Thursday, January 26, 2012

Readings and Interpretations II

Please note: "Readings and Interpretations" are weekly "journal" posts for my Reading and Interpreting Research on Writing seminar addressing issues raised by the reading for class and my own research.


A couple of the readings we've discussed over the past couple weeks are concerned with perceptions of empirical research in composition studies.  Richard Haswell argues that, "for a long time," the NCTE and CCCC have "been at war with part of [scholarship] . . . The scholarship these organizations target goes by different names: empirical inquiry, laboratory studies, data gathering, experimental investigation, formal research, hard research, and sometimes just research" ("NCTE/CCCC's Recent War on Scholarship"; 200).Davida Charney, in "Empiricism is not a Four-Letter Word" defends these "targeted" forms of scholarship against persistent "radical mischaracterizations" (569).  Charney, through a survey of critiques of empirical methods in composition studies, and Haswell, through a systematic meta-analysis of a huge sample of comp. studies journals, conclude that a part of the problem is the perception--maintained by some of the most influential people and organizations in comp. studies--that empirical research is antithetical to the ideals of the humanities.  Put simply, empirical methods are thought to be inhuman(e) by a lot of important people.

Now, Charney's and Haswell's articles were published in 1996 and 2005, respectively, so maybe attitudes have shifted or are starting to shift.  Computer technologies now allow for all sorts of research to be done by people who aren't necessarily technological savants.  And people--myself included--are warming to the idea that technological innovation is nothing new and realizing that it is counterproductive to avoid new technologies out of nervousness.  It wasn't that long ago that I was railing against the age of the screen because of this felt sense that it was all somehow inhuman, and I don't think it's a coincidence that I was very skeptical of empirical methods at this time, too.  I had, I think, subscribed to the false dichotomies that polarize print and digital texts and qualitative and quantitative methodologies, and I think those two binaries are related, subsumed by a larger human(e)/inhuman(e) dichotomy that refuses to see a techno-social human history.  I'm not so either/or anymore, and I've started to get a sense--though I can't quite put my finger on it--that others are feeling the same way. I even thought, after reading his January 9 "Opinionator" column/blog on the NY Times website, that Stanley Fish might maybe, possibly be just barely coming around to embrace the digital humanities and all the promises of systematic inquiry it offers.

Nope.  In his latest column/blog--a follow-up to the last one--Fish ignores the myriad possibilities the digital humanities opens up to research and representation to focus on one way computers are used in literary studies: data mining via computer programs for patterned usages of terms in vast digitized corpuses of literature to try to make an argument.  I think this sounds like a kind of cool way to look at a lot of texts, and I think Fish kind of recognizes that this method maybe has some potential, but he frames his discussion to make this kind of data mining seem like scholarship for monkeys with access to a computer.  In Fish's estimation, all the work falls squarely on the computer (never mind the guy who devised the program, asked the questions, and interpreted the data).  He makes it sound so horrifically robotic!  He concludes by honing in on some digital humanists' use of marginalization rhetoric and others' claims that they are "the heralds and bearers of a new truth" to create a pithy slogan for the digital humanities that embodies "the double claim always made by an insurgent movement": "We are a beleaguered minority and we are also the saving remnant."

Fish's op-ed is a study in extremes, and he's not doing his beloved humanities any favors here.  He could really benefit from a more systematic, nuanced approach to analyzing the digital humanities movement.  His analysis could really use some more empirical methods.

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