I mentioned last week that we had a great meeting with Jim's U-W rhetorical theory seminar students in Seattle. I'd like to pick up one of the threads of our conversation here. During our meeting the question of methods came up, phrased something like: "Do students really need a traditional 'methods section' in their dissertations anymore?" As someone relatively new to graduate advising (my students won't be happy to hear me describe myself that way, I fear), I confess to a lot of angst about this question. My first impulse might be characterized as the old fogey defense: I had to write one, shouldn't they?
Maybe not. The obligatory methods section feels to me more and more like a prehensile tail, something rhetorical critics evolved at one point because it was institutionally useful (particularly in communication departments concerned with questions of legitimacy in the academy). First of all, does anybody really work that way? Aren't most of us using a variety of "methods" and approaches in our work? Most rhetorical critics and historians approach discourse more or less inductively, and adjust their critical approaches accordingly. And I could be wrong, but it doesn't seem that my friends on the rhetoric/composition side of things have anxiety about "methods" in quite the same way. Yet many of our criticism textbooks (even at the graduate level) are still organized by "method." And uncomfortably so, if the latest edition of the top reader in rhetorical criticism is any indication. The editor of that book recognizes things have changed, I think; in his preface he outlines changes from the earlier edition, and these changes, to my eye, make the reader a bit less methods-obsessed.
One of the things I told the students is that I think it's more important to push them about "assumptions" instead, asking them to think about and formulate answers to questions like, "What assumptions about communication/discourse/rhetoric/your topic area are you making in this project?" and then tie those answers to the specific choices they make in the dissertation. For example, I digested a long and meandering "methods" section from my dissertation into what I think is a nice, concise, page and a half in my book that explains what assumptions I make when I study photographs rhetorically and how that affects what readers will see me do in the book. This is probably what we really mean by methods anyway, and it also seems more useful in the long run, particularly when our scholarship reaches out beyond the boundaries of the field and when rhetoric is becoming more and more of a book culture. Still, I sometimes worry about how this goes over in communication departments where social science colleagues already worry, during job talks or committee meetings, about what they sometimes call the imprecision of our "methods." If there is no section clearly marked "methods," won't we seem even more imprecise?
I largely avoid the methods question in my undergraduate rhetorical criticism course, because there I'm much more focused on issues of invention and writing. I'd like to do the same for the grad seminar I may be teaching next year, but I also feel some obligation to take up the methods question in some way. I wonder if one solution may be to treat method madness as an historical moment in the story of rhetorical criticism as it has emerged in communication departments. That way we can consider both what "method" gives us and also how it limits us.