Response-ability for Writing Research that Honours

Practitioners' Ways of Knowing

Dorothy Lander, Ph.D

St. Francis Xavier University

Antigonish, Nova Scotia


This research paper traces the early processes of an Appreciative Inquiry project that strives to honour practitioners' ways of knowing in writing a Master's thesis. I explicate my research practices as faculty advisor and graduate students' exemplars of their "best" practitioner writing to articulate our mutual response-abilities in inquiry-guided research.

Response-ability for Writing Research tHAT hONOURs

Practitioners' Ways of Knowing

If I am truly to be response-able, the most productive conversation ought to occuramong all of us collectively engaged in such research. If I am truly to be a response-able teacher, the conversation must engage us all equally in change, in interrogating our identities and our role in institutions. (Neilsen, 1998, p. 110)

This paper emerges out of my response-ability as a faculty advisor for supervising, reading, and responding to successive drafts of the research theses of graduate students who are experienced practitioners in diverse areas of adult education. An undergraduate degree is a prerequisite for entry into the Master's in Adult Education program at St. Francis Xavier University; however, many practitioners are returning to academic study after a long hiatus, and most have not engaged in a formal research inquiry in an academic context. "Practitioners' ways of knowing" in my title is a deliberate echo of women's ways of knowing (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986) and takes notice that over 2/3 of these practitioners re-entering the academy are women. Experiential, embodied, situated, response-able and connected knowing suffuses both practitioner and feminist epistemologies. I have written elsewhere of the conflation of "practice" and "woman" and "body" on the left seam of these enduring dualisms:

practice-theory; woman-man; body-mind (Lander, 1999, in press).

Lorri Neilsen's (1998) play on words in "response-ability" delights me; it offers a practitioner-friendly shorthand to the moral and dialogical approach to writing a research thesis. This paper traces my early interpretations of response-ably edging practitioners' ways of writing into the academic thesis but it is a bold work-in-progress. In this paper, I go only as far as laying out my research methodology and posing tentative and emerging interpretations. I expose exemplars of my own research practices that framed dialogical inquiry into practitioners' "good" writing with two cohorts of graduate students (one group of 11-- 8 women and 3 men; and another group of 12 women). Graduate students attend a 3-week residential Orientation at the University at the beginning of their Master's program and then return home and to their practice to complete their studies, including the writing of their theses at a distance. A practice-based research project forms the core of their inquiry and their thesis.

The Research Methodology

Appreciative Inquiry (Cooperrider & Srivastva, 1987) is a participatory action research methodology that is usually associated with organizational change. I adapt this methodology to engage graduate students in appreciating their own and each other's "good" writing as practitioners. Appreciative Inquiry engages participants in telling stories of their "peak experiences" and formulating "provocative propositions" for action. In adapting Appreciative Inquiry to practitioners' writing, I am alert to Bazerman's (1994) call for teachers and learners to become familiar with the genres of the systems they participate in. Bazerman explicates genres as "kinds of statementsrecognizable as speech acts, doing various kinds of work" (p. 32) and in the educational environment the oral and written are intermixed, e.g., assignment handouts, lectures, group discussion, and teacher feedback. The genre of the Master's thesis calls on many supporting genres including advisor feedback, a reflexive journal, a learning portfolio, field notes, audiotaped interviews with participants, listserv and e-mail messages, and letters. Familiarity with genres enacts response-ability as teacher and learner can then "make a kind of sense of complex interactions and locate his or her actions in relation to the communicative actions of multiple others" (p. 32).

In my adaptation of Appreciative Inquiry then, I ask students to bring samples of their "best" writing from their practice and to tell the story that springs from the sample. In the process, participants become familiar with practitioner genres. Appreciative Inquiry engages learners in imagining possible worlds. Appreciative Inquiry is response-able rhetorical practice or as Lyne (1990) puts it, "talk 'on its way' from 'is' to 'ought,' making that connection only in the play of language" (p. 38). Bushe and Pitman (1991) characterize Appreciative Inquiry as "stalking the flow" of the whole and "amplifying through fanning." This evokes a sense of the play of language.

Appreciative Inquiry challenges Heron's (1996) contention that "practical knowing" or "knack" cannot be known through language. "Knack is at the heart of knowing how" and that it is "a knowing of the excellence of its doing [that] makes it a knack. This is a criterion of quality that is intrinsic to action and is ineffable; for each specific knack, it is beyond language and conceptual formulation" (p. 44). Appreciative Inquiry inaugurates my rival discourse that "knack" is effable (See spell check spin!), meaning "knowing in the excellence of its doing" can be appreciated in narrative genres and in the "play of language."

My beginning hunch is (was) that Appreciative Inquiry into practitioner writing will not constitute "knack" in terms of prescriptive conceptions, the should-and-must categorical, step-wise approaches to learning to write (Hansman & Wilson, 1998). I pose the possibility that it is the knack of writing that separates practitioners from researchers. Following Wolcott (1995), I respectfully call my hunch "entry-level theorizing" or "bias." I accept that "writing is the essence of research" (Usher, Bryant, & Johnston, 1997, p. 222). Levine (1997) insists that expert practitioners do many of the things that researchers do but "in a very fluid and intuitive way" (p. 1). This fluid, intuitive, practical knowing is typically not "in writing." I have another hunch that the written narrative genre is a natural for capturing this fluidity of practitioner knowing. "Narrativity links the idea of authorship to that of agency, i.e, the researcher as an active teller of plausible tales of discovery and invention and not simplya passive witness and reporter of events" (Usher, Bryant, & Johnston, 1997, pp. 222-223).

Exemplars of Research/Writing Knack

Exemplars go beyond examples. Examples suggest one choice is as good as another whereas researchers and writers choose exemplars that are most relevant to the phenomenon, that "represent" the phenomenon, and that animate the participants' and the writer's own voice (Lindlof, 1995, p. 268). To be response-able researchers, our writing must lay out our inquiry in exemplars (Chenail, 1995; Lindloff, 1995; Mishler, 1990; Neilsen, 1998; Smith, 1996). It seems to me that exemplars of practitioner writing that emerge from Appreciative Inquiry also promise to "re-present" knack in Heron's sense of "the knowing of the excellence of its doing." Exemplars embody the whole approach in terms of people, events and physical symbols (Vail, 1998, p. 147).

I hold with Neilsen (1998) and Mishler (1990) that exemplars of how I do my work as a researcher make my text authentic and useful for future inquiry. I anticipate that by times my exemplars of my research practices may even qualify as "knack." Chenail (1995) and Smith (1996) extract exemplars exclusively from the field data to re-present and code the phenomenon around one concept or category at a time. Writing research relies on the "eventfulness" of the text (Lindlof, 1995) embodied in exemplars of my research practices alongside exemplars of the phenomenon of practitioners' writing.

Exemplars of My Research Practices

I invite students to participate in my research project by preparing to tell each other the story of their "best" writing experience coming out of their practice. I qualify my invitation in terms of the choices they might make in participating, including the options of "passing" on my invitation, or on confining their participation to responding to others' stories. I invite students to think of the keywords that make their writing "best." I invite students to be prepared to respond to each other's stories with keywords of "excellence" that immediately spring to mind. I advise students that I will be audiotaping and transcribing the dialogue. I advise them that I will provide each participant with a copy of the transcript of their writing story and the responses to it. At that time, they will have the options of either withdrawing their words from all future publication or consenting in writing to the publication of my interpretations interlarded with their own raw-data interpretations. I declare one of the teaching-learning purposes of this research activity is to sensitize them to the response-abilities, assumptions, and practices of research interviewing by positioning them as the "subjects" on the other side of the microphone (Larson, 1997). These contradictions between the theory and practice of participatory narrative inquiry haunt qualitative research; here they become a situated learning experience for myself and graduate students, and a subtext of my inquiry.

I introduce students to my research well in advance of the 2-hour Appreciative Inquiry into practitioners' "best" writing. At the end of the first week of Orientation, I introduce my research project as Appreciative Inquiry into Practitioners' Writing. Orientation engages graduate students in formulating their own learning goals and in thinking of possibilities for their own research projects in support of their learning goals. In a parallel process, I frame my research project in terms of supporting my learning goal of "honouring practitioners' ways of knowing." I assign readings to support this inquiry: Bushe and Pitman (1991), Appreciative Process and Weick (1996), Speaking to Practice.

The Teaching-Learning Response-ability of Inquiry-Guided Research

The response-able and reflexive dimensions of Appreciative Inquiry into practitioners' writing support my teaching and learning purposes. In the context of doing research with graduate students' during their 3-week Orientation to the Master's program, I am deliberately orienting these adult learners to a community of practice mediated by some of the cultural tools of research that will come into play in their own inquiry-guided research. Lave and Wenger (1991) introduce "communities of practice" to illuminate the concept of situated learning and the engagement in social practice as the fundamental process by which we learn and become who we are. Wenger (1998) names these practices as "the property of a kind of community created over time by the sustained pursuit of a shared enterprise"(p. 45). For my yet-to-come analysis of the audiotaped dialogues, I favour Wertsch's (1998) microdynamic analysis of mediated action that assumes an irreducible tension between agents, cultural tools, and context (p. 176).

What then were my combined teaching, learning, and research practices that inaugurated this particular community of practice? I am reminded of Bazerman's (1994) understanding of teacher response-ability within this process, and expand this to include researcher response-ability. "It is within the students, of course, that the learning occurs, but it is within the teacher, who sits at the juncture of forces above and below and sideways, that the learning situations are framed" (p. 62).

I introduce Appreciative Inquiry by telling students my "best" writing story from practice (I no longer have the sample) and the keywords that for me, characterize my writing as "excellent." My "best" was a letter of apology. In the context of situated learning and communities of practice, my utterances and performance of writing could be considered "legitimate peripheral participation" and "cognitive apprenticeship" (Lave & Wenger, 1991), the terms that characterize the processes by which newcomers are initiated into a community of practice. I do not believe my research practices "reproduce" the existing membership of a community of practice. The apprenticeship metaphor applies to my practices insofar as I provide the "scaffolding" (Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976) or "framing" (Bazerman, 1994) for learners to try out alternative ways of writing research that may contest their previous conceptions of academic writing.

Exemplars of the Phenomenon of Practitioner Writing

The genres of practitioner writing that emerged in the stories of "best" writing across the two sessions of Appreciative Inquiry are not currently reproduced in most research literacies. Diverse practitioner genres were re-presented in the narratives about writing, including:

newspaper editorial on food security

e-mail message to a senior administrator advocating for an adult learner-student

published book on strategic planning for community education

instructional manual for occupational health and safety in construction industry

thank-you to university residence staff--lyrics sung to guitar accompaniment

My emerging interpretations based on the keywords and phrases of "excellent" practitioner writing are challenging my entry-level bias that the knack of writing is something other and more noble than step-wise, prescriptive categories. The first cohort's post-it responses to each other's writing repeated prescription-laden words such as "grammatically correct," "concise," "clarity," "well-organized" and "effective use of white space in the layout." However, the categories for provocative propositions in both cohorts were generated entirely from such descriptive post-it responses as "heart," "keeps reader present," "purposeful," "synthesis of ideas, feeling and knowledge (as info)," and "based on lived experience." By contrast, the second cohort wrote hardly any prescriptive points on their post-its. Surely variety in local context, cultural tools, and agents serves to engage participants in mediated action that "produces" and "re-produces" communities of practice? This is different from "reproducing" an existing status quo membership.

My work-in-progress is now proceeding on a newly emergent bias: BOTH prescriptive, step-wise approaches to writing AND the narrative genre that writes to a reader are reciprocal and response-able processes (and cultural tools) in generating practitioners' and researchers' "best" writing.


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Wood, D., Bruner, J. S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem-solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 17, 89-100.

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Prepared August 3, 1999 by the ACÉÉA/CASAE Internet Working Group