IRB Equitability

My plan is to spend a good chunk of this weekend completing a project proposal that I plan to submit for approval by the Institutional Review Board, which at UTEP is part of the Office of Research and Sponsored Projects. This, in and of itself, is not spectacular - I have gone through this process three other times, twice as the principle investigator. It is, however, my first time approaching the proposal process after having what I believe to be were a series of insightful conversations about the nature of the IRB process, the nature of projects involving humans as research subjects, and of the nature of institutional compliance.

Most of the conversations involved arguments about which disciplines should be required to complete the formal IRB process for each project, versus those that could reasonably expect a lower threshold of acceptance with their projects. Generally, it was asserted that the strict IRB procedure was in place for sciences like biology and psychology, where human participants might be subject to physical or severe mental harm. However, for research in Rhetoric & Writing Studies (and other disciplines unrepresented in these particular discussions), which can also use human subjects, the likelihood of personal invasion was considered significantly lower. Some of these arguments were made by folks representing RWS.

I bring this up not just to recap the content (I will say that there was little agreement on the Stanford Prison Experiment), but to articulate upon the difference. First off, in defense of my discipline, it would be short-sited to claim that the type of human research done in RWS is inherently un-invasive. Writing, in addition to being a mode of communicative discourse, is also a personal act that is representative of an individual's thought processes. As such, when studying and analyzing writing, particularly student writing, researchers must proceed with caution and due respect for their subjects' contributions. Secondly, by mandating that everyone complete the same (or at least similar) approval processes, the Institutional Review Board is facilitating equitability among researchers and academic disciplines, a concept that those disciplines still arguing for their disciplinarity should embrace.

Importantly, this is not a matter of false equivocalness - scholars in RWS know full well that the type of research we do must be thoughtfully planned, rigorously applied, and carefully assessed. So, for my fellow RWS researchers, the next time you find yourself completing the mountain of paperwork required by your local IRB, I implore you to embrace the process: not only will it help ensure the reliability of your project, it will also aid in the larger arguments about our disciplinarity.


Chris Hayes and word choice

This past weekend, Chris Hayes, host of the MSNBC show Up, provided an editorial comment that has already begun to leak into the national political conversation. Here's the most relevant portion of his commentary:

“I feel… uncomfortable, about the word because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war. Um, and, I don’t want to obviously desecrate or disrespect memory of anyone that’s fallen, and obviously there are individual circumstances in which there is genuine, tremendous heroism, you know, hail of gunfire, rescuing fellow soldiers, and things like that. But it seems to me that we marshal this word in a way that is problematic. But maybe I’m wrong about that.”

Unfortunately, rather than facilitate a national debate on the power of language use, Hayes instead sparked a rather predictable bout of partisan outrage and name-calling (which may have actually lent a modicum of validity to his attempted point, not that anyone noticed that aspect). Most of these criticisms iterated that, in bringing up this issue the day before Memorial Day, Hayes demonstrated unsympathetic judgement and poor timing. I would tend to agree with this line of assessment.

This is not to say Hayes's point is completely without merit. For as long as there has been communicative discourse, organizations, governments, and individuals have purposefully employed specific language and rhetoric in order to achieve desired results. (For example, domestic propaganda is now a thing again, apparently.) But if the conversation Hayes attempted to start is one worth having, and I think it is, then it would be equally worth having at another time.

A savvier way to discuss this topic, perhaps, would have been to talk about the myriad ways that laudatory and jingoistic language can and have been used to rationalize certain political and military actions, and to save the "uncomfortable" qualifier for a diary entry. Instead, Hayes's point has resulted in a slew of ad hominem attacks and flag wrapping, with his kernel of a pertinent political discussion getting lost in the malaise. It is more than a little ironic that in an attempt to critically consider word choice, Hayes made such an unfortunate linguistic decision of his own.

Update #1: Chris Hayes released this "statement"/apology. The comments section is as you would expect.

Update #2: Hamilton Nolan, at Gawker, articulated support of Hayes's original point.