The State of Caring about Research (Blakeslee and Spilka, Wollman-Bonilla)

Blakeslee, Ann M., and Rachel Spilka. “The State of Research in Technical Communication.” Technical Communication Quarterly 13.1 (2004): 73-92. Web. 18 Dec 2009.

Blakelee and Spilka investigate a diverse set of data (including surveys, interviews, and literature review of recent TC conference presentations, anthologies, and journal research discussions) in order to synthesize a complete (if necessarily generic) perspective on the status of research in technical communication and offer a broad agenda for “redirecting” the field’s research trajectory (73). The authors’ synthesis and agenda are intended to contribute to TC in two specific ways:*

First, we hope that this article will inspire scholars to look internally, to examine how they personally—as individual researchers and teachers of research—can contribute to sustaining the strengths and overcoming the weaknesses of research in our field. Second, for even greater impact, we hope that this article will inspire communities of scholars in our field to work as a collective whole toward setting goals and suggesting productive agendas for our research (75).

Their findings are grouped under three core themes: “quality and consistency of research” (76), “methodology and training in methodology” (79), and “relationships with practitioners and with other disciplines” (82). Technical communication research enjoys a healthy variety of topics and methods in its scope, but many of those studies jump to quickly to (or from) theory rather than letting research dictate and even challenge theoretical approaches–research often comes out of what is comfortable or convenient (80), rather than out of questions that the field considers appropriate and useful (77). A significant problem they identify is that there is little coherence to TC: “too few people are working on complementary research questions leading to a coherent body of knowledge on certain topics” (76), so while individual research agendas move forward, the knowledge of the field is inadequately summarized, built upon, and matured. A significant problem they (not unironically) identify is a tendency for technical communication researchers to analyze our own research: “while a certain amount of introspection is useful, any field needs to be careful of doing it at the expense of actual research” (78). Another issue the authors describe has to do with method–technical communication’s “variability” in method is both blessing and curse to research, providing a multifaceted but often unexamined mix-and-match of approaches. Programs should strive to integrate more, and more careful, methodological training into their curricula. Their final major finding is that the relationship between the academy and industry is complicated and–as it has long been–strained (82).  Academics need to work harder to make research relevant to the needs of industry, especially through collaboration. This is expanded to collegiality with those in related fields, including rhetoric and composition, “from which many of us developed the theoretical and pedagogical foundations for our work” (86). Both of these issues are related to the problem of research funding, which could be mitigated through academy-practitioner and interdisciplinary visibility (86).

* This seems like an odd thing to quote at length, but I relate these here in full as I am interested in how scholars frame the implications of their disciplinary self-studies–both because my research is about what I am currently referring to as the inward turn in scholarly discourse as well as because such a move will inevitably be part of my presentation of my research.

***************

Wollman-Bonilla, Julie E., “Does Anybody Really Care?: Research and Its Impact on Practice.” Research in the Teaching of English 36.3 (2002): 311-326. Print.

As the title suggests, this article gives one way of thinking about the usefulness of research for practice: “we researchers may be far more adept at posing research question than we are at asking ourselves this more fundamental question about our work and its impact on others personally and on educational practice in general” (312). The answer, Wollman-Bonilla argues, could be “framing research as a type of service, or social action” (312).

The commonplace that teachers care little for research is a stereotype, but rooted in reality: research and teaching epistemologies and theories of action are different (313). The voice of “Research says.” that comes sweeping down on teachers is often an oppressive regulation rather than a kind of helpful professional development (314). A combination of inadequate administrative support, professional wariness, and increasingly standards-driven pressure to show “results of a certain type and fast” (315) make researchers’ articles less than impactful.

Wollman-Bonilla makes a compelling case for the need of researchers to actively imagine not only how their work could be helpful, but also how it could be subverted by other contexts and even reappropriated by oppressive and opportunistic agendas on both sides of the political spectrum. Some of the worst of these subversions might be highly reductive transformations of research into easy-to-use, context-independent pedagogies (319). Researchers should be thinking harder about the moral implications of their research than even their IRBs might not imagine (324).

As a corrective, Wollman-Bonilla reiterates that researchers must ask about who our research might affect and how it might contribute to a “vision of an equitable, just, and caring society” (320). One way of doing this is by selecting research problems that come out of teachers’ questions and problems–those that interest and are in the interest of teachers, students, and researchers alike. Such work is ethical in that it respects the ethical complexities of teachers and the needs of students and children (“work with not around teachers and children”) (321). A difficult (but meaningful) goal should be to avoid reductionism of the classroom (See also Law, After Method, in mess in social science research) and confronting issues of classroom practice non-judgementally:

In short, researchers trying to improve education have a responsibility to describe what is working and to do so not as template but as grist for the mill of reflection and for thoughtful adaptation and modification to situated practice (322).

Such a research is research as praxis: “theory and practice, action and deliberate reflection, meet in a dialogical relationship in the process of carrying out any inquiry, not just in the research report” (324). Research is grounded in, emergent from, engaged with, and respectful of teachers as participants rather than “spaces to do research” (324).

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