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CHAPTER II

TOWARD AN EPISTEMOLOGY FOR RESPONSE RESEARCH

 

Overview

Any postmodern discussion must, by definition, begin with epistemology. Postmodernists want their interlocutors to make clear their presuppositions from the outset, including what world view they represent, what will count as knowledge in their arguments, and what criteria will be used to test this knowledge. In this chapter, I begin by explaining this postmodern concern with epistemology, and then proceed to discuss the two major epistemologies competing for control in the late 20th century. Finally, I show how this paradigmatic battle affects teacher response theory, and I point out the implications for my own study.

 

Noetic Fields, Epistemes, and Paradigms

"A Rhetoric is a social invention," writes James Berlin. "It arises out of a time and place, a peculiar social context, establishing for a period the conditions that make a peculiar kind of communication possible, and then it is altered or replaced by another scheme" ("Rhetoric and Reality" 1). Berlin calls these changing rhetorical schemes noetic fields. He says that noetic fields have their own distinctive concepts of reality, human nature and language. A noetic field is "a closed system defining what can, and cannot, be known; the nature of the knower, the nature of the relationship between the knower, the known, and the audience; and the nature of language" (2).

Closely tied to Berlin's noetic field are Michel Foucault's concept of episteme and Thomas Kuhn's idea of paradigm. According to Foucault, history is not a unified whole that can be explained by transcendent themes (the idea of democracy beginning in the Greek city-states and culminating in the American experiment, for instance), but is characterized by disunity and chaos. In place of transcendent themes, one has temporary "domains" of experience, where the economic and political powers determine both the nature and methodology of knowledge (both what can be known and how one can know it). To Foucault, there are no objective facts, only "subjectivities," which are interpretations or perceptions of reality created and sanctioned by the ruling episteme. Foucault is especially concerned with what is invisible in any given episteme, with what is missing because it has been left unsaid or unwritten.

Similarly, philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn, calls into question the whole idea of a unified and growing body of scientific knowledge, which is created incrementally over time as researchers employ the scientific method. Rather, Kuhn says that scientists also work under epistemes (Kuhn calls them "paradigms"), where only certain theories and experiments are allowed by the powers in control (the accepted scientific authorities of the era). Kuhn says that new knowledge comes by "revolution" when an "anomaly" (something that cannot be explained by the current paradigm) becomes so pronounced that it can no longer be ignored. Thus, Kuhn, with Foucault and Berlin, sees knowledge as contingent, not on objective external reality, but on the epistemology by which one chooses to approach that reality. By implication, these scholars challenge researchers to explain up-front what will count as knowledge in their studies and what methodologies will be used to discover it. Thus, I begin this dissertation with a discussion of the two major competing paradigms in the late 20th century, which are battling for control in both composition studies and teacher response theory. In analyzing these, I point our their relationships to my own study and make clear the epistemological assumptions that are informing my research.

 

Postmodern Advantages

Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962; Michael Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge was published in 1969, and Berlin penned Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges in 1987. Together with such scholars as Richard Rorty in philosophy, R. K. Merton in sociology, G. H. Mead in anthropology, Jaques Derrida in linguistics, Stanley Fish in literary criticism and Carolyn Miller and Paul Dombrowski in technical communication; these authors represent a shift of paradigm in the late 20th century from "modernism" to "postmodernism." The opposing paradigms can be understood best by contrasting their epistemologies. Modernism, following the scientific method of the 18th century and the logical positivism philosophy of the 19th century, sees reality in terms of objective facts, clearly obvious to anyone trained in the given field, who will examine them objectively and accurately, without personal bias. Postmodernism, on the other hand, believes that such objectivity is impossible. Commenting on postmodern epistemology, Carolyn Miller writes,

This epistemology has been developed at length in the journals of rhetoric and philosophy, and I will not attempt a full discussion here. Briefly summarized it holds that whatever we know of reality is created by individual action and by communal assent. Reality cannot be separated from our knowledge of it; knowledge cannot be separated from the knower; the knower cannot be separated from a community. Facts do no exist independently, waiting to be found and collected and systematized; facts are human constructions which presuppose theories. We bring to the world a set of innate and learned concepts which help us select, organize, and understand what we encounter. (615)

For the purposes of my research (since most English teachers get their training in literature rather than composition), it is important to understand the clash of modernism and postmodernism in literary theory, which is basically a clash between New Criticism and Reader Response theories.

 

Persons over Text

Led by scholars such as Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, and Cleanth Brooks (Guerin et al. 62), the New Critics shaped literary theory in the middle of the 20th century. Employing the objectivity of their counterparts in the sciences, they sought meaning in the "thing itself," in this case, the text of a literary piece. The New Critics found the "truth" in literature by avoiding the intentional fallacy (a concern for the author's original intention) and the affective fallacy (a concern for the effect of the work on readers). Opposing the New Critics in the latter half of the century were postmodern scholars such as Stanley Fish who challenged the very idea of objectivity. In Fish's view no text can be interpreted in a vacuum, but is necessarily influenced by the reader or readers, who "create" the text as they interact with it and with each other. To Fish and other reader response theorists, the text can never be known objectively and uniformly because readers themselves are neither objective nor uniform. In other words, meaning does not reside in things (text) but in people. As Stephen Axley puts it, "Words don't mean; people do" (432). This privileging of people over text may be the most important postmodern contribution to teacher response theory, and as such, is the cornerstone of my research. The principle has at least four corollaries that are pertinent to my study. These include a place for debate about ethics, which has no room in a discussion where language is neutral; a problematizing of communication, where the role of persons makes communication more complex; the introduction of new researchers and new methodologies, unrecognized by the modern paradigm; and a healthy introspection, where researchers realize that they too are part of the communication problem.

 

Ethics and Language

Philosophical positivism left little room for a consideration of ethics in scientific investigation, especially as related to the use of language itself. Since research sought to present "only the facts" in a scientifically objective language (no editorializing or personal opinions), then scientific reports were thought to be value-neutral. Translated into teacher response, this means that a teacher commenting on a student paper makes no ethical statement by the words she chooses to convey her assessments ("Comma splice," "Fragment," or the ubiquitous "Awk" are simply statements of fact). Yet as technical communication researchers such as Paul Dombrowski have pointed out, even scientific statements of fact can be biased. Analyzing the report of the Rogers' Commission, which found that procedural rather than human problems caused the Challenger explosion, Dombrowski accused the investigators of using language to cover up individual responsibility. "Simply put," writes Dombrowski, "they saw what they expected to see" ("Lessons of the Challenger" 215). Of course, such an insight would come as no surprise for those trained in rhetoric, for as early as Aristotle, rhetoricians have studied the power of language to persuade an audience. Twentieth century rhetor Richard Weaver puts it succinctly: "We are all of us preachers in private or public capacities. We have no sooner uttered words than we have given impulse to other people to look at the world, or some part of it, in our way" (212). Thus, postmodern teacher response theorists know that teacher comments are more than mere statements of facts. Using Weaver's term, they are "sermonic." Depending on the context, statements such as "Awk" could be used to demean a race or to silence a gender (as when "awk" is placed beside an ethnic colloquialism or beside a female's use of the third person feminine pronoun). Consequently, in my study I will look at student response to such phrases to determine not only if students explicitly understand them, but to discover the ethical implications of any implicit messages they might carry.

 

Complex Communication

In Managerial and Organizational Communication in Terms of the Conduit Metaphor, Stephen Axley argues that most scholars in the field of communication, as well as the major textbooks of the discipline, present a "conduit metaphor" to explain the communication process. The three major assumptions of this metaphor are : "(1) people insert thoughts and feelings in words, (2) words contain the thoughts and feelings, and (3) people extract the thoughts and feelings from words" (430). Axley's point is that the metaphor contradicts most contemporary theory (postmodern insights) of communication, which, rather than placing meaning in the intention of the author or speaker and the words he or she chooses to convey this meaning, locates meaning in the audience: "Communication does not involve the transfer of meanings from person to person. Rather, the listener or reader creates them in his or her mind" (431). Axley says that the conduit metaphor has created a false confidence and complacency in organizational communication where organizational leaders (those initiating the communication) fail to see the need for redundancy to make meanings clear to their audiences. What Axley's words mean to teacher response theory is that studies examining only the words of teacher-responders are incomplete. They see only part of the communication process, possibly the least important portion. For as postmodern thought dictates, and as this dissertation will demonstrate, what really matters when teachers comment on student work (either verbally or in writing) is not what teachers think their words mean, nor even what objective observers might think these teachers mean, but what students interpret them to mean.

 

New Researchers and New Methodologies

Quoting MacIntyre, communication scholar Walter Fisher writes, "Man is, in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a storytelling animal" (385). Thus, Fisher introduces another important contribution of postmodern thought, the value of storytelling as research or what Fisher calls "the narrative paradigm." Contrasting storytelling with the "rational world paradigm," where researchers see the world as "a set of logical puzzles" (386) to be rationally and objectively solved, Fisher says that humans are more accurately "homo narrans" (man, the storyteller) and the world can be explained best as a "set of stories" (390). Fisher believes that in everyday practice most people do not make value-judgments based solely on rational and linear thinking, but on the relative value of competing stories: "Some stories better satisfy the criteria of the logic of good reasons, which is attentive to reason and values" (392). According to Fisher, the better stories "stand the test of probability and fidelity" (392). That is, they seem like something that could and probably did happen.

Most importantly, what theorists like Fisher have accomplished with their narrative paradigm is to introduce new researchers and new research methods into the world of scholarly inquiry. Ethnography--"a description of a culture" (Bernard 16), where a researcher might actually become a participant-observer who takes part in the unfolding of the story she will write--has become an accepted research methodology. And "non-experts" (those who are not rational-world theorists formally trained in quantitative statistics) now have a voice in the professional journals and conferences of most disciplines, including those who Stephen North refers to as "teacher-practitioners," regular classroom teachers whose important insights were once relegated to the confines of the teacher lounge.

Ethnographies have become especially important to composition theorists. Commenting on why the stories of teacher-practitioners are so important, Knoblauch and Brannon write,

The telling of stories helps with the living of life, makes the world more coherent, makes the liver more alert and more generous. Stories cause people to reflect on their circumstances, motivating them to change whatever might jeopardize their living well . . . when teachers tell their stories, produce their own classroom research, similar benefits accrue, initially to themselves, eventually to their students, other teachers, and the rest of us. ("Knowing Our Knowledge" 26)

 

Thus, the major portion of my study, which is rational and quantitative, is both preceded and succeeded with stories: my own story of a semi-professional writer-turned-teacher who looked within himself to discover what motivated his own writing, and, most importantly, the stories of my students who have graciously consented during this project to share their own comments on my comments to them. These stories give quality to the quantity of my study. They give depth to the breadth of the statistical analysis. And, most importantly, they put faces on the numbers, which, after all, represent not things but people.

 

A Healthy Introspection

A final contribution of postmodern theory has to do with the healthy introspection it encourages from researchers. If language is not value-neutral, if knowledge is not just discovered but rather created by a ruling episteme, if bias cannot be purged fully because the researcher never approaches as a tabla rasa, then how can postmodernists conduct ethical research? As Doheny-Farina admits, "Our 'results' are not what is 'out there' in the field. Our results are, in a large part, what we, as researchers, bring to the event" ("Teaching Discourse" 254). Or, as Herndl (thinking more of the powers that sanction one's research) says, "Ethnographies are themselves examples of the activity they propose to clarify. As written texts they are part of an institutionally maintained discourse authorized not by their relationship to fact, but by their participation in the rhetoric shared by their community of readers" ("Writing Ethnography" 322). Doheny-Farina's answer to the dilemma is to acknowledge its existence, to admit up-front that research activities are always rhetorical in nature: "The more we expose the arguments that guide our research actions, the more ethical our research can be. It is this ethical stance that will be our primary source of authority. That is, our strongest authority comes not from our representation of the data, but in our attempt to do ethical research" (254).

So taking Doheny-Farina's advice, I want to be candid about my own presuppositions upon first beginning my study of teacher response, first principles which are really quite simple. I began this research assuming that students are human beings with value and that recognizing that value (a healthy self-esteem) is key to expressing it (to act as a person of value). Translated into commenting strategy, I expected to find comments that valued students as persons most effective in making them more successful as persons, or, phrased specifically, more successful as writers. Thus, it is true that in my studies I have found what I expected to find. Person-based response does produce better writers. On the other hand, my research bias has not blinded me to new knowledge, for I also have found much more than what I expected. Only one of my four tenets of person-based response (the one dealing with praising students for their successes) could have been articulated before beginning this research, and then only partially. For although what follows in these pages is an affirmation of a preconceived notion, it is much more than that. It is an attempt at a fully developed paradigm of teacher response theory. Simply put, it is a postmodern alternative to text-based teacher response.

 

Postmodern Problems

However important its advantages, postmodernism is not without its weaknesses, most of which derive from what Kuhn called the "incommensurability of paradigms." Kuhn says that paradigms cannot be successfully debated because each paradigmatic group argues from the premises of its own world view:

It [an argument to support one's view] cannot be made logically or even probabilistically compelling for those who refuse to step into the circle. The premises and values shared by the two parties to a debate over paradigms are not sufficiently extensive for that. As in political revolutions, so in paradigm choice, there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community. (94)

 

If Kuhn is right, and there are no (or not enough) universal assumptions to make honest discussion and productive debate possible across paradigmatic lines, then postmodern thought can become philosophically self-refuting, intellectually suffocating, ethically and pedagogically paralyzing, and methodologically limiting.

 

Philosophical Self-Refutation

In "On the Very Idea of a Discourse Community," Thomas Kent points out the epistemological inconsistency of Kuhn's incommensurate paradigms. Quoting Davidson, he writes, "Kuhn is brilliant at saying what things were like before the revolution using--what else?--our post-revolution idiom" (428). In a similar vein, Reed Dasenbrock writes,

Given his theoretical position, how can Thomas Kuhn claim to be able to step outside of scientific practice in order to describe it? How can he claim to see science as it really is when the substance of what he sees is that scientists do not in fact see things as they really are? . . . . If Kuhn is right, he shouldn't be able to see and say the things he does. (555)

 

In other words, Kuhn's own Structure of Scientific Revolutions has no credibility outside of its discussion of postmodernism, for any analyses of preceding paradigms--modernism, for instance--cannot be conducted without stepping into that paradigm, which, of course, Kuhn as a postmodernist is unable to do.

 

 

 

Intellectual Suffocation

Of course, in one's daily practice, not every postmodernist accepts the idea of incommensurate paradigms in total, but if one does, he or she is likely to reject modernity in total, including the idea of any kind of objective reality. And it is this view that Kent says leads to a global skepticism: "If a separation exists between the mind and the world, how can we even be sure that we know the minds of others or that we can know with any certainty anything at all about the world?" (428). And while postmodernists rightly welcome a degree of uncertainty, in practice they, too, know that a complete lack of certainty is untenable. If nothing else, Patricia Bizzell says it does not win converts:

I think students oppose the push to skepticism because they've already seen skepticism and they don't like it. The world already looks horribly meaningless to them, and what we take to be their foundationalism is really a pathetic defense erected against this meaninglessness. If we can offer them no better answer to the meaninglessness than television can, then they may as well stay home and watch it instead of listening to us. ("Beyond Foundationalism" 671)

 

Unlike Bizzell, Dasenbrock is more concerned with what the in-total rejection of objectivity does to those within the academic discipline. Dasenbrock says that debate over methodologies has become moot in most postmodern circles not because of the presence of new common ground but because of the very opposite:

Convinced that no such consensus or common ground is attainable or even conceivable, we have agreed to disagree and to leave it there. . . . . But if we have always disagreed [in the past], we have not always agreed as we now do about the meaning of that disagreement. What is new in the present situation is the collective sense that debate of this kind is unnecessary precisely because everyone disagrees. (546)

 

Dasenbrock does not want to return to the uncritical worship of objectivity that characterized logical positivism (a condition that silenced debate), but rather he argues against the new "absolute" criterion of consensus among interpretive communities (a practice that also can silence debate across paradigms or disciplines): "If we must choose and if we can choose, I would prefer the give and take of methodological and theoretical debate to the cozy communal solipsism which denies the possibility of intelligent disputation with others who do not agree with us" (560).

 

Ethical and Pedagogical Paralysis

But the most compelling argument against skepticism comes in the area of ethics, and especially for teachers, in the area of pedagogy. Again Kent puts it succinctly, "Since conceptual schemes [paradigms] in the form of social norms obviously change from place to place and from time to time, nothing exists to authorize one set of practices or beliefs over another set" (429). To Kent's argument, some might respond, "Who cares? Ethics should be culture-specific anyway. We in the United States have no right to argue ethical choices with other cultures." But what if the debate is over the right of a teacher-responder to use patriarchal language to marginalize his female students, or what if a teacher in a non-democratic country, under pressure from her government, uses her position to suppress the views of a student arguing for the survival of the rain forest? The point is that most postmodernists do want to debate these issues. Ethical isolationism does not make sense, especially in a global village.

Similarly, radical relativism derived from radical skepticism paralyzes pedagogy. As Kristen Woolever asks, "How can I be politically correct and still teach?" (2). Woolever is lamenting postmodern pedagogy which she says focuses solely on the negative: "how not to teach, what not to do, when student writing does not work" (3). To Woolever, it seems that postmodern theorists, in their rush to exclude foundationalists' principles of teaching, have left nothing in their place. Woolever's solution is to teach questions instead of answers (something she associates with foundationalism). Yet though her questions are well conceived, Woolever may be begging the question. Students of the Socratic method know that the way one phrases the question will often determine the answer. Question-asking pedagogy does not necessarily exclude "teaching answers."

 

Methodological Limitations

Finally, in "Empiricism Is Not A Four-Letter Word," Davida Charney says that postmodernism can be methodologically limiting. Charney's piece is basically a defense of empirical methods, especially quantitative studies, which have been widely renounced and dismissed by postmodern composition theorists. Charney believes that much criticism of empiricism, as well as praise for more qualitative studies, has been based on stereotypes rather than reality:

It seems absurd to assume that anyone conducting a qualitative analysis or ethnography must be compassionate, self-reflecting, creative, and committed to social justice and liberation. Or that anyone who conducts an experiment is rigid and unfeeling and automatically opposes liberatory, feminist, or postmodernist values. (568)

 

Charney goes on to say that postmodern researchers are sometimes guilty of the same sins of which they accuse empiricists, including essentializing (simplistically presenting complex phenomenon), totalizing (minimizing individual differences), bias, exploitation, fraud, and missionizing (imposing one's ideology on students). Charney's point is not that these things must, or even often, occur in qualitative research, but that they can: "Bad qualitative research is just as facile, reductive, and exploitive as bad quantitative research" (587). On the other hand, Charney argues that empirical research can be the most democratic of methods, for it is more open to scrutiny by others (577), it encourages collaboration and communication (578), and, most importantly, since it can be replicated (579), it makes knowledge building possible. Thus, Charney calls not for a rejection of qualitative studies, but for a better mix: "Our over-reliance on qualitative studies and repeated disparagement of objective methods is creating a serious imbalance in studies of technical and professional writing--and the same may be true in composition studies as a whole" (589-90).

 

Epistemological Ecumenism

What Charney advocates (a mixing of paradigmatic methodologies) is what Berkenkotter calls "epistemological ecumenism." Writes Berkenkotter, "Our graduate students . . . [need] to become conversant with more than one model of inquiry in order to make informed choices, rather than being led to questions and methods socially sanctioned within individual scholarly communities or graduate programs" ("Paradigm Debates" 166). Similarly, Phillip Arrington argues for a "metamethod" (388) which is part science and part humanities, and James Raymond calls for a new metaphor that will end the "apartheid" of methodologies: "The best humanists first discover what science can say about a given subject before making judgments about what it cannot say" (783).

For postmodernists to embrace this ecumenism one must realize that modernism is not so much wrong as it is incomplete. The scientific method can tell part but not all of the story. Some things can be examined under a controlled experiment and then quantified; some things cannot. Reality may exist objectively, but it can never be discussed completely objectively. Some knowledge is paradigm specific, but other knowledge transcends paradigms (Stephen Toulmin talks about field dependent and field invariant knowledge). One can be a relativist without becoming a radical relativist (Chris Anson talks of "committed relativists"). And one can believe in absolutes (Kant's categorical imperatives, such as consistently valuing people over things) without becoming an absolutist (intolerant of other views, such as one who holds that directive teacher comments always usurp student voice).

Thus, this dissertation is largely and fundamentally postmodern in its epistemology. However, it is not wholly and exclusively so. The goal is synthesis and triangulation. Specifically, I use postmodern methodologies to do what they do best; that is, to create the "thick descriptions" (Geertz) that most accurately reflect individual student perceptions of teacher comments. Then I use a quantitative study to do what it does best; that is, to generalize the findings about a few to assumptions about the many. Only then can researchers build on this knowledge with further testing using the same methodology, and only then can teachers confidently incorporate these principles into their own classroom practices.

On to Chapter III

Respond or view responses to my dissertation.