One of the mandatory jobs of a new graduate student is to be extremely frolicsome among research interests and subdisciplines—to haphazardly flit among the flowers of knowledge in one’s department or program, relishing the opportunity to taste the nectar of as many buds as possible.
Such a metaphor was also invoked by the Renaissance-era humanist Erasmus, who wrote the following in his treatise on style called On Copia:
“And so the student, like the industrious bee, will fly about through all the authors’ gardens and light on every small flower of rhetoric, everywhere collecting some honey that he may carry off to his own hive. Since there is such a great abundance of subjects in these, a complete gleaning is not possible, and he will be sure to select the most important and adapt them to the pattern of his work.” (90)
Likewise, it is also the important work of the ambitious graduate student to resist specializing in any one subdiscipline for as long as possible, much to the dismay of the student’s advisors and mentors, in order to attain a snapshot of the vast wilderness and world of knowledge available, before settling into one’s own neck of the woods.
This is particularly important for me, since, “The rhetorician has always been a generalist” (Jarratt).
These thoughts, as well as our Humanities Center Director’s recent reminder about the timely efforts of information literacy on campus, have caused me to take up another related topic here briefly: methodology—or the diverse objects and types of inquiry. The question that has been in my mind is: how are we to approach the ever-present reality that there are so many domains of inquiry and methods for seeking knowledge? How do we know what we know, what if anything can be known, and what can be said to be “knowable” when the types of learning and knowing are as varied in style, hue, size, and scent as the flowers in a forest?
How do we know what we know, what if anything can be known, and what can be said to be “knowable” when the types of learning and knowing are as varied in style, hue, size, and scent as the flowers in a forest?
I’ll take a stab at these questions in this blog post, but first, here is an ever so quick surveying of my own recent flower-flitting:
A co-author and I recently finished studying origin myths of language—called glottogonic myths—by using the ways and means of comparative rhetoric to select three different glottogonic myths from ancient cultures across the globe, compare their discursive features, and interrogate what they could teach us about the earliest ways that speech was thought of, theorized, philosophized, or conceived.
Simultaneously, I’ve been watching another researcher combine historical aims with ethnographic research methods to conduct oral interviews of members of the Church in India. Armed with the tools of comparative theology and comparative religion, such work illuminates both the difference and similarities between ostensibly disparate religious traditions.
As the lone humanities student in a team of public administration scholars, I have been making weekly trips to the Tanner Building to help gather a database of inaugural addresses by university presidents. We are already in the process of developing preliminary coding categories for these speeches to see what this genre can tell us about agenda-setting, leadership, and management in higher education.
This is just a sampling. Other recent forays, either via class or collaboration, include a cultural studies-based analysis of a comic from a 1965 edition of MAD Magazine; primary archival research on indigenous activist Zitkala-Ša; a situating of The Chosen television series in the Jesus-film tradition; visual rhetorical analysis of viral Capitol riot photos; explorations in creative nonfiction; interdisciplinary studies of Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz, jazz music, and the Jazz Age; archaeological fieldwork in a 5th century Galilean synagogue; readings of the Mormon-Mexican History Museum here in Provo through the lens of memory studies; and so many more.
A sampling of Humanities Center colloquia to date exhibits a similar array: probing the opportunities and problems in the digital humanities; the proposition of a poetics of ecology by the National Humanities Center director; post-secularist sensibilities in modernist literature; race, genre, and politics in Italian Netflix TV serials; and most recently, pastoral theology, narrative care, and joy. Imagine how the range expands if we zoom out to a campus-wide scope of inquiry!
Perhaps my fascination with this diversity stems in part from my current class on research methods and methodology. There, I have been acquainted with some particularly varying means of seeking and ascertaining knowledge.
I’ve been particularly shocked to discover the spectrum on which and within which the words “qualitative” and “quantitative” lie when referring to research. As a naïve undergraduate, I had presumed that anything that was not statistical and numerical in nature must be qualitative research—hence textual analysis must be qualitative. Rather, I come to realize that such an approach may perhaps simply be termed literary studies, and it is indeed not seen to even belong to the qualitative camp. But my befuddlement was only compounded to learn that qualitative research involves coding—a mysterious process—which looks at a corpus of texts, such as interviews, student papers, press releases, or other transcribed or written materials, and identifies themes, categories, and patterns within them. Sounds pretty literary to me. I jokingly wrote in my notes one day:
“all data is discourse.”
To complicate things further, these codes and categories need not only be quoted as evidence; they can also be counted up, transformed into percentages, and analyzed to demonstrate the presence or absence of a certain phenomenon across the textual dataset. Such an approach begins to dissolve the boundary between qualitative and quantitative research. Charney complicates other binaries in her article, “Empiricism Is Not A Four-Letter Word,” arguing that “not all empiricists are positivists or absolutists” and “Objectivity… is not a fixed feature of particular methods,” since one can be biased even when engaging in the most objective type of research and vice versa (570). She concludes: “The diametric opposition that is sometimes drawn between qualitative and quantitative methods is difficult to sustain. It is more productive to view these methods as complementary or even as overlapping” (582).
Now consider the biologist performing experiments in a wet lab—is that research quantitative?
The array of methodologies quickly becomes quite dazzling. If on the one hand there are objectively replicable scientific experiments conducted on the tangible and physical world, and if on the other hand there are individually subjective readings of poetry, then what lies between is a fluid spectrum which includes statistical analysis of big data, models of economics, the constant crunching of numbers, simple tallying and arithmetic, the querying of human subjects, the coding of their responses, the counting up of chunks of language that have been demarcated as “codes.” This is not to mention huge advancements in the field known as “the rhetoric of science,” which has exposed the fact that even said “objectively replicable scientific experiments” are accompanied by large amounts of disagreement and debate among scholars and subject to their own forms of social contingency.
I recently discussed this diversity with a relative from BYU’s College of Life Sciences who studies public health. He joked that one could get away with studying just about anything as long as they self-identify as a “methodologist.” We enjoyed chatting over lunch about how the methods that are too empirical for one scholar may yet be still too squishy for another.
Above all, as a rhetorician, I just can’t stop thinking about how much data and evidence in our world of research is discourse—is text and language from interviews and focus groups, carved up into themes and patterns, then counted.
Justifiably, we are taught to be skeptical of hard-fact pronouncements from the field of “science.” Landmark studies are problematically stripped of their hedging and acknowledgements of limitations, then presented in headlines as absolute fact: “study finds x” the formula reductively reads. I haven’t the time to get into the “study suggests” construction, nor the fickle peculiarities of statistical significance and probability.
To wit, there are many objects of inquiry, and a staggering number of methodologies to accompany them. Oh—one last thing. Objects and methods of inquiry continue to grow. No doubt we will have different types, objects, and methods of inquiry in the future that we do not yet have now. New fields, disciplines, and domains of study arise. Our grandparents couldn’t even have conceived of a journal called Social Media + Society or International Journal of Social Media and Online Communities (IJSMOC). Isn’t it mind-boggling to think that the types of things we can know, and the ways we can know them, are growing and expanding?
Adam Banks refers to this fascinating reality as “the ‘funkiness’ of evolving research methods” (qtd. in Serviss 5). Another author refers in general to the “messiness” of research (Jamieson).
Haas et al. point out that in many fields “the object of study… is not fixed but fluid and changing” (51). Increasingly, scholars admit that “making of new knowledge will require both boundary crossing and diversification of method” (Dryer 32). Research is also a two-sided coin, for “any research method is both a way of accumulating evidence and a way of analyzing it” (Dryer 32).
There are so many methods! So many ways to research! Just glance at the table of contents in a handbook of research methodology. Intertextual, archival, bibliometric, autoethnography, evocative, participant observation.
(Remember, for ethnographers, there is a method of research called “headnotes” that is valid—meaning jotting insights down in one’s brain while observing human subjects as a co-participant in a certain social activity, with the intention of remembering them until the scholar has the chance to write them down later (Emerson et al.)).
In the face of such diversity and plurality of knowledge, what are we to do? With what posture are we to approach the world of truth? The skeptic may conclude that nothing can really be known. I suggest that rather than invalidating all truth, the varied world of knowledge invites careful scrutiny and a critical eye. Differences in types of knowledge, differences of degree and kind, require thoughtfulness and openness to grappling with what we know and don’t know, how well we know it, how certain we can be, and how to know what we know.
I appreciate this reassurance:
“the fallibility of our knowledge—or the thesis that all knowledge is guesswork, though some consists of guesses which have been most severely tested—must not be cited in support of skepticism or relativism. From the fact that we can err, and that a criterion of truth which might save us from error does not exist, it does not follow that the choice between theories is arbitrary or non-rational: that we can not learn, or get nearer to the truth: that our knowledge cannot grow” (Popper, 375).
Fortunately, here at BYU we know that there is a “criterion of truth” that can “save us from error.” The most sure and certain type of knowledge comes directly from the source, an omniscient God.
How could anyone, when contemplating the diversity and plurality of research methods, suggest that spiritual modes of knowledge and inquiry are invalid ways of knowing? The more I learn, the more I find prayer and pondering to be supremely valid, and useful methods of pursuing truth. A conscious awareness of how little we know, how socially contingent research and experimentation can be, ought to foster greater appreciation for the validity of spiritual inquiry rather than cast a shadow of doubt upon simply another way of knowing, another method of inquiry for a different domain of knowledge.
“What is True?” the title of President Nelson’s recent General Conference talk asks. I believe the answer to that question demands an appropriate method, one that has recently received increased attention in our campus community: “gospel methodology” (Kimball).
In short, far from making me skeptical, the diversity of types of knowledge and methods for pursuing truth have, for me, further validated spiritual knowledge as an object and mode of inquiry.
As always, such musings and pondering remind us just how little we do know, and how much more there is to learn. After all, “Research is, in a very important way, learning what you don’t already know” (Haas et al. 53).
The information landscape is a beautiful one. May we continue to take in its breathtaking vistas and inhale the scent of its abundant wildflowers.
This blog post was written by Isaac Richards, Humanities Center Intern.
Christinia Haas, Pamela Takayoshi, and Brandon Carr, “Chapter 4: Analytic Strategies, Competent Inquiry, and Methodological Tensions in the Study of Writing,” In Writing Studies Research and Practice: Methods and Methodologies edited by Lee Nickoson and Mary P. Sheridan, 2012, Southern Illinois University Press.
Desiderius Erasmus, On Copia of Words and Ideas, Translated from the Latin with an Introduction by Donald B. King, Mediæval Philosophical Texts in Translation No. 12., Marquette University Press, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1999.
Dylan B. Dryer, “Chapter 2: Tabling the Issues: Visualizing Methods and Methodologies in Contemporary Writing Studies” in The Expanding Universe of Writing Studies: Higher Education Writing Research edited by Kelly Blewett, Tiane Donahue, and Cynthia Monroe.
Davida Charney, “Empiricism Is Not A Four-Letter Word,” College Composition and Communication vol. 47, no. 4, 1996, pp. 567-593.
Karl Popper, Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol. 2, 5th ed. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971.
Robert M. Emerson et al., “Chapter 2: In the Field: Participating, Observing, and Jotting Notes,”
in Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes second edition, (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press), 2011.
Russell M. Nelson, “What Is True?”, General Conference October 2022, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2022/10/19nelson?lang=eng.
Sandra Jamieson, “The Evolution of the Citation Project: Developing a Pilot Study from Local to Translocal,” in Points of Departure: Rethinking Student Source Use and Writing Studies Research Methods edited by Tricia Serviss and Sandra Jamieson, University Press of Colorado and Utah State University Press, 2016.
Spencer W. Kimball, “The Second Century of Brigham Young University,” October 10, 1975, https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/spencer-w-kimball/second-century-brigham-young-university/.
Susan Jarratt, Rereading the Sophists: Inverting the Classical Tradition, Southern Illinois University Press, 1998.