LINGUIST List 23.2379

Fri May 18 2012

Review: Applied Linguistics; Discipline of Linguistics: Huber (2011)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <jsalmonslinguistlist.org>



Date: 18-May-2012
From: Melanie Rockenhaus <rockenhaussns.it>
Subject: The “Backwards” Research Guide for Writers
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AUTHOR: Sonya HuberTITLE: The "Backwards" Research Guide for WritersSUBTITLE: Using Your Life for Reflection, Connection, and InspirationSERIES TITLE: Frameworks for WritingPUBLISHER: Equinox Publishing LtdYEAR: 2011

Melanie Rockenhaus, Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa, IT

SUMMARYA textbook for "first-year college students, aspiring journalists, and otherwould-be writers" (p. xv), this book aims to convince writers of all types thattheir own lives, interests and experiences are excellent first sources forresearch. The author, an experienced writer and writing instructor, seeks toconvey her enthusiasm for and pleasure in both research and writing, and offersa wide range of techniques, methods, ideas and materials to other instructorswho wish to do the same.

After an introductory chapter, the book is divided into four sections. The firstthree are based on what the author calls the "framework of self-observation"(p.7): relax, reflect, research. The fourth section draws these three moments ofthe research process together to focus on revision and the necessarily circularnature of research and writing. The introduction and four main sections arebriefly discussed in the following paragraphs.

"Introduction for Instructors": This initial chapter provides both a descriptionof what the author is attempting in the book as well as a vade mecum for usingthe book in a classroom. Placing herself firmly in the tradition of reflectiveeducation, the book begins with an account of her own experiences in writing ortrying to write. She concludes that what she has learned is to use a processapproach to research and writing which is likewise contemplative, a term usedhere to mean self-aware, self-monitoring, not self-centered but rather focusedon what Huber refers to as the "contemplative technologies of mind" (p. 6). Likeall technology, she claims, the tools of the mind are empirical and their usecan be learned. Training aspirant writers to identify and use these technologiesis her goal in this book, and why she considers her approach novel, or"backwards". She concludes the Introduction by offering suggestions on how bestto use the book in a classroom and how to pick, choose and organize the materialfor particular needs and situations.

"Section I. Research: An Inside Job": This section, composed of four chapters,places the aspiring writer at the center of the writing enterprise. It suggestsconcrete steps for focusing on writing, including keeping a research notebook,getting to know yourself and your reactions, concentrating on what you knowalready and using questions to fuel further research. It also introduces two ofthe strong points of the book, namely Experiments and Conversations, the latterof which are interviews with experienced writers. Both of these elements arecommented upon in the Evaluation section below. The key word throughout thisfirst section is "relax", intended here to mean willing suspending of judgmentsand reactions.

"Section II. The Inside Meets the Outside: Paying Attention as Research": Thissection introduces the idea of carefully observing the world as a form ofresearch. By "Learning to See" (Chapter 5), the student can also begin"Responding to Reality" (Chapter 6) and then use his or her own interests --Huber uses the term "obsessions" -- to usefully research areas where there willbe enough sustained interest to keep the writer going through the long, oftenisolated process of researching and writing a book. The key word throughout thissection is "reflect", mirroring the unavoidably recursive nature of research andwriting.

"Section III. Big Bang: Form and Structured Chaos in Research": Here the authormoves the aspirant writer closer to the final product by focusing onorganization. She does this by offering practical suggestions for organizingone's research, such as keeping a notebook for each project, or organizingbrainstorming notes, charts and other research products in various ways. Shealso recommends random reading or Internet surfing as an occasionally usefulresearch method and discusses at length the art of interviewing, especially thatof listening and careful questioning. Not surprisingly, the keyword throughoutthis section is "research".

"Section IV. Open Minds Invite Surprises": In the five chapters which composethis section, the author considers what happens to many writers as theirresearch progresses. Learning a great deal about a single subject can lead tosurprises for the researcher, who should remain flexible enough to revise theinitial topic, reutilizing mental techniques acquired to relax and reflect onthe research project. Other possible problems she discusses include how tohandle the various impediments researchers inevitably find in their paths, suchas lack of reliable sources and of time, conflicting sources and more, and howto know when to stop researching and begin writing. The final two chapters focuson getting the work down on paper, handling and citing resources properly,revising -- and re-revising. In fact, although there is no keyword for thissection, the author clearly considers revision an essential part of reflectiveresearch and writing and discusses it at length.

The book closes with Appendices listing the various Experiments, a RecommendedReading list and two pages on using MLA style, a list of References and twoindices, organized by Subject and by Author.

EVALUATIONThis is a practical, hands-on writing textbook which could be conveniently usedin a number of classroom and workshop settings with beginner researchers andwriters, as well as independently. Huber's process-contemplative approach,supported as it is by the many Experiments which lead the student to developtheir own "technology of the mind", introduces would-be writers to the work theyhave before them while enfranchising them to carry it out. This is done withoutshying away from difficult questions , on the contrary: each Chapter contains ashort segment titled "The Gray Matter" which raises ethical questions ordiscusses issues of principle, always followed by "Questions for Thought orDiscussion" which can be neatly used both as in-class or take-home materials togauge the maturation of the student's reflective learning.

The book contains six interviews, or "Conversations" with researchers or writerswho offer valuable tips about how they find topics, research them, do or do notorganize their materials, force themselves to write, and more. While they makevery entertaining reading, these Conversations point to one of the possibleobjections instructors working in academic programs may raise to the book:although Huber goes to some pains to show the necessity of integrating our lifeinto our research, and in this she is convincing, most of the support apparatusof the book -- the Experiments, the Conversations -- is not academic in nature.If the book is used in an academic class as opposed to a creative writingenvironment, it will be up to the individual instructor to provide the academicinput students will ultimately need.

For an introductory linguistics course, several features of the handbook wouldbe of some interest. First of all, hands-on research methods and techniques suchas immersion research, field research, interviewing and note-taking, are ofimportance to early researchers in several areas of linguistics. Huber dwells atsome length on these procedures, providing useful suggestions and exercises todevelop the skills of early researchers. Secondly, the interviews with the twoauthors who have studied and reported on groups of people would certainly beinviting to anthropological linguists, even if neither of these authors dwellson the language of their research participants. Lastly, the focus on ethicalquestions in each chapter is a valuable practice tool for students embarking onany career involving research, including linguistics.

These comments point to one of the handier qualities of this textbook: it caneasily be used as it is or in part, and its organization and structure make thateasy to do. As mentioned above, the author offers a series of considerations andrecommendations for how best to use the textbook in the "Introduction forInstructors". Moreover, considering her self-positioning as a reflectiveeducator, she also clearly states her bias for helping students learn tobrainstorm and research at length rather than pushing them to produce a finalproject. This is appealing to many university writing instructors, but it maynot be possible for those harried for time or required to evaluate a piece ofstudent-produced research. Although Huber acknowledges this, and offerssuggestions on how to appraise student planning and researching as well as theirresearch output, instructors with limited classroom hours available may want toconsider using this textbook as a support or self-study addition to theirregular syllabus.

The book's greatest strength and perhaps its potentially greatest weakness arethe numerous short, long, in-class and take-home Experiments it includes.Instructor and student alike are invited to explore their thought processes,their creative strategies and approaches, their research methods and quirksthrough a series of more than fifty exercises ranging from the simple to themore complex. These can be revelatory, such as the "Interest Inventory", wherethe student writer asks two or three friends to complete apersonality/skills/preferences inventory about the writer him/herself, or verysimple, such as training students to finish their work early, put it aside andpick it up again with a fresh mind a day or two later. However, many of theExperiments are also somewhat personal, and an instructor may easily find thatstudents will not wish to share the very first word or thought they had noropenly reflect on mistakes they may have made while attempting to listen to afriend.

All things considered, Huber has produced an organized, thought-provoking andpractical guide book for would-be writers. Although the idea of using one's lifeas creative material is hardly new, her emphasis on self-knowledge andcontemplative resourcefulness, or "backwardness", is refreshing and timely. Thebook is well-written and carefully edited and invites both cover-to-coverreading and intermittent dipping into. Instructors and students alike will findsomething to appeal to their needs and tastes, and it would be a useful book tohave in the library of any writing program.

ABOUT THE REVIEWERMelanie Rockenhaus is the English Language Expert at Scuola NormaleSuperiore, an honors university in Pisa, where she teaches mainlyfirst-year university students. She also teaches composition for theUniversity of Maryland in Europe. Her interests include phrasal (formulaic)language, writing, assessment and translation.

Page Updated: 18-May-2012