Mortensen’s “Analyzing Talk about Writing”

I was going to do a detailed summary of Bazerman’s “Theories of the Middle Range in Historical Studies” (Written Communication, 2008), the most fab read for CCR 635 this week, but hot damn if Tim didn’t knock this out of the park already. Instead, I’d like to focus on the piece Tim and my fellow bloggers didn’t address in their posts this week (being late to the game affords me such perspective): Peter Mortensen’s “Analyzing Talk About Writing,” one of five selections we read from Kirsch & Sullivan’s landmark 1992 book, Methods and Methodology in Composition Research. The piece is worth revisiting because (a) it’s a bit of messy read, and (2) its arguments have important outcomes for writing instruction (as opposed to curricula or assessment), including writing centers.

Mortensen’s chapter aims to provide an complicated exploration and critique of the methodologies of discourse analysis in composition studies. For Mortensen, talk about writing, or “conversation in which speakers attend to text or the processes of creating text” (105), is limited because any representation of such talk about writing in research “cannot begin to capture the texture of what people say when they discuss a piece of writing in progress” (106). Thus, inquiries into talk about writing fundamentally lead to a rhetoric about how talk about writing works within any given site. This sets up Mortensen’s own methodology — rhetorically analyzing various studies of discourse analysis to see which arguments are un/persuasive and why.

He begins by identifying three ways of analyzing talk: conversation, pragmatic, and functional analyses. With conversation analysis, researchers “attempt to make sense of talk from the perspective of its participants.” And yet those perspectives are complicated by something called “intersubjective understandings,” meanings negotiated between subjects that extend beyond the immediate talk observed by the researcher. In some cases the researcher knows the context; in some cases, not. But because of intersubjectivity, it is important for researchers to be explicit to readers about their level of familiarity with the subjects: the extent to which they knew why the subjects were speaking, their communicative goals, etc. Mortensen then analyzes a study 1987 by Freedman and Katz (from this edited collection) that looked at talk in writing conferences. From this study, Mortensen identifies two methodological problems with conversation analysis. First, conversational analyses have the burden of identifying who defines “normal” in a conversation — the participants? the researcher? If it is the participants, then the researcher should develop a method to triangulate findings. In the Freedman and Katz example, Mortensen suggests gathering the teacher and students’ interpretations of the conversation, which would have validated or challenged the researchers’ analysis. This would also insure that they “respect the agency of their subjects and not cast them as purely ‘resources'” an argument he makes later in the chapter.

A second problem Mortensen raises is that a strict structural analysis of turn-taking (looking at adjacency pairs, for example) isn’t valid without taking the conversation’s context into account. He cites Irene Wong’s examination of the negotiability of content per topic in a given conversation. (She found, for example, that in tech writing courses teachers were more willing to negotiate certain genres that were more alien to them, but asserted authority when they were more confident with content.) While Mortensen reasserts that “it impossible to render an accurate transcription of a conversational exchange” (111), detailed transcriptions of conversations, complete with nonverbal utterances, is essential to conversational analyses.

While conversational analyses examines how meaning is negotiated by participants through conversation, other methods of analyzing talking — pragmatic analysis and functional analysis — suggest a more taxonomic approach where conversational codes and rules are prescribed prior to conversation. Specifically, pragmatic analysis prescribes rules for “what normal conversation ought to be” (112) and is influenced by H.P. Grice’s “cooperative principle” which provides a rubric of sorts as to how conversation can be “maximally efficient, rational, and cooperative.” Although Grice’s principles prescribe behavior, pragmatic principles are useful for describing utterances (and apparently folks like Marilyn Cooper have used them with student papers). The difference between pragmatic analysis and conversational analysis is that the latter is “far more circumspect, and sensitive to local ethnological norms of talk, in their formulations” (Toolan qtd. in Mortensen 113).

But Mortensen doesn’t discount an approach that is “constitutive and prescriptive,” one that “assumes that conversations appear orderly and coherent because speakers are predisposed to agree on the rules that govern what units can be combined to make well-formed utterances” (113). Functional approaches ignore negotiation and assume an ideal conversational experience where participants share the rules for discourse to the extent that they “strike simultaneously the same mental chord in their listeners’ mind and their own (114). While Mortensen’s definitions aren’t very clear to me, his example of Gere and Abbott’s study of high school conversation groups is illustrative of functional analyses’ methods. In their study they use a taxonomy of utterances based on function that allow them to quantify talk. While “meaning is not openly negotiated,” with a functional analysis, context needs to be accounted for in exchanges.

In addition to providing sketches of these three approaches to discourse analysis, Mortensen outlines poststructural perspectives from Derrida, Phelps, and Susan Miller. Interrogating both the primacy of writing (over speech) and prior conceptions of subjectivity, “the writing subject demands that we attend not only to inscription, or to the moment of inscription, but also to the panorama of human activities that condition intention and interpretation” (118, emphasis mine). Mortensen argues that we can address such panoramas by viewing dialogues as intertextual and intersubjective. Intertextuality is the notion that “all texts are related through the references they make to one another, whether subtle or obvious” (118). Intersubjectivity seems to suggest that social worlds are co-created through communication, through language. As Mortensen puts it “the social structures that shape human relationships are held to be prior to the construction of individual minds” (in other words there is no “self” prior to others) (120).

Mortensen ends the the piece by highlighting some of the gaps in research in talk about writing, Namely:

  • Many studies of talk about writing have acknowledged intersubjectivity since negotiation in conversation is proof that we are endlessly working through social structures (Seinfeld immediately comes to mind). These studies have looked at how people talk about writing. However, fewer studies have looked at “the influence of talk on a particular piece of writing, and vice versa” (121, emphasis original). The few studies that have been done on this question, argues Mortensen, are interesting because they “yield unexpected findings” (note that “unexpected findings” seems to be the golden standard when it comes to research goals — see Bazerman this week).
  • Research on talk about writing have been limited to school settings — primarily secondary and post-secondary classrooms. Research at workplace sites or in other settings might yield interesting (unexpected?) findings.
  • Sociocultural factors like race, class, gender, etc. haven’t been satisfactorily accounted for in studies of talk. Marginalized subjects, in particular, will require new methods since researchers, according to Mortensen, obviously “identity with the dominant culture” (123) and will distort findings.

Mortensen concludes by arguing that any “research on talk about writing creates ‘fictions’ that relate the researcher’s experience of the phenomenon under study” (123). To make such fictions ethical, then, Mortensen argues that subjects should play an active role with respect to the research (hence his criticism that Freeman and Katz do not ask their subjects to weigh in on their conversational analysis). Although Mortensen doesn’t mention it, this perspective seems to be an illustration of the reflexive feminist research methods Sullivan, Schell and others have argued for (and Barton critiques). He leans on Haraway to legitimize the argument that “researchers must respect the agency of their subjects and not cast them as purely ‘resources’ from which to approximate knowledge for reproduction” (124).

Looking back more closely at Mortensen, seeing how he calls all studies fictions, I now wonder if he believes that empirical studies are even possible. He gives pragmatic and functional analyses praise, so I think he deems them worthy pursuits, yet his critique at the end of this piece makes me wonder how serious he would take empirical (more positivistic) studies.

He also doesn’t seem to address how a better understanding of talk about writing might affect pedagogy. For me, talk seems to be one of the most important — if not thee most important — means to improving writing instruction. And yet studies of talk about writing don’t seem to get taken up in CCC (I admit this is shaky assessment on my part). Have we adequately focused on instruction (as opposed to assessment or curriculum)? When we talked about writing pedagogy last semester in CCR 632, it seemed like we focused an awful lot on the “what” of the classroom and not so much the why or how. How do we structure our class discussions, for example, so that we break the initiate-respond-evaluate triplet Hugh Mehan found in 1979 and that still dominates our classrooms? What studies have we published on the affect of student-led discussion on their writing? I ask this because in WRT 205, I’ve long tried to use principles of academic writing to teach students how to write discussion questions. (See handout below.)

Writing discussion clusters

Perhaps this also interests me because in its rawest form, writing centers only have talk, they only have instruction to work on in their ongoing development. Consultants don’t design assignments, syllabi, or curricula and they certainly don’t assess writers. How does the writing center site affect talk about writing?