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Review of The 'Backwards' Research Guide for Writers
AUTHOR: Sonya Huber TITLE: The “Backwards” Research Guide for Writers SUBTITLE: Using Your Life for Reflection, Connection, and Inspiration SERIES TITLE: Frameworks for Writing PUBLISHER: Equinox Publishing Ltd YEAR: 2011
Melanie Rockenhaus, Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa, IT
SUMMARY A textbook for “first-year college students, aspiring journalists, and other would-be writers” (p. xv), this book aims to convince writers of all types that their own lives, interests and experiences are excellent first sources for research. The author, an experienced writer and writing instructor, seeks to convey her enthusiasm for and pleasure in both research and writing, and offers a wide range of techniques, methods, ideas and materials to other instructors who wish to do the same.
After an introductory chapter, the book is divided into four sections. The first three are based on what the author calls the “framework of self-observation” (p.7): relax, reflect, research. The fourth section draws these three moments of the research process together to focus on revision and the necessarily circular nature of research and writing. The introduction and four main sections are briefly discussed in the following paragraphs.
“Introduction for Instructors”: This initial chapter provides both a description of what the author is attempting in the book as well as a vade mecum for using the book in a classroom. Placing herself firmly in the tradition of reflective education, the book begins with an account of her own experiences in writing or trying to write. She concludes that what she has learned is to use a process approach to research and writing which is likewise contemplative, a term used here to mean self-aware, self-monitoring, not self-centered but rather focused on what Huber refers to as the “contemplative technologies of mind” (p. 6). Like all technology, she claims, the tools of the mind are empirical and their use can be learned. Training aspirant writers to identify and use these technologies is her goal in this book, and why she considers her approach novel, or “backwards”. She concludes the Introduction by offering suggestions on how best to use the book in a classroom and how to pick, choose and organize the material for particular needs and situations.
“Section I. Research: An Inside Job”: This section, composed of four chapters, places the aspiring writer at the center of the writing enterprise. It suggests concrete steps for focusing on writing, including keeping a research notebook, getting to know yourself and your reactions, concentrating on what you know already and using questions to fuel further research. It also introduces two of the strongpoints of the book, namely Experiments and Conversations, the latter of which are interviews with experienced writers. Both of these elements are commented upon in the Evaluation section below. The key word throughout this first section is “relax”, intended here to mean willing suspending of judgments and reactions.
“Section II. The Inside Meets the Outside: Paying Attention as Research”: This section introduces the idea of carefully observing the world as a form of research. By “Learning to See” (Chapter 5), the student can also begin “Responding to Reality” (Chapter 6) and then use his or her own interests -- Huber uses the term “obsessions” -- to usefully research areas where there will be enough sustained interest to keep the writer going through the long, often isolated process of researching and writing a book. The key word throughout this section is “reflect”, mirroring the unavoidably recursive nature of research and writing.
“Section III. Big Bang: Form and Structured Chaos in Research”: Here the author moves the aspirant writer closer to the final product by focusing on organization. She does this by offering practical suggestions for organizing one’s research, such as keeping a notebook for each project, or organizing brainstorming notes, charts and other research products in various ways. She also recommends random reading or Internet surfing as an occasionally useful research method and discusses at length the art of interviewing, especially that of listening and careful questioning. Not surprisingly, the keyword throughout this section is “research”.
“Section IV. Open Minds Invite Surprises”: In the five chapters which compose this section, the author considers what happens to many writers as their research progresses. Learning a great deal about a single subject can lead to surprises for the researcher, who should remain flexible enough to revise the initial topic, reutilizing mental techniques acquired to relax and reflect on the research project. Other possible problems she discusses include how to handle the various impediments researchers inevitably find in their paths, such as lack of reliable sources and of time, conflicting sources and more, and how to know when to stop researching and begin writing. The final two chapters focus on getting the work down on paper, handling and citing resources properly, revising -- and re-revising. In fact, although there is no keyword for this section, the author clearly considers revision an essential part of reflective research and writing and discusses it at length.
The book closes with Appendices listing the various Experiments, a Recommended Reading list and two pages on using MLA style, a list of References and two indices, organized by Subject and by Author.
EVALUATION This is a practical, hands-on writing textbook which could be conveniently used in a number of classroom and workshop settings with beginner researchers and writers, as well as independently. Huber’s process-contemplative approach, supported as it is by the many Experiments which lead the student to develop their own “technology of the mind”, introduces would-be writers to the work they have before them while enfranchising them to carry it out. This is done without shying away from difficult questions , on the contrary: each Chapter contains a short segment titled “The Gray Matter” which raises ethical questions or discusses issues of principle, always followed by “Questions for Thought or Discussion” which can be neatly used both as in-class or take-home materials to gauge the maturation of the student’s reflective learning.
The book contains six interviews, or “Conversations” with researchers or writers who offer valuable tips about how they find topics, research them, do or do not organize their materials, force themselves to write, and more. While they make very entertaining reading, these Conversations point to one of the possible objections instructors working in academic programs may raise to the book: although Huber goes to some pains to show the necessity of integrating our life into our research, and in this she is convincing, most of the support apparatus of the book -- the Experiments, the Conversations -- is not academic in nature. If the book is used in an academic class as opposed to a creative writing environment, it will be up to the individual instructor to provide the academic input students will ultimately need.
For an introductory linguistics course, several features of the handbook would be of some interest. First of all, hands-on research methods and techniques such as immersion research, field research, interviewing and note-taking, are of importance to early researchers in several areas of linguistics. Huber dwells at some length on these procedures, providing useful suggestions and exercises to develop the skills of early researchers. Secondly, the interviews with the two authors who have studied and reported on groups of people would certainly be inviting to anthropological linguists, even if neither of these authors dwells on the language of their research participants. Lastly, the focus on ethical questions in each chapter is a valuable practice tool for students embarking on any career involving research, including linguistics.
These comments point to one of the handier qualities of this textbook: it can easily be used as it is or in part, and its organization and structure make that easy to do. As mentioned above, the author offers a series of considerations and recommendations for how best to use the textbook in the “Introduction for Instructors”. Moreover, considering her self-positioning as a reflective educator, she also clearly states her bias for helping students learn to brainstorm and research at length rather than pushing them to produce a final project. This is appealing to many university writing instructors, but it may not be possible for those harried for time or required to evaluate a piece of student-produced research. Although Huber acknowledges this, and offers suggestions on how to appraise student planning and researching as well as their research output, instructors with limited classroom hours available may want to consider using this textbook as a support or self-study addition to their regular syllabus.
The book’s greatest strength and perhaps its potentially greatest weakness are the numerous short, long, in-class and take-home Experiments it includes. Instructor and student alike are invited to explore their thought processes, their creative strategies and approaches, their research methods and quirks through a series of more than fifty exercises ranging from the simple to the more complex. These can be revelatory, such as the “Interest Inventory”, where the student writer asks two or three friends to complete a personality/skills/preferences inventory about the writer him/herself, or very simple, such as training students to finish their work early, put it aside and pick it up again with a fresh mind a day or two later. However, many of the Experiments are also somewhat personal, and an instructor may easily find that students will not wish to share the very first word or thought they had nor openly reflect on mistakes they may have made while attempting to listen to a friend.
All things considered, Huber has produced an organized, thought-provoking and practical guide book for would-be writers. Although the idea of using one’s life as creative material is hardly new, her emphasis on self-knowledge and contemplative resourcefulness, or “backwardness”, is refreshing and timely. The book is well-written and carefully edited and invites both cover-to-cover reading and intermittent dipping into. Instructors and students alike will find something to appeal to their needs and tastes, and it would be a useful book to have in the library of any writing program.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Melanie Rockenhaus is the English Language Expert at Scuola Normale
Superiore, an honors university in Pisa, where she teaches mainly
first-year university students. She also teaches composition for the
University of Maryland in Europe. Her interests include phrasal (formulaic)
language, writing, assessment and translation.