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Composition Forum 49, Summer 2022

The Discourse-Based Interview: Forty Years of Exploring the Tacit Knowledge of Writers

Neil Baird and Bradley Dilger

How We Came to Study the DBI and Its Evolution

This Composition Forum special issue celebrates a particular type of retrospective interview called the discourse-based interview (DBI). For those learning about the DBI for the first time, we begin with a brief overview and definition. 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 interview used in their grant-funded study of workplace writing. The Discourse-Based Interview was the culmination of earlier research published by Odell, Goswami, and other collaborators, such as Charles Cooper and Doris Quick. However, their 1983 piece offered an in-depth definition and examples that have given it lasting methodological impact. Since its publication, scholars in writing studies and other fields have taken up the DBI to study writing in workplaces and academic settings, with citations in over 100 dissertations and over 250 peer-reviewed articles.

In a traditional DBI as defined by “The Discourse-Based Interview,” 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. To use Odell, Goswami, and Herrington’s language, a researcher might say, “Here you do X. In other writing, you do Y and Z. In this passage, would you be willing to do Y or Z rather than X? What basis do you have for preferring one alternative to the other?” (223). They use an extended example of a business letter to illustrate this technique, explaining how offering the writer alternatives for elements, such as the salutation, first paragraph, and closing, identifies the tacit knowledge that shapes writing: “the kinds of world knowledge and expectations that informants bring to writing tasks... the perceptions informants have about the conceptual demands that functional, interactive writing tasks make on them” (228). Odell, Goswami, and Herrington also describe how these alternative topics are developed—through careful readings of writing samples gathered from participants—and emphasize the importance of developing alternatives that are rhetorically viable.

From Studying Transfer to Thinking about Research Methods

Since 2010, we have been working together to learn how students engage their prior writing knowledge when learning to write in their majors. Recognizing the complexity of writing transfer (“Elon Statement”), we employed different types of interviews to create rich, complicated portraits of our participants, one of those interviews being the discourse-based interview (DBI). Neil first encountered the DBI when The Discourse-Based Interview was assigned in Jane Detweiler’s research methods seminar at the University of Nevada, Reno. Bradley encountered the DBI when this same chapter was shared by Chris Anson at the inaugural Dartmouth Seminar on Composition Research in summer 2011, where Bradley was exploring the research design for our transfer study. Of all the interviews we used to explore the prior writing knowledge of our participants, from literacy history interviews to member check interviews, the DBI stands out as our most important interview. Key findings from our College Composition and Communication article How Students Perceive Transitions: Dispositions and Transfer in Internships arose from DBIs with our student participants. Similarly, DBIs with participants’ faculty about their teaching materials were equally insightful, revealing stark contrasts between what faculty experienced as writers themselves and how they taught writing (Metaphors for Writing Transfer) and between what faculty assumed students were learning and what students were actually experiencing (Dispositions in Natural Science Laboratories). Not only did DBIs reveal the invisible stories behind writing decisions, these interviews allowed our participants to learn about themselves as writers, offering us opportunities to directly benefit our participants.

The methodological power of the DBI to help us understand tacit knowledge and help writers become conscious of how they are learning to write prompted us to design a second study to learn about the role of the DBI in writing studies, exploring how it has evolved and impacted our field since the publication of Odell, Goswami, and Herrington’s 1983 piece (IRB #1509418-3). We began this research with a citation analysis of dissertations and articles, identifying who was employing the DBI: scholars studying workplace writing, scholar-teachers in composition, applied linguistics, and education, and researchers in other fields such as management. Journals publishing multiple studies using DBIs included Written Communication, Academic Medicine, the Journal of Second Language Writing, and Management Communication Quarterly. Reading a sample of the hundreds of texts citing The Discourse-Based Interview, we began to understand how the DBI was being used by these diverse researchers, identifying differences in the ways researchers prepared for, conducted, and analyzed data from DBIs. We then interviewed Odell, Goswami, and Herrington individually and as a group to learn how they developed the method, discuss how they’ve seen the method develop since 1983, and gain their perspective on its importance today.

By offering this overview of Odell, Goswami, and Herrington’s original chapter, and in editing this special issue, we do not seek to prescribe a particular approach to conducting the DBI. Indeed, we see variation in how the DBI is used in Herrington’s 1983 dissertation and in the early work of Anson, one of the first scholars to cite The Discourse-Based Interview in his 1990 article Moving Beyond the Academic Community, co-authored with Lee Forsberg. Twenty-five years later, our transfer study illuminated some of that variation, while revealing questions that led us to study the DBI methodologically on our own—questions shared by many researchers, including the authors themselves. For example, in our interview, Odell was enthusiastic about evolutions of the DBI we described to him, especially those that enabled researchers to more accurately identify and present choices that came from those writers. “Always come from the writers,” he explained. “You have to work very hard to not appear to be the English teacher... to acknowledge that people outside of our profession have powerful insights into ways of doing things.” For Odell, building that trust was the key to encouraging participants to speak at length about their writing choices and thus their tacit writing knowledge.

Such questions are widely shared, and adaptations of the DBI common, as we’ve learned through our interviews. We’ve interviewed experienced scholars in the field, such as Paul Prior, Cheryl Geisler, and Tony Silva, learning how they adapted the DBI for their own work, and how they mentored graduate students seeking to take up the method. Drawing on results from our citation analysis of both dissertations and published articles, we’ve also engaged emergent scholars—for example, Andrea Olinger, John Gallagher, and Gwendolynne Reid—interviewing them about their scholarship featuring the DBI, in some case conducting meta-DBIs of their methods sections, which helped us to learn how they are thinking about and adapting the DBI. With this in mind, this Composition Forum special issue emerges from the preliminary findings of our methodological study, reflects our desire to move beyond the limits of our citation analysis, and affords scholars an opportunity to describe, in their own words, the impact and innovation in their uses of the DBI. Again, we have no desire to rigidly define how scholars should or should not employ DBIs in their work, given that such restrictions could limit access to the method for those with limited time or resources to conduct their research—or those who are working with populations who are similarly time or resource constrained. Rather than gatekeeping, we seek to offer insight into how methods evolve in writing studies.

Much of the variation we have seen involves the use of 21st century technologies to craft DBIs. For Jason Swarts, in both his dissertation Textual Replay Mediation Of Writing Reviews and ​​Recycled Writing: Assembling Actor Networks From Reusable Content, the discourse for his DBIs was screencasts. Swarts required participants to screencast composing episodes, and engaged them in DBIs of particular moments in these screencasts to learn more about writers’ habits of reuse of their own writing. Other scholars are using the DBI to study 21st century writing, and innovation is emerging from the ethical dilemmas they’ve encountered. For example, Gallagher, in Update Culture and the Afterlife of Digital Writing, his study of digital literacy, was unsure how to represent alternative choices of digital texts. He also noticed that writers sometimes changed their digital texts if they perceived the alternatives he presented to be better, forcing him to wrestle with studying the fluid nature of digital writing. We’ve also learned that the DBI has been used in contexts outside scholarship, such as in the work of Silva, who framed his dissertation mentoring with doctoral students as DBIs. As he worked one-on-one, Silva presented his mentees with alternative rhetorical choices, which created opportunities to talk about how tacit writing knowledge aligns with disciplinary expectations for writing. During his interview, Silva also suggested composition instructors could use DBI-like methods when teaching second-language writers, both to better understand their prior knowledge and to present writing as making rhetorical choices, not seeking correctness.

Our study also helped us recognize the need to learn more about tacit knowledge in order to better interrogate the methodological power of the DBI. Odell, Goswami, and Herrington drew upon the work of Michael Polanyi to define tacit knowledge. Indeed, in The Discourse-Based Interview, they note that “some tacit knowledge is so internalized that it becomes unconscious and inaccessible” (227). But a lot of scholarship published since 1983 neither reflects in depth on the nature of tacit knowledge, nor acknowledges more recent thinking, such as Harry Collins’s Tacit and Explicit Knowledge. Thanks to Collins and other thinkers in our field like Jenny Rice and Derek Van Ittersum, we know much more about tacit knowledge than we did when Odell, Goswami, and Herrington wrote in 1983, and we wanted to give scholars a space to explore what we know about tacit knowledge and what it means for the DBI. Timothy Amidon does some of this work in his review essay of Collins’s Tacit and Explicit Knowledge, and several other contributors usefully describe their understanding of the subject. Uncovering tacit knowledge is essential to writing studies research, and we hope this special issue complicates and enriches our understanding of tacit knowledge in important ways.

One of our most important goals for this special issue, then, is learning more from scholars about their uses of the DBI, how they define tacit knowledge, and how they came to adapt and innovate when using the DBI—whether in preparation, in the writing under study, in the media used to present alternatives, or in other ways. We also have other goals. Odell, Goswami, and Herrington’s 1983 piece was published in Research on Writing: Principles and Methods, a collection that is now out of print, and a number of our research participants and contributors have mentioned sharing PDFs or beat-up, dog-eared copies with students. Indeed, after we published our call for papers, we received several requests for a PDF of The Discourse-Based Interview when people found our CFP in a Google search! We’re happy to share that we’ve been able to work with Odell, Goswami, and Herrington and the surviving editors of Research on Writing: Principles and Methods to secure permission to reprint their chapter here. In doing so, and in bringing diverse scholars who use the DBI together, we hope to celebrate the 40th anniversary of a method that has shaped our field in important ways. Additionally, as more within our field take up the name “writing studies,” we also value the increased attention to research methods, ethics, and representation this special issue allows. We thus recommend the methodological contributions of recent special issues of Technical Communication Quarterly (McNely et al.) and the publication of methodological collections and content from the WAC Clearinghouse, such as Points of Departure: Rethinking Student Source Use and Writing Studies Research Methods (Serviss and Jameison), Simplicity in Rhetoric, Writing, and Literacy Research (Goggin and Goggin), and Re/Orienting Writing Studies: Queer Methods/Queer Projects (Banks et al.)

Finally, we chose Composition Forum because of its open access approach and the ways the digital space of the journal removes the constraints of page limits, allowing us to share more contributions and to give those presenting empirical research the opportunity to showcase participants’ voices as well. We also valued the multiple article types and the diverse institutions represented by the Composition Forum editors, and also visible in the content of previously published articles (e.g. Moore). Thanks in part to the time we shared as teacher-scholars conducting research at a regional comprehensive, we saw vast differences between our classrooms, our students, the affordances we had, and the sites of research often featured in “flagship” journals. Hopefully, we have reproduced that diversity here, in sharing articles written by teams from around the world, with both contributors and research participants coming from many educational contexts.

Anti-Racist Scholarly Reviewing Practices

As tenured, white, cis-gendered males at well-funded institutions, we recognize that our positions of considerable privilege can impact our editorial practices in ways that conflict with our goal to celebrate diverse voices engaging the DBI. In engaging in the editing and reviewing work of this special issue, then, we leaned heavily on Anti-Racist Scholarly Reviewing Practices: A Heuristic for Editors, Reviewers, and Scholars. This document, which began circulating Spring 2021, was developed by nineteen scholars in technical communication. The document asks:

How might we dismantle the existing exclusionary and oppressive philosophies and practices of reviewing in the field of technical and professional communication and replace them with philosophies and practices that are explicitly anti-racist and inclusive? ... What would a system of inclusivity, rather than gatekeeping and disciplining, look like?

To achieve the goals implied by these questions, the document offers editors, reviewers, and authors a six-principle heuristic for academic reviewing that also acknowledges the tangible impacts for retention, tenure, and promotion:

  1. Recognize a range of expertise and encourage citation practices that represent diverse canons, epistemological foundations, and ways of knowing;

  2. Recognize, intervene in and/or prevent harmful scholarly work—both in publication processes and in published scholarship;

  3. Establish and state clear but flexible contingency plans for review processes that prioritize humanity over production;

  4. Make the review process transparent;

  5. Value the labor of those involved in the review process;

  6. Editors commit to inclusivity among reviewers and in editorial board makeup.

Here are the ways the Heuristic helped shape our editing and reviewing practices for this special issue:

  1. In our call for proposals (Baird and Dilger, Call for Proposals), we invited contributors to share their draft proposals by July 31, 2021 for feedback before the September 1 deadline. Many potential contributors took us up on this offer, and we offered all of them comments we hoped would support further development of their proposal. We offered feedback on twelve draft proposals, all but one of which were revised by authors before our final review. These practices helped us make our values for the special issue explicit, allowing potential contributors to more effectively shape their work for the context of the special issue as we imagined it.

  2. Our call for proposals invited participants to share demographic information, though this was not required, to help us evaluate the inclusiveness of our process of soliciting and reviewing proposals.

  3. We used our citation analysis to identify scholars who might not see our CFP and to invite them to submit an abstract for consideration. In doing so, we sought to include scholars of color and/or scholars whose participants focused on historically marginalized communities. This included learning more about the identities of scholars who had cited Odell, Goswami, and Herrington through Google searches. We also reviewed some of their scholarship to identify participant pools that suggested inclusion.

  4. When sharing acceptances in October 2021, we encouraged authors to follow recommendations from the Heuristic:

    1. be mindful and intentional about how they write about the identities of participants;

    2. write positionality statements that unpack how their subjectivities impact study design, analysis, and representation; and

    3. reflect on their citation practices.

  5. Recognizing the value of discussing our editorial practices with other scholars to actively reflect on racist tendencies that might persist in our work, we asked another scholar, Andrea Olinger, to review our work in progress and offer suggestions for further action. Olinger came to mind because she has used the DBI in her research and because we admired the leadership she and her colleagues provided in directing the 2021 Watson Conference, which focused on anti-racism in conference planning. Olinger’s review helped us refine how we described our work here, gave us additional anti-racist reviewing practices to consider, and invited us to consider anti-racist practices in our own writing, such as describing our positionality as reviewers.

  6. We created a mechanism to gather feedback from our authors about the publication process. When we circulated notifications of acceptance, we shared specific details about the publication timeline. In addition, we circulated this introduction within a month of notifying authors of acceptance with a request for feedback on the introduction and to share that we welcome questions about the publication timeline and that we would give a generous read of discovery drafts. In several cases, we extended deadlines and worked directly with authors to provide examples and clarify feedback, sometimes through videoconferences. In all of these cases, we strove to position our feedback as suggestive, not directive, and we took special care to listen to authors’ questions and discuss our replies.

  7. We signaled that we valued the labor involved in the publication process by offering authors official letters acknowledging acceptance for promotion, tenure, and retention efforts — at the time acceptances were shared in October 2021, then later, as the production process moved forward, and now as we publish the final special issue.

  8. During the final stages of special issue editing, we collaborated with authors and Composition Forum editors to ensure accessibility, requiring alternative text and/or long descriptions for tables, figures, and images. We also ensured all multimedia included high-quality captions or transcripts.

  9. Copyediting focused on eliminating outright errors, not altering the writing styles of authors or the voices of their participants.

  10. Finally, recognizing the importance of making identity visible to readers, we worked with Composition Forum editors to give contributors the option to include images with their professional bios.

Introducing the content

As we note above, Composition Forum offers potential authors multiple ways to contribute. In this special issue, we offer four categories of contributions, two of which are adaptations of traditional Composition Forum features. Our special issue begins with a Retrospective Interview of Odell, Goswami, and Herrington. Since the interview focuses on the 1983 methodological piece, this interview integrates the features of Composition Forum’s “Retrospectives,” in which scholars revisit influential work from the past to describe how it might be updated for the future. Accompanying this Retrospective Interview is a reprint of Odell, Goswami, and Herrington’s 1983 original, and a review essay of Collins’s Tacit and Explicit Knowledge that offers important background for scholars not familiar with the concept.

We then showcase four articles that feature the DBI in action, and conclude with eight pieces we call Approaches, Practices, & Applications, an adaptation of the traditional Composition Forum Program Profile.

Retrospective Interview

We interviewed Odell, Goswami, and Herrington individually and then together via Zoom. Working across these four transcripts, we developed a single interview that describes the importance of studying tacit knowledge today and shares the researchers’ reflections on its methodology and impact on the field. In creating this interview, we created a reverse outline to identify themes within the group interview. With these themes identified, we were able to pull over relevant content from their individual interviews.

Odell, Goswami, and Herrington’s interview shows how they have continued to think about the value of tacit knowledge—and the difficulty of identifying it. They reflect on specific moments from past research, including the work of some of their students and collaborators, and emphasize the value of the participatory elements of the DBI.

Reprint of The Discourse-Based Interview

We offer a reprint of Odell, Goswami, and Herrington’s original chapter, The Discourse-Based Interview, in both web-native and print-friendly (PDF) formats.

Review essay: Troubling the Tacit

Author: Timothy R. Amidon

Drawing on his own empirical research on workplace communication between fire-fighters, Timothy R. Amidon offers a reading of Tacit and Explicit Knowledge that carefully maps Collins’s taxonomy of tacit knowledge and reflects on its value for writing studies. In the spirit of our special issue, he suggests several ways research methods are already engaging directly with tacit knowledge and suggests that future work can mapping methodological frameworks to the multiple dimensions of tacit knowledge Collins explores.

Articles: New Contexts and New Writers

In our interview, Goswami underscored the value of discovering tacit knowledge for her research, but also for the social justice potential of writing research:

We are at a crossroads. We are always at a crossroads. But the one in public education involves big analytics. So billions of dollars are being invested right now to organize curricula and increasingly hybrid education for the poor. The poorer the public school students are, the more likely they’re going to get commercialized instruction. And he writes about what that means: an undemocratic approach.

The entire premise of pedagogy in public education being a democratizing process is at risk these days. So it’s urgent for us to develop methods that enhance discourse-based, participatory tacit knowledge gathering.

In two of our articles, researchers explore new contexts for using DBIs, and affirm the wide range of tacit knowledge we might think about as researchers. They describe how the DBI might help us open writing studies—in research, teaching, and other contexts—to new participants and scholar-teacher-activists, helping the DBI realize the change-making potential identified by Goswami in her interview.

From Tacit Myth to Explicit Lurking: Using Discourse-Based Interviews to Empirically Confront the Mythologized *Standard English Eel

Author: Sarah Johnson

Sarah Johnson seeks to describe writing instructors’ tacit knowledge of standard English (*SE), and discover how it impacts their assessment practices, especially grading artifacts like rubrics, while synthesizing translingualism and anti-racist writing research. The attunement of DBIs to tacit knowledge is a natural fit for studying *SE given how scholars like Paul Matsuda and April Baker-Bell have described it as a tacit ideology. Johnson describes an empirical study of six writing instructors that used DBIs to learn how *SE influenced their grading rubrics and tools. While instructors challenged *SE in interviews and grading practices, its myth persisted in their rubrics. Johnson examines the myth of *SE, describes her study and its results, and looks to future research and implications for anti-racist assessment—outlining a practice of “Synergistic English Work” (SEW) that can disrupt the myth of *SE.

*The asterisk marks the mythical status of the superiority of standard English.

Understanding Multilingual Migrant Writers in Disaster Recovery through Discourse-Based Interviews

Author: Soyeon Lee

Based on an ethnographic case study of Korean-speaking immigrants navigating Hurricane Harvey and the floods that came in its aftermath, Soyeon Lee suggests that DBIs can be adapted to serve the unique needs of disaster communication in multilingual settings. The literacy practices of these underserved communities include tacit, informal, non-text-based practices that are socioculturally value-laden in the context of environmental disruption—yet discoverable through a carefully modified version of the DBI that attends to Lee’s complex site of research: multilingual, migrant participants confronting a rapidly changing situation in which they are marginalized, under extreme stress, and facing challenging cultural differences in writing and literacy. Lee describes practices engaged to attend to participants’ well-being in this environment, and concludes with specific recommendations for researchers and other stakeholders involved in disaster management in multilingual and marginalized communities—doubtless valuable given the increased likelihood of these disasters in the future.

Articles: Innovations and Evolution

In this second set of articles, we see scholar-teachers examining the disciplinary contexts and methodologies of the DBI, finding new ways to use the DBI to study writing, and calling for others to join them in engaging that work.

“My Job is Killing Me:” Discourse-Based Interviews Reframed for Linguistic Discursive Research

Authors: Jo Angouri and Ifigeneia Machili

We were pleased to include this article by researchers whose methodological background included many areas of writing studies and adjacent disciplines as well. Jo Angouri and Ifigeneia Machili discuss how the DBI can acknowledge the dialogic process inherent to all interviews, in which researchers and participants negotiate the research context and representation of results. Through a review of adaptations and uses of the DBI in linguistics, especially sociolinguistics and their own workplace research, and an annotated example, they highlight the co-construction and negotiation of relationships present at all stages of the research process. This repositions the interview from a data collection tool to a process of co-creation of research. The authors conclude with a set of principles for using DBIs in mixed-method research in writing research and linguistics.

Tech Trajectories: A Methodology for Exploring the Tacit Knowledge of Writers Through Tool-Based Interviews

Authors: Gwendolynne Reid, Christopher Kampe, and Kathleen M. Vogel

How has recent work on tacit knowledge informed the DBI? How can the DBI be adapted to reflect composition’s recognition of the material, technological nature of writing—as well as contexts in which research is profoundly shaped by participants’ needs for confidentiality? In this article, Reid, Kampe, and Vogel seek to contribute to efforts that make writing knowledge explicit—and thus more readily learned and more subject to critique—by describing a study which used the “tool-based interview” (TBI), where the alternative writing choices of the classical DBI are transformed into alternative prototypes for the tools participants use to compose—disrupting writing processes, not products. The authors describe their unique study, in which they participated in the development of Journaling, a digital tool for intelligence analysts, affording them the opportunity to develop the TBI with participants. They compare the tacit knowledge the TBI was able to elicit with that from DBIs, and suggest ways it could be further developed. Their careful review of the literature on tacit knowledge, including Collins’s book, complements and extends Amidon’s review essay.

Approaches, Practices, & Applications

Composition Forum issues usually include a Program Profiles section that affords the opportunity for scholar-teachers to share their administrative and curricular work, affirming its intellectual value and offering models that can be adapted by others. We have always found these articles useful because of their variety, describing institutional contexts such as first-year writing in community colleges, integrated writing programs in technical institutes, and mentoring new composition instructors in graduate education. As we note above, this diversity opens doors across our field, not only in its most well-resourced institutions.

In this special issue, we wanted to follow suit, finding ways to share innovations with the DBI, or highlighting its use for teaching and other purposes, offering researchers a sort of “DBI toolkit” describing both best practices and methodological innovations, and adaptations. With this in mind, we invited scholar-teachers to share research describing how the DBI could be used in teaching and mentoring, or describing techniques for teaching novice researchers the art and craft of empirical research—always on our minds given the still-uneven level of support for teaching research methods in graduate programs. We also called for reports of innovative methods for adapting the DBI to particular research contexts. Hopefully, our Approaches, Practices, & Applications section will follow Composition Forum’s Program Profiles in both their diversity and usefulness.

AP&A: New Contexts and New Writers

Like the articles above, our AP&A often suggest new contexts and new writers—with the added dimension of describing ways all of us can put their work into practice locally. Contexts explored include an historically Black university writing program, writing centers, research methods courses, and research focused on social media platforms. Several contributors include undergraduate or graduate students in their studies, conducting discourse-based interviews and analyzing the data they generate.

Negotiating Traditions and Charting a Different Future at an HBCU: The Composition and Speech Program at Delaware State University

Authors: Bhushan Aryal, Brody Bluemel, and A. Myrna Nurse

In the tradition of Program Profiles, Bhushan Aryal, Brody Bluemel, and A. Myrna Nurse describe the development of the new Composition and Speech Program at Delaware State University, an historically Black university (HBCU), highlighting their annual use of the DBI to generate and revise common teaching resources, keeping their program up to date and attuned to stakeholder needs. They describe how their design puts position statements from CCCC and CWPA into practice to create a writing program that satisfies long-established goals of preparing students for the workplace, while integrating lessons from anti-racist writing pedagogy and attention to Black rhetorical traditions and literacy.

Discourse-Based Interviews in Institutional Ethnography: Uncovering the Tacit Knowledge of Peer Tutors in the Writing Center

Authors: Madeline Crozier and Erin Workman

Much as we sought to diversify the institutions represented in the special issue, we also sought to include multiple types of writing programs. Madeline Crozier and Erin Workman describe how they incorporated DBIs into a study of writing center peer tutors’ tacit knowledge of workplace writing processes. They describe how to integrate DBIs into a study shaped by the methodology of institutional ethnography, then explain how DBIs “reveal intersections between individuals and institutions, locating writers and their knowledge(s) within broader ‘institutional discourses’ (Smith).” They suggest this combination can enable “dynamic exploration of the co-constitutive and socially constructed nature of tacit writing knowledge and institutionally coordinated work processes.”

Pedagogical Approaches and Critical Reflections: Adapting the Discourse-Based Interview in a Graduate-Level Field Methods Course

Authors: Rachael Jordan, Mika Stepankiw, and Rebecca J. Rickly

In a special issue focusing on research methods in writing studies, it seems essential to describe how those methods and their underlying methodologies are taught to the graduate students who teach many first-year courses and will shape our field for years to come. For this reason, we are pleased to share the work of Rachael Jordan, Mika Stepankiw, and Rebecca J. Rickly here: they seek to document some of the “hidden curriculum” of empirical research by describing an online graduate course in research methods that emphasized interviews, with a shared research project studying the program itself, and comparing the perceptions of students attending graduate school in person with those attending online. Students interviewed each other, then conducted Zoom-based DBIs with alumni of the Texas Tech online PhD program. The project offered the opportunity for students, alumni, and faculty to reflect on their experience and positionality. That is reflected in the conversation-based nature of the article, which moves between the perspectives of the three authors, describing their experiences and illuminating often tacit parts of the process of knowledge creation. The authors conclude by describing future work.

The Discourse-Based Interview on Twitch: Methods for Studying the Tacit Knowledge of Game Developers

Authors: Rich Shivener, Jessica Da Silva, and Anika Rahman

Again, as noted above, we hoped to included student-centered research and student researchers in the special issue—in this case, a focus on undergraduate research. Rich Shivener, Jessica Da Silva, and Anika Rahman reflect on a research project centered around live-streamers on Twitch, a platform often used by gamers and game designers, and their adaptation of the DBI to its complex composition and discursive environment. They describe challenges and resultant adaptations for participant recruitment, ethical treatment of participants, data collection, and analysis. They also describe how they prepared for interviews and developed alternative choices for participants. Short videos included throughout highlight the voices of the undergraduate researchers involved and make the article more accessible to their colleagues, while illustrating the complexity of the Twitch discourse at the heart of their study.

AP&A: New Approaches & Practices

Again, the writers here break new ground, describing new methodologies and methods for using the DBI, or suggesting how the DBI can contribute to scholarly conversations in ways not yet fully explored.

A Queer Rhetorics Framework for Discourse-Based Interviews

Author: Joshua Barsczewski

This contribution situates DBIs in queer rhetorics by describing commonalities: “the collaborative nature of qualitative research, the instability of language, and the contingency of knowledge.” The article shows how OG&H anticipate aspects of qualitative research that would later become important for queer rhetorics methodologies as described in William P. Banks, Matthew B. Cox, and Caroline Dadas’s Re/Orienting Writing Studies. Three examples illustrate how DBIs can illuminate not only tacit knowledge of writing, but tacit identity knowledge: “knowledge about identity that students know through experience but rarely have occasion to articulate.” The article concludes with a framework for integrating DBIs into research projects shaped by queer rhetorics methodology.

Participant Coding in Discourse-Based Interviews Capable of Supporting the Inferences Required to Describe a Theory of Transfer

Authors: Hogan Hayes and Carl Whithaus

Reflecting on a study from the 2011-13 Elon Research Seminar Critical Transitions: Writing and the Question of Transfer, Hogan Hayes and Carl Whithaus describe a modification of DBIs that called on participants to code their own texts on screen, then explain why that coding reflected the programmatic learning objectives under study. Data was collected with screen-capture software, combining interview audio with participants’ on-screen interactions with their own texts. Results suggested this new method promised deeper insight into students’ understanding of the impact of rhetorical knowledge on their development as writers, while positioning them as co-researchers meaningfully involved in data analysis.

Multiple Forms of Representation: Using Maps to Triangulate Students’ Tacit Writing Knowledge

Authors: Íde O’Sullivan, D. Alexis Hart, Ashley J. Holmes, Anna V. Knutson, Yogesh Sinha, and Kathleen Blake Yancey

An international, inter-institutional research team supported by a second Elon Research Seminar, the 2019-22 Writing Beyond the University, describes the iterative methods they used to study the writing lives of students, especially their extra-academic experiences. Their rich data set includes surveys, interviews, shared documents, and pre- and post-interview maps that “function as visual thinking aloud spaces,” facilitating insight into tacit knowledge for both interviewers and participants. In this article, the authors focus on the tacit knowledge generated by these methods, describing how they analyzed the maps and developed questions based on students’ understandings of their different writing experiences, as mapped across seven “spheres” (academic, co-curricular, internship, workplace, civic, self-motivated, and other). This visual mapping, in concert with other modalities, becomes a form of triangulation that both increases students’ understanding of their own writing and offers rich, reliable data to researchers.

Tacit Knowledge, Reading Practices, and Visual Rhetoric: A Feminist Application of Eye Tracking and Stimulated Recall Methods on Comic Books

Author: Aimee E. Vincent

Using eye-tracking, Aimee E. Vincent uses a unique form of discourse-based interviews to discover tacit knowledge related to visual rhetoric that guides her participants (college students) while reading comic books. She shared “gaze trails” created by eye tracking with participants, adapting stimulated recall methods to replace the alternative versions of texts at the heart of the “classical” DBI. Vincent found differences between the genre knowledge of expert and novice readers, with expert readers showing stronger rhetorical skill and agency. Vincent’s visual adaptation of the DBI also revealed ways sexuality impacts tacit knowledge, which in turn impacted how participants read comics. Participants’ beliefs about gender and their experiences with masculinity in comics culture shaped their reading practices and rhetorical expertise.

Call for future work

We hope this special issue compliments existing methodological work in writing studies, and encourages scholars in all areas of our diverse field to add to the conversations about studying writing with empirical methods—especially when that writing engages tacit knowledges that are difficult to identify without careful investigation. While this work can be challenging, we believe the articles collected here demonstrate its value and potential for supporting other goals our contributors identify: making tacit knowledge explicit in the service of helping students at all levels become better writers; ensuring research is more equitable and inclusive; and gaining more credibility for our work outside the small circles of our journals and conferences.

We are grateful for the work of the collective who authored the Anti-Racist Scholary Reviewing Practices and to our contributors for helping us implement it here. We hope that describing how we used this statement helps other editors who seek to use it to guide their decision-making. For us, one of the corollaries of applying the anti-racist reviewing practices to editorship was seeing broader representation from across higher education. As we note above, that was already important to us; we hope the Practices helped us enact it.

Finally, we aim to publish from our citation analysis and empirical work on the DBI. Our citation analysis highlighted for us the concept of academic genealogy. That is, we saw advisors teaching the DBI to their mentees who in turn taught it to their own students. We hope to explore this “family tree” phenomenon and what it might say about research methods and mentoring in our field. In addition, drawing on our interviews and meta-DBIs with scholars in writing studies and other fields, we hope to contribute to ongoing conversations about how research questions are formed, how methodologies and methods are chosen, and, most importantly, how research methods evolve—especially, of course, the discourse-based interview method that is our focus here.


We’d first like to thank our contributors. All of you are doing amazing work, and it’s been our pleasure to showcase your uses, adaptations, and interrogations of the DBI in this special issue.

Of course, we also have to thank Lee, Dixie, and Anne. All of them have generously and extensively connected with us, responding quickly to our queries and offering helpful feedback about this introduction and the special issue as a whole. What a pleasure it has been to include them as we have developed this special issue.

We appreciate Brian Urias and Ran Meyer for contributing so much to the citation analysis that demonstrated the influence of Odell, Goswami, & Herrington—especially their careful engagement with theses and dissertations.

We thank the Composition Forum editorial staff, especially Jody Shipka and Christian Weisser, who understood the value of our vision, and Kevin Brock, who helped us execute it.

The participants in our own study of the DBI in writing studies deserve recognition for sharing their time and being vulnerable in helping us better understand the messiness of writing research. As we note above, we look forward to more work with them in the future.

We also offer special thanks to Jane Detweiler and Chris Anson for introducing us to the DBI through Odell, Goswami, and Herrington’s 1983 original.

And, as always, we are grateful that our transfer study which featured the DBI was supported by the CCCC Research Initiative, a WIU University Research Council grant, and a CWPA Targeted Research Grant. For supporting our project at WIU, we thank Mark Mossman, Susan Martinelli-Fernandez, and our research assistants Ruby Kirk Nancy, Tim Nicholas, Nan Norcross, Susan Reid, and Emily Terrell. For supporting our project at Purdue, we thank the Department of English and our research assistant Beth Towle.

Bibliography of Original Discourse-Based Interview Scholarship

Like most of our contributors, the 1983 chapter “The Discourse-Based Interview” has been most valuable for our work. However, we want to recognize related scholarship published by Odell and Goswami’s collaborators and students, and sometimes cited by scholars who cite Odell, Goswami, and Herrington, especially those who wrote before 1995.

Cooper, Charles, and Lee Odell. Considerations of Sound in the Composing Process of Published Writers. Research in the Teaching of English, vol. 10, no. 2, 1976, pp. 103-15.

Odell, Lee. Business Writing: Observations and Implications for Teaching Composition. Theory Into Practice, vol. 19, no. 3, 1980, pp. 225-32.

Odell, Lee. The Process of Writing and the Process of Learning. College Composition and Communication, vol. 31, no. 1, 1980, pp. 42-50.

Odell, Lee, and Dixie Goswami. Writing in a Non-Academic Setting. Research in the Teaching of English, vol. 16, no. 3, 1982, pp. 201-23.

Odell, Lee, and Dixie Goswami. Writing in Non-Academic Settings. Report of National Institute of Education grant -G-78-024. ERIC publication #ED214163, 1981.

Odell, Lee, Dixie Goswami, and Anne Herrington. The Discourse-Based Interview: A Procedure for Exploring the Tacit Knowledge of Writers in Nonacademic Settings. Research on Writing: Principles and Methods, edited by Peter Mosenthal, Lynne Tamor, and Sean A. Walmsley, Longman, 1983, pp. 221-36.

Odell, Lee, Dixie Goswami, Anne Herrington, and Doris Quick. Studying Writing in Non-Academic Settings. New Essays in Technical and Scientific Communication: Research, Theory, Practice, edited by Paul V. Anderson et al., Taylor & Francis Group, 1983, pp. 17-40.

Works Cited

Anson, Lee & L. Lee Forsberg. Moving Beyond the Academic Community: Transitional States in Professional Writing. Written Communication, vol. 7, no. 2., 1990, pp. 200-231.

Anti-Racist Scholarly Reviewing Practices: A Heuristic for Editors, Reviewers and Authors. 2021.

Baird, Neil, and Bradley Dilger. Call for Proposals for a Special Issue of Composition Forum: ‘The Discourse-Based Interview: Forty Years of Exploring the Tacit Knowledge of Writers.’ CF Blog, 3 May 2021,

---. Dispositions in Natural Science Laboratories: The Roles of Individuals and Contexts in Writing Transfer. Across the Disciplines, vol. 15, no. 4, 2018, pp. 21-40.

---. How Students Perceive Transitions: Dispositions and Transfer in Internships. College Composition and Communication, vol. 68, no. 4, 2017, pp. 684-712.

---. Metaphors for Writing Transfer in the Writing Lives and Teaching Practices of Faculty in the Disciplines. WPA: Writing Program Administration, vol. 41, no. 1, 2017, pp. 102-124.

Banks, William P., Matthew B. Cox, and Caroline Dadas. Re/Orienting Writing Studies: Queer Methods, Queer Projects. Utah State UP, 2019.

Collins, Harry. Tacit and Explicit Knowledge. U of Chicago P, 2010.

Elon Statement on Writing Transfer. Elon University Center for Engaged Learning. 2015.

Gallagher, John. Update Culture and the Afterlife of Digital Writing. UP of Colorado, 2020.

Goggin, Maureen D. and Peter N. Goggin, editors. Simplicity in Rhetoric, Writing, and Literacy Research. Utah State UP, 2018.

Herrington, Anne. Writing In Academic Settings: A Study Of The Rhetorical Contexts For Writing In Two College Chemical Engineering Courses. 1983. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, PhD dissertation.

McNely, Brian, Clay Spinuzzi, and Christa Teston. Contemporary Research Methodologies in Technical Communication. Technical Communication Quarterly, vol. 24, no. 1, 2015, pp. 1-13.

Rice, Jenny. Para-Expertise, Tacit Knowledge, and Writing Problems. College English, vol. 78, no. 2, 2015, pp. 117-38.

Serviss, Tricia, and Sandra Jameison, editors. Points of Departure: Rethinking Student Source Use and Writing Studies Research Methods. UP of Colorado, 2018.

Smith, Dorothy E. Institutional Ethnography: A Sociology for People. AltaMira Press, 2005.

Swarts, Jason. Recycled Writing: Assembling Actor Networks from Reusable Content. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, vol. 24, no. 2, Apr. 2010, pp. 127-63.

---. Textual Replay Mediation of Writing Reviews: Developing Technology to Afford Enculturation. 2002. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, PhD dissertation.

Van Ittersum, Derek. Craft and Narrative in DIY Instructions. Technical Communication Quarterly, vol. 23, no. 3, July 2014, pp. 227-46.

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