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Empirical research into legal comm’n & professional status of LRW faculty

20 Jul

I was delighted to finagle an invitation to speak on a panel at the Legal Writing Institute in Portland on July 12, during the meeting of the LWI Professional Status Committee. The committee met in a plenary session with a larger audience and conducted its business, and then we panelists were asked to comment in short form (two minutes each) on an angle or issue relating to the professional status of legal research and writing faculty. (For readers outside the legal academy, teachers of communication in that field face status challenges similar to those faced by teachers of writing in the broader academy 25 or even 40 years ago.)

Kirsten Davis at Stetson Law (also on the panel) has talked about posting our comments, and I think that’s a grand idea. The others on the panel were Ken ChestekMary Beth Beazley, and Ruth Anne Robbins.

My comments (as I prepared them, possibly slightly different than those I delivered):

Thanks for letting me share my thoughts today! I received my PhD training as an empirical researcher in rhetoric and composition. Though I’m teaching rhetoric and technical communication outside the legal academy in a tenure-track position at Georgia Tech, I did previously teach legal writing for eight years at University of Minnesota.

I want to share two thoughts–one a recommendation and one a caution–about the role of research for legal communication faculty.

My first thought is that legal communication faculty should engage in empirical research into legal communication. Here, I’m speaking of the professional communication practices of lawyers, judges, and others outside the classroom. Your should engage in this research for at least two reasons.

First, quality teaching in any field is motivated by systematic empirical and theoretical consideration of what is being taught. We cannot rely only on our own practical experiences, though they are very valuable. Our individual experience is limited in scope, and our years in the classroom can insulate us from knowledge of new developments. We must systematically examine what is being done in the field in order to prepare our students for it.

Second, the professionalization of legal communication faculty demands that they make the subject of their instruction the object of their research. The professionalization of writing professors in English (and other) departments and the broader academy accompanied the focus those professors put on research into writing: moving away from the old model where writing teachers published articles and books on Shakespeare and the Romantics, for example–literary research–toward a model where writing teachers publish research on writing processes, contexts, and products.

But my second thought is a caution about my first. In these other departments, the focus on research that examines communication outside the classroom (and the ‘professionalization’ of those researchers) has resulted in a devaluing of classroom and pedagogy research. I have been warned by mentors not to do classroom research, that it will harm my job prospects and tenure and promotion case. I’m continuing to do that kind of research anyway, but it’s less of a focus for me.

So, even if you take my recommendation to research outside the classroom, I hope you resist the temptation to devalue pedagogical research.


(I elaborated on some of this in my presentation on qualitative research the next day)


Reflections on October 18 readings for 8011

18 Oct

I didn’t think I’d have time to write a reflection on this week’s readings, as we have a big assignment due in 8011 tonight. As it happens, though, I’ve managed to get the assignment mostly completed and I’ve managed to get through this week’s readings to boot. So, here are my reflections:

MacNealy, Chapters 4 & 5

MacNealy, M. S. (1998). Strategies for Empirical Research in Writing. Longman.

I feel like my feet are touching ground again, after a couple of weeks focused on cultural studies and critical methods. MacNealy offers a very practical overview of basic issues in quantitative research (Chapter 4) and the basics of experimental design (Chapter 5). I hope to refer back to these chapters as I’m constructing my own research proposals–using them as a checklist to prevent some of the mistakes I’m likely to make.

Key points from Chapter 4:

  • The chapter focuses mostly on threats to validity, with nods to randomization and hypothesis (and null hypothesis) creation.
  • Validity is “the degree to which a specific procedure actually measure what it is intended to measure” (55).
  • MacNealy distinguishes internal validity (sources of rival explanations within the sample) from external validity (representativeness of the population).
  • MacNealy offers diagnoses and remedies for many common threats to validity, including “history,” “maturation,” “mortality” (a term I don’t like for folks who drop out of a study), testing effects, interaction effects, random sample problems, etc.
Chapter 5 focuses on experimental design, principally on the means of reducing threats to internal validity.
  • She steps through the process from selection constructs and variables to study, to designing experiments that address validity concerns, usually with a good example for each.
  • She addresses Type I and Type II errors, which I can never keep straight. (Type I = rejecting the null hypothesis when the results are not significant enough to do so. Type II = not rejecting when the results are significant enough to do so.)
  • She offers a rudimentary discussion of measures of central tendency (like means and medians) and of measures of significance in categorical variables (chi-square) and continuous variables (t-tests).
The two chapters in Gurak & Lay, Research in Technical Communication, for this week fit into this reading. The Charney chapter discusses experimental and quasi-experimental design. And Murphy’s chapter discusses survey research. Again, I view them mostly as “checklist” material for constructing a study design.

Charney’s “Empiricism is not a Four-Letter Word”

I enjoyed this article as a defense of empirical (and even “objective”) methods against some of the claims against them. One of Charney’s central claims is that “critics of science often conflate methods and ideologies in simplistic ways” (283). Essentially, she argues that the methods esposed by those who criticize scientific approaches will not be able to find solutions to the problems that the critics raise.
She spends quite a lot of time debunking misconceptions about science among its critics, giving voice to some rebutting perspectives. (I don’t expect she is being “objective” here in the sense that I think she believes in the scientific method…)  She challenges the argument that “objective methods” are sexist. She spends quite a lot of time discussion the equation by critics of science of scientific indeterminacy and power politics. First, she notes that critics are not satisfied with the messy ways that science does its work. Then she addresses the claim that the scientific method is bound to entrenched power structures.
She continues with comprehensive treatment of motivations for objectivity, how scientific methods are socially constructed, relations between researchers and study participants, and objectivity as a means of creating collective authority, rather than relying on personal authority.

Eaton et al. “Editing in the Workplace”

This study used an online survey. It is interesting more for its methods than its results. Key questions arose in terms of sample selection (where the authors acknowledged that they would not be able to generalize) and in the distribution of responses (which could not be studied using means relying on a normal distribution, because the responses were not normally distributed).

Rhetoric and WHAT?

25 May

What the hell is ‘rhetoric and scientific and technical communication’?

That’s a question I’ve gotten from almost everyone who has asked what field I’m doing my PhD in. This post is my working definition, subject to much revision in the coming months, no doubt. Let’s start with “rhetoric”…

Not “mere rhetoric”!

So, many folks think of “rhetoric” and they think of the persuasive or obfuscative uses that politicians and lawyers make of language. Some 2500 years ago, Aristotle defined it as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.” Those things are rhetoric, I think. But rhetoric as an academic discipline is more.

Carolyn Rude (2009) characterizes the central question of research in technical communication as:

How do texts (print, digital, multimedia, visual, verbal) and related communication practices mediate knowledge, values, and action in a variety of social and professional contexts?

She was talking specifically about technical communication, but I think that makes a pretty good definition of rhetoric, really, so I’m going with that for the time being.

Technical and scientific communication may be neither

Folks who know that I taught legal writing at the University of Minnesota Law School for six years have asked why, in light of that experience, I’m in a program for scientific and technical communication. (That unwieldy phrase shall forever after in this blog be abbreviated “S&TC”.) As it happens, S&TC is often neither scientific nor technical (as least in a narrow sense). Here are some thoughts about the meaning of “technical communication” from scholars in the field.

According to Johnson-Sheehan (2009) “Technical communication is a process of managing technical information in ways that allow people to take action.” I’m working with this definition closely, because this is the definition Johnson-Sheehan uses it in his textbook, which I am using this semester to teach a course to undergraduates in “Technical and Professional Writing.”

Durack (1997) characterizes technical communication as having these characteristics: it is found in industry and government and in “the intersection between private and public spheres”; it has a “close relationship to technology”; it “often seeks to make tacit knowledge explicit.” I’ll address that last item another time, because I’m not sure I agree with it. The rest works for me, but only because Durack defines “technology” very broadly, including examples like “prepaid health care plans,” “social services in hospitals,” “flextime” and other examples of the principle that “[t]echnology refers equally to knowledge, actions, and tools.”

If we take “technical” and “technology” to have such broad meanings (and I’m not sure how we would narrow them), then legal writing is technical writing.


Durack, K. (1997). Gender, Technology, and the History of Technical Communication. Technical Communication Quarterly, 6(3), 249-60.
Johnson-Sheehan, R. (2009). Technical Communication Today (3rd ed.). Longman.
Rude, C. D. (2009). Mapping the Research Questions in Technical Communication. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 23(2), 174 -215.

From a trip to Rio (nothing to do with RS&TC - just fun!)