B.11: Time To Take Stock: What We Can (and Can’t) Learn From Current CHAT Methodology in Writing Studies Research
Reviewed by: Matthew C. Zajic, University of California at Davis (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Chair: Dylan Dryer, University of Maine
Speakers: Clay Spinuzzi, University of Texas at Austin
Russel Durst, University of Cincinnati
Mya Poe, Northeastern University
David Russell, Iowa State University
Carolyn R. Miller, North Carolina State University
Christiane K. Donahue, Dartmouth College and Charles de Gaulle University–Lille III
Davida Charney, University of Texas at Austin
If you are ready to talk about methods, research design, and theory, then let’s chat about CHAT. Cultural-historical activity theory (or CHAT) is a theoretical framework developed out of Russian psychology (specifically Lev Vygotsky and Aleksei Leontiev) that helps researchers understand and analyze the relationship between people’s thoughts and actions. I don’t want to jump too quickly into CHAT just yet.
The organization of this panel was different from most and brought together a diverse combination of speakers. I’ll let Clay Spinuzzi introduce CHAT, as his role was that of a speaker while the rest were all discussants to his opening remarks. Following Spinuzzi’s introduction, I’ll overview each speaker only briefly, as each only had a few minutes to talk.
Spinuzzi began by stating that CHAT helped solve a methodology problem that we faced as a field. Going back to the 1970s and 1980s, Spinuzzi posited that rhetoric and writing studies didn’t have a paradigm, a set of methodologies, a set of methods, or a set of research techniques; in fact, composition studies was considered to not even be a valid area of scholarship and study. From here, composition studies continued to evolve and incorporate research methods and designs, though these methods tended to be paradigm agnostic and “sat next to each other like shy teens at a dance.” Spinuzzi stated that we needed, as a field, to understand how people use both social and cognitive approaches, leading to the appropriation of CHAT within composition studies.
CHAT provided both social and cognitive components and allowed for a unifying paradigm previously lacking in writing studies methodology. Spinuzzi offered the cliffs notes version of the evolution of CHAT over the years:
- First Generation: concerned mediation, internalization, and proximal development;
- Second Generation: concerned activity system and structures of activities;
- Third Generation: pushed beyond systems to activity networks to include contradictions and rules.
In embracing the third generation of CHAT, Spinuzzi argued for solving past methodological problems, but new methodological problems have arisen:
- Problem 1: The social has overpowered the cognitive, and we need to rebalance our understandings.
- Problem 2: The theory of CHAT needs to be in dialogue with other theories.
- Problem 3: The phenomenon that reality has a single objective is problematic.
To address these problems, Spinuzzi called for a pivot to a possible fourth generation of CHAT (as it is “no longer whether we should stick with CHAT, but how to understand the ongoing discussion”). He then opened up the floor to the theoretical, methodological, and assessment lions.
First up was Russell Durst, who began by titling his response, “Who was Clay Spinuzzi?” Durst believed that CHAT needs retrofitting as the portions of it are small, researchers using CHAT aren’t publishing in main composition venues, and our graduate students are not being trained in CHAT. Much of the research involving CHAT comes from at least a decade or more ago and often from the technical and professional writing fields. Composition and rhetoric researchers may not even know where to access such research. In addition, graduate students are still often trained from a humanities mindset rather than empirical research, meaning that it “doesn’t help when people haven’t had the preparation.” (As a graduate student in education with interests in composition and writing studies and who has been trained in CHAT theory, I want to echo this point. If you were to ask many graduate students in composition studies just exactly what CHAT is, you might be prepared for some blank looks.) Durst then ended with two main takeaways: 1) if we want more CHAT-based research, then we need to learn how to apply it, and 2) we need less discussion and more application.
Then came Mya Poe spoke on the assessment side of CHAT. Poe began with a focus on psychometrics as coming from a western cognitive tradition of assessment, focusing on the underlying constructs that can be measured and the building war between measurement and composition studies in how to select and use these tools. Writing assessment often deals with theory battles and often practice has been put into opposition of cognitive science. The main question Poe saw for CHAT within the context of writing assessment is as follows: “How do we do things with writing that can be measured in a way to acknowledge the social, individual, and structural?” Or, as she followed, “we are talking about construct representation.” Her view towards CHAT is the management of contradictions and the structural concerns that need to be addressed. To explore this, Poe emphasized Vygotsky’s history, his Jewish identity, racism that occurred, and that he wrote about the development of early generations of CHAT. To understand CHAT within assessment is to fully embrace the societal and contextual factors surrounding the implications for measurement held within CHAT that Vygotsky did not consider then.
David Russell approached the stage next, beginning with “I almost always agree with Clay, but today I am going to disagree,” specifically citing the notion that “I believe we’ve always pivoted from CHAT.” In this, Russell meant that we’ve not taken genre as a different approach to CHAT but, instead, as an integral approach to CHAT. Genre itself is a unit of analysis that can be used for varying levels of analyses, including both social and cognitive aspects. Russell cited that genre as a unit of analysis comes from important European traditions and phenomenology, allowing people to do certain types of research in reaction against genre and education as disciplinary constraints rather than affordances. Russell argued that now is a great opportunity for understanding the embodiment of genres and embodied cognition. We, as researchers, need to understand how we perceive and recognize genres as well as how we engage with them physically. Russell ended on a note suggesting that we still have much to learn as a field: “CHAT has a lot to offer, but we need to recognize that our CHAT has not been that CHAT” (emphasis added).
Carolyn Miller then took the stage to explain why CHAT has made her feel uneasy and impatient. Her uneasiness has stemmed from the treatment of genre as an object rather than an action, on the preoccupation with objects rather than on rhetorical acts. She explored the connections across a number of triangles, including the rhetorical triangle, Vygotsky’s triangle, and C.S. Peirce’s semiotic triangle, ending on the note that the intersections between triangles could benefit from further exploration. She concluded with a focus on Mikhail Bakhtin over Vygotsky, calling for a need to reeducate Bakhtin rather than simply reform Vygotsky.
Down to the final two, Christiane Donahue took the stage for assessment 2.0. However, different from Poe, Donahue offered remarks as a naïve outsider to the guiding question of “what is writing and how can we measure writing to understand writing and the individual?” She spoke on her experiences of training faculty readers to describe what they saw in student essays rather than evaluating them (which she commented was tough for them) and noted that evaluation was not possible without context. She called for the need of a methodology to help account for the multiple layers of interpersonal factors involved in thinking about and looking at assessment, and she offered that CHAT might help us to develop such a methodology. She grounded her discussions in text analysis and the need to move beyond text analysis, with the goal of (again) pivoting CHAT to consider this. Her final comments then focused back around to the need for faculty to understand student work for what it does rather than what it fails to do.
Davida Charney took the stage as the final respondent and outed herself as the “cognitivist in the room, the experimentalist, and the empiricist.” She argued that the main critique against the cognitive approach has been that it’s been incapable of taking the social into account, fighting back that it’s not easy to capture the natural environment. During the ongoing methodological evolution, the drama within composition focused on labeling specific methodologies as “immoral, unethical, and inhumane,” barring them from mainstream journals; to Charney, this is why she feels that CHAT fails to exist in major journals. Charney points to numerophobia as a phenomenon in keeping certain methodologies out of these journals, and she felt that the CHAT we do now did not get shifted over. Instead, CHAT has flourished in professional and technical communication, spaces where a greater array of methodologies have been embraced. She also pointed to methods from educational psychology and the European Union that often get overlooked by composition researchers. She argued that due to a fragmented discipline, it is difficult to really know where we are or how to assess the actual limitations of CHAT. To end, she highlighted the need to look to the research questions first and then look to the methodologies, rather than assuming a methodology as the answer to all research questions.
Did you follow all that? Great, because the session only became more fun during the Q&A when Charles (Chuck) Bazerman was given the chance to act as an honorary respondent (my label). To summarize, Bazerman voiced concerns with the manners in which Spinuzzi had original positioned them, neglecting Alexander Luria, the founder of modern day neuroscience, as a key player in the school of Russian psychology. Luria was focused more on the material connections and contributed to these different CHAT generations. Bazerman highlighted the issues that are presented when trying to reason and situate individuals within the context of socially organized set of experiences. He ended with “no question.”
How do I even begin to summarize this session? The rich discussion on methodology, theory, and assessment proved to be one of the most engaging sessions for me at this year’s Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC). The raw discussion of theory allowed for a discussion of composition studies often not focused on when discussing pedagogy or classroom applications. This session asked the audience members to step back and to consider a larger issue of the field as a whole: what are our methods? Even more so, I feel the discussion amongst all responders resonated an event stronger question: what (or where) is our field?
This chat on CHAT demonstrated to me the fragmented nature of our already small area of study, highlighting the need to consider the various components that contribute to writing and composition studies. I should not walk away from a session at one of the largest writing-focused conferences thinking, “wow, that was an amazing methodology discussion…and probably the only one I’ll see this whole conference.” We need to chat about theory and methodology as much as we do about classroom pedagogy, but in order to do so, we need to train our graduate students for entering these conversations. Neglecting to invite graduate students into issues of writing theory does a disservice to the field as a whole and limits these conversations for years to come. How should graduate students in the field of composition studies be prepared regarding research design, applicable methodologies, and theoretical frameworks? To consider the future of the methodology for our field is to consider how we prepare future scholars for research about writing as much as pedagogy about writing.