Post written by 5 minute read
September 27, 2011

Trip Report: The Dartmouth Seminar on Composition Research

contributed by Tim Laquintano

In American higher education, writing instruction has been historically localized in English departments. This legacy has presented barriers for advocates of WAC and WID, who have pushed to develop programs that distribute writing instruction across the curriculum. If that legacy has created problems for the teaching of writing, though, it’s also created problems for writing research. The kinds of empirical research questions WPAs might need to address in their home institutions don’t always square with the textual and historical methods often taught in English departments, where many of those rhetoric and writing PhDs have trained. That’s the writing studies methods conundrum, although programs certainly have developed localized responses to this issue. Some PhD programs have split from English departments into stand alone departments, a move that might provide more robust opportunities for diverse methods training. Other programs, like the program I graduated from at UW-Madison, provide composition-specific methods courses, and then encourage students to bolster their methods by taking courses in other departments, like education.

Held for the first time last August at Dartmouth’s Institute for Writing and Rhetoric, the Dartmouth Seminar on Composition Research was designed to help sharpen the methods of composition researchers, with some participants in attendance because they have experienced manifestations of the methods conundrum in their own scholarly lives. The tacit assumption that seemed to float through the seminar was that writing studies needs to sharpen its methods (to be fair, writing studies is not the only relatively young discipline where I’ve heard complaints about methods; I’ve heard similar complaints at internet studies conferences). As Charles Bazerman pointed out in the seminar introduction, we need more carefully articulated methods for the sake of local administration projects, national intervention (where statistics is the coin of the realm), and interdisciplinary collaboration. This is especially important in international contexts, as European writing research comes from applied linguistics, and interdisciplinary collaboration requires carefully articulated methods.

The seminar consisted of an intense two weeks of group classes and individual meetings with workshop facilitators. Workshops offered perspectives on both qualitative and quantitative methods. Twenty-six people attended, some of whom were faculty and some of whom were graduate students. Christiane Donahue, the workshop organizer, coordinated an immaculate and extremely rigorous seminar. She collected information about our projects months in advance to create relevant programming and generate reading lists. She kept a loaded program on track, and she scheduled some of the major writing studies methods gurus as facilitators.

We began with some virtual sessions months in advance of the seminar. On site, Charles Bazerman began the seminar talking about general approaches to methods and methods as a series of principled choices made in situ. Cheryl Geisler then spent three days teaching a tightly focused discourse analytic method of qualitative coding, which included individual consultations with Geisler almost every day to talk progress. Geisler’s approach made me think hard about segmenting qualitative data for analysis, especially because the grounded approach I use has far less to say about how such data should segmented. Even though I am developing a coding scheme via grounded theory for my own research, Geisler’s system will surely be useful in the future, and it made me reexamine all of the assumptions I have made about the schema I currently use.

Drawing a crowd early on a Saturday morning, Chris Anson and Les Perelman gave an excellent seminar on writing program assessment, and Perelman gave a separate but equally fascinating seminar on the shaky use of statistics that the College Board uses to argue for the validity of the writing portion of the SAT. Christiane Donahue ran a discussion on writing and knowledge transfer. Christina Haas gave two sessions, one about nonparametric statistics, and one about research ethics. Finally, Donahue tapped into Dartmouth resources and drew on faculty and staff members to run sessions on statistics, data visualization, and working with review boards and institutional research offices.

I tended to pay close attention to my methods in graduate school, and I received good training from my own program in the English department and from the education department. I attended the Dartmouth seminar because in the past year I collected a large new qualitative data set that generated some specific issues I needed to address before I began analysis. The centerpiece for me was thus opportunities for individual consultations with the facilitators. I came looking for help sorting out analytic procedures for the seventy-some interviews I have now completed with three vastly disparate groups of writers. I had opportunities to meet with the faculty and have extensive conversations about the data set. In addition I met with facilitators about undergraduate research and an article in process. These consultations aligned with the general philosophy Christiane Donahue had for the seminar: each participant should use the seminar to do what was best for his/her project.

From what I understood, there are plans for the seminar to be an annual event. I assume it’s most appropriate for advanced graduate students, junior faculty members, and faculty looking to retool. I suspect it will be most helpful if you have advanced far enough on a project to know what kind of methodological problems you are having. Again the structure of the seminar and Christiane Donahue’s work to tailor the seminar will make it profitable for a wide range of participants. I feel like I received good methods training in graduate school and I still learned something every day. I’m hoping this year will be just the first in a long string of methods seminars, and if you can secure funding from your institution, it’s well worth the time and effort for those looking to shape a large project.

My greatest regret will be having missed the scene from the first seminar that may become the subject of lore: Charles Bazerman belting out tunes in tenor accompanied by two seminar participants.