Background: Discourse-based interview special issue

Guest editors Neil Baird, Bowling Green State University, and Bradley Dilger, Purdue University
Composition Forum, Summer 2022

In 1983, Lee Odell, Dixie Goswami, and Anne Herrington published “The Discourse-Based Interview: A Procedure for Exploring Tacit Writing Knowledge in Nonacademic Settings,” a methodological piece describing a particular retrospective interview used in their grant-funded study of workplace writing. In a DBI, a researcher proposes alternative rhetorical choices about a text, asking the writer if they would consider these alternatives, which stimulates the interviewee to share tacit writing knowledge.

Since its publication, scholars in writing studies and other fields have taken up the method to study writing in workplaces and academic settings, shaping over 100 dissertations and being cited in over 250 peer-reviewed articles. Starting in 2010, we used the DBI in a grant-funded study of writing transfer, combining it with other interviews to learn how students engage writing transfer in the major. The discourse-based interview became our most important method, revealing not only the tacit writing knowledge informing writing transfer, but helping student participants reflect on their composing in ways that deepened their understanding of writing.

Because of its impact on scholarship in writing studies and the methodological power of the DBI in our own study, in 2019, we began a study to learn how researchers in composition and other fields are pushing the boundaries of the DBI. We’ve interviewed Odell, Goswami, and Herrington to learn how they developed the method, how they’ve seen the method develop since 1983, and their perspective on its importance today. We’ve interviewed senior scholars in the field, such as Paul Prior, Cheryl Geisler, and Tony Silva, to learn how they adapted the method for their own work and mentored graduate students seeking to take up the method. Drawing on results from a citation analysis of both dissertations and published articles, we’ve also engaged emergent scholars—Andrea Olinger, John Gallagher, and Gwendolynne Reid—in DBIs of their own work to learn how they are thinking about and adapting the DBI. (Participants in our IRB-approved study [Bowling Green, 1509418-2] have agreed that we can use their names given the difficulty of anonymizing scholarly publications. We are cooperating directly with participants to ensure they are comfortable with our representation of their contributions.)

Our study has demonstrated that scholars are transforming the DBI to get at the tacit knowledge required to compose 21st century texts by using multimedia to develop questions, gather data, and perform analysis. We’re happy to be collaborating with Composition Forum to publish a special issue because of their strong record of publishing empirical research and scholarship that engages multimedia writing. We believe our field needs more conversation about research methods, and we think our focus on the DBI complements Composition Forum’s existing special issues on subjects such as writing transfer and multilingual writing. As Dixie Goswami’s current use of the DBI with indigenous people and immigrant communities suggests, the method can demonstrate the complexity and intellectual depth of writing and community engagement outside of traditional academic contexts. Indeed, for Goswami, the attention to tacit knowledge supported by the DBI is an important tool for developing alternatives to “big data” approaches to composition that threaten to push aside the sociolinguistic models composition deeply values.

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