CCR 635: Advanced Research Practices

Extending Understandings of Archival Research

Though we all seemed to be on some level of agreement about the value of Bazerman’s piece (“Theories of the Middle Range in Historical Studies of Writing Practice”) as a practical approach to doing historical, archival work, Tim’s criticism of Bazerman’s inattention to his own positionality stuck with me during this week’s readings. These readings were an interesting reinforcement of some of Bazerman’s points and his pragmatic approach, yet all of them urged us to do more—asking us to broaden our notions of what constitutes the archive, to more carefully consider our own positionalities, and to recognize the human impact of archival work.

Broadening what counts as archival work.

In “Archival Survival: Navigating Historical Research,” Gaillet offers an extended definition of what counts as archival texts:

“a wide range of artifacts and documents, such as (unpublished and published) letters, diaries and journals, student notes, committee reports, documents and wills, newspaper articles, university calendars/handbooks/catalogs, various editions of manuscripts and print documents (books, pamphlets, essays, etc.), memos, course materials, online sources, audiotapes, videotapes, and even ‘archeological’ fragments and finds” (30).

Glenn and Enoch also ask us to move away from the “upper-case-A Archives” defined by Connors (and reiterated by Bazerman) as “‘specialized kinds of libraries’ containing those ‘rarest and most valuable of data’ that usually exist in ‘only a single copy’” (225 qtd. in 16). This could mean a spatial shift from large research-university libraries to local community archives, but it also necessitates a shift in what kind of texts we value. Glenn and Enos see archival work extending beyond the university, beyond prestigious research libraries to explore more local and situational sites (something that Stake echoes again and again). This expansion allows us to collect information and gain insights about groups and communities who are not represented within the capital-A archives.

Considering our researcher positionalities.

"Archives Shaping Man" from Randolph County Archives
"Archives Shaping Man" via Randolph County Archives

I was excited by the attention to researcher positionality throughout these readings because our readings thus far have addressed it only in terms of feminist research. And certainly, Glenn and Enos have some important things to say on this topic. They “acknowledge that histories are always partial and always interested” (21), arguing that researchers must continually “try to uncover the ways our positionality operates and to consider, throughout the historiographic process, how this stance channels us to write one kind of history and directs us away from other possibilities” (22). For me, this statement clarifies some of the conversations we’ve had about the role of ideology in research and how evidence is analyzed through particular lenses. Glenn and Enos warn against allowing our personal interests to misrepresent the evidence, arguing that “the reading and the theory should inform each other” (23).

Gaillet also acknowledges that historiographic projects require the researcher to become a part of—and participant within—the project, but she also extends this argument to archival work. Framed as storytelling, Gaillet argues that archival research “[makes] clear the teller’s prejudices” (36). In order to weave together facts, stories, histories and perspectives, these prejudices must be constantly negotiated.

Stake defines this negotiation as part of what distinguishes qualitative research from quantitative. He writes, “For qualitative research, the researcher him- or herself is an instrument, observing action and contexts, often intentionally playing a subjective role in the study, using his or her own personal experience in making interpretations” (20). Because qualitative research is interpretive, the researcher must always filter observations, data, and analysis through her own experiences and knowledge. And in this way, Stake argues that positionality must be considered for all researchers. Even quantitative researchers who strive for objectivity must, at times, be interpretive and thus qualitative (30).

Recognizing the human impact. 

In many ways, acknowledging the human impact of archival work is a continuation of the previous section. At the same time, though, it extends to a larger argument about the importance of who is represented (and how they are represented). Stake blends these two sides when he writes, “Human are the researchers. Humans are being studied. Humans are the interpreters” (36). The human element becomes important not only for the researcher but also for the researched.

“The topic of the research is not always human activity, but the perspective is the human perspective” (Stake 70).

In their discussion of historiographic research, Glenn and Enos argue that we must always think about the impact that the research will have on other “agents” of the archival process—namely, the people who are researched. They reference Royster (“When the First Voice You Hear Is Not Your Own”), who claims that research projects must try to both understand and benefit the communities and people who are “subject matter but not subjects” (32 qtd. in 24). Harking back to Moss, all qualitative projects must always consider how to most accurately and fairly represent the people and communities that are studied.

Glenn and Enos’s conclusion is a great way to think about some larger implications for archival research and qualitative research more generally. They write, “When we engage in research, we need to know what our self-interest is, how that interest might enrich our disciplinary field as it affects others (perhaps even bridging the gap between academia and other communities), and resolve to participate in a reciprocal cross-boundary exchange, in which we talk with and listen to Others, whether they are speaking to us in person or via archival materials” (24). As qualitative researchers, we must negotiate our own interests and positionalities with those who are studied, whether those people are studied directly (as in ethnographic study) or indirectly (through the archives).



Glenn, Cheryl, and Jessica Enoch. “Invigorating Historiographic Practices in Rhetoric and Composition Studies.” Working in the Archives: Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition. Eds. Alexis E. Ramsey, Wendy B. Sharer, Barbara L’Eplattenier, and Lisa S. Mastrangelo. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2010. 11-27.

Gaillet, Lynée Lewis. “Archival Survival: Navigating Historical Research.” Working in the Archives: Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition. Eds. Alexis E. Ramsey, Wendy B. Sharer, Barbara L’Eplattenier, and Lisa S. Mastrangelo.Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2010. 28-39.

Stake, Robert E. Qualitative Research: Studying How Things Work. New York, Guilford Press, 2010.


7 thoughts on “Extending Understandings of Archival Research

  1. Hey A,

    Thanks for this awesome synthesis. You’ve definitely got me going in lots of different directions:

    1. I, too, was struck by how similar archival/historiographical work ends up being to qualitative/ethnographic work (perhaps those are silly synonyms to use, but they make sense to me right now). It makes me wonder: Is history writing a qualitative method? Or is it something else? Stake seems to open the door to a sense that even the most humanistic/theoretical method is qualitative work, since it’s ALL interpretive.

    If that’s the case, what’s the problem? Perhaps the breakdown that gets folks like Haswell angry is that humanistic theoretical work (especially that Big-T work often privileged in Eurocentric academic spaces) often tries to explain things generally, across too many contexts, and that’s where it gets in trouble. Is that it?

    If so, what makes qualitative work? Is it the limiting of scale to a very micro site of study, and a limiting of claims to that particular site and (but only if you’re really feeling confident!) some very careful generalizations beyond that to other similar sites. If so, maybe historiography really IS a qualitative method. Yes? No?

    2. I appreciate how you drew out those three distinctions whereby this week’s readings ask us to do MORE as researchers: expand our sites, interrogate our position in the whole process, and acknowledge the other agents in the archives. These three approaches really seem to bolster the case that historiography is qualitative. With the move in the last few decades from studying the history of rhetorical Theory (note the BigT) to studying historical sites of rhetorical practice, we’ve definitely begun to, as you say, do “something that Stake echoes again and again” in making our sites more micro-based than macro-driven. With the move toward acknowledging the partiality of our position in the research and writing, we are definitely moving toward acknowledging Stake’s sense of “human as instrument.” And, perhaps most tellingly, the move to acknowledging and accounting for other agents in/beyond the archive, can (depending on your site) add in the qualitative move of “member checking” that Stake describes. At the lease, even if you can’t run your interpretations by the folks you’re writing about, you can try to write to (and think about the commitments of) the community who may feel most affected/implicated in your work. These sound like qualitative moves. And they sound a lot like the building of theories of the middle range!

    3. Which brings me back to Bazerman. I’m thinking a lot about audience, and thinking a lot about the genre expectations of the Written Communication crowd he was writing to. A generous read might say that he didn’t go any further into his positionality or an acknowledgement of his “human as instrument” partiality because it might have read too touchy-feely for the Written Communication crowd. Perhaps, like Stake, this crowd already accepts that all research requires humans as instruments, and they don’t require/expect/desire their writers to belabor the point. Perhaps this is plausible.

    If it’s the case, though, it opens up some really interesting questions: Is that enough of an excuse for Bazerman? Are those genre expectations acceptable at this point in the collective research enterprise? Maybe those are too pointed in their yes/no construction. How about this:

    a. What perceived social function, prestige, or credibility does Bazerman (or WC as a whole) believe is gained by stopping short of acknowledging their positionality more fully?

    b. To what extent does such an absence of location-interrogation in research work rely on institutional privileges that can only be claimed by certain rhetors in certain disciplines in certain bodies examining certain subjects at certain times? To what extent does Bazerman’s lofty position merge with his subject matter (science writing genre delineation) and his method (different always, but described variously as a corpus generic analysis) and the current privileged context of RAD research to render an interrogation of his location superfluous in this moment?

    c. Do all research sites require a careful interrogation of your positionality? If so, why? If not, which ones do and which ones don’t?

    1. Tim! You’re swooping in with some great questions here, and I’m really interested in that last set you pose.

      I think Bazerman (as a stand-in for WC) is trying to harness an ethos of objectivity. He negotiates between objective and subjective, yet he makes particular moves (while excluding others, such as stating his own position) that suggest he is obtaining objectivity within his research. We mentioned this in class, but I think these moves are important for the WC authors and readers versus those of CCC because WC has that more scientific, RAD feel.

      There are two major issues I see here, though. First, there is a conflation that objectivity is more truthful and *better* than qualitative research. I think it’s important to echo Stake here: “Qualitative research could be, but should not be, I think, so technical, so objective, so uncaring” (119). If we want to look at human behaviors and processes, quantitative methods can really only go so far. We can’t trace a student’s writing process using only quantitative methods: They may show us what a student’s process physically looks like, but they can’t explain why a student makes particular choices or what cultural or social influences may affect their processes. Using only quantitative methods won’t allow us to reach that single, objective truth any more than only using qualitative. Similarly, announcing our positionalities shouldn’t discredit our research.

      That long-winded explanation brings me to the second point: I think we should interrogate our positionality within all studies, though I think how “careful” it is may shift. This may have to do with ethos again. Bazerman is a distinguished (white male) scholar, and he seems to have plenty of credibility within the field. Depending on our own situations—a mix of our physical bodies, establishment in the field, and particular research projects—there is some additional legwork necessary. It’s difficult to say that, though, because how do we mark those boundaries? Do particular people need to explain themselves more than others? Do different types of studies require more disclosure than others?

      At the very least, I think we can benefit from the point Glenn & Enoch make: “This understanding of one’s position inside of and approach to the final text must accompany each scholar from the initial stages of archival inquiry through the completion of the writing, steadily interanimating the multiple acts that constitute the writing process. Such statements also help the reader understand where the researcher thinks he or she stands in terms of the project and the ways that interestedness informs both the researcher’s overarching research agenda and the final text” (21).

  2. Thanks for carving out so many areas for discussion you two. All of those questions, Tim, are really worth pursuing, and, like Allison, that last one got me thinking. I agree with Allison that WC is harnessing an “ethos of objectivity” (nicely put!). While this may or may not be intentional, I think that ethos is strategic and necessary. I was struck by this line early in Stake: “the federal view (as I started to write this) is that causal research is the ‘gold standard’ and that qualitative research is inferior” (20). Tim, we seem to keep returning to Linda Adler-Kassner’s work and our CCR 632 interview with her in particular where she more or less argues that we need to engage the rules and terms of the fed game of assessment if we want to be effective in our WPA activism. I wonder is journals like WC and RTE help us in that department. I don’t think that has to come at the expense of ethics or of jettisoning responsibility to a subject matter; however, that “ethos of objectivity” might be important to reaching audiences that aren’t as concerned with performing critical consciousness.

    1. Something tells me that we will keep coming back to this issue of objectivity/subjectivity, probably without a final “aha!” solution. I think you make a really good point about the connection to Adler-Kassner, Jason, and I like the Stake quotation you point to. When he makes that qualification (“as I started to write this”), is he implying that causal research is no longer the gold standard? If not, then what is?

  3. Hey Allison,

    To echo T, thanks for the great synthesis 🙂 I really like how you’ve brought our attention to positionality, especially pulling out some of the important nuances to the work of historiography as noted by Enos, Glenn, and Gaillet.

    First, what strikes me as interesting in your response to Tim is your emphasis on Bazerman’s ethos of objectivity. I think that thinking about objectivity as primarily an ethos-move is a generous and useful tool. I completely agree with your two issues with Bazerman’s lack of reflective self-positioning–I think that we probably might agree that those with privilege should be even more accountable for their subjectivities in research. I think that this is an area that needs a lot more methodological work done, too–understanding how privileged folks can ethically account for their position without making the statement an add-on tag that is meaningless. For instance, we might ask how we can meaningfully account for whiteness, educational eliteness, and financial stability in the writing of histories?–being careful not to erase the fact that these particular positions have historically been the history-deciders!

    But back to your point about objectivity-ethos (I did have something to say about that…). The reason I really like thinking about objectivity as primarily an ethos-move is precisely because that’s all it can ever be. As you note by looking to Stake, all research is interpretive–whether qualitative or quantitative. So while some quantitative studies may prefer to use an objective approach that doesn’t account for positionality, this lack of accountability doesn’t actually make their approach less subjective, less interpretive, less humanistic–and, just as you note, it certainly doesn’t make it any more truth-based.

    One more side-thought: Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about this story-telling metaphor for this kind of historiography (that’s self-reflexive, self-positioned, includes alternative voices, perspectives, and documents, etc.). I really prefer Royster’s perspective-landscape metaphor at the moment because I find it a far more useful metaphor that’s less destructive. I wonder the costs of using the storytelling metaphor–first of all, does storytelling accurately represent the kinds of histories we are hoping to write? (as you note via Glenn & Enos, they say we are still accountable for the documents, contexts, etc. ) and, second, does storytelling somehow devalue this kind of historiography?

    1. Kate, your last questions remind me of Hayden White’s “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” which we read in Lois’s class a few weeks ago. Have you read it? White argues that historians are storytellers. Historical narrative is storytelling because historians don’t just reproduce events; instead, they direct readers along certain paths and toward certain events (trying to show the reader what has traditionally been forgotten or neglected). His argument, then, is that we actually devalue historiography by denying its connection to storytelling in order to *appear* more objective than it is. I don’t think I realized the usefulness of that argument until your question, though 🙂

  4. Late to the party but loved the conversation here! I like that everyone is asking important questions and exploring how we conduct research that is ethical and also garners credibility.

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