Qualitative Methods in Writing and Rhetorical Studies

Following up on conversations with two grad students this week, I’d like to detail my current thinking on the use of, and adaptations of, qualitative research methods in Writing and Rhetorical Studies. Just about everything published about qualitative methods expects the researcher to be a social scientist. While there are some fabulous publications in WRS that are fully invested in social science qualitative methods, most of us in the field aren’t trained in those methods. Right now I am advising a PhD student in Syracuse’s Curriculum and Teaching program. She’s taking three qualitative research methods courses—this semester. I don’t know of any WRS program that even offers such a possibility, much less requires it. Most training in WRS graduate programs is about the field itself—critical analysis of the conversations going on in it—without much depth about methods for contributing to those conversations. Indeed, if the WRS graduate program is within an English department, the students are often required to take courses in literature or literary theory—which can contribute to a naturalization of literary research methods as the foundation of research in Writing and Rhetorical Studies.

I’ve long been convinced that the narrative basis of much WRS scholarship is important and persuasive within the field, but carries little authority outside it. This matters when one is trying to effect system-wide change. That would be me, wanting to redirect the pedagogical energy that is currently being aimed excessively at the prevention of plagiarism. I’m a lot more convinced of the value of teaching students, in depth and throughout the curriculum, how to engage with and write from texts in an ethical and meaningful way. Such instruction, I suspect, can actually reduce students’ motivation to plagiarize deliberately, and it can also give them the writing skills, textual experiences, and mentoring they need for handling source texts ethically.

That has taken me into the realm of qualitative research, a realm in which I am a novice. It is also a realm in which most of the journals in Writing and Rhetorical Studies seldom publish.

So. Qualitative methods are little taught in most WRS graduate programs, and they are little published in WRS journals. It’s been my observation, moreover, that journals like Writing and Pedagogy, Written Communication, and the Journal of Writing Research are reluctant to publish articles that adapt but do not fully subscribe to qualitative social science methods.

So what’s a graduate student (or any scholar, for that matter) in Writing and Rhetorical Studies to do? It might seem silly to acquire expertise in methods that are so little used in one’s field. I believe, however, that WRS is increasingly interested in data-driven research. It’s my hope that over the decades to come, research methods will emerge in WRS that are distinctive to it—neither a wholesale adoption of the methods of literary criticism valued in literature departments, nor a migration of WRS to a social science discipline. Maybe it’s just confirmation bias on my part, seeing evidence everywhere of the thing I believe. Yet I believe it, all the same. I believe it’s important for PhD students in WRS to prepare themselves for a field more diverse than many of the English departments in which those PhD students received their MAs.

I don’t believe this requires a complete retooling; just a diversification. I have two pieces of advice for those who wish to write about data in genres other than personal narrative and hermeneutic interpretation.

My most basic advice is to code. No journal I know of resists publishing research whose data have been systematically analyzed. Coding is not a secret society; it can be learned through direct instruction, through mentoring, or through autodidacticism. Learning to code is an ongoing process; I know a lot more about it now than I did when I began coding, and I’ll know a great deal more a few years from now. I’d recommend starting with Saldaña, now in second edition. If this gives you a clear sense of how you might proceed, go with it. If, however, you’re still not certain, go to Charmaz, just out in a new edition. That will give you step-by-step procedures. And if you’re thinking your results should be quantified, Geisler has what you need. There are additional sources listed here.

My second piece of advice is to treat your data—whether observational, textual, archival, or interview—as data. Read up on whatever data-collection method you’re using. In addition to the well-grounded but ludicrously expensive Sage Handbook of Interview Research (get it through your library!), there are many other articles and books on interview-based research. Remember that your objective here is not to become a social scientist, yet to have the tools for thinking critically and strategically about the design and interpretation of interviews. The same is true for textual analysis. You can consult this bibliography for starters. I particularly recommend Titscher et al, even though it’s not a new title. There’s also a bibliography of sources on archival research.

If you’re feeling apprehensive (as I was at the beginning), be of good cheer. This is going to take a couple weeks of serious work. Not a lifetime. Not a new degree program. And the results will allow you to reach wider audiences and to participate in and influence a diversifying field of scholarly inquiry. And then? Then you just keep learning.