Thursday, November 18, 2004

How To Find Knowledge in a Post-Modern World

It’s now time to begin reflecting on this course in research methods.

Experienced professors have told me that you don’t learn how to teach a class until after you have taught it for the first time. This is certainly the case for me in the research methods class. Perhaps students should approach class selection with the same advice inexperienced automobile consumers are sometimes given: never buy a car model in the first year of its production—wait until the manufacturer gets the kinks out.

You students have had the misfortune of being my guinea pigs. The kinks aren’t all out yet. You have watched as I have struggled with how to deal with a class of very diverse writers with diverse needs: three of you are working on thesis proposals and need to understand the methods of academic research; four of you are working on nonfiction projects which relate in some way to business, community, or religious organizations and need to understand the methods of doing organizational research; and seven of you are working on fiction or poetry projects and need to understand the methods and working practices of successful freelance writers. (My seventh grade grammar teacher would probably call that last sentence a “run-on sentence.”) . You have all probably noticed the days when I have come to class, notes, or assignments in hand, only to abandon my “lesson plan” as I realized your real needs did not jibe with the theoretical principles I was prepared to discuss. Many of you have probably wondered whether I had any lesson plan at all. I have probably learned more from you than you have learned from me.

So much for my mea culpa. Now I will clumsily transition my way to what I want to say about what I have learned. I am hesitant to say “I have seen the light,” because I believe that the internal logic by which I will teach this class in the future is only starting to surface. Once that logic has fully surfaced, I will need to test it, and once I have tested it I will probably need to modify it. That is the nature of what Peter Senge calls our mental models.

The Greeks had a term kairos, which basically means a fortuitous moment or time when knowledge and events seem to come together efficiently, with what seems like little effort. I suppose after this class, we all deserve a little kairos.

My kairotic moment began when I read John Law’s The Manager and his Powers (, or perhaps earlier, when reading Clay Spinuzzi’s blog ( I found his review of one of Law’s books, which led me to this work. Law is speaking of the manager working in a post-modern world in this key passage, but I believe it certainly applies to the researcher/writer as well:

“Andrew is this: he’s a kind of debating society. He is different voices at different times. Manager, scientist, accountant. He jumps. He jumps between the logics. And these are the jumps of transmutation. Of alchemy. Of organisational alchemy. The jumps of an organisation, a manager, built of different logics” (5).

The next part of this kairotic moment came when my colleague, Karen Griggs, introduced me to Dr. Pamela Sandstrom, the head research librarian of the Helmke Library here at Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, during a faculty reception hosted by Chancellor Michael Wartell. Dr. Sandstrom had observed some of my students struggling with the library assignments I had given them on Qualitative Research methods, and we had a nice discussion on research methodologies. She then sent me an article she had co-authored with her Anthropologist husband, which discussed how the field of Library and Information Science (LIS) was struggling to bring ethnographic methods into its scholarship. And while I didn’t understand everything in that article, I did feel that her remarks about the dangers of adopting ethnographic techniques without fully understanding the logics and procedures of the methodology matched my own worries about the use of ethnography in the field of Professional Writing. I’ve always been skeptical, and have tried to caution my students that Anthropologists probably wouldn’t recognize some of these research projects in our field as “true ethnography,” whatever that is. Dr. Sandstrom’s article made me understand that the source of my nervousness about these research methods was the fact that I wasn’t fully aware of the logic of the ethnographic method.

The final link in the chain came through my “pleasure reading.” Lately I have been reading Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods. I don’t frequently recommend fiction to my students, because my choices are often odd. However this fabulous novel should be read by anyone interested in technology, religion, folklore, sex, or America. (Hopefully most of the population is interested in at least one of these subjects.) In this book, Shadow, who is kind of an archetype for post-modern man (his dead wife points out that she doesn’t appear to be alive to her. He is empty, a shadow of a man), encounters a number of “gods,” as he searches for a way to fill his emptiness. A key passage comes from the mouth a Samantha, a young bisexual college student who appears wiser than her years:

“I,” she told him, “can believe anything. You have no idea what I can believe.”


“I can believe things that are true and I can believe things that aren’t true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they are true or not. I can believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles and Elvis and Mister Ed. Listen—I believe that people are perfectible, that knowledge is infinite, that the world is run by secret banking cartels and is visited by aliens on a regular basis, nice ones that look like wrinkledy lemurs and bad ones who mutilate cattle and want our water and our women. I believe that the future sucks and I believe that the future rocks and I believe that one day White Buffalo Woman is going to come back and kick everyone’s ass” (307).

Actually she goes on for another thirteen sentences, some of which my seventh grade grammar teacher would probably call “run-ons.” Certainly, the idea runs on and on.

And her condition, the postmodern condition, is one we face as writers, as researchers, as humans. How to navigate the multiple Gods, the multiple logics, how to “believe,” how to “use and adopt,” how to make the logics visible, then to test them, and then to adapt them to the ever-changing context of the world we live in. That is what this class needs to be about. That is what I have been trying to achieve in this class, and I am afraid, have only marginally succeeded at doing.

The great contribution of post-modernism is that it has made the underlying logic of our Gods, not only our Gods of religion, but our Gods of medicine, technology, culture, and the law visible. This is what Senge means by “surfacing.” It is also what the work of the great post-modernist Foucault was about (and probably Derrida too, though I understand him less than I understand Foucault). But while post-modernism has taught us how to surface these logics, and how to test them, it seems that the post-modern thinkers (at least as taught and interpreted by our great universities) failed to teach us how to build new logics and revise the old ones. It has been said that the aesthetic principles of post-modern art are collage and pastiche, but what those of who are not artists sometimes fail to understand is that even works of collage and pastiche require a compositional principle underlying them. The blessing and curse of the world we live in is that it offers us so many possibilities of forming what Virginia Woolf called “new combinations.” We need to take care when we combine disciplines, research methods, Gods without understanding their underlying logic (to go off on yet another tangent, which J.D. might appreciate, this is I think the failure of the Christian Right—fatally combining Christianity with market capitalism without understanding their respective logics).

I think the focus of this class should be on exploring the logics of research, testing them, and revising them. It should focus on how to make "new combinations," but not in a sloppy way.

Works Cited

Gaiman, Neil. American Gods. New York: Morrow, 2001.

Sandstrom, Alan and with Pamela Effrein Sandstrom. “Science and Nonscience in
Qualitative Research: A Response to Thomas and Nyce.” Library Quarterly 68

Woolf, Virginia. The Years. San Diego: Harcourt, 1937.


Blogger Dawn said...

Prof. Amidon, if I haven't learned what you wanted me to learn, I can tell you I learned something important that I needed to learn for myself--seeing my work from the outside. Writing a proposal has done this. And looking from my work from the outside has also taught me how to give up 'what I want' in my book and to apply to 'what I need' in my book. There are so many pieces I want to use, and have in the past forced them in to some work of mine. Now, I'm looking at what the book is saying, just as my characters do--I should say listen to what the book saying. I just never thought of a book 'talking' to me like my characters.
I have also leanred to 'write' my proposal, and to know that I lack in the business sense of information needed to sell my book. This will take great work on my part, more work than time alots for the finals. I now I will be working on my poroposal well after this class. But it is a great start, and a much needed leap in my writing career. Thanks for all your help, even though I didn't learn what you wanted me to learn. Or should I ask, what I learned any part of what you wanted me to learn?
Good luck with the class in years to come, and I'm sure this class will become searched out by many, sometime making it so you'll have to teach it more than once in a semester. This class is a very needed class.

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