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Composition Forum 41, Spring 2019

Review of Maureen Daly Goggin and Peter N. Goggin’s Serendipity in Rhetoric, Writing, and Literacy Research

Jill Parrott

Goggin, Maureen Daly and Peter N. Goggin, editors. Serendipity in Rhetoric, Writing, and Literacy Research. Utah State UP, 2018. 300pp.

Serendipity in Rhetoric, Writing, and Literacy Research (2018), edited by Maureen Daly Goggin and Peter N. Goggin, challenges those of us who do research in these three title areas to consider the ways our research plans often don’t ... well, go as planned. More importantly, though, it pushes us to see these research hiccups as happy accidents, where what might first be seen as a frustration, a mistake, or a derailment becomes so much a part of the fabric of the project that you cannot imagine the project any other way. As they note in the introduction, Research and writing is messy, but Serendipity argues that when a researcher’s “prepared mind” combines with fortune success can follow (3, 44).

Composed of twenty essays divided into five thematic sections, Serendipity gains power and reader interest because it treats its topic as personal: serendipitous research moments require researcher subjectivity. This book is truly engaging because of its narrative structures, particularly in the first two parts, Intersections of Personal and Political and Intersections of Personal and Professional. About these, the editors remind readers that “research always takes place somewhere and sometime,” a point exemplified through each author’s contribution (8). The final three sections—Stumbling into the Unknown, Methodology and Serendipity, and Trusting the Process—connect the contributors’ experiences to an ethical reflection on research practices in the discipline. The collection highlights various methodological and critical approaches with which readers can connect including activity theory, ethnography, archival searching, and materiality, reflecting a broad scope of research in rhetoric, writing, and literacy through a focus on serendipity.

Section I: Intersections of the Personal and Political includes three essays that explore “the research process as a negotiation among the personal, the political, and the scholarly” (Coskan-Johnson 45). The highlight of this section is Doreen Piano’s Making Sense of Disaster: Composing a Methodology of Place-Based Visual Research, which explores trauma in what she calls the “Katrina genre,” asking herself how to “engage intellectually with the circumstances of disaster yet not exploit them” (31). In this essay, she describes the conflation of personal and professional reactions to the disaster of Hurricane Katrina and how she (and others) used research as a way to process emotional and physical rebuilding. Her compelling entry describes how the physical act of walking around New Orleans to better understand the city as place, as document, as performance, and as narrative itself challenged her to ethical and sustainable research methodology. For example, ethical methods in the wake of trauma avoid exploitation of or speaking for disenfranchised, traumatized, or displaced groups. Each essay—Piano’s as well as Shirley E. Faulkner-Springfield’s ‘Oh, my God! He Was a Slave!’ Secrets of a Virginia Courthouse Archive and Gale Coskan-Johnson’s Death, Dying, and Serendipity in the Scholarly Imagination—considers the long perspective of research. Research should contribute to our social and personal development—as well as the social and personal development of our research subjects—as much as to knowledge building.

As a reader, I found Part II on the Intersections of Personal and Professional particularly compelling because of its appeal to keep the reader from “stubbornly clinging to the misguided notion that personal experience could not be considered a valid source of knowledge in the research process” (Converse 71). Each perspective in this section rejects that notion through the ways that personal experience is an access point for research in their experiences. For example, Liz Rohan’s Echoes in the Archives narrates a trip to Harriet Vittum Park in Chicago as part of research into settlement work of the early twentieth century. The most poignant moment of her story is when she finds a portrait of Vittum somewhat hidden away at the park (a “marginalized spot” among “sports plaques and trophies”) and navigates an awkward conversation with an employee who knows little about the park’s namesake (87). Rohan calls this part of her work a detour, but she learns not only about her subject but about the “agency of archives, archivists, and researchers who embody, build, and preserve legacies,” work she joins with this publication (90). Converse presents a fascinating essay—indeed, one of my favorite pieces in the collection—that juxtaposes her experience as a former probation officer and her current research into the rhetorical genre of pre-sentence investigation reports (PSIs), which were part of her work in the criminal justice system. In this essay, she details how much pride she took in writing these reports when they were part of her work because she felt that the quality of her writing shown in her ability to analyze that individual’s situation and to present it accurately and articulately was “a way of piecing together the story of someone’s life” (72). As she analyzes this particular writing genre, she uses her personal experience to contrast the shift in the emphasis of the justice system from rehabilitation to punishment as shown through change in the writing style of the reports over time. As in Rohan’s piece, Converse’s Pre-Sentence: Researching, Reporting, and Writing works on both the level of presenting information about research and representing the research itself.

Part III: Stumbling into the Unknown makes the argument that, as editor-contributor Peter N. Goggin says in The Art of the ‘Accident,’ “research is not magic” (133). This section explores ways that researchers can make themselves available for opportunities that come to them through the authors’ personal experiences. Maureen Daly Goggin and Daniel Wuebben in particular connect their serendipitous moments to material findings; for Goggin, this is what she calls the “(mis)timing that led her to the home of Elizabeth Parker, the early nineteenth century lower-class English girl” whose needlework she was studying, and for Wuebben it involves a missing “Nikola Tesla Corner” street sign (104, 139). Each of these four narratives (rounded out by Ryan Skinnell’s Setting Out for Serendip: Of Research Quests and Chance Discoveries) engages the reader in a bit of a game of “what if?” What if Maureen Goggin had not missed her bus and caught a lucky ride with a cigarette vendor in a foreign country? This section argues convincingly that serendipity “happens much more frequently in research than scholars seem willing to admit” (112).

Contributors to Part IV: Methodology and Serendipity lay claim to the concept that serendipity in research can only happen if the researcher has created a space that leaves room for a surprise discovery. In her contribution, Lynn Z. Bloom calls this “the prepared mind” (191). Each of the five essays in this section explore a different way to approach research in rhetoric, writing, and literacy that is procedural and practical yet open to flexibility—lest anyone reading feel discomfort at the idea of waiting for serendipity to choose them before their tenure review. Lori Ostergaard suggests an inductive approach to archival research “to determine what the archive might hold rather than ... support preconceived opinions” (156), and Patty Wilde touts the value of methodical searching such as exploring different variations of names found in archives. In Serendipity and Methodological Willingness in Team Science, Ellen Barton expands the discussion to collaborative, interdisciplinary writing. Bloom and Jennifer Clary-Lemon take more traditional rhetorical approaches, with Clary-Lemon’s final essay of the section, Serondology, Methodipity: Research, Invention, and the Choric Rhetorician, marking methodologies as “channels connecting other research, ways of knowing, and ways of being” (208). In this section, researchers show their work in an honest light—sometimes it is difficult, sometimes it is tedious, and often our methods reveal something about ourselves as much as our research subjects.

The final section, Part V: Trusting the Process, feels less personal, less driven by narrative than the others as it works to reflect on the role of research in the field more broadly and, of course, what role serendipity plays in the disciplinary knowledge created through our research. The guiding question of this section is this: “Do scholars have an ethical responsibility to pursue scholarship made possible by serendipity? For certain types of scholarship, having the necessary alignment of events can be rare and fleeting. An ignored or missed opportunity can have profound implications for what can and cannot be known” (Endres 222). The final piece of the work, an afterword by Gesa Kirsch, further reflects on the connection between serendipity and ethics. An apt conclusion for the collection, Kirsch’s piece challenges the reader to allow moments in our research for meditation, a choice that would encourage us not to push through our research as a task that merely needs marked off our to-do list as quickly as possible but rather more slowly, leaving room for ethical choices and opportunity to react to those things we have not planned.

As a reader, I was moved by this collection in ways that I am not usually by academic work, and I attribute that to the narrative approach that many of the contributors take. Our research is personal to us, and while we should strive to maintain ethical approaches to our research that question our own biases, uphold strong methodological structures, and strive toward objective data analyses, we should not remove ourselves from the research processes because our contexts and personal experiences build a richer disciplinary story.

Return to Composition Forum 41 table of contents.