Queering RAD Research in Writing Center Studies

Uncategorized / Monday, November 9th, 2015

By Neil Simpkins and Virginia Schwarz

Neil and Virginia are in the Composition and Rhetoric PhD program at UW-Madison and tutor in the university writing center. Neil is working on a dissertation proposal exploring how disabled students experience writing-intensive classrooms. Virginia studies program and classroom assessment and is designing a dissertation study on contract grading.

In the Spirit of Inquiry…

At the 2015 IWCA Collaborative in Tampa, FL, we set out to have a roundtable discussion about the current push for RAD research in the writing center community. Many writing center scholars have called for more RAD research (empirical inquiry that has replicable methods, aggregative results, and data-driven conclusions) as a response to “lore-driven” conclusions about writing center theory and practice. In other words, writing center scholars are making a deliberate effort to design more and more studies that ask how we know that our “best practices” are actually serving student writers.

We were curious about the ways writing centers could use some of the affordances and constraints of RAD research as a framework for studying LGBTQ people as well as the ways writing centers could unpack some of the foundational assumptions of the importance of RAD research. We also wondered what it might look like to “queer” RAD research–to use the idea of “queering” as a method itself to frame RAD scholarship in writing center studies. With those questions in mind, Virginia and I held a rountable at the 2015 IWCA Collaborative. For this post, we want to offer our initial thoughts about these questions and also share the excellent suggestions of the participants in our roundtable. We hope that more scholars–and you!–will continue this conversation.

Queering RAD Research

Traditional humanities research relies heavily on narrative and often classifies the citing of previous knowledge as “evidence” (Driscoll and Purdue, 2012). As a result, myths or “lore” develops that people often accept as common knowledge. In the spirit of inquiry, RAD research attempts to resist these narratives and looks more like social science research where the design of a study is just as important as its results (Smagorinsky 2008). As such, writing center scholars should design more studies where the data collection methods are clear, the process of analysis is transparent, and the limitations are addressed in an honest manner. Furthermore, more studies studies should be conceived and documented with the intention of building groundwork for future studies. Examples of RAD studies that seek to confirm or challenge lore include the following the desirable “coziness” of a writing center (McKinney 2013), the ideal directiveness of a tutor (Clark 2001), or the conditions that more readily allow a writing center to form on campus  (Salem 2014). Implicit this wave of scholarship is the belief that our research should be in conversation while supporting, disrupting, and complicating existing narratives.

a drop-down menu with the items select gender, male, female, and decline
Forms for surveys and for appointment registration rarely reflect the words that some people in the LGBTQ community use to talk about their gender. This humorous example is from the blog “Gender of the Day”

When we initially started reading and thinking about RAD research in writing center contexts, we were wary about what potential lines of inquiry RAD research might close off. We thought of the ways person-based quantitative research can sometimes silence or marginalize voices that are outside of the mainstream. Indeed, queer and trans ways of being in the world frequently resist creating patterns of data that are replicable and aggregable. For example, trans people may change their names and gender markers officially and/or unofficially, and this might affect individual data writing centers collect. Many of our writing center information gathering systems are ill-equipped to address the non-binary and difficult to categorize identities that queer and trans people bring to our writing centers.

However, as we interrogated scholarship about RAD research in the writing center field, we felt that RAD research offered new tools for questioning normative trends in our field. Since RAD research provides opportunities to challenge established narratives and norms in our field, it can be used to disrupt assumptions and challenge–or at least complicate–dominant methods. Since RAD research asks us to question what we know to be true and seeks to expose systems and patterns, it can be used to queer writing center scholarship.  

The Collaborative Session Questions

After we gave a brief presentation about RAD research and queer and trans identity and epistemologies, we split our session attendees into two roundtable discussions to brainstorm around the following questions (which we encourage you to think about, too!):

  • In terms of gathering data, how can we create forms that account for the textured ways people identify?
  • How can RAD research help us understand and address the absence of queer and trans theorizing in WC scholarship?
  • How can we centralize social justice as a focus of RAD writing center research?
  • How can we create and apply queer and trans research methods in RAD writing center studies?

Participants were encouraged to bring in their areas of expertise to inform their responses. This includes experiential knowledge from tutoring, performing administrative duties, or developing a research project; theoretical knowledge from research or training; and identity-based knowledge from positionality and intersecting identities. Two threads that came out of these discussion groups were ways to queer RAD methods for writing center research and using RAD methods to research gender and sexuality in our field.

Queering RAD Methods

In our discussion groups, many respondents discuss how queering as a RAD method would adopt queer approaches to knowledge.  Such a method is specially concerned with seeing how the best vision of RAD approaches can itself link with or support a call to queer writing center research). Queering RAD methods requires…

book cover for Sara Ahmeds book titled "On Being Included" including an elaborate illustration of white ink on a black background
Sara Ahmed’s text On Being Included offers many different perspectives on diversity work at institutions of higher education.

Using aggregation to complicate rather than confirm previous work. When thinking specifically about queer identities, there is a challenge in accurately aggreggating queer and trans identities. However, a major benefit of aggregation is to mark which voices and conversations are missing from a field, as Sara Ahmed notes in On Being Included. Essentially, we need aggregation to see patterns and gaps in scholarly work.

Questioning and queering the terms Replicable, Aggregable, and Data-Driven. RAD research that is also framed by queer methods of research would take into account how concepts like replicability and aggregability are particularly “straight,” in that they are inflexible for capturing the nuances of queer genders and sexualities. A queer RAD method might involve offering a textbox for people to describe their gender on a distributed survey, even though this will require more work on the researcher’s end.

Embracing Skewed Data as a RAD Practice. In a basic mathematical sense, skewing occurs when data is difficult to average. We would encourage RAD researchers to pay attention to the data that doesn’t fit easily within the average as a queer practice. Researchers might “skew” their data by asking questions about gender and sexuality even if they seem outside the purview of their study, seeking to see if there are relevant connections to be made.

Using RAD Methods to Study Gender and Sexuality in the Writing Center Field

In our groups, we also questioned how RAD methods might be adapted expanding research about gender and sexuality in the writing center and field. As Andrew Rihn and Jay Sloan have noted, there is a paucity of LGBTQ writing center scholarship driven by unconscious heteronormativity in our field. RAD methods can help address this lack of useful scholarship in the following ways.

Broadening the perspective of the object of writing center scholarship. Because RAD Research asks us to question how we know what we know to be true, it can be useful for exploring institutional histories and uncovering what is missing in those histories. A project like Rihn and Sloan’s “Rainbows in the Past are Gay,” for example, does more than just compile an annotated bibliography about LGBTQ research in the writing center field–adapted as a RAD study, it might ask questions about how the writing center field has sidestepped conversations about gender and sexuality. We might use RAD research to explore conference programs, tutor training manuals, and other institutional archives to ask queer questions about the state of our field.

Affording valuable anonymity and creating an archive of stories. It can be hard to talk about both negative and positive experiences with gender and sexuality in writing center work, due to institutional pressures from many angles. RAD research may afford potentially valuable anonymity for LGBTQ people in vulnerable positions around identity at work. It also may provide a pool of stories to draw from versus what might be perceived as an isolated anecdote.

Question our common means of gathering data. RAD research asks us to consider the implications of the data that we collect–both for research and day-to-day use in our centers. For example, what kinds of data are we collecting on student populations? Do students have a way to use a name rather than their legal name to sign up for an appointment? What are the implications of using institutional records as our main source of data for students, which may inaccurately represent their preferred names? All of these questions come to bear upon research related to gender and sexuality in writing center studies, and also have big impacts upon student experiences using the writing center.

A man in flannel reads on a tablet. A speech bubble above him says I want to share my experiences. A woman reads her phone. To her right a third woman reads her phone and has a speech bubble saying I haven't told anyone about it. Text at the bottom reads We want to know please take the survey
AAU Sexual Assault Survey Flyer at UW-Madison

Offering opportunities for engaging with campus climate data and other studies undertaken by student services offices. Many other groups on campus are engaged in similar questions about how to accurately represent “what they know.” RAD research asks us to situate our findings rhetorically, which invites collaboration with other campus services. In terms of bringing more LGBTQ scholarship to the writing center field, a RAD approach might take up data collected by campus climate surveys and other information collected by LGBT campus centers, multicultural student centers, and other campus partners concerned with student experiences. At our own institution, recent AAU survey data administered by University Health Services found that one in four women at UW-Madison has experienced sexual assault, and that LGBT students along with students with disabilities are particularly vulnerable for assault and harassment. Given that our Writing Center is an important cultural institution, an engaging RAD project might be to consider how this data affects student experiences with the Writing Center or writing programs more broadly at UW-Madison.

These notes from our discussion are just a start to this conversation. We hope these different points raised in our discussion at the IWCA Collaborative last spring will spur some conversation about queering RAD research, and we invite you to give us your thoughts and feedback in the comments!

Sources Cited

Ahmed, S. (2012). On being included: Racism and diversity in institutional life. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Clark, I. (2001). “Perspectives on the directive/non-directive continuum in the writing center.” Writing Center Journal 22(1), 33-58.

Driscoll, D., & Perdue, S.W. (2012). “Theory, lore, and more: An analysis of RAD research in the Writing Center Journal, 1980-2009.” The Writing Center Journal 32(1),11-39.

McKinney, J. G. (2013). Peripheral visions for writing centers. Boulder, CO: Utah State University Press.

Salem, L. (2014). “Opportunity and transformation: How writing centers are positioned in the political landscape of higher education in the United States.” The Writing Center Journal 34(1), 15-43.

Smagorinsky, P. (2008). “The method section as conceptual epicenter in constructing social science research reports.” Written Communication 25(3), 389-411.



11 Replies to “Queering RAD Research in Writing Center Studies”

  1. This is good- and I love that Ahmed, by the way! I know in the last section of this piece you’re mostly talking about data collection and what looks like quantitative research, but I wanted to throw out there that in doing qualitative research- including when you’re just getting queer/trans folks/POC/etc to consult on your projects/work- a huge piece is monetary compensation.

    Pay every participant a real amount for taking the survey, doing the focus group, sitting on committees, etc. At least that’s what’s been recommended to me when I try to set up just and ‘queered’ ways of doing the work.

  2. Thanks for this really provocative post, Neil and Virginia! I’m especially struck by your claim that “research that is also framed by queer methods of research would take into account how concepts like replicability and aggregability are particularly “straight,” in that they are inflexible for capturing the nuances of queer genders and sexualities.” While it’s true that aggregation is frequently discussed by scholars of political economy (Mary Poovey and Audrey Jaffe come to mind) as that which flattens individuality, masses distinctions, or elides differentiation, aggregation need not always have these functions. Since aggregation involves drawing together heterogeneous elements, there are aggregative processes that deploy a political value that aggregation as assimilation or amalgamation does not. Aggregation understood in this way can involve being separate but together simultaneously, and there is power in that formation. Certainly, it is a form that requires a more expansive definition of what it means to aggregate results, or anything else, for that matter. The ability to bring together individual differences suggests to me a process or way of being ideal for queering the writing instruction. Contemporary queer theory favors contingency, fracturing or fragmented selves, and parts in relation to holistic or essentialized identity (I think here of Lee Edelman, Leo Bersani, and discussions of queer temporality as nonlinear). Consequently, the step to queering the aggregable portion of RAD is not a large one. On the other hand, while methods to aggregate plurality in research about writing instruction need to be developed, doing so might involve a turn away from big data that masses participant responses for efficiency and reporting.

    Amy Kahrmann Huseby, PhD Candidate
    Writing Center Outreach Coordinator
    UW-Madison, English

  3. Hi Neil and Virginia! What a great post. I especially like your recommendations. Lots of food for thought as I’m often both encouraged by and skeptical of RAD research.

  4. Great post: the opening contrast of RAD research with lore makes me think about RAD research as a way of professionalizing writing center research, and whether a similar trend could be charted in composition studies journals over the past few decades

  5. Yes, in my own research I’ve noticed that it’s hard to balance between generalities and the particular: in many ways, this is the key problem of all scholarship. How much can one piece of scholarship purport to be anything other than hopelessly local–and yet we create clouds of research that yield conclusions that change practice.

  6. Hi Neil and Virginia — thanks so much for this thought-provoking post. I love the way that queerness could serve as a kind of connective tissue between writing centers and other student services on campus, and it’s especially pertinent as the writing center at my own institution was recently moved further from central campus and has been asked (and refused) to take on the duties of the tutoring office. Reimagining a data driven use for writing studios seems like it could be really appealing to institutions like mine that are attempting to sideline their writing studios!

  7. Thanks Neil and Virginia for an excellent post! What you say is quite compelling to me: on the one hand, I get why statistics are so rhetorically powerful, but I’m also frustrated with the way their power can obscure the work of generalization that they also rely on. What you propose seems to be a way to account for the data while being transparent about the weight we give to some data points over others.

    While I don’t do a lot of data-driven research, I think of how your argument could play out in the talk that occurs around instructor training at the writing center. Many instructors have “Wow, can you believe this session I had?” lore; your post pushes us to think not only about how such stories fit in with the majority of sessions but also in terms of what is at stake in moving from the extreme instance to the average. Sometimes, sessions are complicated and we need to see them as outliers; sometimes, sessions are complicated and we need to reflect critically on our own practice and assumptions to make sure we’re not further marginalizing students, requests, or expectations.

  8. A good deal to chew on here – I feel the same as Stephanie above says about being “both encouraged by and skeptical of RAD research.”

    My general concern is this: because a large part of the push towards and validation of storytelling in scholarship was led by feminist scholars in the 70s and 8os, I always worry that the current push for increased RAD research may also be carrying with it a repudiation or disavowal of feminist goals. At the same time, I know storytelling itself is not necessarily a feminist practice, and I know that RAD research isn’t necessarily anti-feminist — yet still I worry.

    I think Ahmed’s use of phenomenology is a great example of working to combine RAD research with experiential, lived storytelling. I’m curious if anyone (authors or readers) can point me towards some other examples of queered RAD research that have already been published.

  9. Thanks Neil and Virginia for such a provoking post! I love the way you’re talking about both the gathering and the analyzing stages of this work. In particular, your point about paying attention to data that skews because those outliers may be the subject of what’s most telling. Also, I find this post useful for thinking through opportunities to aggregate larger sets of data already existing.

    Smart work!

  10. Thanks for all the great responses to this post. I just wanted to respond back to a few people’s comments.

    First, as Katherine points out, compensation is important for doing large scale qualitative and quantitative. I would love to figure out how to make that work in both writing center and personal contexts, especially thinking about ways that writing centers can offer non-monetary as well as monetary reciprocity. I don’t have an answer for that but I have been chewing on it since you posted the comment.

    Second, in response to Amy, I’ve been thinking about the ways that big data can do queer work. Maybe one thing it can do is to highlight the many variations among participants if you offer, say, a text box rather than radio buttons for gender. Even if many people put either female/male or woman/man, for example, you get a sense of the discourses they're tapping into to describe their gender.

    Briefly, Kendall, I wonder if there’s another way to have this conversation without comparing it to lore like we did here. Something that comes to mind is the visualizations of comp research in Mueller’s “Grasping Rhetoric and Composition by its Long Tail.”

    I have lots of other thoughts, but I just want to say thanks to everyone who commented!

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