Thursday, February 28, 2008

Asking the Wrong Questions?

I want to do some "methodological musings" here that relate to both our class reading and my own research interest. I'll first frame my interest in methodology. I am at a stage in my PhD work where I need to define more specifically what I will research and how I will go about researching it. I will need to define my "research question" as well as my philosophy for investigating phenomenon and "making knowledge" from that investigation (in other words, my methodology). My focus of interest is on reflections done between drafts, so my research question is roughly, "What is the role of reflection within the activity of writing?"

Stephen North uses the term "mode of inquiry" in his book The Making of Knowledge in Composition. He offers this rather broad definition of "mode of inquiry": "modes of inquiry--the whole series of steps an inquirer follows in making a contribution to a field of knowledge--as they operate within methodological communities: groups of inquirers more or less united by their allegiance to one such mode, to an agreed-upon set of rules for gathering, testing, validating, accumulating and distributing what they regard as knowledge" (1). Interestingly, North frames validity in methodologies as a social construct: "An inquiry produces knowledge to the extent to which it is sanctioned by some community of inquirers"(276). That means if the community validates quantitative, experimental designed studies, then that is what makes "knowledge" for that group. The mechanics of forming belief are socially derived.

North may be right; however, I believe that we might philosophically be able to claim one methodology as better for studying a particular subject or phenomenon than another methodology. The key is what is being studied. Is the subject of study something that fits within what Fred has called "closed systems" or "open systems?" Does this object operate within defined and repeated "laws" of behavior such as we might see in chemistry? Fred summarizes this "scientism" or positivism with this quote:

"The principal method of investigation, which has been exceedingly successful in the last four centuries, has been to isolate significant elements of a repeating natural event and determine cause and effect, combining minute elements in ever larger hierarchies until the specific cause or causes of major events can be understood."

However, not all phenomena is "mechanical" or fitting within constraints of these closed systems. In contrast, some systems are "open" and here is where Prigogine and Stengers make a startling statement:

"while some parts of the universe may operate like machines, these are closed systems, and closed systems, at best, form only a small part of the physical universe. Most phenomena of interest to us are, in fact, open systems, exchanging energy or matter (and, one might add, information) with their environment. Surely biological and social systems are open, which means that the attempt to understand them in mechanistic terms is doomed to failure."

Fred goes on to point to Complexity Theory as theorizing these open systems and stating: "Complexity Theory has shown that complex, self-organizing, adaptive systems behave in ways completely unamenable to the investigative activities of how most scientists have always done science." If we consider that language and language use, especially the act of meaning making through written language is a complex, open system, we are doomed to failure to seek mechanistic, cause-effect answers to language use. For instance, a question like "What effect does reflection have on students' revisions?" would be the wrong kind of answer. The system, the variables, the multiple subjects and multiple ways in which phenomena is influenced and received is too complex to determine any sort of cause-effect relationship that would hold up.

Louise Wetherbee Phelps in her book Composition as a Human Science makes this same point. She has an excellent critique of scientism and positivism in her first chapter, and she also contrasts that method of research and knowing with what she calls "human sciences." She looks to hermeneutics, to interpretation, as a generator of understanding (rather than knowledge as fact) and develops a "third way" with fairly elaborate sources and arguments.

So we come back to this question: What are we after learning or knowing through research? What can we go after through research of language and teaching? By what methodologies will we guide our research investigations? How do we study these open, complex systems? While I can't definitely say what the alternative is, it seems clear that a hypo-deductive method, a test for cause-effect approach, a study premised on mechanistic, closed system assumptions would be in appropriate for studying reflection. It would be doomed for failure.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Skills Debate

from a post to my 5365 class wiki in response to Deanna's post about a chapter by Lil Brannon on functional and critical literacy titled "(Dis)Missing Compulsory First-Year Composition" in the collection edited by Joseph Petragalia Reconceiving Writing, Rethinking Writing Instruction

This is a great post Deanna, and I think your summary of Brannon's chapter is really interesting. Knoblauch and Brannon did some great work in the 1980s-90s. Brannon is still around at UNC I think. I saw her at NCTE year before last. I want to add some perspective on the functional and critical literacy debate or we could call it skills vs critical literacy. Brannon's wonderful quote ("Limiting literacy to grammatical competence and designing a sequential curriculum based on the mastery of skills, although it appears streamlined, efficient, and accountable, does not offer students insight into how writers and readers actually use those abilities when composing") is exactly the argument that James Moffet makes in Teaching the Universe of Discourse. He uses the dynamic between "structure" and "substance." His use of those terms is rather complex, but one is dynamic and the other static (substance as skills). He basically is saying that because writing is an activity--not a subject--we need to learn it by doing the activity. Engaging in the dynamics of this activity is the only and best way to learn it. He is clear in his rebuttal of turning English into a subject like biology or history with a lot of facts and content to learn. Such learning turns the structure of discourse into a substance, in his words. I'm not doing a good job of summarizing Moffett. Looking back at chapter 1 in his book, I see how radical his position is and how the awareness of that position is nearly gone now. Let me quote a bit from him:

"How much is teaching English a matter of covering content, and how much a matter of developing skills, which are independent of any particular matter? Frequently, the dilemma has been resolved by claiming that certain contents are essential to learning skills. That is--to write one must know, as information, certain linguistic codifications and facts of composition; to read literature, one must be told about prosody and 'form.' But learning 'form' this way is really learning content, and the result is quite different than if the student practices form or feels it invisibly magnetized the whole curriculum. Learning and learning how to result in very different kinds of knowledge"(3).

Sorry for the long quote, but I think it is worth it because this is an old and large debate. Plato in the Phaedrus debates whether rhetoric is an art or a science. Cicero, too, debates it and you find Aristotle discussing it. I think they were talking about the same issue of how we learn to write or speak or in larger terms to effectively use language. Is this linguistic action a SUBJECT (techne) that we can codify and determine as knowledge? Or is it predominantly an art, and activity (dynamis). Aristotle in the beginning of the Rhetoric comes out and says it most certainly is a "subject." We can study the speeches of effective rhetors and codify and systemitize what they have done. However, classical rhetors are also clear that rhetoric or communication can't be reduced to rules--it is an art (let me admit, I am a bit fuzzy on these debates because it has been a while, but they seem to bounce around with their terms probably due to translation between rhetoric as art or science). By "art" I mean a capacity of excellence in activity. It is how well you perform the action. What is "tennis" by comparison? Is it an academic subject we can study and be tested on? Or is it an activity? Well, we could study tennis and read a lot of books about it, and it might help us play a bit better. However, tennis predominantly is an activity, it is an action, an engagement of skills not an abstract knowledge of those skills.

So the question is how do you get better at tennis, or communication? Do you first need to learn skills (the basics) before you can engage in the activity? How do you learn the activity?

Petraglia is pretty engaged with post-process notions of writing and communication coming from Thomas Kent who has the position that writing is unteachable. Hah! The post-process position is a rather extreme one that privileges writing as an activity and that the contingencies of communication and context are so great that no fixed knowledge of writing is of any use in these contingent situations. They use horrible terms like paralogic hermeneutics. Ugg. My critique of their position is that we always position ourselves within each situation by an adaptation or interpellation between what we "know" and the specifics of this particular context. It is the dialectic between theory and practice. Theory represents abstract "knowledge" that we have to apply within particular situations by our practice. The post-process folks would pull the rug out from under any notion of "knowledge" or abstract theory. At least that's my reading. Postmodern critics discuss ideas of "dangling phronesis." That is, practical wisdom--the meeting of specific situations in a fitting and ethical way--comes from no fixed "foundational" basis. It is all a game, made up to fit the moment and the specific context.

However, phronesis (the high art of wisdom behind any action, including writing) is not in my opinion dangling. We form our judgments on the basis of something. Which brings us back to skills! Do we need to "know" certain skills before we are able to engage in an activity effectively? Do we learn these skills independent of the activity? Plato interestingly in the end of the Phaedrus resolves that there are some "preliminaries of the art" that must be known before one becomes an effective rhetor. Cicero believed that only the most learned and wise person could have the knowledge to become an effective rhetor. Moffett and Ann Berthoff critize the developmental model of skills development. For instance, they don't think much of the notion that the way to learn to write is incrementally-- learn parts of speech, grammar, sentence, then paragraphs, and finally full essays. Most of the Developmental English textbooks have this developmental model (Paragraphs to Essays!). Bertoff says the flaw in this argument is that people apply a model of how we learn motor development to linguistic development. Language is not like learning a motor skill. We don't learn to "make meaning" by learning how to construct a sentence first. She would say that we learn to write better sentence as we make meaning.

As far as this debate about skills and "skills acquisition," I am on the side of both/and rather than either/or. I believe with Plato that a degree of knowledge about the preliminaries of the art is essential, but I also believe that this knowledge needs to be gained from engagement with the activity. It should be a mix. Grammar instruction, for instance, should be anchored in the students own writing. But it doesn't hurt to study and "know" a bit about some rules about comma usage for instance. This "study" should be intertwined with their activity of writing, though--not separated from it in extensive grammar worksheets or drills.

Where I am less sure about skills and skills acquisition is in the early years. I have watched my sons get hammered with learning particular "facts" about language such as phongrams or spelling or parts of speech, worksheet after worksheet. Is their eventual skill in writing based upon building this foundation of skills and knowledge? Are we able to talk about the "art" of writing or talk about strategies of composing only when these skills and bits of knowledge are in place? How does our curriculum and theory of learning grow from what students have done throughout their school years?

Thanks for baring with my long post...