Qualitative Methods and the Creative Writing Process: An Unlikely Analogue (My 4C’s Paper)

[This paper was delivered on the panel “Embracing the Anxiety of Influence in Writing Studies Research” with Jo Mackiewicz, Jenn Fishman, and Karen Lunsford at last week’s Conference on College Composition and Communication. Enjoy!]

Hi everyone. As the only grad student on this panel, I was brought on to make the subject of qualitative data analysis more palatable and more accessible. I hope this talk will be especially useful to anyone who is beginning or considering qualitative data analysis, or educators beginning to train their graduate students in qualitative methods. In this talk I’m going to discuss how I came to embrace qualitative methods, and how my background in creative writing has helped me make sense of them. I hope my analogy between qualitative methods and creative writing might be a useful way of conceptualizing the hard work and the rewards of what researchers do.

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I came to my PhD program at Syracuse with a clear project in mind: I wanted to study hiphop in composition classrooms. In my application to SU, I phrased my research question like this:

What sort of education do rap songs offer (and from who, and for whom)? What precedents, if any, exist in Afrodiasporic musics and literatures for these sorts of pedagogical themes and intentions? And how might a consideration of hiphop’s pedagogies expand the possibilities of a hiphop pedagogy?

Insofar as methods are built into research questions, you can see my background in cultural studies in these questions. These questions refer to pedagogy, but not students. The data that they gesture toward are cultural texts, hiphop songs and the documentaries and music videos, along with African American literature and literary theory.

During my first semester at SU, I took a course on Composition theories and pedagogies with Dr. Patrick Berry. I was already teaching a hiphop-centered first-year course and so Patrick encouraged me to seek IRB approval right away so that I could have access to the writing my students were doing. Applying to the IRB, suddenly I had to design a study. I had to clarify my research questions, specify the data I wanted to collect, and make ethical considerations.

My IRB application

My IRB application

The object of this study is to see whether incorporating hiphop texts into a freshman comp curriculum, in addition to articles by literacy scholars, expands or challenges students’ understandings of literacy and language diversity, encourages diverse forms of written expression, and allows for conversation on issues of race, class, and spoken language as they relate to students’ literacies….I hypothesize that using these texts in the WRT 105 and 205 classrooms will expand students’ understanding of literacy and offer them broad, diverse models of what literacy and composing can be.  

Suddenly I was a “literacy researcher.” It said it on the IRB form. At this point, I had no idea how I would do data analysis. But I was preparing to collect a lot of it. .

Data will include comments and posts on a course blog, unit papers, and a final portfolio. Data will also include field notes made by me during and after class, and the transcripts of exit interviews.

I’m glad I acted fast to collect these data, but I don’t want to advocate rushing. For example, I never prepared to ask students to identify themselves racially in my exit interview, which has inhibited my ability to draw racialized conclusions about how students with different identities navigated my courses. I’ve modified future iterations, but I can’t redo the data I’ve already collected.

I didn’t get serious with my methods until after I had collected these copious data. At the end of my first semester at SU, I wrote a seminar paper for Dr. Berry about this class I had taught. My data had really strong patterns. Multiple students were identifying with the passion in hiphop texts and making similar leaps into analyzing their own literacy practices. But in my paper, I struggled to excerpt student writing. It was hard to showcase the patterns in student writing without including ten pages of quotations from their work. For example, I had data like those below. Kristin wrote:

[The documentary Style Wars] was helpful in showing me that literacy is not just the traditional reading and writing but it can also be from body movement, art, and music. I could relate to this piece because I could now call figure skating, one of my passions, a form of literacy. When watching skating you can read body movements as the skater tells a story.

This post makes multiple moves that were common to my class. Kristin identifies with a hiphop artist’s passion, defines literacy extremely broadly, and then locates one of her own passions, naming it a “literacy.” A few weeks later, Kristin had forgotten the affective scaffold Style Wars, and her broad definition of literacy became rooted, deeply, in her knowledge of an esoteric scoring system she used as a figure skater:

[The protocol scoring system] uses values for specific elements and builds or takes from the original number. {in other posts she describes these} Before I started competing in this system my coach would score me then almost “test” me on the matter so that I was confident in the lingo that this type of literary form uses. The fact that I did not hate being tested is a testimony that literacy can be fun and something you want to do instead of something to dread.

Notice the prevalence of affect here. She identifies with the graffiti writers’ passion because she has a passion; she contrasts this with her sense of “dread” around traditional literacies. I began to hypothesize that hiphop was scaffolding writing studies learning and, following Rebecca Nowacek, that identification was a site of transfer.

I also had data like these from Martin, who responded to the writing studies content with similar emotionality, but perhaps without relying on the scaffold of hiphop.

I got to college thinking that these classes are going to be really hard, I’m not that well of a writer, and then you told us that, oh anything is literacy, and I thought of it that way, and then when you told us to write a blog, I really enjoyed writing the blog, so once I started writing the blog, my confidence in writing just grew more.

As a kid I never really liked reading. I was always, whenever they would ask me to read something in school, like, “Read this book,” it was always like I had to do it for school, I would never do it on my own….But then, when we did the literacy [unit] I realized I’ve been reading magazines my whole life. I actually have been reading, I am reading, I just never saw it as reading because it’s something I really enjoyed.

So Martin is not identifying with hiphop—and he also still thinks “anything is literacy.” Ok. But notice how present affect still is in these excerpts. “I enjoyed writing the blog,” “my confidence in writing just grew more,” and then his surprise! “I actually have been reading, I am reading, I just never saw it as reading because it’s something I really enjoyed.”

That kind of breaks my heart, you know? He didn’t think it was reading because he enjoyed it?

In my seminar paper for Dr. Berry, I struggled to excerpt this writing. So the question became: what do I do with these data? How do I generate insights out of them in a way that honors my students’ insight and experiences, honors the volume of writing they did, but is responsive to the constraints of academic research, the need to be economical with my space? How do I investigate these rich data in a rigorous way?

The next semester I took a methods class with Dr. Howard, and I immediately took to the affordances of coding. Coding seemed to be the tool that would allow me to deeply understand, categorize, and condense the patterns I observed in my students’ writing. I wanted to be able to say that this percentage of my students directly identified with hiphop artists, and this percentage of those students investigated their own literacy at the site of that transfer, and so forth.

Coding my data pushed my study to be more rigorous on other fronts. For example, the patterns in my students’ writing were so pervasive that I needed to consider whether my prompts or teaching had somehow solicited certain genres of response.This concern prompted me to code my own writing along with my students’ writing, and it also challenged me to expand my study to another instructor’s class. It seemed important that I gather data from another teacher teaching the same materials, to see how their students interacted with these hiphop materials and made sense of them. Was identification functioning in the same way?

Some of my data

Some of my data

At this point I had a lot of data. Besides student writing—four semesters worth of student writing, two from classes taught by me and two taught by my colleague—I also had ethnographic notes, interview transcripts, and analytic memos. Cheryl Geisler talks about “verbal streams of language.” Sometimes this feels more like a deluge.

I remember last year sitting and writing up notes on a class I had just taught. I was so frustrated—it was taking an hour and a half to write up an hour-long class. As we all do, sometimes, I posted about my feelings on facebook. And a friend of mine, a sociology PhD student, wrote that he had a professor once tell him for every hour of fieldwork, he should spend two hours writing up notes. Well, no one ever told me that, which speaks to our continued need as a field to learn from our colleagues across the university. But his advice was also infuriating, at first, because how often do I get two hours of writing time? –and here I was writing notes that no one would ever see, and then I would put them into a spreadsheet that no one would ever see, to write codes that almost no one would ever see.

My  frustrated facebook post

My frustrated facebook post

Before I came to Syracuse, I did an MFA in creative writing. When I was an MFA student, we talked a lot about drafts. Sometimes our field undervalues the knowledge of MFA students, especially when they’re teaching our courses, but creative writers are masters of process. Creative writers love process, they fetishize it. [S10] This is a box of drafts of the novel—unpublished—that I worked on in my MFA. Yes, and I saved them all. In my MFA we used to talk about a “zero draft”: the first first draft, the pre-first draft, the draft no one ever sees, the one you write just to know what your story is. There was common wisdom floating around our hallways that you didn’t know what you were working with until you finished it, for the first time. You can’t rewrite the beginning of a novel until you know how it ends.IMG_0075

Spending those hours on my ethnographic notes, I realized that writing up field notes and preliminary coding is like writing a zero draft. It’s not a waste, it’s a foundation. You don’t get to a second draft without the first.

So—to get to the point I’ve been building up to: I’ve found that the qualitative research process can be broadly analogized to the writing process we all already know and use. When I’m editing my prose, I print it out and go through it with a pen. I did this with every draft of that novel. Going through those fiction drafts was a kind of open coding. Figuring out my themes in workshop was like coding with a partner, working to condense one’s codes. They emerge out of your data. But in fiction, the data is your drafts.

"Open coding" my drafts

“Open coding” my drafts

A couple of weeks ago I was coding my data with Dr. Howard, a kind of informal norming session. Call it “peer review.” I had written what I was coding for on her whiteboard, and we were talking through one of my struggles, which was picking what not to code for. Why, for example, she asked, why was I coding for citations?

I didn’t have a good answer. The real answer was that I was working with Dr. Howard and so how could I not code for citations?

She turned to another code. Why was I coding for emotions? For this I had a better answer, which I shared with you already. I was noticing that my students’ writings were emotionally rich, and I was interested in the data they were generating about how they felt about different kinds of writing.

Well, here’s a question, Becky said. Why don’t you code emotions and citations against each other. That would give you some data that were relevant to you.

Two examples of coded student writing, with no emotion and quotes in the same segment

Two examples of coded student writing, with no emotion and quotes in the same segment

With a really quick scan of just the short excerpt we had coded together that day, we could see that there was no segment of data, defined as a paragraph, that contained a quotation that also contained any affect at all, positive or negative. There was no cell in my spreadsheet where students included a quotation from a course text and also expressed any affect or any identification. It was like students were switching between different modes or genres of writing, and academic writing, with quotes and parenthetical citations, did not have space for emotionality. Even if students had quotes and affect in a single assignment, those features did not occur within the same paragraph. Sometimes summary and emotion were together, but never in this very small but random sample were there quotes and affect in the same segment of data. So that was a significant insight that coding made possible, that relied on all these small, laborious, zero-draft steps: the IRB, the downloading student work, the interviews, the notes, the segmenting of writing into a spreadsheet, the codebook where I recorded my codes, the analytic memo where I would write down the little insight we just generated.

A final note. Becky and I had originally scheduled an hour and a half for that coding appointment, and then I screwed up my calendar and showed up late, and she had to leave early, so we had forty minutes. I didn’t think we’d get anything done. But we coded for twenty minutes, and then talked for twenty more. And this insight came out.

To return to creative writing for a moment here, for many years, I wrote 500 words of fiction every day. I did this three times a week, actually, until about two months ago. It’s a life practice. Some people exercise, I wrote 500 words every day. This approach to writing was a big development I achieved during my MFA years. When I started my MFA, I was always trying to make time for three or five or eight hours to “get some serious writing done,” you know, spend the whole day writing. But eventually I came to see that the small accrual of a page or so every day really measures up. I had a teacher in college who said “A page a day is a book a year.” To return to emotionality, and the role of affect in our work, one of the biggest adjustments in writing 500 words every day—instead of two or three thousand words every once in a while—was to recalibrate the high. The high of achievement, and of discovery, that you get when you write all day long. But with practice, I came to enjoy the pleasures of daily writing, the pleasure of the slow daily work, and then that occasional spectacular joy, when something surprising happened, when my writing surprised me from the page. Looking forward, I think coding will come to be like this, too: a series of small discoveries, spread out over a period of years, measuring up to something really big.

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