Empirical Research in the Writing Center – What’s so RAD about it?

By Angela J. Zito

Angela Zito has worked as a tutor with the UW-Madison Writing Center since 2013 and currently serves as a TA Co-Coordinator. She is a PhD candidate in English Literary Studies working on a dissertation titled “Student Learning and Public Purpose: Accounting for the Introductory Literature Course.” 

Angela, the author

This past fall I led an ongoing education seminar for seven of our graduate writing tutors called “Empirical Research in the Writing Center – What’s so RAD about it?” I cringe at the punny question every time I write it, but I find the implications of the interrogative alluring…curiosity, skepticism, maybe derision…and I appreciate how functional its readiest answers are:

What’s “RAD” about it is that it’s replicable, aggregable, and data-supported research.

What’s “RAD” about it is that empirical research is making its presence known as some hip new thing in writing center studies.

What’s “RAD” about it is that it seems radical to position empirical research within this discipline.

“RAD research” was a new term to me last fall, but talk of a “rise” of empirical methods in humanistic fields wasn’t. My dissertation research on pedagogical theory and practice in intro lit classes has me waist-deep in the often empirical inquiries of the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) in the field of literary studies. In my research, I’ve registered some skepticism, some defensiveness, some antagonism, and some enthusiasm among literary scholars and other humanists in response to increased use of empirical methods in their fields, specifically in efforts to investigate student learning and teaching practices. (For the record, I’ve waded into empirical inquiry myself with enthusiasm.) (…And maybe a pinch of defensiveness about that enthusiasm.) So, when I had the opportunity to design an ongoing education seminar for writing center tutors, I wanted to explore with them some of the tensions and promises circulating around this “rise” of RAD research.

The Seminar: Participants, Questions, Outcomes

As you may know from previous posts on Another Word, the majority of our graduate writing center staff are English PhD students, but not necessarily writing center studies specialists. Six of the seven participants in the seminar were PhD candidates in literary studies who, at the start of our conversations, mentioned that they felt they were less exposed to empirical inquiry than their composition-rhetoric counterparts on staff (one of whom comprised the seventh member of the group). These participants were forthright about connecting that lack of exposure to eager curiosity or equally eager skepticism coming into the first meeting.

Since a major goal of the seminar was to take note of these initial responses and push beyond them by teasing apart the many affordances and limitations of RAD research, having a healthy mix of openness and wariness at the outset made for a promising start to our conversation.

We met twice. At the first meeting, we discussed excerpts from Driscoll and Perdue’s “Theory, Lore, and More”; McKinney’s Strategies for Writing Center Research; Salem’s “Opportunity and Transformation”; and Simpkins and Schwarz’s “Queering RAD Research in Writing Center Studies.” Our exploration began with marking distinctions between theoretical, practitioner, and empirical research, and we pushed on to address the difficulty of aligning appropriate methods with the project at hand, and to question where the limitations of such alignment might overshadow its affordances.

As an exercise in adopting the empirical mode, the group developed research questions based on some “lore” in our own writing center (i.e. a best practice for which we had little more than anecdotal evidence of its effectiveness). They were most interested in investigating the relative effectiveness of non-directive tutoring with ESL/ELL student-writers who express concern about their grammar. With this hypothetical research topic in mind, at our second meeting we searched CompPile and other databases to see what and how other folks had investigated the topic, and we collected our findings in a shared Google Doc. 

Our closing discussion paid particular attention to the methods of those collected studies. We identified the various methods used in our collected studies and thought through what methods might be most appropriate if we were to design an empirical study of our own. We weighed the pros and cons of collecting and analyzing data from tutor records, session transcriptions, and student surveys. My colleagues posed important questions about what outcomes they would look to quantify as evidence of effectiveness: What would we learn from looking at student paper grades as opposed to, say, tutor evaluations?  How do we define “effective” in our practice, and where would we look to see that effectiveness in the study?

While the seminar didn’t go so far as to settle these questions into anything resembling a research proposal, the group did push beyond some initial resistance to naming outcomes and the apparently futile attempt to control for infinite variables. I don’t think anyone came out of the seminar a RAD “convert” (that was never the intention!), but I did see some folks start to consider empirical research as a potentially productive and complementary form of inquiry alongside more traditional modes of research in English studies.

Parting Thoughts

So what, right? I can’t speak for everyone who participated in the seminar, but, for my part, I can say that our conversations leave me feeling better prepared to talk with colleagues not only about what I’m researching but how I’m researching it—by attending to the set of questions at hand more than to the traditional parameters of what “counts” as literary study. It’s been a little discomfiting, straying to the edge of the disciplinary line, but what I continue to find here is that empirical methods can be a dynamic liminal space occupied by inquiring minds, not a hard boundary separating them.

What are your thoughts or reactions to the use of empirical methods in your discipline? In your writing center or in your program?

Does a “rise” of empirical inquiry in your field feel like trail-blazing? like capitulation? like beside-the-point?

What are the benefits or the dangers you anticipate might come from it?

Thanks to the participants in this ongoing education seminar, and thanks for your comments and further questions below!

5 thoughts on “Empirical Research in the Writing Center – What’s so RAD about it?

  1. Thanks for these reflections and questions, Angela. I keep coming back to this article by Peter Smagorinsky when I have conversations and thoughts about RAD research. It’s titled “The Method
    Section as Conceptual Epicenter in Constructing Social Science Research Reports,” and in it he talks about strengthening our knowledge and descriptions of methods when writing up research helps bolster our arguments as well as write ethically–and also how this helps our work to be taken seriously beyond the fields we inhabit.

    What I see in calls for RAD research is a similar argument–that we need to have a method that lets us make generalizable claims about what works in writing center teaching despite each center having its own intensely local culture. So to answer your last question, it doesn’t feel so much like trail blazing or capitulation as it does an important paradigm shift about the purpose of research in writing center studies.

    • Thank you for these thoughts, Neil, particularly in offering that phrase “paradigm shift.” I’m attracted to it but a little wary of using it myself without the distance of a couple more decades! What does seem, to me, to be a crucial component of that shift is a resistance to a replicability that elides those “intensely local cultures”; put another way, there isn’t to my knowledge any real concerted effort to use RAD research to standardize practice across institutions and programs, which is incredibly important! But attending to and communicating methods does lay a firmer common ground from which to survey the field.

  2. Thanks for introducing RAD research, Angela! Because I now work primarily with literary texts, empirical research rarely comes into play in my discipline. I was thinking back to a study I did, though, when I took a Library Information and Sciences workshop, conducting interviews with four children’s librarians and 8 children to analyze the reading interests and preferences of “tweens.” As a novice to such researches, I now realize that I didn’t set up clear methods or boundaries on selecting participants, which would make it less easy to replicate in another study or research. On the other hand, I’m also thinking of some C&I studies I’ve been able to read closely working at the writing center, and how the empirical studies they do are not exactly replicable such as focusing on personal narratives, but able to deeply engage and analyze all related aspects. Perhaps this might be one drawback if you’re emphasizing replicable, aggregable researches? I wonder if there are specific criteria to define whether a study is RAD or not?

    • Thank you for sharing these experiences, Hyonbin (I’d be interested to hear the findings of that study on the reading interests and preferences of tweens)! I’m still exploring the RAD realm, but my sense is that there are certainly different modes of research embraced in education research and composition studies – McKinney, in her book pictured above, outlines those modes as “theoretical,” “practitioner,” and “empirical” inquiries – so not all studies are nor need to be RAD. In composition and writing center studies, at least, there seems to be an increasingly firm set of criteria defining what is and is not “RAD,” though the terminology maybe isn’t fixed yet (for instance, McKinney notes that what others call “RAD” she might refer to as “empirical research” or simply “research.”

    • A very helpful chapter by Pat Hudson, “Numbers and Words,” on how to conduct empirical research with literature is in this book, Research Methods for English Studies, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctt1g0b4xz
      CHAPTER 8 Numbers and Words: Quantitative Methods for Scholars of Texts
      (pp. 133-159)
      Pat Hudson

      This chapter considers the virtual absence of statistical techniques and quantitative methods from literature studies and the arts more generally. It starts by defining the nature and boundaries of literary analysis and of literature as a discipline, and asks what encounters with numbers specialists in these areas commonly have. It then explores why there is a tension between quantitative and qualitative approaches to research, and argues that literary studies are impoverished by the continued avoidance of quantification. Finally, some basic computational and statistical procedures and techniques, likely to be useful to literature research, are introduced. It is suggested that these…

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