The Theory and Practice of Puppy Training (Sullivan and Porter)

Just so you know; the first time I came across the word praxis was in a Star Wars novel. (Kevin J. Anderson. Jedi Search. Bantam Spectra, 1994. Luke Skywalker, trying to come up with a name for his Jedi Academy, comes across an ancient Jedi word: praxaeum. Go ahead. Call me a geek.)

Sullivan, Patricia, and James E. Porter. “On Theory, Practice, and Method: Toward a Heuristic Research Methodology for Professional Writing.” Central Works in Technical Communication. Ed. Johndan Johnson-Eilola & Stuart A. Selber. New York: Oxford UP, 2004.

Methodology is rhetorical–it is invented out of a situation rather than applied formulaically.

The “foundational” approach to methodology: “sees methodology as a static and conventional set of strategies (even when ‘socially constructed’) for observing practice and thereby generating ‘knowledge’ about practice” (301). Methodology thus becomes like theory–privileged over practice. Sullivan and Porter argue for a heuristic approach to methodology/theory/practice: they are dynamic and negotiable, generative rather than a matter of arrangement or simple selection. Method is not applied or selected but something that researchers “design out of particular situations and then argue for in our studies” (301). Argue for a reconfiguration of theory/practice as praxis, since neither perspective can completely account for any situation, being either too abstract of a generalization or too specific of an iteration of any particular phenomenon. Beyond that, the binary of theory/practice is inseperable. One cannot observe sans theory (in the guise of hypotheses, tools, attitudes, critical apparatuses), even in the most emic of approaches; and evidence from practice is limited without critical judgment or orientations from which phenomena can be abstracted (304).  Praxis is a more enabling and dynamic concept–a middle ground that is “a higher form of practice, and ‘informed or conscious practice’” (304). It focuses on the local, but is informed by the general in a manner enhanced by phronesis, or prudential reasoning. Sullivan and Porter frame praxis as a kind of conceptual triangulation, one “willing to critique both theory and practice by placing both in dialectical tension, which can then allow either to change” (305).

One of my favorite examples (which came out of a Foundations of Technical Communication course at TTech) for thinking through the difference between method-driven, problem-driven, and theory-driven research talks about dogs.  This may have a few holes, but I feel like it adequately conveys the basics.

  • Method-driven inquiry–“Mama Said.” Grew up in a house where all dogs were housebroken with newspaper. Uses newspaper on his own dogs until they are eventually paper-trained.  Owner asks for a lifetime subscription to local news rag for Christmas.
  • Practice-driven inquiry–“See Spot Go.” After stepping one too many times on a soggy rug, the owner closely watches the dog to see what sorts of signals that it gives before it’s about to do its business. On seeing the puppy sniff a particular way after wandering behind the love seat, owner scoops up dog and plunks it in the backyard. Through repetition, the dog eventually knows to do it in the yard, not the dining room.
  • Theory-driven inquiry–“The Book-Trainer.” Owner reads “House Training for Dummies.” Rinse Soggy Carpet. Repeat. Dog is either trained, or the owner ends up going to PetsMart to get “How to Housebreak your Furry Friend.” Rinse Soggy Carpet and repeat until dog is trained.
  • Multi-Modal/Problematized Method (or Praxis)–Might read a couple of methods, put’em together, try a combination of newspapers/beatings/toss the dog outside/give the dog a cookie/screaming into an amalgam that works for their slightly incontinent but ultimately obedient and sensitive Rottweiler. The Daschund, on the other hand, just needs to be put in her kennel a few times and she’s golden.  The owner is potentially ready for anything when the Pekingese/Pomeranian/Poodle mutt comes along, and is open to the possibility that the mutt will defy all expectations.

In praxis, which “overthrow[s] the compartmentalization of theory, practice, and method” (308),  method is problematized from at least two perspectives: “one of methodological choice and one of the judgment of methodological quality” (308). Too easy a choice runs the risk of foundationalism; too un-contextual a standard of rigor runs the risk of misunderstanding the notion of rigor itself.

“Conceptual triangulation requires that we apply multiple concepts, not just retesting with a variety of methods but bringing different epistemologies (or different sorts of warrants) to bear on the same situations” (311). Researchers need to be sensitive to the ways that practice affects methodological issues, that ‘textbook methods’ only offer textbook answers and may not be valid to the particular situation under study. Methodology is designed and adapted rather than selected, and should be argued for as a construct–even critiqued–by the researcher.

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