I just came back from the Symposium on Communicating Complex Information (SCCI) put together by Mike Albers at East Carolina University. It’s a small gathering that ensures you have lots of time to talk about ideas. I’ve used that space over the last few years to talk about research, or as Mike teased me, rant about research. And the conversations around my presentation and the other presentations has brought me back to working through these big ideas (on wintry mix, overcast kind of day).

Over the last three weeks, lots of conversations have intersected around this topic and I was reminded of those conversations over the last few days at SCCI. Beyond my last post, I have briefly talked about research in a summary of one of my research projects and in a short piece I published (see what counts as evidence,) I’m not real happy about the state of research in the field (that would be technical and professional communication and in related areas of rhetoric and also rhetorics of health and medicine and science and technology studies). Now before folks start calling me all sorts of things and telling me I just don’t understand, let me just say that I do understand. I’m old. I listen to people. I’m fortunate that some people think I know stuff so I review (a lot, probably more than I should because I’ve been told I write a good review). I understand institutional culture and complexities. I get the problems that plague higher education and I get the problems–real and perceived–that plague tenure and promotion. (Check our the project we’re doing on it to get some more definitive answers!)  As we say back home, this ain’t my first rodeo.

I love knowledge. I love research. I love the process of making new knowledge. I fell in love with these things when I was getting my MA degree, while I was practicing technical communicator. The patient and wonderful souls at UNC Charlotte (I’m looking at you Deborah, Greg, Meg, and Boyd) put up with my cynicism and nonsense and constant challenging of almost everything they ever said and eventually made me see why academic research was so cool and how it could be used to improve what I was doing.  Now I do research a lot better, but I still know how to do quick and dirty workplace research to get an informed answer to a problem or question. I know how to do every “method” outlined in research textbooks. I also get science research and experiments and random control trials. I understand those latter things from working as part of teams as a consultant and now in my job as faculty/researcher. What I’ve also come to understand is that there are different types of research.

With some help from some of my smart friends, I’ve come up with a way to categorize our research landscape:

— scholarship: which is usually the result of a long term project that moves across fields and advances knowledge in specific ways. This one is really, really hard and is rarely done in any field.
— in-depth research: when you go into depth within your field and apply that information to your own project thus advancing this one idea or area further. This is what a lot of folks think they’re doing, but they really aren’t.
— problem focused empirical research: empirically based research that is one time occurrence around a specific problem or issue (that eventually would lead to in-depth research); this is the type of research that most practitioners would wish we would do more often
— one shot research: research that is based on an anecdote or a feeling and much of the textual/rhetorical analysis that we actually do

All of these different types of research require design research studies in a different way. This idea of research study design has really been bothering me over the last couple of years so much so I’ve tried to articulate it in a project that is just a few days away from going out for review. Let’s see what happens with that. In any case, it does bring up the question(s) about what type of field we are and the types of scholarship we need to produce. Do we have enough journals? Are they working in the ways they need to? Are we a book field? What’s up with all these edited collections of varying quality (that is some that are ok to some that lead me to ask how the hell did that get published)? What are we citing usually means what do we value and we’re still citing articles? Are we even citing our “own” articles? How are we taught what to value? Can we move away from the theory du jour or do what everyone else is doing??

I, of course, have my own set of answers to these questions (and the many more that could be generated). But, as a field, it’s imperative that we start talking about these things in sustained and in-depth ways. My last blog was part of a larger conversation and this one is too. It’s not really a rant, but these thoughts about publishing and knowledge are important. It’s one of the ways this job is so different from others (cause I’ve had others!).

There were a couple of comments that stuck with me from SCCI that I’ll put here and then just leave this out there for thinking and disagreement and conversations. First, as I talked about literature reviews, I made the claim we needed to change the way we approached them. We shouldn’t be trying to fit our idea into a “gap.” Rather, we need to be understand how our research fits into (or challenges or builds) on existing research. In doing so, you will also identify the “gap” you’re filling, but so much of our research fails to adequately consider existing scholarship. And that’s a big problem. (See post on reading.) To that idea, someone asked if I was advocating a change in the way we go about doing our work. To that, I would say, yes, I am. We do need to change the way we do our work.  [Side note: There was a lively conversation and one that extended into breaks throughout the day about how we can teach graduate students research the way I advocated (and have been advocating for the last four years) within our constrained curricula. I don’t have an easy answer to that, but I will think about it and try to post on it soon.]

The other comment was one that I’ve had myself. Why is it that we (TPC) always have to do the work to convince others or change our practice to match theirs? This is a question I had thought about and one, which to be honest, rankles tremendously. But, as long as we work in a system where STEM gets the money and the humanities and social sciences don’t, we have to be the ones to advocate and bend and hopefully, change and broaden some minds along the way. Because it’s also important that our research can be recognized and used in other fields because our research is and can be tremendously valuable in other disciplinary and practice areas. Of course, health and medicine comes to mind because of my own interest in that area, but my experiences of actually making a difference are not unique and can be, and should be replicated. (At least by those who are interested in these sorts of things. Everyone doesn’t have to be the same!)

None of my SCCI talks are unproblematic and I surely didn’t give them–or write this–for agreement and validation. I do these things to start engaged conversations so the field and the knowledge we generate can be better. I also do it because I really do want to have conversations (see the intro to a special issue of JTWC forthcoming Fall, 2016 that I wrote with Kirk St.Amant). Engaged conversations are one the best ways to make change happen, even if it’s one radical presentation at a time.


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