“Gender as a variable in writing studies: Ethics and methodology” at WRAB in Bogotá

Organizers of the Writing Research Across Borders (WRAB) IV conference in Bogotá Colombia in February 2017 accepted my proposal to present a paper. I’ve paid my registration and booked my travel. I intend to have a near-final draft of a journal article ready for the conference; I hope to make a few final edits if I get good feedback there and ship it off the week after I return. I’m also looking forward to a couple days of kicking around with my spouse in Bogotá, which looks like an amazing city.

Here is the abstract for my paper:

Gender as a variable in writing studies: Ethics and methodology

This presentation uses results of a study where participants identified their own genders to illustrate ethical and methodological problems. It makes normative claims about gender as a variable in studies of written communication, including composition studies, technical and computer-mediated communication, and natural language processing.

Theories of gender and communication include early gender-difference/dominance views, social role theory, standpoint theory, and queer theory. Nevertheless, empirical researchers often use gender as a variable without explaining how they ascribe it to participants or what they intend it to mean. For example, Tebeaux and Allen performed studies in technical communication with gender as a variable but without explaining how they assigned this category to participants. Herring and Paolillo assigned author-gender labels using a qualitative heuristic. Yan and Yan and Rao and colleagues used automated heuristics to code author gender.

I argue on ethical grounds that (1) researchers should avoid using gender as a variable in their work unless it is necessary to answer their research questions; (2) researchers using gender as a variable should make explicit their methods for assigning gender categories; and (3) researchers should respect difficulties of research participants when asking them to self-identify for gender.

Works cited

Allen, Jo. “Women and Authority in…Communication Scholarship….” Technical Communication Quarterly 3.3 (1994): 271.

Herring, Susan C., and John C. Paolillo. “Gender and Genre Variation in Weblogs.” Journal of Sociolinguistics 10.4 (2006): 439–459.

Rao, Delip et al. “Classifying Latent User Attributes in Twitter.” Proceedings of the 2nd International Workshop on Search and Mining User-Generated Contents. Toronto, ON, Canada: ACM, 2010. 37–44.

Tebeaux, Elizabeth. “Toward an Understanding of Gender Differences in Written Business Communications…” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 4.1 (1990): 25–43.

Yan, Xiang, and Ling Yan. “Gender Classification of Weblog Authors.” AAAI Spring Symposium: Computational Approaches to Analyzing Weblogs. 2006. 228–230.


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