CCR 635: Advanced Research Practices

Ethical Methodologies & the War on Empirical Research

I saw two major disciplinary desires emerge from this week’s readings: First, the desire to determine and defend ethical research methodologies (Barton; Haswell); second, the desire to trace empirical studies within composition histories without flattening and limiting those accounts (Roozen & Lunsford; Brandt). Still thinking about the ethical questions of Emig’s methodologies and results that Kate posed last week, I was drawn toward the first thread.

In “More Methodological Matters: Against Negative Argumentation,” Ellen Barton explores composition’s recent “ethical turn” toward methodologies that support collaborative, participatory, and self-reflexive relationships. Specifically, Barton argues against the negative methodological arguments that circulate within, and limit, our field—arguments that present close-relationship methodologies in opposition to other methodologies. This negative argumentation implies that “research that does not incorporate collaborative and reflexive design and analysis is (vaguely) ethically suspect” (Barton 401), which has led to the gradual abandonment of methodologies that do not support collaborative relationships and self-reflexive practices (402).

Because of its focus on systematic analysis, empirical research is devalued within this framework. Barton outlines three implications of devaluing empirical methodologies:

  1. Empirical frameworks that are ethical are ignored;
  2. The field is cut off to particular research-based inquiries;
  3. Our methodological options, as experienced or new researchers, are limited. 403

Using her own ethnographic research as an example, Barton argues that “not all studies in composition can or should be designed as collaborative and reflexive studies” (404). This acknowledgment necessitates a different understanding of how we define ethics. For Barton, ethical research requires total consent of research participants and complete representation of data (405). These requirements resituate empirical research into the realm of the ethical, positioning it is a viable, and necessary, form of research within composition studies.

Barton concludes on a hopeful note, claiming that the support of both empirical and non-empirical research methodologies will allow composition to “contribute a full range of ethically-formulated questions, methods, analyses, and interpretations from a truly interdisciplinary methodological repertoire” (410).

Barton’s article appears in 2000, and five years later, we see Richard Haswell also address the rift between research methodologies (and ideologies). In “NCTE/CCC’s Recent War on Scholarship,” Haswell examines historical trends within composition studies from 1940-1999. Like Barton, Haswell works against the idea that quantitative methodologies—”empirical inquiry, laboratory studies, data gathering, experimental investigation, formal research, hard research”—should be viewed within our discipline as “the enemy” (Haswell 200).

Haswell creates an argument for replicable, aggregable, and data supported [RAD] scholarship, which is different from empirical research—Barton’s focus. RAD scholarship avoids terms such as empirical and theory to avoid dichotomous oppositions between empirical and qualitative, research and theory (201). And unlike Barton, Haswell doesn’t overtly discuss ethics, although it is implied in his values of RAD scholarship—its “comparability, replicability, and accruability” (202)—which allow compositionists to outline their research clearly and ethically.

Haswell himself lays out his methods clearly, looking at the historical record of three topics central to teaching college writing: the research paper, the benefits of writing courses, and peer review (206). He uses the CompPile database to find articles about these topics both within NCTE/CCC affiliated journals—College English, College Composition and Communication, and Research in the Teaching of English—and within other journals that explore these three topics.

Haswell’s research identifies a “severe decline” (215) in RAD scholarship within the three NCTE/CCCC-affiliated journals, a decline not mirrored within other disciplines, which leads to a warning that NCTE and CCCC are “letting others do their hard research for them” (217). In fact, Haswell’s entire conclusion is foreboding. He describes composition in terms of  a failing immune system, claiming that it lacks the ability to ward off external criticism of its practices with the solid data that other disciplines require (219). Finally, Haswell ends with a quotation from Written Communication founder Stephen Witte: “A field that presumes the efficacy of a particular research methodology, a particular inquiry paradigm, will collapse inward upon itself” (207 qtd. in 220).

Reading Barton and Haswell together raises a number of questions about the use of quantitative methodologies within Rhet/Comp and the state of Rhet/Comp itself:

  • Barton and Haswell’s articles are night and day in terms of tone (hopeful vs. bleak). What caused such a shift in the exigency of our field’s division of methodologies?
  • Barton uses the term empirical, yet Haswell avoids anything that could be labeled as “scientism, fact mongering, antihumanism, positivism, modernism, or worse” (200). How do we understand these differences in language? How do empirical studies and RAD studies differ and overlap?
  • Barton writes, “Fewer and fewer studies, it seems, ask questions about how people think and write, about how people compose in real time, or about how groups of people write” (407). What does this mean about the discourse currently circulating within composition? What does it say about our disciplinary values?
  • Finally, Haswell asks, “Will these trends, if they continue, lead to the eventual disappearance of college composition as a legitimate field of study?” (217). What are the ethical implications of ignoring empirical/quantitative methodologies? What are the greater disciplinary implications?

Haswell, Richard H. “NCTE/CCCC’s Recent War on Scholarship.” Written Communication 22.2 (April 2005): 198-223.

Barton, Ellen. “More Methodological Matters: Against Negative Argumentation.” CCC 51.3 (Feb. 2000): 399-416.


4 thoughts on “Ethical Methodologies & the War on Empirical Research

  1. This is helpful synthesis of Barton and Haswell. Although that last question sounds a bit neurotic to me, I was convinced by their call for more systemic study in the field. I look at some of the questions we ask in writing centers and wonder if we need to get away from historiography and theory and embrace more empirical approaches. One recent study that comes to mind is “Scaffolding in the Writing Center: A Microanalysis of an Experienced Tutor’s Verbal and Nonverbal Tutoring Strategies” by Isabelle Thompson . Have you read it? It won the IWCA Best Article Award in 2009. I wonder if writing centers need to produce more scholarship like this — and to whom?

  2. I found myself a little put off by Haswell’s concluding doomsday for Composition predictions, too. I couldn’t help but read that as–this ethical, social turn is ruining Composition, at least, methodologically speaking. But, I too, found Barton’s piece particularly useful and interesting. I think that she not only offers a valid critique, but that she makes the most appropriate claim–that research methodologies should be determined by the research questions and site. It seems almost like an argument about the necessity for the method and methodology to be rhetorical. Empirical or RAD research AND qualitative research are both useful, important, and necessary ways of gaining knowledge. But, each individual research project, question, and site will best be responded to with the appropriate method and methodology.

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