate that replicable empirical research has seen less and less peer-reviewed publication through NCTE and RSA since the 1980s, with 1998, the lowest year on record for research publication at the time of Haswell’s publication, with the NCTE compiling RAD entries to the tune of 5.3% of the high-water amount since the publication of Hillocks’ Research on Written Communication in 1986.  Meanwhile, the total amount of published RAD research in the field (as compiled on CompPile) has increased by 35.4% over the same period.

Haswell - Fig2
Figure 1: Comparison of CCCC bibliographic listings vs. CompPile listings for the same period (Haswell 216).

“CCCC’s Research Initiative speaks to our belief that bold, creative research furthers the organization’s mission to become a clear, trusted public voice on issues of writing and writing instruction. That voice has never been more needed as policy makers take up questions related to writing instruction and writers” (CCCC Research Initiative, 2015).

Clearly, many scholars see an inherent value in RAD research and empirical values in Rhet/Comp.  Equally clearly, many publishers, editors, and leaders in the field see past that value and—either consciously or through repeated accidental exclusion—neglect to allow spaces for this research to flourish and reach the audiences of theorists, practitioners, and administrators who need this information most.  At the same time that the CCCC continues to fail to meaningfully publish empirical research, it also continues to fund further RAD research in an acknowledgment of its necessity in the field.  It is difficult to write the “history” of this subdiscipline, because its treatment is unbalanced and its purpose and prestige inelastic since the middle of the twentieth century—empirical research still aspires to provide the best, most complete, and most informative data and analysis in forms that meet standards of justifiability, basic impartiality, replicability, honesty, careful and considered control, and experimental hygiene–and it is persistently underrepresented regardless of content or contribution.  The field as a whole still continues, now more than ever, to either reject or ignore the standards of evidence set out by empiricists as further proof of the prescriptive positivism overruled and opposed by Burke and others.

An Advocacy of Rigor

One of my goals/outcomes for this course is to gain a stronger understanding of the role that research can have in the English studies field as a whole, and to work to become an effective advocate for RAD research protocols to my colleagues.  I think it is important in achieving this to recognize that the field is highly polarized, highly politicized, and at times plagued by ideological infighting—and that these challenges are more often than not regarding not how we engage students, but how we engage with each other and our institutions through knowledge and the sharing of information.

I think one of the reasons I most love empiricism as an academic research value and model is that it is highly democratized and much more interdisciplinary than people believe—demonstrable, replicable data knows no sex, no class, no prestige from tenure, institution, or even degree.  Honest-to-goodness data can be philosophical in its collection, even ideological in its presentation, but at the core of the data itself, truth is both universalized and devoid of creed and dogma. In many ways, research empiricism is a remarkably conservative philosophy within the discipline, demanding a degree of rigorous accountability which is decentralized in other philosophies; however, it is not the purview of the elitist or the ideologue—empiricists have come from every school of pedagogical thought, from the Department of Education, from Harvard, from two-year technical schools, and from middle-school English departments.  A respect for data, knowledge, information, truth—these principles, these values, can belong to everyone.

Questions for Consideration

1.) What role does philosophical empiricism play in modern understandings of empirical research?

I think one of the key challenges to achieving more widespread consideration of empirical values is to segregate the notions of RAD/empirical research from the philosophy of empiricism as epistemology – an equivocation which is frequently made by opponents of the form (such as Kenneth Burke in his A Grammar of Motives).  How the differences can be clearly delineated for lay researchers is an interesting and challenging question in the field.

2.) To what degree have stagnating publishing rates for empirical research in the publications of major Rhet/Comp professional organizations become a self-perpetuating concern?

I think this is also a huge concern in the field today: empirical research is not published because scholars are not well versed in RAD protocols. As a result, the scholars in question continue to be under-prepared to deal with, synthesize, and appreciate RAD data.

3.) What can we do as scholars (especially humanities scholars) to advocate for empirical values in a discipline and field that often preference anecdotes and a priori knowledge above demonstrable data?

I’m not sure I have an answer, but part of it is certainly to challenge even the most keystone assumptions about the purpose of the field as an agent of social and political change.  Data (and by extension those who obtain it or seek it out) should aspire to be as apolitical as possible.  As long as subjective truths are preferential to demonstrable objective knowledge, the field will never progress in terms of the empirical research question.


Braddock, R. R. et al. (1963). Research in written composition. Champaign, Ill., National Council of Teachers of English, 1963.

CCCC Research Initiative. (2015, August 18). Retrieved September 17, 2015.

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

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

Hillocks, G. (1986). Research on Written Composition : New Directions for Teaching. [New York, N.Y.] : National Conference on Research in English ; Urbana, Ill. : ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills, National Institute of Education, 1986.

McComiskey, B. (2006). English Studies : An Introduction to the Discipline(s). Urbana, Ill. : National Council of Teachers of English, 2006.

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

Schriver, K. A. (1989). Theory Building in Rhetoric and Composition: The Role of Empirical Scholarship. Rhetoric Review, (2). 272.

Witte, S. P., & Faigley, L., Evaluating College Writing Programs. Conference on Coll. Composition and Communication, U. I. (1983).



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