Working With Human Subjects

A Questionnaire-Based Study Methods Chapter

Chapter Two: Research Methods*

*(From Renee Rallo's Community Based Writing Journals: Principles and Practices)

Lana Rakow urges cultural studies scholars to “develop potential [cultural and political] models that . . . identify the principles that will enable all people to interact, enjoy full rights of participation, and use communication technologies for the purpose of creating their own collective destiny”(151). This thesis aims to develop such a model for my own future work with a community writing journal project. In order to understand the “principles that enable” interaction and participation using the communication technology of the writing journal, I will critically examine the guiding principles and practices of three sample community-based writing journals.

My research is designed to employ critical textual analysis of a selection of the sample journals and any publicly available supporting materials that explain or convey guiding principles and/or practices (i.e., web sites, mailings). I will also engage in questionnaire-form correspondence with editors of sample CBWJs to gain insider insight into their guiding philosophies and practices. My analysis will engage the work of critical theorists who concern themselves with literacy education practices and marginalization. As I examine the sample journals, I will also engage the critical dialogue emerging within Cultural Studies. Though the subjects of discussion in critical and cultural studies vary from liberatory educational practices, to race and gender in culture, aesthetic discourse, and feminist pedagogy and practice, these critical and cultural studies writers each address the causes and effects of inclusion and exclusion for those in the center and those on the margins. In my view, community-based writing journals tackle many of the concerns about marginalization that are raised by critical and cultural studies and will incorporate those concerns in my analysis of how principles and practices of community-based writing journals address those issues.


Sample Journal Selection:

To select the journals I will investigate in this thesis, I employed a set of selection criteria which requires that:

These criteria are based on the initial vision I have for my own future journal project, which I hope will be funded by both grants and donations, will be available to the public at minimal cost and will be affiliated with some form of a writing group.

I have briefly investigated the guiding principles and practices of a wide variety of community-based writing journals, but each journal project included in this research is guided by a similar underlying principle. Each journal I examine in this thesis shares the notion that that the benefits of writing and publishing (i.e., voice empowerment, self-awareness, public recognition, validation, exposure, empowerment by authority) should be made more accessible to more groups of people, particularly groups of people whose written contributions have been traditionally undervalued in American society. I have chosen three sample journals that state explicitly their goal to amplify and distribute the words and experiences of marginalized community members. A quick look at their mission statements demonstrates that each shares this similar objective:

Every Person Is a Philosopher. [The Journal of Ordinary Thought] JOT is founded on this basic idea and is dedicated to bringing out the unheard voices and stories of Chicago. Many of the writers in JOT groups are marginalized from traditional, mainstream literary circles, because of class, race, physical isolation, or other issues. We only publish writing produced in our workshops. We have published everything from personal essay and polemics to poetry and short fiction. Absolutely everyone in our groups gets the opportunity to be published in our magazine, whether they are accomplished writers or newly literate. Our insightful magazine, the Journal of Ordinary Thought, reflects this diversity. (www.jot.org/jot.html)

Open City: A Journal of Community Arts and Culture is a publication of New City Press, which is committed to linking the personal stories and neighborhood histories of Philadelphia residents to meaningful movements for economic, educational, and social change. . . The Press has a special relationship with the neighborhoods around Temple University in North Philadelphia, but is also committed to empowering diverse voices in self-identified communities throughout the city. Our goal is to provide community writers with access to a larger audience, as well as to assist activists in bettering living conditions in urban neighborhoods. (www.temple.edu/isllc/ncp/mission.html)

Established in 1991, The Asian American Writers' Workshop, Inc., is a nonprofit literary arts organization dedicated to the creation, development, publication and dissemination of Asian American literature. The Workshop publishes The Asian Pacific American Journal, the literary magazine Ten and various anthologies on underrepresented Asian American experiences…The only organization of its kind, the Workshop has become one of the most active community-based arts organizations in the United States. Based in New York City, we have a fast-growing membership, a list of award-winning books and have become an educational resource for Asian American literature and awareness across the nation. (http://www.aaww.org/aboutus/)

The selection of editors to contact for this research, therefore, is predicated on the selection of sample writing journals whose guiding principles and practices are of interest to me as a researcher. I have chosen to contact the main editor of each of the sample journals I have selected; these editors will be asked to correspond with me by responding to a questionnaire and, if necessary, follow-up questions to clarify questionnaire responses.


Data Collection

Journal Text and Publicly Available Materials – The first step of my analysis has been to collect a range of back issues from each sample journal and to gather all other publicly available supporting materials that explain or convey guiding principles and/or practices (i.e., web sites, mailings). Each of the journals I examine in this thesis has a supporting website which outlines its mission, philosophy, submissions policy, community relationship, writing groups and workshops, subscription rates, and sources of funding. I use these textual artifacts to examine the ways in which the guiding principles are evident in the operating practices of the journal. For example, the Journal of Ordinary Thought’s managing website promises that “Absolutely everyone in our groups gets the opportunity to be published in our magazine, whether they are accomplished writers or newly literate.” This range of skills among contributors is reflected in the content of the journal itself, where one can read the poem of a newly literate writer next to the poem of a more accomplished and/or skilled writer. So that I can be confident in my understanding and interpretation of the guiding principles, as they are laid forth in the journal editions themselves or in publicly available supporting materials, and their relationship to the practices that emerge, I will supplement my textual analysis by engaging in questionnaire correspondence with the journals’ editors.


Questionnaire Correspondence with Journal Editors—

Even though I am not approaching my analysis through a strictly feminist lens, the work of self-identified feminist writers, like Lana Rakow and Gesa Kirsch, has helped me carefully weigh the ethical consequences of a data collection technique limited to textual analysis, prompting my desire to engage in correspondence with journal editors to enhance my analysis. In Ethical Dilemmas in Feminist Research, Kirsch maintains that:

Feminist researchers are evolving textual forms that they believe more justly represent the voices of those who contribute to and participate in their research projects. No longer, in many cases, do researchers dominate their reports with a singular, authoritative academic voice. No longer do researchers obscure responsibility for claims by casting them in subject-less, passive constructions. Instead, researchers are beginning to locate themselves in their publications, to acknowledge that their identities, value and theories do indeed shape their observations and analyses. At the same time, they are compelled to include participant’s voices not just as reported speech, but as a co-equal authoring force. [my emphasis] (65)

So that I can to justly represent the underlying principles of the journals I examine, and so that I can insure that I am not imposing my own values and theories upon my textual analysis, I sought a way to include participant’s voices in my analysis. After carefully considering the logistical and practical constraints of this research, I settled on gathering insight from journal editors by corresponding through a short-answer questionnaire. The questionnaire will ask editors to comment on the initial guiding philosophies and practices of the journal as well as any changes that occurred as the journal developed. (See questionnaires reattached with this methods submission for the convenience of the IRB.)

The questionnaire as a data collection technique has a number of significant benefits. The questionnaire grants respondents time to consider each question and time to formulate the response they wish to provide. Each question is open-ended to allow the respondent to provide any relevant information that she or he feels will address the question prompt.

In my undergraduate studies, I frequently referred to H. Russell Bernard’s 2nd Edition of Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches to develop a number of surveys, interview questions and questionnaires for social research projects. Bernard compares self-administered questionnaires (i.e., those mailed to respondents and returned) with face-to-face interviews and notes that questionnaires allow researchers to minimize interviewer bias (since all respondents get the same questions), to ask complex questions that require a lead-in of background information (such questions are sometimes hard to understand orally), and that respondents report behaviors and traits more readily and accurately in questionnaires than in face-to-face interviews (since respondents are less likely to want to impress a questionnaire than an interviewer) (260-262).

The questionnaires I developed all have the same number of questions that ask for the same types of information. Each questionnaire has been tailored to the particular journal the editor works for, but the alterations consist of reshaping questions for the particular recipient. For example, question #1 inquires about the journal’s guiding philosophy and its development. On each questionnaire, the question has been tailored for the particular recipient:

1. According to www.jot.org, the Journal of Ordinary Thought developed from the notion that every person is a philosopher. How was this approach to publishing developed? Who was responsible for its development?

1. According to www.aaww.org, the Asian Pacific American Journal developed out of a dedication to provide a forum for “underrepresented Asian American experiences.” How was this approach to publishing developed? Who was responsible for its development?

1. According to the website, Open City: a Journal of Arts and Culture developed to meet the goals of providing “community writers with access to a larger audience” and connecting the “personal stories and neighborhood histories of Philadelphia residents to meaningful movements for economic, educational, and social change.” How was this approach to publishing developed? Who was responsible for its development?

As I developed the questions that appear on the questionnaires for journal editors, I intended to utilize the advantages of this type of data collection technique while minimizing the disadvantages. Bernard warns that open-ended, self-administered questionnaires do not allow the researcher to control the respondent’s interpretation of the question. To overcome this potential for misinterpretations, I will clarify responses to the questionnaire by composing follow-up questions that ask for elaboration of information provided in the questionnaire responses. Bernard also warns about drawing conclusions about populations from a small sample size. My research involves editorial staff representatives from three writing journals, which is certainly a small sample size from which to draw conclusions. However, my research is not aimed at drawing conclusions about the philosophies and practices of all community-based writing journals based on my study of three samples. Instead, this research aims to gain a better understanding of the philosophies and practices of these samples as a reflective practice that will inform my choices in the future as I develop a writing journal project of my own.


Data Analysis

As I conduct my textual analysis by examining the sample writing journals and their related publicly available materials, I am attempting to identify its purpose, mission, audience, means of circulation, funding, submissions and copyright policy, distribution and promotion. In addition, I am exploring these texts to understand each journal’s particular community link, its methods of working with writers, its staffing practices and management conventions. This information is publicly available in each journal edition and/or on each journal’s website. Though this information about the current state of each journal is publicly available, this thesis aims to enhance this information by asking editors to discuss (via questionnaire correspondence) the ways in which these principles and practices emerged and evolved as the journal has matured.

Once I have collected the questionnaires from journal editors, I will code their responses into the four main categories of inquiry – Guiding Philosophy and Leadership, Development of the Journal’s Operational Practices, Funding, Submissions and Distribution. I will code each response (according to which of the four main categories the response falls under) and compare each of the questionnaire responses to the others. Additionally, I will compare the questionnaire responses to the publicly available materials which disclose the journal’s principles and practices. Comparing the questionnaire responses to each other and to the publicly available documents which communicate principles and practices will help me formulate follow-up questions, as the comparison will help me distinguish which areas of inquiry require elaboration. (Elaboration may be required if any discrepancies arise between the materials I compare, as well as if I need clarification or specific examples to help me better understand the journal’s principles and practices.) These follow-up responses also will be coded according to which main category they relate.

Once I have carefully examined the publicly available materials which convey principles and practices, have compared those materials with the editor’s insight, and have asked follow-up questions, I will then compare the principles and practices (as they are reflected in publicly available material and in editor’s responses) with the content of the journals themselves to assess whether the principles and practices, as they are conveyed and understood by journal management, are enacted and reflected in the published journals. My analysis will be geared at examining how the guiding principles are enacted in journal practices; this understanding of the ways in which the sample journals emerged and the factors that have influenced their development will make me better able to anticipate and navigate through the evolution of the journal project I plan to develop.

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Introduction