Notes on 4Cs Research Panel

Last week I went to New Orleans for the largest conference in my field, the Conference on College Composition and Communication (4Cs). The conference is an offshoot of the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English). A lot of acronyms. What follows are some thoughts on a panel I attended that had to do with the research initiatives being built by some of the best thinkers in rhetoric and composition studies.

I took fairly extensive notes during a panel presentation that included Shirley Wilson Logan, Beverly Moss, David Russell, David Pare, Cheryl Glenn, Deborah Brandt, Davida Charney, Andrea Lunsford and Geneva Smitherman. All in all it was wonderful thing to hear from them on the topic of “the barriers to doing and publishing research.”

There was a lot of repetition in the speakers’ responses to the topic: time, variance in institutional expectations, funding. There were several proposals from panel members, too. Below are some highlights.

  • Shirley Wilson Logan began with the topic posed to the panel: “What are the barriers to doing and publishing research?” It depends on what you mean by research, she said, that it’s something we need to think about. Higher education institutions vary. We can’t forget that teaching as research is also valid. She also said that “strategic methodological representation” is also important for considering what’s valuable. All of this relates to funding, research, who assigns value to the work, etc. Colleagues have to have a strong presence in decision-making venues.
  • Beverly Moss wondered how to foster a stronger research organization at 4Cs in order to instill more vigor. She said she was initially wary of this discussion because we haven’t established what constitutes rigor. “Whose work?” she said. “What kind of work will be in favor? Out of favor? Will this be a place where people want to talk about the teaching of writing?” Resources, time, IRB approval– all will continue to be barriers. Institutions are still based on valuing scientific research; qualitative research is difficult, especially ethnographic work. Other barriers include a lack of intellectual community within one’s institution and lack of adequate training (a point Cheryl Glenn echoed). She ended by asking how we can accomplish our agenda without an elitist hierarchy.
  • David Russell proposed two things. The first is that we drop the “Research” category from the CCCC structure, mostly because it’s meaningless. Instead, he suggested that we start a category of “Research Symposia” that would be at least 4 hours, maybe a whole day, to take place on Wednesday just before the conference begins. He said that concurrent workshops or networks or SIGs might “re-baptize” themselves as research symposia to distinguish themselves from other groups that do similar things. Researchers would decide the participants and presenters; presenters share their papers at least a week beforehand so that a good healthy discussion can take place on-site. He also suggested that at least half of the presenters should be graduate students or junior researchers.
  • David Pare began by reminding us that “we don’t write writing. What writing does is that it does things.” He said that when people started to leave the academy and look at writing organically, they started to see not what writing is but what it does, how it affects change, how it organizes human activity. Pare said that we need to move that research into a new area. We have thick descriptions, he said, but we need to understand how to work with that information and affect and change culture. We need to produce texts that affect policy. Pare went on to ask: “How do we make ourselves useful?” Help people get their messages out is a start, he said. Help them understand how their messages are shaping theirs and others’ realities. Problem is, he said, we are a rhetorical diaspora. We immerse ourselves into those communities and end up speaking for and publishing with those people. Therefore the center of our organization gets weakened. “How do we resolve that?” he asked.
  • Cheryl Glenn spoke next about several things, most notably that the research initiative in the Cs has found $42K a year to build a research infrastructure of funding. She also noted that she’d like to see more feminist opportunities across race, class, and the globe. Interestingly, Glenn observed that there aren’t enough methods courses in the field (many of us in the audience agreed). She also said there is too much financial pressure on funding agencies and publishers to be able to accommodate our diverse needs. Finally, she said that there is too much pressure to publish too early in our field.
  • Deb Brandt took a narrative approach by telling a story about when she first began at UW-Madison as a junior scholar twenty years ago. She told a cognitive experimental psychologist that she studies writing, how people write, how they learn to write, etc. He was aghast that she would take on such a task, saying we don’t know enough about the human mind to begin to understand such things. She explained that in her work, she turns to social histories to look for histories of writing, that it is often missing from these accounts, that writing is there but taken for granted. “It’s almost transparent,” she said. Brandt said that in talking about research, we have to remember that we may be the only people around who take on the study of writing. And, we take it on in all of its sprawling complexity. We don’t want to leave anything out collectively. As a field we want it all. Then we add to this fact that we’re the only people studying this and it’s very hard. We’re living in a period in which writing is seeing a radical transformation, often in ways we cannot see or know. Brandt said that these barriers will always be with us, but the question is: “How do we transfer this awareness into strategies? How do we keep complexity and change with us?” (I wanted to run up to the stage and hug Deb at that point.)
  • Davida Charney put forth a provocative statement. How do we emphasize a research culture? “Two words,” she said. “REWARD EXCELLENCE.” She cited Rich Haswell’s 2005 article in CCC that argued that the NCTE and 4Cs are waging a war on rhetoric. There’s a decline in research panels, a decline in replicable, applicable, and data-driven research. Charney stated frankly that it’s a “very sobering sigh how few 4Cs presentations are published ever, anywhere.” A few of us in the audience gulped. She asked: “What can we do to the culture itself? Part of our tropes, our cultural awareness, our identity, has been valorizing certain values at the expense of other values, and they’re not mutually exclusive. We have to rehabilitate our negative tropes– competition, generalization, elitism. You can’t improve quality of research without deeming something ‘excellent.'” We don’t necessarily need to do symposia, but instead we can do a “High Cs Research Track.” You don’t have to prove anything to be called a researcher, but instead you need to submit perhaps a 1000-word abstract. These should be reviewed by people chosen by the editorial boards of other journals in our fields. Feedback should be provided regarding their panels. We should also reward researchers who get their 4Cs stuff published, no matter where. That way everybody can choose whether or not they want to go. If they do, they know they’re getting something they can model if they want to do that kind of work.
  • Andrea Lunsford spoke about building an archive of our own, citing the WAC Clearinghouse as a model. She suggested that we move completely away from sole scholars working on projects, that we work more collaboratively, that we allow for more collaborative dissertations, connect our work to the public good, and spawn more international research.
  • Geneva Smitherman was the last speaker. She said that after we do all our work we have a responsibility to share it. “Don’t leave language in your research laboratory,” she said. The three barriers she sees are insufficient publication outlets. She noted that most journals have huge backlogs. If you couple that with the length of time that reviewers take to get back, you’re looking at nearly 2 years. Therefore we should build up online publications. We need to think about ways of convincing our institutions to consider these as legitimate. (I quietly cheered.) She also asked why we can’t we view convention papers as publication papers in and of themselves. Another barrier is editorial preference, that journals don’t have a variety of topics. Finally, she said that a barrier is professional ethics, that editors have preferences for journals with particular styles and points of view.

There was a lot going on here, but my take-aways were these. The audience began a discussion of Charney’s call to “reward excellence.” Somehow the word “reward” was replaced with the word “rank,” which was unfortunate. What Charney was arguing for was method for setting high standards and then helping the field to achieve those standards. I heard her comments as an argument for rigor and careful critique. Brandt made it clear that we need to recognize and celebrate the difficulty of our task and not take for granted the large body of work we’ve accumulated thus far. Lunsford suggested we begin to build an archive of our work. All of these comments were positive strategies for setting high standards and embracing what we’ve accomplished. I heard Charney’s proposal as one that fit closely with the notion that we need to praise what’s good in our field.

Perhaps not surprisingly, no one but Brandt hinted at the extraordinary change writing is undergoing at the moment. On the contrary, they each revealed their lack of awareness of the roles of technology and social media in writing studies. To be fair, Smitherman called for a legitimization of electronic journals, but only because they are more efficient than print outlets.

It was clear to me that few on the panel understand just how much the world of writing has already changed. Their points about barriers to a more rigorous research culture in our field are well-taken and absolutely true. All of them are right in what they said. But they don’t seem to understand that technology as it relates to writing is not about applications. It’s about implications.

For example, Lunsford mused that we need to encourage collaboration across the globe. I was surprised she didn’t seem to know that it’s already happening. Even more, it’s not that big a deal. It’s just part of a new culture of research in many fields and disciplines outside of English departments. Witness just about any social media network academics are already using regularly, not to mention the extraordinary number of scholars who have carefully crafted their individual web presences in the forms of home pages, blogs, or simple online profiles.

Technology has always been at the heart of writing. We can’t talk about writing without talking too about technology. We have a VERY long way to go in composition and rhetoric, however. As long as we talk about culture–research or otherwise–we must also talk about technology. We cannot afford to continue to see technologies as add-ons to research in writing. They are always already part of what we do, think and act when we write. Digital uses of writing have changed so much that we need to start thinking about writing as part of a culture of virtual environments, not as a decontextualized activity whose natural state is analog.

The culture of virtual environments assumes writing as already part of the plan. Chronicles of what happens in virtual environments are, for the most part, including histories of writing within those spaces. What happens in virtual environments as part of and a result of digital media and technologies is *already* foundational to it. It’s not an add on. Again, it’s not an add on. In virtual environments, writing is part of the package.

The week before I went to Cs I was at the American Educational Research Association’s conference, which I have attended and presented at annually for the past five years. It is always shocking to me how AERA is lightyears ahead of Cs in terms of its quality and rigor of research. And this is an education conference! (Haha.) There’s a lot I could say here about funding, about competition, about access, etc. For a lot of reasons, I won’t do that here. But what I will say is that going to Cs this year–and in particular, going to this panel–has inspired me to push myself to do good work in writing studies. I want to bring the field toward an understanding of just how radical a transformation writing is experiencing right now. I was happy to see that there are some wonderful people in the field already doing that work. When I move on to Arizona State in the fall, I hope to encourage my students to see and experience how writing has changed. That will be my contribution to pushing past barriers to good work in rhetoric and composition studies.

One response to “Notes on 4Cs Research Panel

  1. There’s all sorts of irony and mild disappointment floating around in my head re these comments, most of which I’ll keep to myself. 😉

    But the big thing is that it’s not like they haven’t had people telling them this stuff. I went to the meeting of the research committee last year to try and talk about the piece that I don’t see represented in your notes above, which is circulation. There are already lots of complaints about how there’s too much to keep track of, too many sessions at the conference, too many articles in the field, etc. It’s not that there isn’t enough; it’s that we don’t use the tools that already exist to manage it well. At. All.

    But alot of these solutions sound to me like attempts by the presenters to reward (and/or rank) the work that they themselves perceive themselves as doing. And too many of the solutions that I’ve heard about from folk who are “taking the lead” on building a “research culture” are solutions that reward an old model of the individual researcher, reward certain kinds of research, substitute calls for action in place of actual action, and so forth.

    I think you’re dead on in identifying some of the problems above. I think it’s notable that all of the speakers come from a much older generation of the field than you and I represent. And I think it’s no wonder that many of us, who could really enrich this conversation, seek our juice in other venues, finding little of it in rhetoric and composition.

    Sigh. Sorry I wasn’t able to get to NO, and sorry I missed you…


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