PAB #5 – Thompson

Thompson, G. (2014). Moving Online: Changing the Focus of a Writing Center. SiSAL Journal, Vol. 5 No. 2, Jun. 2014 127-142.

Gene Thompson - PortraitGene Thompson (link for profile)

 “Overall, the survey data suggested that the peer advising service was not positioned to appeal to students effectively.  To compound the problem, the leader of the writing center was informed that room availability would be severely limited for the writing center in the following semester […] On the other hand, the online lab had been used by nearly a quarter of students in the first cycle.  Accordingly, two primary actions were decided by the BBL team for cycle two: (1) the peer advising service would be suspended due to the room availability issue, and because the considerable use of budget and resources in providing peers in time slots on multiple days of the week was not deemed to be justified by the usage data; and (2) resources would instead be used to expand the center online by retaining one peer, part time, to assist with developing resources for the writing center online.  As a result, the writing center would become only an online ‘lab’ for the second cycle.” (134).  

A (not so) Brief Aside – The Discipline Question

In previous PAB and Paper entries, I have run on what may seem to some to be a false assumption – that RAD research is not merely a methodology, but should be recognized as a subdiscipline of its own merit within composition studies, the equal of WCS, FYC, or WPA.  I recognize this is an inherently contentious statement; even the scholars I have referenced previously have made no such claim.  Research serves the greater purposes of the field.  RAD researchers come from all walks of life and scholarship.  RAD is a production- and product-centric act of scholarship.  These are, as much as anything, the marks of “methodology.”

All of these are true.  They are also true of every other English Studies discipline and subdiscipline, each of which is tortuous, intersectional, and varied – and each of which is, in reality, based around the production and analysis of “texts” of some form or another.  The only argument against RAD specifically being a discipline, then, is that it is methodology; however, the same can be fairly said of any discipline or ideology.  So it must be that it is purely methodological – except, as Barton and Haswell have demonstrated quite clearly, the execution of empiricism within the modern academy is also participation in an extraordinarily ideological act.  It cannot be that it studies rather than being studied, since it does both – as Driscoll and Perdue, as well as Haswell, have treated RAD as a field of study for some time now.

(As an aside (within my aside), I considered titling this informal introduction “If RAD Ain’t a Discipline, Ain’t Nothin’ Is!”  I thought better of it.  But it’s true.  It’s a branch of knowledge, a field of study, a specialty, and – as my PAB authors have demonstrated – a subject area in which dedicated scholars can frequently and consistently contribute to and problematize a greater, academic discourse.  If those aren’t the marks of a discipline, I’m not sure we can know what words mean.  At which point I can go all Postmodern and just start declaring things disciplines willy-nilly, (which I’m about to do in three paragraphs.))

Point being, these lines are not so clear.  The restricted focus upon the peer writing relationship within Writing Center Studies, for example, is both highly ideological and methodological in its form, whether expressed qualitatively or quantitatively, whether empirically or not.  “Digital [anything]” as a field of study is most definitely both “purely” methodological and highly ideological – and yet recognized absolutely as a legitimate subdiscipline of the field.

If the Digital Humanities have taught us anything, it is that practitioners of a subdiscipline don’t even necessarily need to be aware of its existence to contribute meaningfully to the field.  In fact, typically the most important and foundational texts of disciplinary concerns come into being when disciplines are still nacent, under-defined, or even non-existent.  Who knows?  Maybe in three decades when state colleges are offering PhDs in “RAD Methods and Composition” instead of “Rhetoric and Composition,” I’ll be the first article the first years are required to read (a guy can dream, right?).

And it’s worth noting that the extension of this logic is not purely limited to English Studies, the Humanities, or even academia.  Marxism is certainly discipline, ideology, and methodology – as is Methodism, video game enthusiasm, or crypto-facism.  The three elements are indissoluble facets of any advocacy and performativity, a “fire triangle” of knowledge.  And practitioners of each may be claimed by the groups in question without any recognition that they would ascribe to that particular “discipline” on their own (as any crypto-fascist would tell you, if you could find one).

All of that brings me to the question of what RAD research does as a discipline, rather than as a methodologyAs a methodology, it provides (as noted by Driscoll, Perdue, and Barton) a measure of the accuracy of our knowledge, a comparable and replicable metric for determining the real state of the academy.  As a discipline, it helps to develop best practices within the informational and economic realities of the modern academic space for students, instructors, content providers and consumers, and institutional administrators.

As an example of this, I’d like to start this PAB sequence by looking at Gene Thompson’s “Moving Online: Changing the Focus of a Writing Center” (2014) as an Object of Study for my own work, and to examine what Objects of Study he engages with in his own research and reporting.

Objects of Study

Thompson’s research in this article is particularly interesting for the specific situated concerns of his study, particularly as it relates to English language writing center services in a purely ESL English writing environment at a private Japanese university within a Bilingual Business (i.e, Japanese and English) program within the department of Global Business.  As noted, this focus on the role of English within the business concerns of students and curriculum leads to ideological clashes regarding the role of the writing center itself, as well as writing in general, within the program – the production/process dichotomy is especially complicated by the nature of the program, business faculty, facilities provided for the work at hand, staffing concerns, and the ideologies inherent to business culture within Japanese academia (128-29).

Thompson’s research relates student access, satisfaction, and outcomes to changes within organizational structure within the writing center, based on both qualitative and quantitative RAD empirical data generated through online surveys combining open-ended and closed-ended questions.  Changes were instituted according to responses for a first “cycle” of development (see Fig. 1), which led to a recurrent second cycle analyzing changes in access, efficacy, and outcomes following reflection, analysis, and the transition from a face-to-face peer-centric model to an online writing lab model.

Figure 1: The Action Research Spiral
Figure 1: The Action Research Spiral (130).

Service usage was determined by a first-cycle (semester one) survey.  Quantitative values for closed-end questions are found below in Table 1.

Table 1: First Year Student Responses for Cycle 1 - Quantitative only
Table 1: First Year Student Responses for Cycle 1 – Quantitative only (132-33).

Analysis resulted in a determination that, given compounding access, budgetary, facilities, and staffing concerns, the writing center would move to an online-only model that focused on process-based writing support while providing a navigable archive of directive resources, retaining one on-site peer to maintain and develop resources for the online writing center.  Additional analysis continued based upon these changes, which I will document further in Paper #3.  Also, notably, the “action research cycles” laid out by Thompson are a continuous, self-revising process of research which are designed to perpetuate for as long as the writing lab exists – and thus are perpetually incomplete, but moving towards a more “perfect” model of a writing laboratory serving student needs.

However, at this time I would like to consider just the Cycle One survey as an Object of Study for my own research.  What fascinates me most about this survey is that even at first blush the responses feel remarkably standard for me, based upon previous Writing Center Studies research.  If I happened to engage with this article with an expectation that the cultural and economic exigencies of a Japanese English-language writing center oriented towards business communication development would yield different results than a tradition FYC-oriented native English-language writing center in terms of student service usage and attitudes, I certainly did not leave satisfied that there is any definite difference between these two student groups in terms of expectation and execution.

Perhaps there is an opportunity to seek out similar usage- and attitudes-oriented surveys for American, native-language student writers, and to compare these sets of results in order to make a more definite finding.  I have a feeling what I’d find would be strikingly (jarringly) similar despite entirely different environs, culture, educational philosophy, and resources.

On a final note, some not-insignificant number of less RAD-oriented scholars might view this data as a “negative result,” which is to say, it indicates no significant deviation from general, non-contingent values for general populations.  Given that interpretation, it would not be a “useful” result.  However, to view this data as a failure for not demonstrating specific differences for Japanese business students would miss the powerful message this data hints at: that students – regardless of language acquisition sequences, purposes, institutional ideologies, funding, facilities, or even educational culture – seem to share similar access and usage concerns which may be able to be addressed by more universal solutions (or even shared resources and solutions, a la the Purdue OWL).

Anyhow, I’m going to talk more about “failure” and negative results, and their implications in RAD as both methodology and ideology, in PAB #6, which will deal with the Brigham Young University Department of English study on differences in student preparedness for college writing depending upon AP pass-through or FYC support.

Questions for consideration:

Boy, I don’t know.  Doesn’t a large amount of RAD research you’ve talked about so far seem very institutional/administrative, rather than student-centered?  Is that the road you want to go down?

If student access to services improved, and student learning outcomes improved along with it, does it matter?

But doesn’t this really feel like Thompson used this research methodology to support what the administration was going to do anyhow (i.e., cut back writing center services)? 

Look, I get it.  The cynic in me (i.e., 90% of my personality) wants to always position myself against the million-dollar-salary presidential fat cats sitting in their tuition-supported mansions, cutting student learning services to bring in more dining options, shinier floors, and petting zoos in order to increase enrollment dollars at the expense of actual, you know, learning.  I think that’s a healthy cynicism (and, frankly, accurate).  And (usually) the default position of folks in the humanities is that any administrative cut to services that provide learning, knowledge, access, etc. is inherently bad.  We’ve been burned a few times, and it’s certainly an understandable response.

But RAD’s real benefit here may be that it has the capability to step beyond the reactionary ideologies of gut-shot anti-authoritarianism and recognize that sometimes – just sometimes – the Office of the President is right, and something just isn’t working.  One of the great things RAD can do is provide provable, demonstrable data – including financial impacts, sure – to demonstrate to the muckity-mucks that services are worth perpetuating in some form and that problems are solvable, when the default position of the administration without that information is likelier than not to be “when in doubt, just get rid of it altogether.”  RAD speaks a language that the boys upstairs understand – and, frankly, one that most liberal arts folks can’t parse that well.  RAD practitioners can act as liaisons between departmental and administrative parties – both within their own institutions at the personal level, and within the academic discourse as a broader field (and, yes, methodology) of research.


Thompson, G. (2014). Moving Online: Changing the Focus of a Writing Center. SiSAL Journal, Vol. 5 No. 2, Jun. 2014 127-142.


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