“I am not here speaking of probability, but knowledge; and I think not only that it becomes the modesty of philosophy not to pronounce magisterially, where we want that evidence that can produce knowledge; but also, that it is of use to us to discern how far our knowledge does reach; for the state we are at present in, not being that of vision, we must in many things content ourselves with faith and probability: and in the present question, about the Immateriality of the Soul, if our faculties cannot arrive at demonstrative certainty, we need not think it strange.” (Locke, Essay IV iii 4, 26-28).
A Brief Note
Because my arguments in the previous PABs and history paper already dealt with the major questions of empirical RAD research in terms of its interaction with the academy as a whole and its role within scholarly discourse to some degree, I have chosen with this paper to take a slightly different (and possibly slightly off-the-rails) approach and consider two philosophical questions – one overt, and one implied – which are addressed by the scholars I’ve been investigating:
- How does the ethic of empiricism/skepticism intersect with and supplement discipline-specific scholarly discourse in other fields of English Studies?
- How do we ethically promote the use of empirical methods and ideology in English Studies research?
It is the intention of this paper to explore these questions through the affirmative passages of the more modern articles by Haswell, Driscoll, Perdue, and Barton.
The Major Questions
The Intersection of Disciplines
During my analysis of Barton’s “More Methodological Matters,” I noted her interest in studying the applications of “negative argumentation” in anti-positivist and non-empirical scholarship – those moments in which scholars and theorists validated the interpersonal and interpretive nature of their own research by obviating the value of empirical skepticism. It’s easy to be pejorative and pessimistic about the treatment of RAD research in the modern humanities. Haswell’s “NCTE/CCCC’s Recent War on Scholarship” is similarly pessimistic about this relationship between empirical researchers and their colleagues in the field/publishing industry.
However, I’d like to take this time to instead look at the inherent optimism that many scholars express when discussing the ethical value of their own work in order to demonstrate that one of the major questions of the RAD research “movement” is not “how do we end this attack?,” but rather “what value do we provide to disciplinary discourse throughout the field?”
In his introduction, Haswell notes that his mentor and friend Stephen Witte would have opposed the notion that scholarship is warlike, nothing that “his belief in scholarship was at root ecumenical” (198). It was Witte’s belief in this small-c catholic notion of the academy, he notes, that made Written Communication a welcoming and holistic publication. Haswell shares this aesthetic, even if his interpretation of the current academic climate is less than hopeful; as he notes, “in the postsecondary teaching of written communication, as in every professional field, the value of RAD scholarship is its capacity for growth” (202). Haswell’s praise for RAD is not merely its usability, nor its accuracy, but its interdisciplinarity—in RAD, we find a practice which supplements the value of “every professional field,” and in doing so contributes to the sum of human knowledge emanating from the academic life.
Barton is more disciplinarily optimistic than her few detractors give her credit for being – and more positively collaborative than I perhaps occasionally give her credit for being. Although she believes that the field has restricted itself unduly through the lens of the socio-ethical turn to the detriment of its own progress, her first descriptions of the field of composition are that of one founded upon “theoretical and methodological diversity,” a space with no right answers and an ideological pursuit of the best practices from the best minds – and to the best result in the betterment of students’ lives as both thinkers and writers. Her vision of the field in general is specifically and currently negative, but generally hopeful (399). Her vision of detached RAD research is even more hopeful, and mirror’s Haswell’s: “our field has the potential to bring important research questions like these to the investigations of many different discourses [bringing new] types and areas of research questions” (406-7). The loss of empiricism, Barton argues, is not the loss of a discourse or discipline, but an entire avenue of epistemology and knowledge acquisition. These processes allow ideas to be “strengthened significantly by systematic analysis” which can provide “significance and force” specifically because empirical findings do not stand on their own, but (without a specific ethic) supplement and support the ethics and inquiry of other discourses, resulting in discourse which is both “richer” and greater than the sum of its parts (408). It is only when “composition combines its empirical and non-empirical approaches,” Barton argues, that “the field can contribute a full range of ethically-formulated questions, methods, analyses, and interpretations from a truly interdisciplinary methodological repertoire” (410).
Driscoll, too, is at her core an advocate for RAD because of the value she sees in its support role to other inquiry in the field. In many ways she is metaphorically a missionary for empiricism, and the missionary act in itself raises ethical and philosophical questions which must be addressed. To be a steward of specific values is to proselytize for their propagation, but it is also an act of cultural violence, the possible imposition of the “traditional, imperialistic hegemony” that Williams feared and Barton pushed back against in her article (401). To profess and proffer personal ideology and values is to inherently devalue that ideology held by the recipient of the missionary act. This raises a question for me, personally, that I think Driscoll also grapples with: “how do we act as ethical evangelists for RAD empiricism?” How do we avoid the inherent interpretation of factual, data-driven research as morally and ethically superior to the interpretive, non-empirical findings of our colleagues, and how do we avoid coming across to those colleagues as self-righteous, smug, or even wrong-headed? Clichés about hammers and nails notwithstanding, RAD advocacy is as much (more!) about collaborative re-education of peers as it is about the initial education of student writers. Advocates of this form of research must both provide the right tool to support discourse, as well as the right mindset about the value of those tools to others.
Driscoll’s approach to this question is, I think, both novel and correct. In her “Composition Studies, Professional Writing, and Empirical Research: A Skeptical View,” she stresses three primary aspects of RAD to note in advocacy of its use:
- RAD is part of a pluralistic model of research and inquiry; of special note is that RAD support “does not in any way suggest that empirical research is superior to other forms of scholarship” (197),
- RAD/Empiricism is segregated from the “qualitative/quantitative” concern; RAD can be both qualitative and quantitative, and best practices dictate one chooses “methods of inquiry based on the context of the research question, not based on a political ideology neither on their […] histories” (198),
- and skepticism as both ethic and ideology is a viable context for both understanding and conveying the virtue of empiricism. Indeed, far from making one the arbiter of “truths” through the leveraging of data, “empiricism combined with skepticism paints a complex worldview in which one questions the nature of experience and in which one refrains from claiming to know objective truth” (200).
In conclusion, I would return to the missionary metaphor for the RAD academic. The possession of what one believes to be a “moral truth” (in this case, the virtues of information access and accuracy) inherently includes an impetus to “spread the Gospel” of that truth. However, the most socially and ethically conscious missionaries do not withhold benefits of that truth to non-adherents, never enforce the adoption of that belief through threat or subterfuge, and always endeavor to tie the notion of “gospel truths” to the processes of education and outreach. To be a truly moral (and effective) advocate for RAD research is not to zealously crusade for the adoption of one’s personal beliefs, but to create and foster and environment in which those beliefs bring about the best of all possible worlds – one where people are free to act, think, and feel as they desire, and what you wish they would do and believe is more apparently true and appealing to their uses, needs, and community.
Let’s take a moment to acknowledge explicitly something that I’ve been building into my arguments for the last five entries: this is not a question only of research protocols and philosophies, or epistemological approaches, but a highly political and ethical positioning. As I noted in a previous post, “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” (“Paper #1”). That is to say, “research data is not sexy.” It lacks the certain seductive allure of modern rhetorical theories which arbitrate meaning through personal and cultural engagement or identity narratives. It does not contain the nebulous, meandering explorations of the interplay between Man and God found in early Christian philosophy and pedagogy. It does not provide the nigh-impossible-to-probe depths of meaning and application found in classical, post-modern, and neoclassical rhetoric. And because it is not sexy, and the modern academy tends towards (and here my cynicism shines through) a virtue ethics model that expresses a self-interest on the part of the instructor, I think my colleagues often lose sight of the value of knowing what, specifically, is happening with our students, our texts, and our language. I am not purely or primarily a virtue ethicist. I think that we should in many ways return to a more conservative pedagogy, and a more conservative research methodology for evaluating that pedagogy. I also think that in many other ways we should not. Education in the humanities has made massive, progressive leaps in the past decades, but at specific times and sites I believe we have done so at the cost of our own self-ideation and our own student-first values.
Empirical research, with a skeptical focus and an ability to segregate itself from the emotional and intellectual seductions of a specific discourse, provides tools and possibilities far beyond the simple data it creates. It is the foundation of some of the most lasting and impactful scholarship in the field today, and with good reason. But perhaps most importantly, it is one of the prime foundations of an academic model that produces earnest students who both become stewards of their own communities while also maintaining their own personal beliefs, ideologies, and identities.
Questions for Consideration
1.) You go on a lot about values and ethics in your analysis so far. What’s your personal ethic/academic philosophy/etc.?
Here is what I believe, in short, as it pertains to the ethics of RAD and pedagogy: 1) Consequentialism has its weaknesses, but there is a value in results-driven inquiry that ignores or rejects postmodern notions of contingent truths. 2) Deontology is necessary in the pursuit of ethical research. 3) The provision of data is an ideological and interpretive act, but one separate from (and typically ethically superior to) the interpretation of contingent “truth.” 4) Free, open, honest data is a public and personal good, a consequentialist end to the pursuit of knowledge which allows for the development of new goods, both for the consequentialist and other normative ethical academics. 5.) We should instill values in the academy, but not ideologies. The love of learning is a value. The desire to come as close to truth as we ever may is a value. The love of the self as central to learning and truth is an ideology.
2.) If there is an ethical or academic “virtue” to RAD research, shouldn’t that be self-evident? That is to say, shouldn’t empiricism be surviving just fine without advocacy if it is as useful as these theorists say it is?
There are plenty of social and moral “goods” that do not see themselves fully expressed in the modern academy. It is only in the last 30 years that we have finally come to anything approximating an (early) appreciation of accessibility issues, for instance. And the fact that empiricism was once praised and is no longer may not inherently imply that its use value has declined – especially if its decline is a reaction to the temporal and political concerns regarding the corporatization of the academic “industry” (which is an entirely different paper).
REFERENCES AND ADDITIONAL READING
Barton, E. (2000). More Methodological Matters: Against Negative Argumentation. College Composition and Communication, Vol. 51 No. 3, Feb. 2000 399-416.
Braddock, R. R. et al. (1963). Research in written composition. Champaign, Ill., National Council of Teachers of English, 1963.
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.
Driscoll, D. and S. Perdue (2012). Theory, Lore, and More: An Analysis of RAD Research in The Writing Center Journal, 1980-2009. The Writing Center Journal, Vol. 32 No. 1, 2012 11-39.
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.
Locke, J. (1689). “Of the Reality of Knowledge” An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. RBJones.com
Nielsen, A. (2015). “Paper #1 – Subdiscipline History: Empirical Research” Alex C. Nielsen. WordPress.com 17 Sep. 2015.
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).