Quantitative vs. Qualitative?

Duncan Hall, 'έροτας: love, as described by an implicit heart curve (x² + y² − 1)³ − x² y³ = 0 by InverseHypercube' 2011

Duncan Hall, 'έροτας: love, as described by an implicit heart curve (x² + y² − 1)³ − x² y³ = 0 by InverseHypercube' 2011

 

Coming from a European Gender Studies background, one particularly heavily indebted to continental philosophy, it has been a real surprise to observe, as editor of Praxis, how deeply and in what ways people value quantitative studies of writing center work. As the editor of an academic journal I see a lot of Calls for Papers, I look at what other writing center journals are publishing, and I spend a lot of my time in contact with scholars in the field; it has become clear to me that while qualitative work continues to be written and published, it occupies in some eyes a lower place in the hierarchy of research than does data-driven, figure-heavy work that follows a STEM rather than a Humanities model of research.

Don’t get me wrong – the Gender Studies I was taught (and am still learning) includes plenty of quantitative work, work that uses data to come to or question conclusions about the world, just as quantitative writing center work does. I’m not suggesting that doing so is wrong or bad, nor am I needlessly posing a binaristic argument for the fun of it. I think what is new to me, and strikes me as odd, is the institutional importance of quantitative research, the felt necessity of gathering and processing data on a day-to-day basis. The central role that data plays in writing center work, and which I think makes real demands on writing center scholars, seems to have two basic facets: one logistical, and one ideological. As always, the two are tightly intertwined.

The logistical facet of quantitative writing center research has everything to do with the fact that writing centers provide a public, personal service, and as such they have many of the same problems and opportunities as any other service business. The logistical burden, as any Writing Center Administrator knows, is massive. Writing centers employ people; they have budgets, and schedules, and they gather data on clients, but as non-profit organizations they get their budgets from parent institutions that require some proof of efficacy in the form of (at least) an annual report, preferably one larded with graphs and tables showing continual growth, high satisfaction, and meaningful contribution to other campus initiatives, especially retention. All this both creates and requires data, and the management of that data can be made to serve the purpose both of ensuring the writing center’s existence and making the work done in it more effective. This seems all to the good.

The logistical facet of the writing center’s existence also creates pressures, though, that are both financial and ideological. Proving one’s worth is never an innocent activity, and in the desire to boost metrics we have seen other institutions (sometimes even our parent institutions) make poor choices that have had serious and ongoing consequences. As a student of the ‘neoliberal’ or ‘corporate university,’ I am aware that institutional insecurity can create intellectual closure (Subramaniam et al, 2014) and that acceding to these institutional pressures, many of which have everything to do with institutions’ increasing reliance on large, grant-driven quantitative projects on the STEM model (Marcus, 2002) can come at great cost.

This ideological facet, initially driven by logistics (as ideology so often is), seems to me to also be driving a trend in writing center research that I’m ambivalent about. It could be argued that the increasing importance of quantitative research in Writing Center Studies is a sign that the field is ‘growing up,’ becoming more academically respectable; certainly there is wonderful work being done that I enjoy reading, and that I learn a great deal from. As an acting consultant, though, so much of my own writing center work remains numinous and immanent in ways that data has a hard time capturing that I sometimes ask myself: does a data-driven approach run the danger of losing its descriptive power when speaking of the encounter between writer and consultant? Does the numerical and rhetorical power of aggregation encourage an administrator’s-eye-view of the business of writing centers, perhaps even an epidemiological view of what for consultants remains a series of exciting, intrapersonal exchanges in a contact zone whose boundaries are recreated every hour and half hour of the working day? And is that even a problem?

I think it’s only a problem if we follow a repudiatory model of scholarship, and when I think of it in this way my ambivalence eases. Writing center scholars are generally very nice people, dedicated to a branch of academic study that has actual lived consequences for a great many people, and in my interactions with them I have been continually struck with the general openness of attitude in this field. However, we are also people under pressure to perform, and that performance is sometimes evaluated by institutional metrics we might not choose for ourselves, and it’s important that we note that the rhetorical frame our institutions place us in at budget time, and the frames we use in our research to understand and improve our work with writers, need not be identical.

 

 

Subramaniam, M., R. Perrucci, and D. Whitlock. 2014. "Intellectual Closure: a Theoretical Framework Linking Knowledge, Power, and the Corporate University." Critical Sociology 40 (3): 411-30.

Marcus, G. E. 2002. "Intimate Strangers: The Dynamics of (Non) Relationship Between the Natural and Human Sciences in the Contemporary U.S. University." Anthropological Quarterly 75 (3): 519-26.