A tough week: Empiricism, the workplace, and Wicked Environment Problems

Posted: October 6, 2008 in Futurism, Methods, Readings, Review, School

Quite a bit of reading this week. Much of it was outside of what was assigned for class. But I’ll get back to that. First, let me talk about Mary Sue MacNealy’s Strategies for Empirical Research in Writing and the three articles I read.

MacNealy’s work was very easy to read. I actually read it the first time over the summer. She has a very simple straightforward style, and she says what needs to be said clearly and concisely. The book delivers just exactly what the title suggests: a series of strategies. It offers important information, like how new articles need to be to avoid the likelihood that they have been superseded, or that articles, because they publish faster, are sometimes more valuable than books. There is also
practical advice, like to avoid constantly doing more research and to keep track of what you read through some sort of write up (like, for instance, this blog). She also goes over the qualities that good empirical research has, and how to avoid pitfalls in validity, reliability, etc.

As for the articles, there are three. The first is Davida Charney’s “Empiricism Is Not a Four-Letter Word.” This article is largely a memorandum telling those in the field how they should research. More specifically, it talks about how we do too many studies that are disconnected, constructing “A broad shallow array of information, in which one study may touch loosely on another but in which no deep or complex networks of inference and hypotheses are forged or tested” and that we “should encourage reviews of previous studies that compare findings and methods in particular kinds of sites, to generate questions and hypotheses that can be pursued with a full range of methods” (297).

This is not to say that the current empirical methods are bad. As the title suggests, Charney is suggesting, if anything, the opposite. What he is saying is that we need to look closer at the things we do, and we need to connect the studies within our field. He says that “Objectivity then is not a fixed feature of particular methods” (284), suggesting that we need to accept that not all research will be objective. Maybe that’s even okay.

This brings me to “Action Research and Wicked Environmental Problems: Exploring Appropriate Roles for Researchers in Professional Communication” by Stuart Blythe, Jeffrey T. Grabill and Kirk Riley. Aside from having a mouthful of a title, this article is a report on a study about action research. “The authors argue that the primary goal of action research related to environmental risk should be to identify and support the strategies used by community members rather than to educate the public” (272). This is a bold and interesting claim. Rather than teaching people what strategies can be used to reduce environmental risk, they argue that we should just support the strategies that people already use. Now, there’s a bit of a disconnect in terminology here. They say that that the strategies to be studied are those of “community members” and that these people are different from “the public.” This seems counter intuitive to me; the community members involved in such a thing would be the public, wouldn’t it? Unless they mean “community” in the sense of Discourse Community, or “public” in the sense of those not in the community.

But if that is the case, then they are basically saying that it’s more important to understand the strategies of the people involved in a situation than it is to teach people who aren’t involved how those strategies are used by those who are. That seems obvious to me, and so likely not what they meant.

Their conclusion is basically “that critical action research in professional and technical communication can provide valid and robust understandings of complex communication practices and tools for improving these practices” (296). I take this to be a statement about the value and purpose of critical action research, but as little else. It seems, again, like an obvious conclusion. Maybe I just don’t understand what critical action research is or what they mean by “tools for improving these practices.”

Last but not least for reading this week, we come to “Situational Exigence: Composing Processes on the Job by Writer’s Role and Task Value” by Barbara Couture and Jone Rymer It seems to me that this article is one of categorizing and separation; important tasks within any field. Couture and Rymer write about “a new approach to explore the influence of social context on professional writing” (4), an approach which leads them to claim verification “that the planning and revising procedures of professionals who write as part of their jobs differ less among this broad group than they differ from the writing practices of career writers [. . .]” (5).

Let me unpack that as best I can. I think that what this is saying is that people who write as part of their jobs generally all do it the same way. That is, the methods they use for revision are pretty similar to one another. More importantly, these methods are different from those of career writers. So the people who write all the time, for a living, tend to have different views on planning and on revision than those who simply write as part of their job. Maybe that’s obvious, but it’s also important: it says that professional writers (who we assume are better at it) are using strategies that other people aren’t, which suggests that those strategies, if taught to the others, would be generally helpful.

What is interesting about their conclusions from this study is that “composing practices are not so much influenced by a writer’s professional discipline and occupation as by a writer’s functional relationship to writing” (19). That is, the way people write depends more on how much they write and how important writing is to them than what they do for a living. I like that idea, obvious as it may be.

As for my outside reading, I spent a good deal of the week reading about futurism. I read about the predictions for the next few decades, including everything from how important technical writing is going to be (very) to when we can expect a manned mission to Mars (sometime in the 2020s). I also went through some older works, like Drexler’s work on nanotechnology. All this together is giving me a new vision of the future. Specifically, of my future.

I’ve been trying to determine a project, a focus that I can keep in mind as I go through my coursework. The problem I’ve been having is that I’m worried that I am moving into territory that isn’t legitimate, or at least not legitimate enough. Studying technology that doesn’t exist, that may potentially never exist (remember flying cars?) seems like it may be a bad way to focus the rest of my career.

But at the same time, I feel like there is a very important project here. There is a gap between the introduction of a new media, of a new technology, to culture and its introduction into the educational world. Sometimes that gap is as long as a decade. Sometimes it’s so short that technology is jumped on before it has been considered, and before it can be well used. Second Life, for example, has all kinds of possibilities. But how are most educators using it? They’re setting up lecture halls and teaching in exactly the same way they would in the real world. Why bother with Second Life if that’s all it will be used for? On the other hand, to have YouTube just get into the classroom over the past year or so seems ridiculous.

So the project would be twofold. On the one hand, the goal would be to shorten that gap, to introduce technology faster. But on the other hand, it would be to make sure that new technology is considered, that its possibilities are investigated, so that it is used better, not just faster.

That seems legitimate to me. But I just can’t shake the feeling that I’m basically trying to build a career on science fiction.

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