By Angela 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.”
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.
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!