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Session Details

Nothing Personal: Objective/Subjective Scholarship

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Session Code: L.27
Area Cluster: 8-Innovation and Taking Risks
Type of Session: Concurrent
Level: All
Abstract: This panel asks how scholarly work may also be open to the risk of including the personal.
Description: What are the rewards or risks of allowing academic writing to be personal? With this question, our panel does not propose another personal writing session where the writer is the sole focus of composing, but rather a more complex exploration of how composition scholarship—qualitative approaches, theory, ethnography, professional writing—is also shaped by the personal. Since Peter Ramus divided the personal from the object of study (as Ong notes), a great deal of scholarship insists that the personal remain outside of one’s work. One risk of including the personal in an object of study as equal actor among other rhetorical actors might be a perceived lack of seriousness or academic rigor. One reward might mean a more nuanced understanding of the complex roles subjectivities and intersubjectivities play in a variety of rhetorical moments. This panel will explore these risks and rewards by performing their papers as personal and scholarly talks.

Speaker A

Authentic Writing

The risk of deviating from the model of the scholarly, as Wayne Booth noted, is the reward of “performing the tasks that are in no sense private.” An authentic, scholarly writing, however, has long been associated with what is not private. The academic writer—who travels, eats, spends time with his or her children—may feel that these private events, trivial or important, can never be scholarly. Authentic writing, as dominant narratives tells us, means critique and interpretation. Authentic writing explains; authentic writing decodes. Instead of dismissing this sense of authentic writing, Speaker A instead will pose a different type of authentic writing, one which is both personal and the object of study (whether political, educational, or otherwise). As a performative narrative, this presentation poses the exigence for a contemporary scholarly writing, one that does not claim totalizing explanation or interpretation, but instead interweaves the personal with a scholarly topic such as writing: We are academics; we have to travel; we sometimes travel with our children, we eat in various places, we are scholarly, we try to create authentic writing.

Speaker B

Anonymous Subjects

By the end of a long-term qualitative study, participants are intimates: a laugh is recognizable, a sigh meaningful. Participants often delve deeper and share more personal information as the researcher becomes increasingly familiar and trusted. Since IRB-approved studies typically promise confidentiality and discursive norms encourage veiling the personal—especially that which would be most identifiable or make the participant most vulnerable—researchers are often in the difficult position of stripping out that which is “too personal” from their research reports even when doing so changes the story of the research. As such, qualitative writing researchers are caught between two opposing tensions: (a) telling the story of the research by rendering participants accurately as complex humans in complex situations and (b) protecting the integrity of the research process by, often, obscuring the identities and stories of participants. Thus, Speaker B addresses the collecting, keeping, and the risk of leaking research participants’ personal stories. Doing so, this speaker questions the costs and rewards of depersonalizing research, exploring the consequences for participants, researchers, and the field.

Speaker C

Objects, Ambience, Autoethnography

Kathleen Stewart argues for theory “that comes unstuck from its own line of thought to follow the objects it encounters” (2008, p. 72). Concerned with attunements to everyday life, she calls this practice “weak theory,” where perceptions and contexts oscillate in potentials: “a something waiting to happen in disparate and incommensurate objects, registers, circulations, and publics” (p. 72). A similar idea is found in Thomas Rickert's (2013) ambient rhetoric. His book begins with terroir—a term of art in French winemaking that evokes a specific calculus of earth, sun, and sky and its importance to the chemical and biological nexus of taste, smell, and texture. Rhetoric and writing are discursive practices, to be sure, but they are grounded in sensuousness, place, material relations, subjective and intersubjective reactions. Rhetoric and writing have a terroir. Weak theory suggests we follow these aspects of rhetoric and writing because our discipline's objects of study surface not simply as exigent situations, but as part of who and where and why we are (Rickert, 2013).

Speaker C’s presentation will trace some of the objects and relations that comprise an ambient sense of composition. In order to do so, the presentation focuses on the subjective and intersubjective—on the personal and situational—as Speaker C details findings from an analytic autoethnography of everyday ambience. The presentation details the risks of this methodology, where the researcher is the primary instrument, and where the personal is an inescapable means for exploring the social and material. But Speaker C also explores the rewards of such an approach. To study ambience is to move from rhetorical situations to rhetorical situatedness, and to deploy autoethnography is to consider personal attunements and weak theory as means for understanding broader circulations and compositions of the social.

Doug Hesse



  • Saturday 3/21 9:30 AM - 10:45 AM in Marriott, Marriott, Meeting Room 3, Level Two

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