Is Discourse Human Research?

When I teach “memoir writing” to what degree am I “intervening” with human subjects when I grade their personal essays and confessional writing? It’s not research that I would ever report, but I wonder to what degree I am treading on fuzzy privacy matters as a teacher when it comes to grading my “human subjects”? Should I get a student’s “informed consent” to participate in a class where they are expected to share their life stories with me and with other classmates? To what degree does “creative non-fiction” bring the fuzziness of language and discourse theory into play regarding these issues? —Mike ArnzenIs Discourse Human Research? (Pedablogue)

I was at the meeting that prompted my colleague to write this blog entry. A social scientist faculty member gave an off-the-cuff definition of “research” that seemed to suggest that any student interviewing another human being for a student paper was conducting “research” that would need to be cleared through the university’s human research committee.

When I used to teach technical writing at my previous school, I had to clear the syllabus every two years with a committee, and students had to put a certain phrase into the surveys and usability tests that they conducted. The key information they needed to communicate was that the volunteers were just that — volunteers — and that they could stop at any time. The fact that the university required this language was a good opportunity for me to get them to pay attention to the creation of their survey instruments, since all too often students would survey 100 people and then realize they hadn’t collected any useful data. (I actually had a student who said she mailed out 1000 surveys but got zero responses back.)

I’ve just introduced my Writing for the Internet class to the basic concepts of usability. Since many students in this class are doing creative projects, rather than informational projects, I am being less rigid about teaching usability testing methods. (In addition, I used to teach usability as part of a 300-level course, and this is a 200-level course that is mostly taken by freshmen, so I had do adjust the goals and methods of the course.)

But as Mike notes, better safe than sorry…