“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” – Albert Einstein
This week’s seminar picked up where we left off, revisiting the usage of Twitter in a classroom setting with two instructor demonstrations of Twitter backchannels, including one for an in-class film screening. Another instructor demonstrated how the Piazza platform had stimulated classroom discussion in similar ways to Twitter, which led to the first of two main questions of the night: What we want from using a hybrid pedagogy? Possibilities included more student engagement, or a better quality of student work and responsiveness, but we also voiced the desire to create a classroom space that had a different sense of community that is somehow different from that created by face-to-face interaction. Once our goals were articulated, we were faced with the more difficult question of how we can assess to what extent we get what we want. It is this second question that this blog post will focus on.
While discussion mainly centered on practical and logistical questions, as well as anecdotal successes and failures, the underlying assumptions that shaped our inquiries are both methodological and epistemological. Epistemology and methodology are inextricably linked. The purpose of this post is to review the reasons why epistemology and methodology are so contentious among researchers in composition theory and technical writing, as well as create a space for further discussion.
Epistemology is concerned with how we know what we know, whereas methodology is concerned with how we do what we do. Thus it is no surprise that epistemology has traditionally been discussed in the humanities while methodology has been discussed in the sciences. Modes of inquiry, qualitative and quantitative. But methodology as a practice does not belong to the sciences any more than epistemology as a theoretical question belongs to philosophy. Further, the reasons that some scholars in the humanities seem reluctant to adopt quantitative methods is disciplinary and ideological.
It’s been noted by scholars like Richard Haswell that in the past 60 years, fields like composition and technical writing have adopted quantitative methods, but the motive for using scientific methods continues to be debated in professional scholarship. In the past decades, empirical methods have been characterized by scholars as problematic due to the motives behind their usage. So prevalent was this resistance that in 1996 Davida Charney could generalize in “Empiricism is Not a Four Letter Word,” that “compositionists readily assume that disciplines that adopt scientific methods do so for reflected glory and access to institutional power” (576).
The selection of methodology is not apolitical, and, as Charney and others have noted, “the research methods we employ have important consequences for the intellectual authority of our field” (568). This traditionally political (and disciplinary) split between qualitative and quantitative methods, however makes Charney’s assertion that “to promote the growth of a complex and inter-connected framework of knowledge and methods, we need both qualitative and quantitative empirical methods” (591), a difficult pill for some to swallow.
However, Charney, and her empirical descendant Dana Driscoll, provide us with an adisciplinary (as opposed to apolitical) framework for the use of mixed methodology in composition and technical writing research.
Charney asserts that:
no research method per se can deliver up authority or acceptance. Rather, credence–and provisional credence at that–emerges from day-to-day critical negotiations in which disciplines identify interesting questions, decide what kinds of answers to consider, and actively critique both methods and results. (569)
Similarly, Driscoll, whose unique contribution to this discussion is to position empiricism in the tradition of Greek and Roman skepticism, provides an outline of empiricism free of disciplinary constraint in “Composition Studies, Professional Writing, and Empirical Research: A Skeptical View”:
- Skeptical researchers should be skeptical of everything, including their own findings.
- Empirical research never claims to prove but rather provide evidence. (201)
- Empirical research does not build itself upon that which has been assumed but rather that which has evidence.
- Empirical researchers are interested in gathering evidence from as many sources as possible—and hence, do not privilege any one data collection method. (202)
This framework, if followed using mixed methodologies, “will promote a larger degree of self-skepticism and reflection (#1 above), will help minimize the bias inherent in a researcher (#2 above), and will provide more evidence in knowledge formation (#3 above)” (202).
If, as Charney, Driscoll, and others would like us to believe, empiricism is an epistemology, it is indeed not the four letter word that researchers in the humanities need fear. That being said, it is still a methodology that has both disciplinary and political connotations. This dilemma is further complicated by the fact that while hybrid pedagogy is not associated with one discipline over another, the methodologies employed by researchers in the humanities will have disciplinary (and therefore political) connotations as well.
With all these factors weighing on us, how do we assess our success in the hybrid classroom?