Wave-Particle Theory and Composition/Rhetoric OR Why Do Mixed-Methods Research? – Gwen Gorzelsky

Another presentation here today, “Wave-Particle Theory and Composition/Rhetoric OR Why Do Mixed-Methods Research?” by Gwen Gorzelsky.

Gwen Gorzelsky will explore the challenges and potential benefits of combining research methods in composition/rhetoric scholarship by describing how she brought together historical, critical, and empirical qualitative methods in her book, The Language of Experience: Literate Practices and Social Change. She argues that mixing these research methods produces both a macro-level view, which emphasizes social structures, and a micro-level view, which emphasizes social processes. At the same time, combining methods involves some important problems. She will respond to one key critique of this mixed-methods approach by explaining how she is revising the approach in her current research project.

  • Why did I choose physics? It will be non-technical and short…
    • The nature of light isn’t either/or in terms of waves and particles, but both
    • Quantum physics shows that it can sometimes act in both ways because it has elements of both models
    • The dual nature of light is part of everything — light, electrons, bowling balls — they exhibit wave or particle properties depending on the experiment, but we only really see this at the level of atoms
    • Wave and particle can not be observed at the same time, however; whether light appears in this manner depends on what is being observed and with which tools it is observed
    • The light “knows” when to behave as a wave and as a particle, but not at the same time
  • How does this connect to rhet/comp and studies of literacy
    • Plurality of research methods can weaken claims, but offers us a unique set of tools to do our work
    • Helps us understand epistemology — what we can know and how we can know it
    • Today, I am not focusing on combining qualitative and quantitative, but with empirical analysis and critical theory
    • This is the difference between inductive and deductive analysis
  • Why do this?
    • Because it changes our frame of mind for how and why to research
    • There is still, in the field, the presumption that knowledge is theoretical or empirical, but not both
    • This is where wave particle theory comes into play — we can observe measure and document both types, but not at the same time
    • As literacy researchers, we try to describe reality in similar ways, either empirically or theoretically
    • I will talk about the ways in which I want to combine empirical and theoretical work and think about the kinds of knowledge that can come from this
  • About the book A Language of Experiences
    • I am looking at how people use personal efforts and community practices
    • Looking at functional literacy, as well as all kinds of literacy practices
    • I study two historical cases and one ethnographic case to see how people create goals and go after those goals
    • I chose different cases to see the differences — struggle and social movements
    • Three features common in all the cases
      • Each emphasizes individual and group change
      • Each has secular and spiritual change
      • Each emphasizes cultural change and diversity
    • I look at the varied roles for literacy practices and to what ends they can support change
  • Reading background and research questions
    • Various research approaches are different, and one blurry distinction is that theory generally highlights large-scale structures that shape social practices while empirical methods highlight the structures in which they are reproduced (process vs. structure)
    • Think of a picture of traffic at night — you can see the streaks of light, but not the individual drivers, if you look from a helicopter (structure); process would allow you to look at the decisions that drivers make
    • I am talking about what I am seeing as an overall theory, and I know that there are places where this breaks down.
  • What does empirical vs theories of literacy produce
    • Empirical – Scribner and Cole look at how the Vai change their literacies
    • Theoretical – Foucault looking at power
    • I will suggest that historical studies occupy the ground between historical and empirical work
      • If you look at literacy across centuries, literacy can be seen as hierarchical; in the short term it can be seen as empowering for certain cultural groups
    • Empirical studies can play into stereotypes that they seek to understand; they seek to see what is rather than what can be
      • However, theoretical texts often miss the idea of intervening and looking at how we can produce and reproduce cultural reality
      • In contrast, empirical studies reveal the processes, but may not be able to do much about them
    • I am arguing that this is not an either/or — whether or not we see social structure or process depends on how we look at it
      • The problem is that we can’t see it both ways at the same time, we need to switch research methods to get both views
      • We also need to think about how subjectivity helps shape that reality
    • As I collected ethnographic data on “struggle,” I saw that my colleagues expressed pessimism and despair. This concern lead me to explore gestalt psychology theory. It contends that we see in patterns, and the mesh between language use and experience. It happens through habits of syntax and style.
      • Looking at research this way, I was able to think about language and felt experience and think about them as central to social change.
      • I am interested in looking at research subjects experiences, to the degree that we can.
      • One way that I tried to enact that is to put sections in the book that showed how I went through changes as a result of participating in that study.
    • I am arguing that each perspective gives us parts of knowledge, but these are not like puzzle pieces that go together to make a whole. They are different angles that we can use to learn about individual and social reality. Alternating among perspectives can help us go about doing that.
  • One danger is that generalizable knowledge makes us think that things are subject to universal laws
    • This approach erases individual differences
    • But, we need to bring existing knowledge to what we are doing so that we can understand
    • I argue that we can forgo generalizable claims, and instead offer heuristics to investigate a certain case
      • Simple: Who, what, when, where, how, why
      • Complex: Several sets of questions constructed from patterns built across cases and to think about how things function in given contexts
    • This does offer us ways to think about historical and lived experiences
      • I see this attempt to construct the heuristic as both good and bad.
      • I infer historical experience in a problematic way, in that they are parallel to individual experience.
      • I use data from an article to compare to a teen’s experience — I am comparing apples and oranges; written constructions versus the way someone talks about their experience
  • Where do I go from here?
    • Knowledge from historical knowledge is incommensurable with textual analysis of people’s work now
    • To the extent that texts become part of structure, it ignores process
    • I am trying to parallel structure with process, and I don’t think that they can be compared
      • I think that there is a way to compare them.
        • Ideally, I want a case that will allow me to integrate theoretical and empirical knowledge looking at how a newspaper in Penn. worked through an election in the 1930s.
        • In analyzing the rhetorical strategies in the paper, I think about the historical context (steel barons owning most of the town). I wanted to connect this to how people used the newspaper articles, but I couldn’t find any evidence of this.
      • I can obtain a structural view in this case, but I still don’t want to compare apples to oranges
        • I need to look at the heuristic and where/how I drew the parallels
        • How do the texts use discursive and ideological structures?
        • When textual analysis is focused on rhetorical strategies and their effects on readers, it can be paralleled with theoretical knowledge, but not empirical.
      • What I can do, then, is to look at the birds-eye view of structure and the on-the-ground process
        • I can look at the program’s texts and the participant’s text from the qualitative case
        • But, in considering the role of social practices in social change, I need to look at large scale movements
    • Considering cases that look at broad structural analysis are crucial because you can look at social change. Yet, the individual cases show the efforts that they made and missing that view decreases the possibilities for seeing how to change things in our contexts.
      • We can do this by thinking about the roles that we are playing in structure and process. Wave and particle both. Reality is both process and structure and we must study both of them to understand how literacy works and to what ends.
  • Q&A
    • Q: Can one researcher do it and do it well? Mixed methods is the buzz right now, and I think that we need to see researchers who know how to do both working collaboratively than any one person alone.
      • A: I agree, in the perfect world, I would like to do quantitative methods. In terms of scholarship, a richer scholarship would result if this was the case. However, in terms of politics, a co-authored book will not stand out for tenure. For graduate advising, I think that it depends on the individual student and the background he/she brings as well as the context of the institution and what they support and value. How can you do a solid project while navigating the waters?
    • Q: What we don’t have are ways to look at things in interconnected and related ways — we don’t have those ways of thinking. Specialization within the institution.
      • A: I think that is a problem and I have no way to think about how to do that beyond how it happens at the graduate level and the tracks for people’s careers.
    • Q: How do you move the discipline beyond the roadblocks when people are coming out ready to do this work?
      • A: If I think about what I have observed about the institution as a faculty member, I think that this is more about pragmatics in establishing territory rather than the intellectual pursuit. It is about our division between English and Rhet/Comp, too.
    • Q: When you are looking at a town, what kind of texts do you look at to understand the rhetorical context?
      • A: I read at the local and regional level. I looked at the larger history of the unionizing movement and then the local unionizers. I read the basic stuff to understand any historical topic as well as archival materials like newspapers, records from union drives, and all documents related to one union within a certain time period. I wish that there had been records of discussions from meetings, or a reading group, but there weren’t. Some of the articles had been designed to call people to action, and I wanted to know what those actions might have been.

Author: Troy Hicks

Dr. Troy Hicks is a professor of English and education at Central Michigan University. He directs both the Chippewa River Writing Project and the Master of Arts in Educational Technology degree program. A former middle school teacher, Dr. Hicks has authored numerous books, articles, chapters, blog posts, and other resources broadly related to the teaching of literacy in our digital age. Follow him on Twitter: @hickstro

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