PAB #8 – Cushman

Cushman, E., K. Powell, and P. Takayoshi. (2004). Response to “Accepting the Roles Created for Us: The Ethics of Reciprocity.” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 56 No. 1, Sep. 2004, pp. 150-156.

Portrait of Ellen Cushman

Ellen Cushman (Profile)

“My last question there reveals another trouble that I’m having with the disclosure of the rhetorical navigations of researchers and participants […] to what extent is self-reflexive writing in qualitative studies a ‘show,’ a performance of exotic moments of trial, distress, or anxiety?  My question stems from a concern over the tenor of some […] self-reflexive writing that sensationalizes tense moments or researchers’ personal lives, or miscommunications and misunderstandings, or conflicts” (152).

So this seems to be Ellen’s main concern: Is it the data collection process that is worthy of study, reflection, and, ultimately, a place in scholarly journals?  We think so because it is the minutiae of the research process that can, in fact, lead to our overall findings.  We believe this process needs to be revealed.  Our findings do not magically appear or ‘reveal’ themselves as if they were already there for us to find them.  Our findings are directly influenced by who we are, what we know, and what decisions we make at the research site as participants ask certain things of us” (154).


It’s not been my style to use book reviews or article responses in my PABs thus far, because I tend to find them one of the less rhetorically interesting forms of scholarship when discussing research.  Too often, they can be parsed down to something along the lines of (cynically, as is my mode) “the authors are very smart, and I can tell you this is true because I’m also very smart, and I understood their article/book.  As proof of how smart I am, look – I understood their article/book.  QED.  I have now participated in the published scholarly discourse.”

Every once in a while, an article response pops up that “brings its own drinks to the party,” so to speak.  Ellen Cushman’s response to Powell and Takayoshi’s article did an excellent job of raising the general research concern, and eliciting real, productive discourse about what “Accepting the Roles Created for Us” contributes to our understanding, and presentation, of research.

The other reason I tend to avoid responses/reviews is they tend to be short and light on content – that is to say: not optimal for assignments such as this.  Because of this, my review of the literature will be significantly shorter in this entry, though I will endeavor to provide significantly more analysis in the Q&A section below.


Let’s start here: Dr. Cushman did not write a tear-down piece.  In general, her response was inquisitive and supportive.

However, Cushman’s response raises several valid concerns, both ethical and methodological:

1.) While the research case studies the originating authors provide present situations where the researchers were well aware of specific hierarchy-based concerns, that is not the case for most ethnographic research.
2.) When using research of student writing/progress within the research-site classroom, the very nature of study can be an element in the “strivings of participants” (151) to improve, and this can yield the positive benefits and desires the authors advocate for – but it means that the research environment is no longer “observationally sterile,” and thus invalidates any replicability of the results.  It becomes research which is only purely useful within the context of the active research window.
3.) Whether we want them to be there or not, research/social hierarchies do exist.  We need to more fully engage with the implications of that if we’re to “enact equitable and hierarchical power relations” (152).
4.)  Although the disclosure of the specific moments in the authors’ article were viable, useful, and purposeful, Cushman believes that in the vast majority of cases such disclosure would have “detracted from the overall findings of the work,” especially in her own experiences, and “would have risked revealing more about the minutiae of data collection than it would have [about] the goal and focus of the study” (152).
5.)  Similarly, Cushman fears that having researchers insert themselves into the research narrative risks detracting from “the report of participants’ lived realities” (152).
6.)  Finally, as noted in the pull-quote above, the author expresses concerns that such disclosure could be vogue, conspicuous, or “showy;” that is to say, there is a danger of the act of disclosure becoming a process of proving one’s progressive research credentials, more than a process of demonstrating confounding factors in one’s more data-centric analysis (152-53).

In their response to this line of questioning and list of concerns, the original authors affirm that these concerns are valid, even if they do dismiss them slightly through both rhetorical and theoretical positioning.  For now, I will note that their responses are fair, involved, and welcoming of criticism.

What’s next?

Next week during my paper on the intersection of outside theory and RAD research, I will address more about the way in which these texts function both as performative scholarship and as scholarly performance, and how the response from the authors reflects the ethos they similarly express in their theoretical contributions and methods in the first article.

From there, I will attempt to demonstrate that – both as a rhetorical and research concern – this type of theory and practice (both feminist theory specifically and external theories in general) is beginning in recent years to express significant awareness of the importance of legitimizing research protocols.  I will explore how we can validate and make authoritative subjective forms of social theory for RAD research, how embracing such theoretical forms has been, and will continue to be, an essential part of the resurgence of empirical study in the humanities, and how these theories may intersect with the methods and Objects of Study discussed in previous weeks.

Questions for consideration:

So you view Powell and Takayoshi’s proposal as unethical?

Let me put it another way.  Power dynamics exist in research, and that’s absolutely, 100% unavoidable in most cases.  That’s one of the reasons I’m really ruminating over the feminist ethics of reporting “dissensus” in research.  These unplanned moments are provoked by the research environment or relationships between participants, and thus cannot be accounted for within the ethical models prepared in order to engage in formative research.

So, let’s ask this question: if the power dynamic exists, and is moderately unavoidable (as Powell and Takayoshi demonstrate), was it ethical for Powell to presume upon the “reciprocal” relationship to ask “Andy” permission to publish his remarkably vulnerable and emotional outburst in her auto-ethnography?  Can we imagine, really, that collaborating undergraduates in a ethnographic research would have the wherewithal to resist the hierarchal concern of the mentor-as-researcher and make an informed, ethically-guided decision to allow or disallow its inclusion?

And, if not, Cushman makes a key point here in a growing discourse on feminist epistemology and research disclosure – Powell’s inclusion of this dissensus is a “show”: of how keen she is to her participants’/students’ needs, how accessible (and accessed) she may be, how compassionately ethical her research protocols are, etc.

So Powell and Takayoshi are wrong? 

I don’t think they’re wrong.  This is why – as a RAD advocate – I want to study these questions.  I think the authors are right when they raise a very valid concern about the ethical structures of research design through the framework of feminist epistemology – and then I think they come to the exactly wrong solution to the concern in the form of disclosure.  As a RAD advocate, this is my position: we study people, as Powell and Takayoshi point out, and that study causes relationships to form.  We study data we gain from studying people, but that does not make our relationships with those people data, nor does it make their relationships with us data.

We should be honest about data.  We should be open about relationships.  We should be careful with people.  But we should not conflate the three, not in our lives, and not in our scholarship.  The authors would doubtless claim that they are doing the opposite, but as an academic equally interested in the history of research ethics and research itself, I’m not so sure that’s true.

What’s the problem with their research, then? 

The human relations of empirical research (at the personal level) inevitably lead to the observer’s paradox.  What the authors propose – and model – doesn’t eliminate the effects of the paradox from the data.  Rather, it accentuates it.  This is “bad research” from a RAD perspective, in that it can yield bad or nonsensical results – and due to the methodologies used – and lack of rigor – it would be almost impossible to identify the problems inherent to such study. However – and more importantly – it is poor stewardship of our moral obligations to student/community research participants. In my estimation, to make the specific human part of the human interest primarily does three things, one good, one bad, and one mixed:

1.) Makes the work feel more accessible to lay readers (good!),
2.) diverts attention away from the general applicability of the work (bad!), and
3.) makes the researcher, and not the participant or data, “the story” (mixed).

The feminist theory backing this research, and the epistemological assumptions behind that theory, do not preference RAD methodology, nor do they preference “traditional” research ethics.  And that’s fine!  But at the end of the day, we need to ask two questions in RAD – “why are we doing research?” and “how does theory change our research when the rubber meets the road?”  This may have value to feminist/gender theory and scholarship that bases its research off the theories inherent to those disciplines.  However, it may not be cross-applicable.

For the RAD researcher, Powell and Takayoshi (and Cushman’s response) raise serious concerns for doing our own research “back home,” and questions of reciprocity need to be brought to the forefront of RAD studies in general English Studies or in pedagogy.  But that doesn’t mean that it would have take the form that it takes in feminist scholarship – and I doubt, honestly, that it would work if it did.  This is qualitative, non-RAD study, undeniably.  The methodologies these scholars are grappling with are missing a degree of rigor necessary for RAD study; moreover, there is no way to to take these purely subjective, impromptu experiences and in any way replicate or aggregate them.

Finally, I’d note that there’s a lot of talk about research “agendas” within this literature, both in the response and the original article.  That’s a language choice that makes me a little jumpy – we should never enter into research with a set agenda that research will “serve.”  Either we are exploring hypotheses, or we are exploring data, but neither should be (optimally) a means to a predetermined end.  That just leads to shoehorning, and the validation of invalid research protocols (i.e., experimental contamination).


Cushman, E., K. Powell, and P. Takayoshi. (2004). Response to “Accepting the Roles Created for Us: The Ethics of Reciprocity.” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 56 No. 1, Sep. 2004, pp. 150-156.

Powell, K. M., and P. Takayoshi (2003). Accepting Roles Created for Us: The Ethics of Reciprocity. College Composition and Communication, Vol. 54 No. 3, Feb. 2003, pp. 394-422.


3 thoughts on “PAB #8 – Cushman

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