Re-thinking Research Methods

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I’ve been thinking a lot about research this past year, and especially so as I prepared a brief presentation for the Feminisms and Rhetorics Conference held at Spelman College in the fall of 2023. In that presentation, I traced my own journey toward learning about, and then learning to question—and eventually to expand—research methods in our field. My aim as always is to bring these issues back to our classrooms, to bring debates and re-thinking in our field to our students and in this case, particularly, to change the ways students think about and carry out the still-going-strong “research-based assignment.” 



Here is the opening of the presentation I gave at Fem/Rhets (I will share more in the next couple of weeks along with my most current thinking about student research and researchers):

Flash way back to the 1970s when I was in graduate school. There were no courses in rhetoric or writing studies when I got there (and only a few when I left in 1977), and there were no courses, really, on methods. Close reading was THE method, and we were expected to come in knowing how to deploy that one. I eventually took a course on quantitative and qualitative methods, though it was not in my department but in Communications. And I found a guide book, Statistics without Tears, that I used to help me design some fairly lame studies that I used in my dissertation on Basic Writing. That was it. I can’t remember anyone ever talking about comparative methods, or about what later seemed to be obvious pitfalls of any methods that grew out of positivism. Much less about feminist methods. But I was interested in, and worried about, HOW we were doing what we were doing, and so I kept thinking and fretting about these issues as I began my college teaching career at the University of British Columbia. By the time I got to Ohio State in late 1986, I had a list of questions, and I used these questions to design a graduate course on research methods in rhetoric and writing. We read Janice Lauer and others (such as Richard Young) on quantitative methods but spent much of our time defining qualitative methods for ourselves and trying to shape what we came up with to feminist ends. 

While we were doing this course—in 1991 I think—we had a chance to read a pre-publication copy of Gesa Kirsch and Patricia Sullivan’s Methods and Methodology in Composition Research—a collection of 14 essays that discussed historical, theoretical, and—ta-da!—feminist scholarship as well as case study and ethnographic research, textual analysis, and cognitive, experimental, and descriptive research. Other essays touched on collaborative research and writing (a pet project of mine and Lisa Ede’s) and the politics of comp research. What a huge change from my own grad student days 18 years earlier! Our class was inspired to write a collaborative review of this forthcoming book, doing some interviewing of our own and grounding what we had to say in feminist principles of standpoint theory and narrative framing. 

This period saw a proliferation of articles and books about method and methodology, especially on ethnography and, later, autoethnography—accompanied by a vigorous debate between proponents of qualitative and quantitative methods that at times became rancorous.

So as you can tell, I was a pretty slow learner in those days, though the more I learned how to use quantitative methods especially, the more questions I had about their efficacy in terms of writing research. And I was learning that qualitative methods contained restrictions that seemed somehow inadequate to the goals of the kinds of research needed for our field.

Next week, I will continue this saga, which is giving me a chance to look back over my fifty-plus years in the field and assess my changing understanding of research methodologies. Please stay tuned!


Broadmoor, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.