Corpus linguistics and writing research

I have used language corpora extensively in support of my own research; and in my linguistics classes, I teach students how to use various corpora to search for linguistic patterns and to examine their own questions about language. Several years ago, I also began developing small corpora of students’ writing to examine questions about writing in support of writing pedagogy. But my work within corpus linguistics is perhaps best represented by my role as Guest Editor of a special issue of the Journal of Writing Research: “Exploring corpus-informed approaches to writing research.” The issue is in the very, very final stages of editing (even now contributing authors are reviewing proofs) and should be available this week or early next.

Before I comment further about the special issue, I should share a bit of the background that led to its inception, as it was neither a simple nor a straightforward path (is it ever?) from corpus research to publication of corpus research in a writing research journal.

A few years ago, when I presented aspects of my work in the area of corpus-informed writing research at the excellent Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), it was not exactly warmly received. Then and there I learned firsthand that many in the Comp/Rhet community found corpora and corpus methods too ‘atomistic’, ‘computational’, and altogether too ‘impersonal’ (among what I suspect were other less polite adjectives reserved for more private contexts) for effective incorporation within writing research and writing pedagogy. And while it is certainly the case that I might have chosen another venue for dissemination of my work (such as any number of first-rate corpus linguistics conferences), because my work had been devoted to using corpora and corpus methods in support of college-level writing, CCCC seemed like a reasonable venue for sharing my methods and findings and for seeking feedback.

On the one hand, receiving a less than enthusiastic response — while it was not exactly crushing, it was disappointing (the research was going well; I was experiencing success within my classes; and as a linguist who also teaches writing, I had no qualms about allowing the disciplines to overlap in all kinds of ways to the extent that doing so enhanced teaching and/or pedagogy-related research).

On the other hand, the response was critically instructive: My colleagues in Comp/Rhet (at least those at my conference talk to the extent that they served as a representative sample) weren’t familiar enough with corpora or corpus methods to recognize how these could be utilized in support of writing. And it was patently evident that giving one or two conference talks on the topic would in no way suffice to change their perspective.

From my vantage point, this suggested that: 1) I shouldn’t waste time presenting my work at a conference where doing so essentially amounted to butting heads (so to speak) with a community that has its own established research traditions and 2) I shouldn’t simply take my research elsewhere where its practical application would be lost.

What I could do, however, was leverage my position as a linguist who is straddling two fields – and is therefore well-poised to bring together the work of teachers and researchers who are engaged in corpus research and writing research – to coordinate a collection of articles devoted to corpus-informed writing research and to disseminate the collection within the writing community.

Thus, the special issue.

My introduction to the special issue explains the issue’s aims and scope and summarizes the articles published within the collection (naturally, the issue’s chief goal is to introduce corpus-informed writing research methods to the broader writing research community), but I will note here how rewarding it has been to work with the contributing authors and the journal’s editors and how, for me anyway, working ‘behind-the-scenes’ in the role of guest editor has been as valuable in realizing a research goal as being a ‘front-end’ principal investigator. (I’m not so sure this is always evident or that the importance of editing is widely recognized in the scholarly community because, in general, while editors’ names are posted on publications and on issues and volumes and so forth, the work that they do to deliver each issue – in the case of JoWR, for instance, the Chief Editors’ oversight and support was immeasurably important to my own work on the issue – is generally completed quietly in the background)

What I love about the special issue is that it is not the kind of research I simply coordinated, published, and will move on from (in other words, it’s more than just a CV line). Rather, the collection of articles published within the issue serves as a reference compilation which can be used in graduate and undergraduate courses (linguistics as well as composition and rhetoric), and was designed precisely to support those new to the field of corpus studies in understanding the discipline’s relevance and potential utility to writing studies.