Response to “Numbers, Narratives, and He Vs. She: Issues of Audience in Composition Research”
The forth chapter of Cindy Johanek’s book Composing Researchfocuses on arguments against the traditional research paradigm, which to many compositionists is considered to be male-dominated, written in a disinteresting style, and unpleasant to read and write. According to Johanek, moving forward from the “traditional research” paradigm, and towards acceptance of qualitative research and storytelling, allows for more diverse researchers to express their voices. The chapter focuses on three sources of arguments against the traditional research model: general anxiety about mathematics and statistics, feminist response to that older model, and our preference for writing that is more creative and literary than the standard research report (57). Throughout the entire chapter, however, there is the overlapping of Johanek’s opinion that research methods relying on numerical data should remain valuable and continues to have an important place in composition research.
Johanek first focuses on the general anxiety of mathematics and statistics. Math provides insight and enhances our understanding, but many compositionists seem to avoid research that deals with statistical analysis. Why? One reason that Johanek offers is that numbers are often seen as being in a separate world than people, and compositionists are in the business of “people stories”. Johanek cites many examples of researchers who apologize for their use of numbers and who sometimes do the work of collecting the data, but don’t share that data with readers. In “Counting Beans and Making Beans Count” (1997) Lerner apologizes to readers by writing that he is aware that “numbers can obscure” and that they can “reduce those complex human beings…down to manageable integers” (59). He does this because he is aware of his dual audience. On one hand, his research complies with the needs of administrators—“college administrators often want numbers, digits, and results”. On the other hand, Lerner is writing to an audience of his peers, compositionists and those who are interested in Writing Center work (59).
Some researchers go further than apologizing for their data, sometimes they completely leave it out. Both Fitzgerald, Mulvhill, and Dobson (1991) and Hunzer (1997) are examples of researchers that gathered data but didn’t share it. In the case of Fitzgerland et. al., the authors referred to their survey but didn’t report any of the quantitative data produced by that survey. Hunzer formed an entire data analysis around five in-person student interviews and not from the responses of the thirty-nine survey responses. One may ask, what is the purpose of doing the work of compiling the data, if a researcher doesn’t use it? Is this a manipulation of data? Or is it the author’s right to have a voice and to not feel forced to report statistics in their research? Perhaps one might argue that it is enough that the researcher leaned something by collecting the data…
Johanek suggests that it should not come as a surprise that some researchers seem to shy away from statistics and mathematics because research textbooks in the field of composition often ignore math too. She goes on to cite some examples of composition research textbooks that refer readers elsewhere to learn statistics on their own. Many have a list of suggested readings in the appendix. And while none of the textbooks that Johanek mentions are statistics textbooks, they did review research methods that relied on statistical analysis. Johanek argues that without walking readers through the basic procedures to help them understand the logic of statistical concepts, definitions offered by these texts can be confusing or vague (66-67). She warns that math related anxiety is not uncommon in a field more concerned with words than numbers and lack of confidence can sometimes lead to avoidance.
The next argument that Johanek tackles is that of feminist response to the traditional research paradigm. She notes that for years, feminists have been criticizing science and scientific thought because of the male domination of the science fields, society’s general acceptance that science is power, and the long standing social expectation that women should engage in humanities and the arts rather than analytical sciences (68). Johanek points out that feminists and non-feminists alike can ask feminist and non-feminist research questions, both men and women can engage in feminist inquiry, and feminist contributions can aid our understanding of both men and women, and the power struggle that we live in (69). She also notes that it would be a mistake to choose a research method only because some topics seem better suited to women or avoid others because of their male-dominated history.
For some, the inclusion of women and women’s issues involves a change in methodology. Masculine thought is thought to focus on the objective, the data, and the procedures. So for many, research that involves a lot of numerical data embodies a set of masculine values (71). According to Johanek, we now seek different methods that seem to embrace the “personal journey” and allow for emotion. Harding (1987) proposed three characteristics of feminist inquiry: focuses on the issues important to women, grounds inquiry in women’s experiences, and personally involves the researcher (72). Yet when Kirsch (1993) constructed her research according to these principles and later apologized for her traditional looking research, she inadvertently implied that traditional research is never based on experience, never involves the researcher, and never examines feminist research questions (74).
Lastly, Johanek explores our preference for narrative, noting that even when numbers and narratives are combined, narratives are sometimes given more weight. Enos (1996) is quoted as saying, “I believe our stories, more than statistics, tell who we are” (75). Storytelling, Johanek argues, is a form that writing teachers naturally gravitate towards, and it serves as the primary selling point of methods such as ethnography. Later it is also noted that storytelling has the power to construct our identities as teachers and as writers. Cultural narratives involve the researcher as a part of the research itself; here, the author, more than the method, controls the texts. And this shift, away from method and toward the author, allows for the feature of emotion (79-80). This is what draws in composition researchers. According to Paulos (1995), “It is easier to react emotionally, more natural” (80). So, we avoid mathematical, rational, and statistical methods because it’s difficult, and the emotional is easier and feels more natural.
In summary, Johanek warns readers to be careful not to dismiss methods that rely on numerical data. This type of research is not necessarily anti-women, anti-humanist, or anti-creative. All research, and the way it is taught, has the potential to “include the feminist, to understand mathematics as a storytelling language, and to include narrative as a foundation for, and an extension of, research in relation to experience and practice” (82-83).
1. Does Lerner (or any of these researchers) really need to justify his methodology? Is he apologizing because he is writing to two different audiences at once? Can apologies be used to manipulate readers?
2. What is your reaction to researchers leaving out some or most of their data? Is it a waste of time? Could it be enough that they may have learned something in the process? Could this also be a manipulation? What about the argument for voice?
3. Statistics is needed to convert data into information. How much of a background should composition researchers have?
4. Moving forward into your own research, what, if anything, did you take away from reading this chapter?