Friday, January 30, 2009

Week 4: Measurement

The question of qualitative vs. quantitative research is an important one. For decades, it seems, quantitative research has ruled the arena in terms of what is considered valid. Especially in terms of fields such as technical communication—where there is a strong polarity between and an equally strong convergence of the sciences and the social sciences—do we need to distinguish, separate, and integrate the two. They are both necessary for truly provocative, accurate, and productive research. My good friend at Utah State University, a PhD student in sociology, two years ago presented at paper and poster symposium where research was evaluated and awards were given. His research was on specific moods of people in varying environments and consisted primarily of qualitative research—evaluating people, interviewing, describing circumstances, observing, and participating in the cultures he studied. His presentation was great, his methodologies sound. The judging process was flawed, and a random judge was assigned to each person. My friend was unfortunate enough to receive a very narrow-minded judge (a chemistry professor) who did not seem to recognize both research methods. The judge was very impressed with the presentation and gave my friend a full 20/20 on four of the five categories (presentation, argument, poster design, relevancy—something like that) but did not understand the fifth category—soundness of research. He asked my friend—“where are the numbers? You MUST quantify your results or they are invalid.” After my friend explained to him that he used mostly qualitative research and that his results weren’t generalizable and countable—they were reliant on the environment and the variables weren’t tampered with—the judge only frowned. He actually had the audacity to say “what is qualitative research?” After a bit of a scuffle, the judge dismissed the presentation and gave my friend a 0/20 on the research, taking him completely out of contention for an award. What he didn’t understand is that there is an extraordinarily important need to understand environments, situations, and individual reactions in many kinds of research. All he could see was numbers and assumed that those numbers would tell him all. Of course, my friend could have quantified some of his findings, but that wouldn’t change the fact that his research was qualitative, that it wasn’t cause/effect, and that it couldn’t be generalized.

Each of the readings gave great overlap and new perspective on this separation of qualitative and quantitative. They also made a clear distinction between reliability and validity, terms I previously couldn’t separate. After reading the articles, I came to the following conclusions: reliability is “a social construction, a collaborative interpretation of data” (L&A 134); refers “to whether the experiment precisely measures a single dimension of human ability” (Goubil-Grambrell 587); and is the “external and internal consistency of measurement” (Williams 23). Validity, on the other hand, is “the degree to which the researcher measures what he claims to measure” (Williams 23); “actually measures what it says it will measure (Goubil-Gambrell 587); and is the “ability to measure whatever it is intended to assess” (L&A 140). In other words, research is reliable if the methods within the experiment are consistent, narrow and focused, and those reading the research can make sense of it. Research is valid if the results are in line with what the researcher claims he found.

Perhaps I’m simplifying this too much, but after reading through this week’s articles, I still found probably to really be about percentages and likelihood. It uses a number system between 0 and 1, would , as it would seem means the percentage of likelihood that something might or might no occur. Significance refers to chance. If what was found in the research happened as a result of coincidence, then it is not statistically significant. However, if it is proved that this is a repeatable, common, or necessarily influenced phenomenon that can be traced, it becomes important, a “right-on!-we-found-something-important!” or, as they say, significant.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Week 3 - Doing Theory/ Modes of Discourse

After reading Kinneavy’s “Modes of Discourse” and subsequently the readings for this week, I was left wondering whether or not it is necessary to lead a form of communication (in this case persuasive writing) with a precise, predetermined mode of discourse. While I believe it is certainly imperative that we understand all four modes—and that we are able to separate persuasion and poetry from these four as Kinneavy suggests—I don’t know that it is true or necessary that all good writing has one precise mode that commandeers the rest of the piece as Kinneavy seemed to suggest.

In all of our readings this week, it became obvious that good writing tends to use all four modes of discourse to one degree or another. I found it difficult to determine, however, whether it was more effective to establish one concrete mode of discourse and then support it with the other three, or if it was best to interweave and imbricate the four modes, so as to not establish any necessarily dominant mode. This question grew within me as I found Miller’s and Plato’s articles to be the most stimulating, although for my own personal interests, Miller’s article was the most interesting. Miller, in my opinion, never really established a dominant mode of discourse although one could easily argue that she ultimately left the reader feeling that her intentions were to evaluate and classify technical writing as it stands in academia, English departments, and in business-industry. This non-establishment for me is what raises the question, mostly because her article was by far, for this week’s readings, the most interesting and, arguably, the best written. Plato’s was interesting and engaging, but it was definitely overrun by narrative elements. Garret and Hackos and Reddish all employ multiple methods but their predominant, domineering mode of discourse tends to be descriptive. They make use of narrations as they give examples and classifications as they compare definitions to other groups within the field of usability testing and interface design. Their readings, however, were quite dry and quite simplistic. Part of this was their somewhat sophomoric examples and some of it was simply their scope.

So this raises a question for me. I realize that audience and purpose will always dictate the mode of discourse chosen (or at least it should) and that each has its place, its time, and its context. Hackos and Reddish and Garret all appear to be writing textbooks for college students or working professionals where Miller and Plato are writing for academia and thinkers. Miller most effectively engages the reader in the discussion but least effectively establishes a mode of discourse. Is it more necessary, then, in lieu of practical application writing and teaching to establish one predominant mode of discourse? While I didn’t really care for the writing in the textbook chapters, I can see it being quite necessary. I can’t imagine, for example, a textbook that is predominantly a narrative or even evaluative or classificatory. I could see, though, an academic piece being any of these. So, my question is this: do educational and instruction communications function best with a predominant mode of discourse or could they employ similar methods as Miller and complexly imbricate all four so that not one really stands out above the rest?