"Where Have All the Ideas Gone?"

This e-mail message, copied from the acw-l archives, was posted by Fred Kemp on June 5, 1998.

Ronan, Dickie, Jeff, Robert, Marcy, Greg, others who responded to my petulant plea.

Does the "agonizing self-appraisal" have to be so agonizing? The early 1980s was a time of real excitement and enthusiasm, mostly for soon-to-be-failed gimmicks like drill and practice, grammar checkers, and haiku generators (!) But it was indeed a time of excitement and enthusiasm and wild claims and ricochetting development . . . the birthing years. The period 1985-1995 was a time when drill and kill and grammar checkers were dumped (as more of those things got used and recognized for what they were) and the field turned to the twin excitements of networks and hypertext, and for those years there was a very lively (but friendly) competition between the network "pedagogists" and the hypertext "aestheticists."

The great leap forward in 1993 that came with Mosaic and web browsers -- which joined networks and hypertext -- caused a massive dispersal of computer-based instructional capabilities. Everybody and her uncle suddenly wanted computers in the English department. MOOs were exciting but esoteric. Online Writing and Learning centers got some folks charged but were administratively hard to implement. With familiarity came . . . ennui.

Now there's all this talk of changing the name, finding a new mission, refining methodologies. Marcy wants large empirical investigations (which is the only kind that would mean anything, as Gail's catalog of self-cancelling small studies in the 1980s showed). But I don't think it's going to happen, for two reasons:

  1. Whether computers help or hinder writing instruction isn't of interest to anybody with the resources to pull off such a study; just about everybody with any clout has long ago concluded that writing instruction will indeed use computers and the Internet, for a host of reasons -- good and bad that have little to do with the pegagogical efficacy of computers and the Internet. It would be like Ford spending big bucks in 1915 to see if people really wanted cars or not.

  2. Such a study would be based upon modernist assumptions of cause and effect and the ability to isolate informing conditions. But students aren't composed of isolatable modules, and neither are group learning situations. There is no "computer-based pedagogy," just as there really isn't a "current-traditional pedagogy." These ghostly categories are explanatory fictions that have their use but disappear like smoke once you start trying to apply structures for empirical research. All you're going to come up with are conclusions that pertain to that place, those classes, that technology, and those teachers. The instructional frame simply isn't portable, which is why you've never seen serious studies that prove this or that about ANY kind of writing instruction. Emig? 12 students. Britton? Riddled with subjectivity, as any reviewer will tell you.

But I think these continuing calls for "more and better research" sap the exploratory energy of many young people who, freed from the bugaboo (and comforting social science chic) of quasi-scientific "proof," would otherwise charge full ahead into fascinating innovations, implementations, and administrative designs.

And so, for the continuing edification and entertainment of my beloved discipline, let me issue a challenge.


I would like to debate a "research methodologist" in a plenary session at CW99 under the stony gaze of four past U.S. presidents (Mt. Rushmore, for you historically deprived). I would expect the research methodologist to come equiped with a research design that would satisfy the calls for methodological rigor I've been hearing for 12 years, that would be reasonably do-able, and would actually prove something useful in our quest to better understand computer-based instructional processes.

If, at the conclusion of that debate, a panel of attendees (one of whose members would be Patricia Goubil-Gambrell, my long-time but affectionally respected antagonist in these matters) conclude that I have indeed been bested and that my opponent has indeed presented a coherent, workable, and useful research design, then I will implement that design at Texas Tech under the guiding direction of the research methodologist, even if that person comes from Texas A&M.

Can I do such a thing? Well, I'm tenured, the director of a large composition program (120 sections a semester, 65 teachers, 3000 students), the director of computer-based instruction (all classes meet full-time in 4 computer-based classrooms, 900 students a semester, 35 teachers). I've got a chair (Madonne Miner) who is assertive and innovative and a campus where "tech" is its middle name. If the design is a good one, then I can get it put into place here.

I have been looking for 10 years for such a study design. For reasons I stated above, I have come to the conclusion that such a study is a chimera. HOWEVER, I am willing to debate the point and put my program's resources to the implementation of such a design, if it shows reasonable promise of being more than the usual social science naval-gazing.

Fair enough?

Fred Kemp
Texas Tech University