Researching the Literacies of Technology
Gail E. Hawisher
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Cynthia L. Selfe
Michigan Technological University
Cindy and I for the past three years have been collecting stories of how Americans during the last quarter of the 20th century have come to literacy in the information age. Our goal in this project has been to gather information about literacy processes as they have occurred in people's lives and, then, to analyze the information gathered within the larger contexts of the historical, political, economic, and ideological movements that had shaped these same people's lives. We were and continue to be interested not only in how individuals acquired and developed the literacies of technology but also in how we could do justice to our participants' words while recounting their stories and, at the same time, holding ourselves accountable (Britzman, 2000). Following the lead of feminist scholars, such as, Caroline Brettell (1993), Patti Lather (2000), Deborah Britzman (2000), Shulamit Reinharz (1992), and Kamala Visweswaren (1994), we've attempted to develop a research methodology that works toward an ethical understanding of agency that honors both the women and men in our study--a methodology that allows us to write with and about those in our study in a manner that suits all parties. Here we continue with those stories but this time focus on the methodology and let the participants themselves tell of their involvement in the research in their own words.
Last year, the audience at Computers and Writing taught us something important when we reported on our long-term study. We learned, with all due apologies to Hillary Clinton, that it takes a community to tell a story. This year, we talk about this realization and why it has become so central in our understanding of the study.
In conducting this study, we have always wanted to reconcile, to register, to bring into intellectual correspondence a whole range of perspectives at the macro-, medial, and micro-levels of lived experience in order to obtain a more robust, multidimensional image of how individuals acquired and developed electronic literacy. The project that we finally settled on, like Deborah Brandt's (2001) work, was grounded in oral history and life history research (Bertaux, 1981; Bertaux & Thompson, 1997). It attempts to get at people's technological literacy experiences through a standard set of mostly open-ended interview questions that we call an electronic literacy autobiography. The prompting questions for this autobiography ask for demographic data and for information about family history, stories about literacy practices and values, memories of schooling environments and workplace experiences, descriptions of technology use and avoidance. Our goal was (and continues to be) to collect these autobiographies from a wide range of people of differing ages, genders, ethnic and racial groups, geographical backgrounds using face-to-face interviews, and online surveys.
In so doing, like Brandt (2001), we've relied in part on a kind of birth cohort analysis, that is, by collecting stories from participants in different age groups, we've been able to examine their experiences through what Norman Ryder (1965) calls their unique location in the stream of history (Brandt, p. 11). We've found this method particularly useful when looking at the literacies of technology, in part, because the rapid changes in the technology itself occasioned very different literacy experiences for the participants over relatively short expanses of time. For example, those in our study who came to computers in the 1970s and early 1980s were likely to have considerable exposure to programming languages whereas those who came somewhat later defined computer literacy by their knowledge of various software applications. And, through it all, there was an increased emphasis on reading and writing at and with computers as the sophistication of the software itself and the number and kinds of software programs changed over time. Thus, as Brandt (2001) says so well, what people are able to do with their writing or reading in any time and place as well as what others do to them with writing and reading contribute to their sense of identity, normality, and possibility. (p. 11)
But, unlike Brandt, while we, too, set our case studies in the frames of large-scale social, historical, and cultural trends that might exert shaping influences on the electronic literacies of individuals, we wanted to avoid suggesting that these large-scale trends exerted a one-way structuring effect on individuals' experiences and lives. Human agents, we believe, shape the circumstances of their lives in countless important ways, and large-scale social or cultural patterns are themselves constituted by the actions and the divergent experiences of people who are living out their lives. Thus, our project is also based on the work of scholars such as Anthony Giddens (1979, 1984), Michel DeCerteau (1984), and Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (1985) scholars who suggest that human agents both shape and are shaped by cultural, educational, economic, and social formations.
One way in which we tried to show the active agency of the individuals we studied was to feature their own voices in every part of this project to keep their words and their phrasing, intact, their grammatical structures and their distinctive word choices, even the oral markers of their speech intact whenever we reported on the project. And because we did this, because we retained the personality of their language with all its markers of class and age and geographical idioms it, too, retained a powerful way of exerting agency, even when it was separated from the sources of its generation.
As a result, when we reported on this study, we developed over time, whenever it was possible, a preference for asking people to read the words of our subjects out loud, much as we asked those at Computers and Writing last year, to assure the variety of their voices. But this solution only served to remind us, even more immediately of the presence of these people in our study of the ways in which ghosts of their agency continued to haunt, as Sarah Sloane (1999) might say, the territory of our project.
We began to look, then, more carefully at the accounts of other researchers who questioned their abilities to represent accurately the stories of the participants with whom they worked. From Deborah Britzman (2000) we learned that although, like her, we desired to tell good stories filled with the stuff of rising and falling action . . . . that there is a contradictory point of no return, of having to abandon the impossible desire to portray the study's subjects as they would portray themselves (p. 32). We recognized this dilemma and wondered if we could come up with some refinement of method that would give the participants more say in the politics of interpretation.
We looked too to experimental sociologist Laurel Richardson (2000), who asks "what practices [can] support our writing and develop a care for the self" (p. 153)--our selves in this case--and, at the same time, honor "the ethical subject's relation to [our] research practices (p. 153)." How would, in Richardson's words, the theoretical concepts of feminist poststructuralism, reflexivity, authority, authorship, subjectivity, power, language, ethics, representation play out in our study? And to Patti Lather (2000) and her decision to situate her research on women living with HIV/AIDs in a feminist poststructural problematic of accountability to stories that belong to others all the while attending to the crisis of representation (p. 285). How, in other words, could we, we asked, change our actual ways of working of writing and interpreting to learn more from the participants we studied rather than just about them. (Reinharz, 1992)
Such research concerns are not ours alone; in her outstanding collection titled When They Read What We Wrote, Caroline Brettell (1993) collects a series of perspectives on studies like ours (anthropological projects, ethnographies, and life histories) and talks about the ways in which modernist approaches to such writing has often suffered from the limited perspectives of academics and professional scholars who, as Schoen (1983, p. 27) notes, still cling to an understanding of the superior academic value of pure knowledge inherited from the model of technical rationality that has been influential in all American social sciences. As Alexandra Jaffe points out (1993), in this same collection, such an approach to research claims a distance between observer and observed that is, to a great extent, an ethnographic fiction, one that scholars have employed to maintain control over subjects (p. 51). As a corrective to this modernist approach, Brettell (1993) and others suggest an alternative method of having subjects talk back, (p. 9) comment on, modify, change, correct scholars' interpretations of what they said. Talk back, as Jaffe (1993) goes on to say, helps to undermine professional ethnographers' ability to construct an unproblematic Other, and hence, an unproblematic self. (p. 52) The reflexivity established by this dialogue is not only a positive and productive characteristic of postmodern anthropology, but as Jaffe (1993) points out, a realistic and essential condition of interaction with the people we study (p. 51).
Gail and I slowly came to the realization, then, that the project we had undertaken was no longer our own. It also belonged to the individuals we had interviewed and surveyed. Their words, their stories were continual reminders that these individuals had claimed the intellectual ground of the project for their own. So when we began preparing a book length study for Lawrence Erlbaum on the project last year, we decided to ask each of the individuals whose story we focused on to join us as a co-author. The great majority of the people we approached accepted; only a few preferring to maintain their anonymity and privacy. For me, that meant co-authoring chapters with a fifteen year old girl from a small-town high school in Escanaba, Michigan, and a sixteen year old boy from a relatively large high school in Greenville, South Carolina; a Black woman currently working as a technical communicator for a large university, and a White woman currently working for Sun Microsystems in Minneapolis; a Native American woman who served as a program director working for the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, and a Black undergraduate who served as the web designer for his fraternity, a Mormon graduate student enrolled in a professional communication program in the South, and a chatroom-savvy faculty member teaching in a similar program in the Midwest; a comfortably middle-class Public Relations manager, and a working class janitor at Clemson University.
The participants with whom I worked were also, more often than not, eager to co-author their chapters and to step out from under the research subjects cloak of anonymity. My co-authors include many of the graduate students, writing instructors, and colleagues with whom I've worked during my life in academe: Paula Boyd, now Director of the Learning Center at Parkland College in Illinois; Mary Sheridan-Rabideau, former graduate student and now an assistant professor at Rutgers University; Karen Lunsford, an ABD, soon to be PhD, at the University of Illinois; Janice Walker, colleague at Georgia Southern University; Jen Burges, colleague at Longwood College; Jane Blakelock, colleague at Wright State University; Melissa Pearson, writing instructor and former student at Midland Tech in Columbia, South Carolina; and Tom Lugo, PhD candidate and writing instructor at the University of Illinois. Most are White women; one a Black woman; one a Latino; all ranging in age from 30 to 50 years old at the time they were interviewed, each very much a part of the schooled world but whose current academic positions, nevertheless, belie their very diverse backgrounds.
Cindy and I chose to foreground these participants from our larger study of almost 350 informants because as we read, and reread, and analyzed the data from the interviews we collected, these particular interviews frankly resonated with us and seemed more illustrative of the themes we understood as emerging from the data. Our selection also enabled us to make use of the birth cohort analysis we mentioned earlier. By comparing age groups and generations, we were able to situate our study within a larger cultural ecology. The participants in our study were also recruited primarily through school settings and through recommendations we received from the initial volunteers themselves. Brothers, sisters, relatives, and friends also became part of our informant pool. Overall, then, the participants are drawn from a pool not only of students and instructors at various academic levels, although many of them are, but also of technical communicators, program directors, and secretaries, to mention a few of their current and former occupations.
After we had engaged in these collaborations and came to realize how much they enriched the reports of the project, we began to wonder how our co-authors had perceived the collaborations, how they felt about the process of speaking back to the investigators who had initially asked them to tell their stories. On first glance, we found, their reception of the approach was quite positive. Brittney Moraski, for instance, interviewed first as a fifteen year old high school student in Escanaba, Michigan, was pleasantly surprised, at our invitation:
To be asked to be a co-author surprised me While I thought that my answers to the questions you gave me were a relatively important part of the chapter, I never-in-a-million-years thought that my answers merited a "co-author" status. When I did learn of this, I was pretty excited!. [R]eading the first draft of the chapter was the most exciting part. It was really neat to see my sentences, and more than that, my thoughts, turned into a book form.
Tom Lugo, writing instructor and PhD candidate, expressed similar surprise about the importance given his words:
I liked reading my own little, tiny, insignificant tales, but I'd not recommend my stories as must-read material for others. There doesn't seem to be much helpful, insightful stuff in my experience. My own enjoyment in reading these stories stems mainly from a self-indulgent pleasure, which I'd find strange if someone else experienced if they gained the same kind of enjoyment from reading about a stranger, in this case, me.
Along with several of the participants, Paula Boyd, director of a community college learning center and 30 years old when interviewed, echoed Tom's concern that his experiences seemed rather insignificant alone. She explains,
I liked being able to add more or respond to the original analysis of my experience and therefore I felt less like an object of research. But it was really difficult to think about my own experiences as meaningful too. I had to work hard to add things that my mind automatically labeled insignificant, but that my co-authors might see differently.
Tom also added that he found the co-authoring experience beneficial and stress-alleviating:
After all, collaborator's don't have to shoulder the entire burden of writing a piece by themselves. There was no part of the process I disliked.
And Danielle DeVoss, who participated in the study both when she was a graduate student at Michigan Tech and a faculty member at Michigan State, describes the process like this:
[T]he approach to co-authoring this chapter delighted me. Drafts were exchanged, comments shared, and I believe we maintained an open and honest dialogue throughout the process. At no point did I feel as if I was being represented, or being spoken for. At no point did I feel silenced. I do believe that one author did the majority of the work -- drafting the chapter based on a conference presentation. From this framework, I feel it was quite easy for myself and the other authors to contribute, tweak, add, etc. But I've found that in most successful collaborations, someone has to take the lead -- create the first draft, send out an outline, suggest deadlines and priorities.
Jill Van Wormer interviewed as an 23 year old undergraduate concurred on this generally positive assessment of the method, and added that the experience prompted what was for her an unusual, and not unpleasant reflection on her life, her past experiences, and the way in which she had related her own stories:
My stories were mostly represented in large chunks of the things I literally wrote. I had to think back to a long time ago. It was hard to recall facts, and I was worried I wasn't going to have enough information. It did seem kind of odd when I saw them [my stories] in written form, because though I did originally put them in written form, it was as if I was hearing myself talk. I did enjoy reading them though; they brought back memories.
But while this comment of Jill's was gratifying in one sense, it also encouraged Gail and me to recall Sally McBeth's (1993) caution about the major weaknesses of life-history methodology, specifically its subjective nature which depends, at least in part, on the accuracy of the informant's memory (p. 150) which, she notes, selects, emphasizes, rearranges, and even alters past episodes (p. 151).
Karen Lunsford, interviewed as a doctoral student at Illinois, also spoke of the importance of participants memory and suggested ways in which our method might be refined. When asked what she'd say to other scholars considering this co-authoring approach, she replied:
Repeat parts of the interview in a later session. In this case, I was finding that as I thought about the history of my computer literacy more, I was remembering more and more things. Also given some time to search the Internet, I could probably turn up examples of what I was talking about in the interview copies of the images I remember, computer program emulators that replicate the games I used to play, and so on. I know that a scholar would not want to skew the memories, but it would be interesting to compare what was initially remembered and what was found or recovered later . . . and whether or not the interviewee agrees with today's representations of past technologies. What do those representations emphasize and what do they leave out?
Kamala Visweswaren (1994), in her Fictions of Feminist Ethnography, also problematizes this whole issue of memory, especially as it relates to identity. She asks, how are the identities of self related to the mechanics of memory, and the relevance of the past? Or, more specifically, what are the identity-defining functions of memory? (p. 68) And, we ask, what might the sharpening of memory, through strategies such as those Karen outlined, contribute to identity formation as it relates to the literacies of technology? In other words, does memory always index loss or can it reveal, despite distortions and errors, individuals cultural attitudes and their relationship to their lived life as evidenced through their literate practices?
Although Jill VanWormer noted the limitations of memory, she was also concerned about her own powers of expression. As she stated,
I guess if I'd have known that I was going to be taken word-for-word, maybe I would have tried to write better. [M]Most of my writing was used word-for-word. Sometimes I worry that I didn't express myself clearly enough and came off sounding like an idiot.
This last comment also helped us come to a second understanding about the process of involving subjects as co-authors of their own stories. In particular, we became aware of the ways in which the narratives we composed were collaborative fictions as well as postmodern life histories, interested representations constructed at various levels and at times by both the researcher and the subjects.
As we considered, then, what it might mean to take a poststructural feminist approach to our research and the stories of the participants, we listened to Elizabeth St. Pierre and Wanda Pillow (2000), who told us in their introduction to Working the Ruins, of the importance of stressing process and becoming rather than constructing categorical static representations (p. 9). And although we knew that our participants should in no way bear the responsibility of representing a cultural group or birth cohort, we also hoped that their first-person narratives could indeed evoke a larger community. Thus as we continued in our research and sought out co-authors, we also developed a feminist sensibility in our attempts to do justice the participants responses to co-authoring.
Jena Burges, who was a 47-year-old writing program director at Longwood College in Virginia when interviewed, described for us the rich process in which she engaged as co-author. She writes of
. . . the paths of thought that the process led me along. Questions-answers-reading-questions-reflecting-writing-questions-answers. In a way, it was kind of a call-and-response procedure, kind of like an African Methodist service or an extended therapy session with the products being greater than the sum of the parts.
And Karen Lunsford described a technological variable that got added to the process. She writes:
Here's something interesting I've been finding that [after the oral interview] I've been using follow-up email a lot to expand on things I said in the interview, or to provide more accurate details. In part, I'm trying to be as helpful as possible. But I suspect that there are different control issues here as well. Email is still informal, but it is often more crafted than speech is, and more accurate than transcripts. At the same time, I enjoy talking with people face-to-face because I'm interested in the follow-up questions to a response, and I can often tell from facial expressions or body language whether someone is understanding what I am saying. That, too, is a way of trying to control the interaction.
It matters, in other words, on several different levels whether the communication between researcher and researched is face-to-face or in writing and email has introduced a whole new dimension to the process of open-ended interviewing.
The comments of other participants shed additional light on this realization that our narratives were, to some degree, collaborative fictions. Several of our co-authors, for instance, mentioned how their stories especially when they had been set by Gail or me within the larger contexts of social, historical, and economic trends; or, importantly, when they were represented in print, seemed to assume increased significance and, in ways they didn't anticipate, spoke back to them about the accumulated events in their lives.
Nichole Brown followed suit on this matter when she wrote
It was especially insightful to see [myself and my family] in a historical perspective. Reading the story made me realize that my experiences are what have gotten me where I am in life, academically and professionally. I rarely stop to think about how my experiences in such areas as technology, literacy were shaped by family and environment. It was an eye-opening experience.
Working [on this project] gave me such motivation and a sense of self-worth, importance. [It] It has allowed me to grow professionally and to believe in myself and in my abilities.
And Damon Davis, an undergraduate student in my own technical communication program reflected on the importance of his own story as a message to other young Black people in his situation:
What surprised me the most was the detail given to the information on our former lives. Getting to explain the tribulations I have surpassed to get to college is what I liked the most. I hope that this will reach someone some day to let them know that they are the master of their own fate, and that anything is possible if they believe they can do it. I enjoyed telling my story and for some of it to be printed is a great honor for me. As a child I was told I would not make it. This is just hard evidence that I will and have made it. Sitting down and reading my own stories was lovely.
Brittney Moraski, our somewhat precocious 15 year-old co-author, added
I had never considered my literacy history before, and it was interesting to do so for the first time. I enjoyed reading about my life in the chapter. It helped me to gain a better understanding of myself. By reading about my literacy history in print form, I gained a better understanding of how others perceive me.
And Jane Blakelock, who with Jena Burges was central to the initial paper I wrote on the literacies of technology as they relate to women born during the middle of the 20th century, had this to say:
I most liked viewing a relaying of Jen's and my narratives against a backdrop of sociological and historical perspectives: the blend of feminist and technological influences. The only way in which I'd say [the representation is] unfaithful is the unavoidable difference between a tale selectively told and a more complete rendering. Still, the representative truths seem in order. I cannot overemphasize that your interpretation of second wave feminism being at work in my life seems accurate. The model holds up to the experience. My brothers, especially, did not fare so well, and it is true also of my first cousin's family: daughters fared better than sons. Divine neglect perhaps and some second-wave feminism. Thank you for asking me; I actually found your re-casting of information, grounded in theories of interest, to be a good fit. I thought your perspective was proven valid, that my perspectives are enhanced by yours. That's always fun.
Jena also seemed to regard more seriously her own experiences when set in the larger cultural ecology. She writes:
It was very odd to read about myself in "third person disguised" and to have my stories framed in particular ways that gave them more substance than I would have thought possible. The role of reading and writing in my early life, for example, was not something I'd thought much about, and it was slightly uncomfortable to read about it academically. Also, I certainly do not consider myself to be particularly savvy, technology-wise. . . . I'm not exactly an early adopter, and I don't consider myself to have "kept up" with advances to the degree that I would like. This all made me feel uncomfortable with any indication that I was a "technological leader."
And Janice Walker, who figures prominently in that same chapter, added:
I enjoyed the reading (I guess we all like reading about ourselves!), but I also felt [the experiences] again, which is sometimes (often) painful. Of course, it is impossible to include all of the story of my life here and not necessary for what you are trying to present but I do feel there's so much more to tell. Reading this chapter, I actually for the first time saw my life's events as something that might have value for others to read!
Thus the participants not only began to think about their stories and experiences within particular historical and political contexts but were also eager to add their perspectives to Cindy's and my interpretations. In this way, Cindy and I tried to follow Gesa Kirsch's method of turning the interview and analysis process into a cycle of conversation (1996, p. 222).
These reflections indicate that the co-authors stories about literacy were shaped bi-laterally both by researchers and informants and in multiple ways and times. They were, for example, actively constructed not only by us, through the original prompts we provided to individuals, but also by our informants, through the responses to these prompts. These stories were shaped, in addition, by the ways in which Gail and I contextualized them within larger social/historical/economic narratives by our decision, for instance, to set Nichole's story within the historical narrative of racism in the Jim Crow South; by our decision to set Jane, Jen, and Janice's story in the larger narrative of the sixties and then second-wave feminism; by our decision to set Melissa's, Tom's, and Damon's story within a historical and contemporary narrative about race, ethnicity, class, and literacy as these formations intersect in our country's educational system; by our decision to set Brittney's story in a cultural narrative about the emergence of electronic literacies and the increasing importance of visual communication. The co-authors stories (and our own interpretations of them), moreover, were re-interpreted through the informants re-reading and reflection, and by the ways in which these individuals chose to understand the stories within the larger narratives of their lives. Finally, there is little doubt that, once our book has been published, these stories will be shaped and interpreted and, thus, in a sense re-composed by every reader who eventually sees them. As McBeth (1993) describes the situation:
Memory, then, is central to the life history, since the events of a life are reinterpreted over and over. The fascination and frustration of this approach are revealed in this reinterpretation, for not only are events and remembrances of the past discovered, interpreted, and reinterpreted by the individual who has lived them, but they are also interpreted and reinterpreted in recording them, and later by the reader of the documented life. (p. 151)
Although we asked the participants to reflect on what surprised them about the process of co-authoring, we ourselves were surprised to find that their thoughts often coincided in interesting ways with our own. Jane, for example, touches upon her experience of watching her story unfold:
It is somewhat surprising to watch a story go from interview base to anonymous case study to documentary with feminist critique. I had never thought of my experiences my story going through genre and point of view shifts and that the genre switching would become a kind of shape-shifting experience.
Thus, a second challenge that we uncovered through the process of asking co-authors reflect on the process of collaboration we used has to do with the genre of the study in which we were involved, or more, accurately as Kamala Visweswaran (1994) calls it, the tangling of genres (p. 6) we had created. We have, for instance, collected what some might call literacy autobiographies and others might call life histories; we have interpreted these autobiographies and reported our observations of the informants, their lives, and the contexts within which they live like some ethnographers might do; we have described specific cultural, economic, and social eras in a way that some might call history and others historiography.
In this challenge, too, we have discovered that we are not alone. In her collection about feminist ethnographies, Visweswaran refers at various times and quoting various other ethnographers and critics of ethnographic methodology refers to studies with elements like those incorporated in our project as conjectural historiography (p. 71), individual history (p. 70), life history (p. 6), first-person narratives (p. 21), telling stories (p. 2), window(s) open on life (p. 6), autobiographic (p. 6), experimental (p. 32), postmodern (p. 8), interpretive (p. 78), deconstructive ( p. 78), feminist (p. 17), reflexive (p. 78), or auto- (p. 4) ethnographies, and my favorites, authorized fictions (p. 2), local legitimations that resist universalization (p. 91), discursive hijacking (p. 81), and fables of imperfect rapport (p. 29).
Yet even as we and the participants grappled with the question of genre and what sometimes seemed like a proliferation of genres, we realized that there were other challenges to the collaborative configurations we had orchestrated. We agreed, for example, with Elizabeth Cheseri-Strater, that we were in a situation to construct a polyvocal text by folding our informants voices into our own (1996, p. 128), and we acknowledged, with Shulamit Reinharz, that in choosing, indeed in crafting a particular method, we also chose a certain type of control over [the] subject matter and a certain type of focus (1992, p. 132). We acknowledged too, as Reinharz also notes, that in choosing a form of oral history we needed to contend with the difficulties (and enjoy the delights) of writing about a living person in a way that satisfies both parties (1992, p. 132). How could our attempts to co-author, then, in some sense to create our polyvocal text, satisfy the participants, ourselves and also meet the requirements of publishing?
Thus a third challenge we encountered with the actual co-authoring methodology was that co-authoring meant different things to different people. Everyone, in other words, had ideas about how such a process should proceed and who should be doing what work and when. Nichole, for instance noted,
I enjoyed the experience that I had. I only wish that I had the ability to conduct the historical research that Dr. Selfe did. I think that would have been something worth observing and learning.
Jill Van Wormer commented:
I don't think I would have liked to be more involved, as the paper was not my idea to begin with. I think "too many cooks spoil the soup" and that the paper-writing should be left up to the scholars.
And Danielle DeVoss had both mixed feelings about the process and some great suggestions:
Because I am a control freak, there were moments in the process -- and I do mean mere moments -- where I felt that the project was out of my hands, out of my control. This is, however, a good feeling, a good experience for me. Learning to deal with true collaboration and cooperation is important, as I enjoy coauthoring and want to continue working on shared projects with others.
[W]e need to develop methodological frameworks and approaches for these sort of collaborative approaches. We need to do so for a variety of reasons, many of which I'm sure you're aware of already: human subjects issues, for example. What Id really like to see is an article or set of articles both reflecting on this process and providing for theoretical and practical justification and rationales for this sort of research I think this would be an incredible base for future research, and a huge contribution to research methodologies in the humanities.
Obviously, different scholars and researchers might define co-authoring drastically different. If the individual asked to contribute and co-author is not familiar with academic publishing practices, they [should] be provided with an overview of what its like to publish an academic piece. What issues are involved? What are the considerations in writing and co-authoring the piece? Etc.
Yet, predictably perhaps, not only did some of the participants disagree on definitions of co-authorship, but they also questioned whether the process in which they engaged was truly CO-authorship. When asked about what most surprised her about co-authoring the chapter, Janice Walker had this to say:
I am most surprised by the form of the process itself beginning with the oral interview, readings of the transcript, both my own and in the context of others, and the opportunity to respond to specific questions. It both does and does not feel like co-authoring!
And Mary Sheridan-Rabideau too contemplated her role in the study:
I guess I didn't really feel like a co-author. To me, the "co" part implies more of a shared inquiry either from the get-go or from the point where both parties hopped on board. Rather, I felt as if I was supporting a project that I valued, but I didn't shape the guiding questions or really much of the analysis. Instead, I felt more involved as a verifier. I don't underestimate this role it is an important one as too often juicy data (or data that can be made to be juicy) serves the researchers' aims, at almost any cost. I definitely did NOT feel this was the case. But so too, I did not feel myself as a co-author.
This is interesting, as it questions who is an author of a story. I guess just the mere fact of the frame of the larger project, the frame of the interview, and the frame of the draft where I first encountered the analysis made me feel that this story (a version of my story if not my story itself) was really in service of another story the story of the book. The way my story was elicited and situated as part of the book project made it feel less like my story. Again, I feel this is the nature of this type of research and I fully support your research project. It's just the term co-authoring feels like something else to me.
I wondered if Mary wouldn't be more comfortable with the term collaboration rather than Co-authorship. When I asked this question, she replied:
I've been thinking about your comments, and it's taken me a while to determine I don't know what to call my role in your and Cindy's book. I think we (researchers, especially feminist ones) want to think that our participants are involved in our research. Of course, in many, quite varied ways, they are. But I'm still unsure if I'd call my role collaboration. I never thought of me having the possibility of saying, "no, that's just not right" unless there were a factual error. Indeed, the story itself seemed surprisingly distant (though factually quite accurate) from me. I guess I thought of myself as more of an active participant, but I never felt a sense of ownership nor the ability to direct the project you and Cindy had mapped for yourselves. However, I never thought I should have that responsibility either, soooo.
What I liked most is supporting the project; I'm happy to be an anonymous part, but also enjoy being a named part. Similarly, I value being valued. Finally, on a sheerly practical level, I like being associated with Gail and Cindy's work.
So what conclusions might we draw from these comments presented here? What strengths and limitations tend to characterize the research methodology we've cobbled together? First off, we have come to understand that our method provides no panacea for dealing with the thorny issues entailed in the politics of representation. As hard as we tried to represent the participants stories in ways that would do justice to them and to the research, we stumbled along the way. Jane Blakelock told us she was a wee bit uncomfortable with the characterization of her family; Paula Boyd thought maybe she'd do the class thing differently; and Mary Sheridan-Rabideau felt more like reality-checker than co-author although she thought the research faithful to the facts and agreed with the analysis. But the participants, despite at times a bit of uneasiness, also gave us their full-fledged support for the interpretations we drew from the transcripts and secondary sources.
We come back, then, to Caroline Brettells caution. In discussing a more active role for participants, Brettell (1993) writes of the possibility of the coproduction of texts, (p. 21) in which the researcher and the researched engage in an ongoing dialogue. She notes, however, that this solution to getting things straight really works best when a single individual or only a few are the subject of ethnographic research (1993, p. 21). She goes on to note that the method seems more amenable to those who are working with life histories. Yet its likely that even having culled from the 350 the 25 or so participants we chose to people our book, that the number is just too great for the coproduction of texts. Or, as Mary Sheridan-Rabideau herself said,
Having all the participants Gail and Cindy engaged in their book actually co-author as I define it (hash out the project to solve a problem, negotiate analysis decisions, determine which stories are told and which aren't) doesn't seem feasible in a project of this size.
And there are other cautions to consider. Delmos Jones (1979, p. 256), for example, an African American anthropologist, mentions a methodological danger when he notes that the interested nature of each parity's insights in such a process may well magnify, with a force increased by accumulation, the distortion of the stories we have collected: "The outsider may enter into the social situation armed with a battery of assumptions which he does not question and which guide him to certain types of conclusions, and the insider may depend too much on his own background, his own sentiments, his desires for what is good for his people. The insider may distort the truth as much as the outsider."
Thus our method is fraught but also enriched by the many different perspectives all our informants our co-authors brought to the project. Here wed like to turn to mentioning a bit about where we are headed next with this project and to solicit help from our readers once again. Although we still have a few case studies of U.S. citizens to complete, we hope to focus in the coming year primarily on the electronic literacies of individuals from other countries and particularly, although not exclusively, on individuals who travel to the United States to study at colleges and universities in this country. So any of you with contacts to international students who want to work with us on such a project can contact us. As usual, we would appreciate your help and, of course, your collaboration in helping us to find out more about how people have acquired digital literacies in the 21st century.
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