Paper #4 – Theories and Methods

Doctor Dan Richards - Old Dominion University

Dr. Daniel Richards (Link to Personal Site)


“I have always been worried about positivism Trojan Horsing its way into English from other disciplines on campus because that is the institutional capital that allows funding to get directed our way.  We can’t make institutional arguments about our value anymore based on unquantifiable assertions about opaque notions of critical thinking and citizenship-cultivating.  So, to ‘play the game,’ we’re borrowing some empirical methods to help support ourselves, taking the hit for the long game of remaining in existence.  Positivism is alive and well in the academy, and in English (see genre theorists, like Dylan Dryer), and it is because data is the capital that gets things done.  I don’t think we need to ‘bring’ RAD in, or be fearful of RAD impinging its ugly scientific face into our meetings—I think we need to concern ourselves with thinking about how to best and most responsibly use it” (D. Richards, Personal Communication, Oct. 27, 2015).


Introduction – Dr. Richards

Last week for my second PAB, I said that I intended to do quite a bit this week (link).  I still intend to discuss all of those issues; however, I’m going to postpone for a couple of weeks so I can a) speak more about these issues within the contexts of epistemological alignment in paper #5, and b) speak instead to the responses I received from Dr. Daniel Richards from an email interview we performed earlier this week.

This may be a bit off-topic, but I’ve liked Dan Richards immensely since the moment I met him as he stepped into a conversation I was having at a barbecue and immediately and publicly disagreed with me.  I asked Dr. Richards to comment on the work I’d been doing here and he smacked me around a bit in some personal comments about why I always insist on doing everything the hard/thickheaded way, what with my overreaching and all.  Fair.

Dr. Richards describes himself as an academic pragmatist, and I describe myself as a pragmatic academic cynic.  One would assume we agree on much – and we do – but I find our points of disagreement to be most interesting – for a pragmatist, Dr. Richards is ever the optimist, and carefully conservative with academic criticism. Because of this, although I have selected quotes from our interview which most coincide with this week’s paper theme, I have included the full interview sequence in a link below in the references for those who are interested (edited to remove personal comments).


Ethics as theory

Dr. Richards’ responses are, to a large extent, focused on approaching the theories and methods of RAD research from the perspective of Technical Communication scholarship and pedagogy.  I think this is an excellent contrast to the feminist research theory and feminist epistemology discussed in last week’s PAB entries: if feminist research is beginning to track towards questions of research ethics and the nature of data presentation, the resurgence of Technical Communication as a discipline is in no small part thanks to its close-knit relationship to empirical practices and ideology.  “Empirical researchers in English alone aren’t even a cohesive group.  From my stance in Tech Comm,” Dr. Richards notes, “empirical methods are on the rise and part of the re-establishment of the discipline” (Richards, 2015) – and I tend to agree.  Tech Comm is certainly a model I’ve looked to often in preparing my readings for this course of study.

As noted in previous PABs, especially those dealing with Barton, Driscoll, Haswell, and Witte, RAD empiricism seems to be a “big tent” ideological/epistemological practice.  What RAD contributes – beyond methodology – are frames and practices for understanding what research is and does, and who it serves, in the modern academy.  When Dr. Richards notes that “writing programs and WPA work as a whole are embracing empirical methods as they seek to gather big data on writing skills/literacy skills in freshman cohorts, which helps them build arguments for institutional funding based on performance and student ‘excellence,’” I immediately think back to Matthew Bodie’s comment dialogue with me in my third paper (link), where Matthew brought up ethical concerns about the role that such “big data” plays in perpetuating the corporatization of the modern academy: “I cannot help but to be struck by your categorization of assessment scores and administrative data as metadata and part of RAD research […] in your thinking, I would be curious to know what you think about the ethics of this type of metadata filling future publications” (Bodie, 2015)

I think that Matthew’s question is a fair one, and one that has dramatically plagued empirical research for some time now.  There is an ethical concern when one begins to conflate “data” with “information.”  There is even more concern when one begins to conflate “information” with “truth.”  All of this gets me to the primary theoretical interest that I think makes RAD truly disciplinary – and more than merely empirical – a theoretical lens which filters and generates the most meaningful knowledge in the field. It’s not just research ethics, but the ethics of research.  It’s not enough to know how to accurately present information, or morally acquire data – we must develop ethical knowledge of research and communication ecologies… and hierarchies.  Dr. Richards shares an ethical concern regarding the capitalist notion of institutional research and scholarly research (see the pull quote above), but it’s his conclusion I find most interesting of all: “I think we need to concern ourselves with thinking about how to best and most responsibly use [RAD].  This means negotiating the values we have as humanists with the harsh data-driven realities of the posthistorical University” [emphasis added].  Empiricism as an ideology has an ethic, but it’s an ethic that informs empirical values, not empirical research. One thing that RAD does is present empirical research as demanding careful ethical consideration and institutional and peer balances to the moral and epistemological challenges of producing meaning through data.

Empiricism is an epistemological value.  RAD is a humane value.  I encourage interested parties to google “RAD research and try to locate references to RAD external to the humanities (or even English studies, more specifically).  RAD was brought into being by folks like Haswell precisely because they saw an ethical context lost in the assessment of “Big Data”


Ethics as Methodology

Let’s start here: ethics is not a methodology.  But rarely does it come closer to being one than within RAD, where the categorization and recommendation of best practices (“ethics”) is the direct antecedent to the development of more highly ethical, “humanitistic” protocols for the execution of RAD research (“methods”).  When asked whether RAD empiricism and the “postmodern notions of the humanities today” are inherently in conflict, Richards argues that “that’s the rub.  But no, I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive domains of thinking/thought. I do think they’re two separate desires […] I might even call them epistemological attitudes, and these attitudes are often in conflict.  But you can accumulate quantitative data in a ‘postmodern’ way.  Positivism got in trouble because of the assumptions made about what the data said, not how the data were accumulated.”

What the “new” empiricism of RAD within English offers “methodologically,” then, may be a “postmodern way” to accumulate data – and to be more open and intersectional about what assumptions are made in its presentation.

It is through this context that I think I first found RAD – and Driscoll – especially appealing.  Richards points out, when dealing with the questions of “big data,” that these concerns have already existed for some time in fields that embraced RAD research ethics early – like Technical Communication, where scholars like Paul Dombrowski have offered thorough explorations of information, communication, and research ecologies for a quarter-century – and that these fields have begun to see the next frontier of ethical concerns for research well ahead of the rest of the academy: “I can’t help but think that student voices and individuality will continue to be drowned out with this big data approach,” Richards notes, “so ethical stances [to come] will most likely revolve around retaining and re-capturing student voices and the eclectic and diverse student bodies we serve.”

Of course, Technical Communication is a difficult case study to apply to the field in general: in plenty of English departments, it’s already comfortably enjoying outsider status, derided for being commercial, and sell-out, and product-oriented.  Dr. Richards also feels that empiricism means different things in different sub-disciplines, and sets aside TC as different within English Studies: “I think the interdisciplinary origins and composition of TC lends itself to a lack of bemoaning of empirical work, as you’d see in literature or rhetoric proper, but as a whole TC needs empirical work to find out what it wants to know: how do people and technology interact as it pertains to communication.  We will always need empirical work to help us answer that question.”


Conclusion

This is where I’d leave things off for now.  There are trends in empirical acceptance by sub-disciplines – as Dr. Richards argument notes, they are often as much historical and original as epistemological.  The major questions of RAD are mostly ethical in nature, and the answer to those questions is largely a combination of concerted efforts to create an overarching ethical narrative, of striving to be transparent, pragmatic, and effective, and of reaching out across disciplines to provide value through a strongly ethical understanding of data that can synthesize many kinds of knowledge to justify its own existence.

I dream of a world where RAD scholars can convince people they are more than just researchers – that they are philosophers, ethicists, and journalists inscribing the questions of the age into history.  But -at least in the meantime – I’ll settle for being consistent, and believing there are ethical theories out there that haven’t been fully resolved yet.


References

Bodie, M. (24 Oct. 2015). Re: Paper #3 – Objects of Study [Weblog Comment].  Retrieved from alexcnielsen.wordpress.com/2015/10/15/paper-3-objects-of-study/

Dombrowski, P. M. (2000). Ethics and technical communication: The past quarter century. Journal of technical writing and communication, 30(1), 3-29.

Dombrowski, P. M. (1995). Post‐modernism as the resurgence of humanism in technical communication studies. Technical Communication Quarterly, 4(2), 165-185.

McNely, B., Spinuzzi, C., & Teston, C. (2015). Contemporary Research Methodologies in Technical Communication. Technical Communication Quarterly, 24(1), 1-13.

Richards, D.  (27 Oct. 2015). Email Interview [Publicly Archived]. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/1MwtXCV/

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