Sabbatical report: retooling

It’s high time I wrote about my AY2010-11 sabbatical, which is gone but fondly remembered. My plan going into sabbatical was to rewrite recent conference presentations for publication, two talks for one article. But as my sabbatical began, I began to realize I wanted to make more radical changes. I spent my first few months of leave (June, July, August, and September 2010) working on a few conference papers, traveling with family, making a fantastic beer trip, taking care of an unexpected house project which required immediate attention, and finishing up From A to <A>. Then Sandra Jameison visited WIU to talk about the Citation Project’s empirical studies of student writing. I was floored. Writing up my notes from her talk, I thought, why don’t I do this kind of work? The talks I was refactoring into an essay for College English were good–the poor quality of web sites in English studies, and the need for standards to target their improvement–but it wasn’t hard to see how much better an essay would be if backed up by empirical data. One of the models I was looking at, Clay Spinuzzi’s CE 70.2 piece on web accessibility, referred to his fieldwork, and I began to imagine an essay which used a similar approach.

So I took a deep breath, decided it was time to retool, and pushed the pause button. Instead of writing more essays which were primarily theoretical and historical, I would read broadly in method and do my best to add empirical research methods to my toolbox. I began that work by reading some qualitative research textbooks recommended by Jameison. I also returned to texts I had read and taken notes on over the years, asking, what’s going on here method-wise? I also started imagining how I might investigate long-standing questions about ease not only by going to the archive, but through other means.

In late December 2010, I found out my proposal for ATTW 2011 was accepted. The following excerpts from reviewers’ comments were telling:

  • “It is not clear from the proposal if the author is drawing on original studies that reveal ‘new patterns of use’ and that go on to demonstrate/recommend new usability evaluation techniques?”
  • “The nature of the study that would be presented in the session is not clear based on this abstract.”
  • “Arguably, this presentation does seem to be somewhat speculative but if the author has solid supporting data then I can see it being a solid contribution to the program.”

Each reviewer referred to empirical research in some way. Each one asked, Where is your data? And I realized the question I’d asked myself not long after Jamieson’s visit was right: Where is my ability to produce reliable data? 

Once I committed to retooling, I applied to the Dartmouth Seminar for Composition Research, and I asked my colleague Neil Baird to help me to develop an empirical research project focusing on writing transfer, writing in the major, and transfer students. I posted the tag cloud I made from Dartmouth notes here, and I’ll soon follow up with a longer post. And I hope to begin writing more about the collaborative work Neil and I have been doing, as a way of taking up some of Christina Haas’s suggestions for being a more effective empirical researcher.

So no, I don’t have a list of articles I sent out to share–better, I have a new way of doing business that has changed the way I approach research, assessment, and other spheres of my academic work.

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