- Second Language Writing Research: Perspectives on the Process of Knowledge Construction
At the recent CAAL conference, I attended a session in which three researchers reflected on how their teaching backgrounds and their philosophical assumptions influenced their research projects. They asked, (1) Why this particular research question? and (2) Why this research method? Researchers often ignore these questions because they seem irrelevant to the task at hand. In this volume, Matsuda and Silva have put together a collection of articles in which experienced researchers reflect on why these questions are at the very heart of what we do as L2 writing researchers. [End Page 642]
The articles in this book revolve around three basic themes: (1) research engenders and shapes the questions that we ask; (2) the theoretical grounding of research methods is important; and (3) themes emerge from the data through the screen of theory.
Silva introduces the volume by mapping out various philosophical and epistemological positions that writing researchers have (consciously or unconsciously) adopted when choosing research questions, deciding on methods of inquiry, and privileging certain kinds of evidence over others. He advocates a 'humble pragmatic rational' paradigm for future writing research that can allow for multimodal methodology and for complex understandings of the contexts within which writing takes place. Casanave takes up this theme as she asserts that all narratives are constructed as researchers select and connect episodes in order to create meaning. Matsuda argues that more exploration of the conflicting visions that form the historical roots of the teaching of English as a second language can legitimate and inform future writing research. An understanding of this background can help TESL practitioners strike a balance between the push to be recognized as part of the discipline and the pull to be separated from L1 composition theorists because of the different needs of the students they serve.
Current research methods are problematized in the second section of the book. Atkinson questions existing techniques for qualitative research and calls for reflexivity in methodology or for 'anti-methodology,' which he characterizes as 'doing the impossible.' He argues that although the insider/outsider perspective of the researcher who interviews subjects and analyses those interviews can be seen as 'weak science,' it nevertheless may allow researchers to 'welcome human behaviour in all its richness and diversity' (p. 63). Flowerdew suggests the use of a multi-method approach to research that explores the writing process, and Sasaki asserts that qualitative and quantitative research methods are appropriate for different stages in the research process. Like many other contributors, Weissburg suggests that research questions not grounded in larger theoretical issues will have a very short shelf life as teaching practices change. Thus, sociocultural theory could serve as a framework for studies in which researchers must make connections between what subjects say and what they write.
The choice of analytical tools is driven by theoretical concerns that can, if unexamined, create misperceptions about the phenomena being studied. Haswell argues that prototypical categorizations of writing proficiency scales can assess their centrality of significance for L1 and L2 teachers and thus question current assumptions about how proficiency is measured. Similarly, Manchón, Murphy, and Roca de Larios argue [End Page 643] that although coding schemes should merely be filters for the data they are meant to analyze, in fact they often determine the interpretations of the data. Brice and Hyland problematize the search for validity in qualitative research. Brice asserts that if researchers were allowed to write longer articles that contained more examples of student work, they could more easily validate their findings, even though their searches for explanations are constrained by theoretical predispositions. Hyland concurs: 'every orientation toward data, analysis and interpretation carries implicit assumptions about appropriate research criteria and the nature of evidence' (p. 179). Having conceded the impossibility of objectivity, he sets out to analyze the data, guided by the intention to understand the phenomena being studied.
Hudelson's and Ferris's retrospective accounts of how changing theoretical perspectives have affected their research findings end...