In reading from part one of Working in the Archives: Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition—edited by Alexis E. Ramsey, Wendy B. Sharer, Barbara L’Eplattenier, and Lisa S. Mastrangelo—I was struck by two particular pieces, both interviews composed by Lori Ostergaard. These were “On Keeping a Beginner’s Mind” with David Gold and “I Had a Hunch” with Peter Mortensen. The two texts present what I feel are contrasting views on being open to discovery when utilizing an archive; Gold presents a claim and method designed to help one avoid error and confirmation bias, while Mortensen frames a kind of “happy accident” approach to archive research. I have no doubt that both are accurate enough, though I will note that I found Gold’s interview particularly more informative and useful.

David Gold discusses his work as a researcher on the composition education of marginalized populations in this interview, noting some charmingly serendipitous “golden” moments from his career—such as overhearing librarians discussing a student’s archived diary just when he was wondering about daily life in the institution—and he soon moves to counter the idea that this is mere luck or happenstance, insisting that archival research for rhetoric and composition, like science, does not happen accidentally. Instead, he asserts, one enters into research with a clear idea of what one seeks to find and either affirms or abandons that premise based upon the findings. This seems reasonable, yet at the same time I find the words “confirmation bias” ringing in my ears. How, I wonder, can one reconcile looking for a particular answer with objectively evaluating the material?

However, Gold quickly moves to address that problem. He states, “The more we know about a topic, the easier it is for our expectations to guide our interpretations.”  To counter this, he asserts the importance of keeping “a beginner’s mind.” That is, one must put one’s expertise or experience with a topic aside in order to fairly assess the information one is taking in. He suggests strategies such as attempting to objectively describe the facts in a piece without any application of those facts to the project’s ideas and also attempting to first find information that is contrary to the project’s hypothesis. Here he completely wins me over by drawing an allusion to detective fiction, referencing the archetype of the “grizzled veteran who always notes the importance of not jumping too quickly to a conclusion based on limited or even overwhelming evidence, lest one ignore clues that don’t fit one’s theory.” This seems a very healthy attitude for one to adopt as a researcher, even outside the archive.

Peter Mortensen, meanwhile, describes his project of examining narratives of rural Appalacian illiteracy in early Twentieth Century America. He describes having “struck gold” in the form of an archived Publisher’s Weekly article and “the condescending way the PW article characterized the mountain residents of east Tennesssee” (Mortensen). This gave Mortensen a “hunch” that he might gain insight into anxieties concerning the issue by examining various private and/or unpublished papers. This was apparently successful, as he cites the moment as representing the payoff of a “hunch” in so far as how it allowed him to further his argument. The piece then wraps up on a cryptic discussion of the privilege of tenure and how many facts may not be of actual use to publishable articles if they do not substantially contribute to the argument, which left me a bit puzzled about the point he wanted to make.

Mortensen’s exact point remains somewhat murky for me. I do understand that he alludes to the importance of advice from a colleague, something that I imagine most would agree that can be beneficial, but the practical matter of Mortensen’s advice seems uncertain. True, he also notes that primary research, even at the site of contention for an issue, may not yield anything, while secondary texts may offer illumination, but I do not feel that his claim about a “hunch” is ever particularly borne out. Yes, I believe that he had one—but I don’t quite understand how that figures into his method, whereas I found Gold’s method simple but plausibly useful. Perhaps this is a callous approach to the interviews; certainly both presented their research in an engaging fashion and illustrated its significance, but I suppose that I found myself looking more particularly for methodology than merely interesting anecdotes about research.

  1. Rachel says:

    I was also struck by the idea of the “hunch” and serendipity, particularly in Gallet’s interview where describes having the “hunch” in the middle of the night to search for “F”ardine instead of Jardine. This led him to find a document that “greatly expanded the ‘reach’ of Jardine’s influence” (150). This leads him to conclude that the archival research that “(..reaps the greatest scholarly rewards in the form of grants and publications) are instances of serendipity…just being in the right place at the right time” (151). Being in the right place at the right time doesn’t seem to be much of a method, especially to tell new students of archival research. When we do historical research, we are really storytellers. So it’s interesting that the research process should be anecdotal in itself.

  2. Cristina Ramirez says:

    Great post, Dave. You have such good writing!

    “I suppose that I found myself looking more particularly for methodology than merely interesting anecdotes about research.” The week before our visit to the Sp. Collections, Veronica Reyes sent me an email asking if there were any special topics that my students were inclined to visit or explore. I told her that everyone was still a bit uncertain or at least still exploring what they wanted to focus on for their projects. So I said, “I am not opposed to practicing the “method of surprise.” I am one to love heavy method, too, but I find the method of story telling about experiences in and with the archives just as insightful. This kind of story telling relates to me that I am also on the right track, and that I am not crazy when I think in terms of hunches and serendipitous encounters. Jackie Jones Royster talks about her work being guided and directly connected to the women she researches. These are all methods that I think are useful, especially since we work in the humanities. I would love to hear stories like this from those who are in the “hard sciences.” I am sure they have worked of hunches, but instead those get lost in the quantitative spaces of objectivity.

    • Dave Rick says:

      I think the reason I preferred the Gold piece so much is that I felt he had specific advice concerning his method, whereas Mortensen’s piece was more particularly focused on the phenomenon of serendipitously playing out a hunch. Certainly both are reasonable points, but I did find Gold gave me more to “grab on to.” (Also, thanks very much for the kind words!)