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Last week, I began describing the journey I’ve been on for about 50 years now, one in which I first tried to master (or at least understand!) traditional research methods in our field, but then went on to begin questioning many of these methods and searching for more expansive and inclusive understandings of what it means to do research on writing and rhetoric in our time. Here's the next installments of these thoughts:
In the late 80s and early 90s, then, I was on my personal journey to try to think about “research” and research methods in what for me were expansive, but still inadequate ways. I remember reading, and teaching, Jackie Royster’s 1996 Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells the year it was published (and many years after that). And then in 2000 her Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women and Shirley Logan’s 1999 We Are Coming: The Persuasive Discourse of Nineteenth Century Black Women and seeing the kind of passionate, engaged research Jackie and Shirley were conducting, what methods they were using as they were redefining what research in writing studies could and should look like and helping me to expand my understanding in ways that were transformational. Later, books like Gesa Kirsch and Liz Rohan’s Beyond the Archives: Research as a Lived Process (2008), Kate Ronald and Joy Ritchie’s Teaching Rhetorica: Theory, Pedagogy, Practice (2006), and Eileen Schell and K. J. Rawson’s Rhetorica in Motion: Feminist Rhetorical Methods and Methodologies (2010) helped me to further articulate the kind of research I wanted to practice—and teach my students to practice.
And then came Jackie Royster and Gesa Kirsch’s 2012 Feminist Rhetorical Practices, so richly informed by feminist—and Black feminist—thought. I remember sitting with that book and then reading it with pen in hand, underlining and annotating, talking to and with it. Fully taking in what “critical imagination,” “strategic contemplation,” “social circulation,” and a “global perspective” mean as methods, as ways of knowing and of making meaning. Seeing how these four practices could broaden not only what “counts” as research but who “counts” as researchers and research subjects and scenes. Then tracking back over all of Jackie’s work that I had read, and returning to my hero since 1977, Geneva Smitherman—the divine Dr. G., whose Talkin’ and Testifyin’ electrified me but that I now understood, methodologically, on a much deeper level. I was still learning, still being challenged to rethink what constitutes methods in our field, and who gets to decide.
During these years I was also learning from teachers, students, and researchers from the Navajo nation, with whom I had an opportunity to work at the Bread Loaf School of English and its Teacher Network. I vividly remember one research project Navajo youth undertook to learn about how elders in their community had dealt with crises in their lives. To do so, the young people planned to talk individually with elders and were, at first, referring to the “interviews” they might conduct. That is until an elder asked them to think about that word “interview” and its connotations, suggesting that the word didn’t seem to fit well with Navajo ways of thinking and learning. After thinking about the baggage the word “interview” seemed to carry, the group decided against the use of that term and that method, adopting instead “conversation” to characterize the interactions they planned to have—the method they intended to use.
These Navajo researchers as well as scholars like Jackie Royster, Shirley Logan, and Beverly Moss have led me to rethink almost everything I do, from teaching to research to program administration, and so much more. Jackie’s latest book, Making the World a Better Place: African American Advocates, Activists , and Leaders, 1773-1900 (2023) is part of that “so much more.” In this monumental volume, Royster argues that the advocacy and activism of everyday African American women—far from being on the margins—were at the very heart of efforts to build and sustain this nation—not just during the civil rights movement but from their earliest presence here in 1619. What it takes to demonstrate this truth is, in Royster’s words, “to have enough imagination and fortitude to search for evidence from wherever it may be located and to extend the scope of analysis and interpretation to account for these data” and furthermore to use “a multi-lensed theoretical and analytical viewpoint” that focuses on “intersections of gender [and sexuality], race, culture, class, power, and place” in order to “bring a more fully rendered sociohistorical texture to the rhetorical actions” of these women and “to take into account their standpoints as a particular set of stakeholders within community and nation-building processes" (4). Throughout this book, moreover, Royster—herself an advocate and activist and leader—employs the words of the African American women, enabling them to speak for themselves in articulating their ways of being and doing in social spaces.
It goes without saying, though I want to underscore it here, that I have been incredibly fortunate to have studied and learned from now going on three generations of scholars of color and that my own work is indebted to them in countless ways, particularly when it comes to understanding the relationships among research, researcher, and researched. I’m still learning, of course, and next week I’ll try to sum up where I stand on research methodology in writing studies today .
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