I’d like to teach the world to research… (Fleckenstein, Spinuzzi, Rickly, Papper)

In which I try not to ‘et al’ anybody important…

Fleckenstein, Kristie S., Clay Spinuzzi, Rebecca J. Rickly, and Carole Clark Papper. “The Importance of Harmony: An Ecological Metaphor for Writing Research.” College Composition and Communication 60.2 (2008): 388-419. Print.

Fleckenstein, Spinuzzi, Rickly, and Papper provide a compelling heuristic for their research metaphor, which combines ecology and music to describe an overall concept of ‘harmony’ that should swell over, under, and around all parts of research. (Whenever the authors describe harmony as a sense of agreement or accord–the OED definition in particular–I think of composition as I describe it to my students: a drawing together of many parts to create a singular text, just as a composer draws together many voices to create a single piece of music. The comparison is certainly implied in the metaphor of our disciplinary name, isn’t it?)  I say heuristic not because that’s what the article is but rather because that’s how I’d like to put the article to work now, for my own project. But before that, a few notes.

THe authors’ argument works pretty carefully out from John Law’s After Method, and some of the same themes run here–metaphors (and the methodologies they describe) are like terministic screens in that they block out certain phenomena so that we can see others, and metaphors “provide a theoretical lens or screen that predisposes a researcher to evolve methods and instruments that reveal a reality congruent—harmonious—with that adumbrated by the metaphor” (390). Our methods and our metaphors–our ways of thinking and being in the world–influence what we are able to describe as worth seeing and how we interpret it.

The ecological metaphor for writing/research relies on three major qualities, or “points of harmony” between phenomena and research orientation/design: interdependence, feedback, and diversity. These have the potential to operate as a heuristic for inventing and delineating research.

Interdependence: we should think of research as “a web of interlocking social, material, and semiotic practices. Rather than conceiving of the components of the research process (paradigm, methodology, methods, techniques, and strategies) as static and isolated from one another, scholars guided by ecological thinking conceive of them as symbiotic clusters: knots of nonhierarchical, locally enacted semiotic-material practices that inform each other in multiple ways” (394). Research is about relationships–it is interactive (as Maxwell might say), and the researcher himself is part of that interaction of elements.

Feedback: “The quality of feedback provides the researcher with the guidelines necessary to demarcate the scope, or the limits, of a research project within which the researcher is immersed” (396). The scope of a study isn’t predetermined or imposed beforehand, but set down in a specific but mutable line–the researcher is open to what they learn, and let the project change according to feedback from the project itself. Methodology isn’t “correct” or “pure” but rather sensitive to the needs of the method as well as the needs of the phenomena being researched.

Diversity: The “healthy” quality, “an ecological orientation to research emphasizes the need for research diversity: multiple sites of immersion, multiple perspectives, and multiple methodologies within a particular discipline and research project” (401). The authors write about self-aware hybridity as an answer both to the unbridled mess of a diverse or inclusive method as well as the hypersensitivity of positivism. Researchers should be prepared to respond to situations as they arise and in ways appropriate to that rising, rather than wedded to a singular approach.

A harmonic/ecological metaphor is rhetorical, the authors argue, as it helps researchers figure out–especially in ‘messy’ disciplines like composition, rhetoric, and related disciplines–what questions to ask right now, how to ask them, and why to ask them. A sense of kairos, of the disciplinary situation as well as the situation of the research, helps researchers determine what questions to ask right now, what questions are important, useful, or needful in that moment. It –through feedback–helps to determine whether the question or phenomenon of study is appropriate in the context of the discipline in terms of ethics, responsibilities, and expectations, and it emphasizes that research situations–like rhetorical situations–are multiple and in flux. Something to be responded to and thus created in the moment.

Rigor–”rhetorical rigor” (411) is a factor of the researcher’s consideration and systematic articulation of these issues in their study. Thus a ‘messy’ phenomenon and a ‘messy’ (suffering from “pollution” (402)) method become rigorous. Rhetoric, because it offers contingent truths, is an appropriate perspective for framing composition research, which so often deals with a complicated phenomena manifested in complicated materiality resulting from complicated relationships between complicated sets of actors coming out of complicated backgrounds in a complicated history with complicated…. you get the picture.

Thinking–and thus presenting–ecologically cannot be easy. It would seem to demand collaboration, among other things. But rigor seems within the reach of such a responsively and responsibly open metaphor–one that tries to balance between densely unordered actuality and rationally ordered reality in its assessment of the phenomenon/world.

One thing I have to work out. The authors make the following (common now, to me) claim about methodology and positivism and mess–in particular, they try to answer criticisms of sloppy methodological pluralism:

“We go even further, asserting that such diversity—pollution—is inescapable because no research practice is ever pure; it is always subject to the intricate relationships that constitute it. Thus, hybridity is an inevitable result of any research endeavor.” (402)

I agree. At the same time, I need to work out how to answer criticisms of this perspective as argument by assertion. That is, if I deny the problem is a problem, does that make it any less of a problem?

Problem to solve…


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