arrow Synthesis and Direction for Research

"By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience which is bitterest." Confusious

Report to My Dissertation Committee, Aug. 2007

Methodological Musings and Defining the Research Question

I am still trying to find my way as far as my methodology. My work so far has been foundational--I need to increase my knowledge of research methodologies in composition as well as previous research done on reflection before I can define my own research project. I believe the work completed this summer has gone a long way in accomplishing this goal, but I am not yet ready to design my dissertation focus and research in specific terms, yet. Hopefully, by next summer I will be ready.

So far, I believe I am up to about 1990 in terms of methodologies in Composition. My detailed study of North's Making Knowledge in Composition (1987) has made me aware of different "modes of inquiry" and methodological communities within the field of Composition. He has helped me become more aware of how knowledge is made within our field and how knowledge is socially sanctioned within a community of inquirers. I'm taking baby steps in this community of inquirers and trying to find my own place within it. I hope, eventually, to have the five elements of an inquiry paradigm as defined by Janet Emig ("Inquiry Paradigms and Writing." CCC. 33, 1982: 64-75):

1) a governing gaze; 2) an acknowledged, or at least conscious, set of assumptions, preferably connected with 3) a coherent theory or theories; 4) an allegiance to an explicit or at least tacit intellectual tradition; and 5)an adequate methodology including an indigenous logic consonant with all of the above. (65)

My tutelage with Stephen North, while illuminating and enormously helpful, represents knowledge-making in our field circa 1985 or so. Much has happened since then. Most significantly, most all the modes of inquiry described by North are positivist in methodological nature. I don't believe that qualitative research methodologies (based more on postmodern assumptions about knowledge) had come into their own yet .

One book I have discovered to be central both to my methodological thinking as well as the subject of my inquiry (reflection) is Louise Wetherbee Phelps' Composition as a Human Science. Methodologically, I believe she charts out in theoretical terms the "stance" (or "gaze") toward experience and knowledge that I will seek in my eventual research design. Rather than knowledge founded upon "science" based upon positivistic assumptions, Phelps charts out "human science" based upon the "interpretive turn" and contextuality. I'm not doing her thinking justice, but the first two chapters (pp. 1-80) explore these dynamics of knowledge and inquiry based on modernist and postmodernist notions. Phelps represents my first step in building from North, and I'm sure will relate to the area of qualitative inquiry in Composition I feel I need to learn more about.

Phelps notions of contextuality also meld nicely with Cindy Johanek's Contexualist Paradigm for Rhetorical and Composition. Johanek offers a complementary inquiry paradigm to Emig's that I hope to emulate as well. Johanek believes that a "meta-epistemological reflection" of context needs to happen before positioning oneself within a mode of inquiry (methodology). She believes the research design should "emerge naturally from the need to know, from a question arising from a particular context that will...lead to the best research method(s) available for answering that question at that moment" (108). I like Johanek also because she is not bound by methodological purity and is open to mixed methods research. So far, I have not done this "meta-epistemological reflection" following her Contextualist Paradigm, but I know that I will use Johanek's grid as I formulate my research design.

As I mentioned, Phelps also articulates the core concept of my inquiry related to reflection. Many other scholars touch on this concept as well, but Phelps discusses it in deep theoretical terms. If we were to shift the focus for Phelps' last chapter in her book from teacher-as-practitioner to student-as-writer you will find exactly the focus I wish to target in my research. I will take two quotes and reframe them from teacher to writer:

The student-writer's own capacity to reflect on experience establishes a dialogic relation between writing practices and organized inquiry, such that they reciprocally motivate, interpret, and limit each other. (208)

(Richard Bernstein explaining Gadamer's thinking)
Bernstein explains: "Phronesis is a form of reasoning and knowledge that involves a distinctive mediation between the universal and the particular. This mediation is not accomplished by any appeal to technical rules or Method (in the Cartesian sense) or by the subsumption of a pregiven determinate universal to a particular case. The 'intellectual virtue' of phronesis is a form of reasoning, yielding a type of ethical know-how in which what is universal and what is particular are codetermined." (215)

My interest in reflection revolves around the belief that it activates this mediation process, this enactment of phronesis and "rhetorical stance" so crucial to effective action (i.e. effective writing). One great surprise in my research was to find how Linda Flower had similar notions about reflection to my own. Two quotes from her last chapter on reflection in The Construction of Negotiated Meaning: A Social Cognitive Theory of Writing summarize her views on reflection:

"Reflection not only supports such meaning making [construct and reconstruct an image of a literate practice], it seems to support a certain kind of construction as well. Reflection allows writers to recognize some of the complexity of their rhetorical situations, to acknowledge and to honor multiple and often conflicting goals. It seems to make action more immediately problematic but more ultimately satisfying" (289).


"Reflection is one place in which writers can acknowledge the affective nature of writing, but because reflection is a step removed from the emotional moment, it allows students to bring some critical distance to problematic feelings and fears and to channel emotional energy into rhetorical action… . They suggest ways that reflection—as an effortful, interpretive, and fallible but strategic process—could motivate a more informed and sustained negotiation of meaning" (268).

Bingo! But let me take it a bit further. Since I am interested, in particular, on reflection within the activity of writing--that is, reflection done between drafts--I am finding that the center of gravity of my inquiry begins to shift toward the subject of revision. Let me rephrase Flower's last statement: They suggest ways that reflection--as an effortful, interpretive, and fallible but strategic process--could motivate a more informed and sustained act of revision. The bridge between reflection and action is a shaky one (as some of the research I reviewed showed), so perhaps my focus will remain on what is happening within the "event" of reflection and make speculative ties toward revision. But my instinct tells me that what is most significant about this topic is exactly its relationship to action. When I saw Kathleen Blake Yancey at the February Rhetoric Symposium conference at Texas A&M, Commerce she made an interesting comment. She said that when they first began examining reflection closely they hoped it would reveal something about revision. What has happened, however, is that reflection has been hijacked (in my opinion) by evaluation. Perhaps my work would return reflection studies to this earlier focus.

What Previous Research Reveals

A review of 31 research and research-related articles on rhetorical reflection reveals a number of general convergences in results (right now, I am not exploring method or methodological convergences). These convergences highlight key areas of interest previous researchers into reflection have had and point to possible directions I may pursue. (Note: All subsequent page references denote places within the Annotated Bibliography on Research on Rhetorical Reflection.)

"Deep reflection" leads to better performance
A number of studies concluded that better or more sophisticated reflection lead to better performance (whether that was writing performance or teaching skill). Anson (3) finds a relationship between writer's proficiency and their blending/shifting of "function in scheme" (i.e. more sophisticated reflective thinking). Likewise, Ellis (10) sees a "cohesive" conception of writing (revealed in reflections) with a deeper approach to writing. Each also notes that more surface or less sophisticated sorts of reflection reveal less proficiency. Each is noting a correlation between deeper reflection and better performance. The other studies that follow this general conclusion are Higgins (16), Kennison (18), and Yeo (38). The larger question is--what significance does this correlation mean?

Reflection is a tool for meaning formation/negotiation, practical wisdom, contextual knowledge and action
Three studies--Flower (13), McAlpine (22), and Peck (27)--brought up at least in their implications that reflection has a significant role to play in the formation and negotiation of meaning and action. This conclusion (or assumption) seems to underly the previous convergence on "deep reflection" as well.

The importance of the affective or emotional in reflection
Mezirow and Moon discuss this element also (often, I think when talking about Habermas and reflection), but amongst this group of sources studies done by Efkides (8) and Shapira (33) highlight the important role affect or feelings and emotion have in impacting reflective judgment. If reflection is in part about validity testing, then this evaluation is not all rational--we make judgments based also on our impressions and feelings. Shapira's research is interesting because she concludes that "affective strategies" have the most important influence on writing quality (this is from a study of 6th graders).

A complicated link between reflection and revision
Studies done by Rijlaaradam (32) and Peck (27) highlight the difficulties in connecting what happens in a reflection and what ultimately happens in a revision. Making a clear cause-effect connection is perilous to do.

Measuring reflection
Multiple studies use some sort of coding scheme to evaluate reflective texts for analysis. These various coding schemes could be prototypes for an eventual coding scheme I could use for Content Analysis of reflections. Anson (3), McAlpine (20), and Raphael (29) probably have the best coding schemes. Beach (4) and Yancey (37) are also excellent, but they are evaluating self-evaluation texts (roughly equivalent to reflections). Yancey has a scheme similar to Ansons, and Beach's is interesting because he presents results on productive self-evaluations that could then be used as the basis for forming a coding scheme. The one critical voice regarding the measuring and analyzing of reflections is Sumsion who strongly disagrees with the quantitative measurement of reflection (however, she bases this conclusion on a suspect study of her own).

Future Directions

This summer's effort has not materialized any set of clear research questions or deliberate research designs (as I had wished). Although as an exercise I have created sketches of possible research projects based upon each of North's eight modes of inquiry, I do not have a serious set of research designs for you to review.

I have a number of choices to make first before I can begin getting at the subject of my inquiry with different researching probes.

1) What truly is the focus of my inquiry?
2) Based upon a close examination of the context (using the Contextualist Research Paradigm grid), what will be the methodological gaze through which I investigate my subject?

In all likelihood, the focus for my time at next May's Workshop will be to define my answer to these two questions as I prepare my pre-dissertation proposal and reading list for you Summer 2008. During this Fall and Spring, I will continue to think and work on these things:

  1. Continue to learn more about the current "context" within Composition by reading current journals and attending conferences (TYCA, NCTE, and CCCC).
  2. Seek out scholarship on resent research in composition, so that I can build a more contemporary understanding of composition research than North's conception.
  3. Continue to percolate my ideas and my focus.

My Fall class will be Foundations of Technical Communication, and if possible I will seek to use some aspects of this class to further my research agenda. However, in the Spring I will be taking Writing Program Administration, and I hope that I may be able to pursue a project that also pushes my inquiry further along.

I welcome your input on my thinking at this point and your assistance in furthering my inquiry.


Lirvin Researching | Site created by Lennie Irvin, San Antonio College (2007) | Last updated August 30, 2007