During a research leave this past Spring Quarter, Assistant Professor Sarah Read of Writing, Rhetoric & Discourse (WRD) has been utilizing ATLAS.ti in the SSRC’s computer lab for her ethnographic project at the facility that operates the world’s fifth largest supercomputer. With visiting privileges from Argonne National Laboratory as a guest faculty researcher, Sarah is analyzing the technical documentation and reporting processes of the Argonne Leadership Computing Center where the cutting-edge machine is housed. She is studying technical documentation and reporting processes with a focus on the daily activities of the “knowledge workers” who operate it. Her focus is on writing, traced through documentation related to and generated by the supercomputing center.
“I think it’s fascinating to create an account of what it takes to build and operate a world-class supercomputer,” Sarah said. Through her interviews with supercomputing center staff, Sarah has been delighted to discover that they “think like researchers” themselves, tackling uncharted terrain in what is “essentially a research project in supercomputing.” Every year the staff prepares a report on operations required by their sponsoring federal agency. In this report they demonstrate how the facility has met the metrics of availability, utilization and capability supported by data that staff must work out how to generate. “It’s a big machine. It’s not easy,” she notes. Nothing is pre-formed. Staff have no manual to consult when the machine fails, no button to press to spit out the right data. Figuring out how to “write down the machine” is a complex, research-based task itself.
A theory-driven researcher and ethnographer, Sarah describes herself as “fundamentally a rhetorician, but I study it in technical environments.” The project combines her competing interests and background in writing, science and the humanities. “I consider myself a collector of qualitative data, but I don’t consider myself really a social scientist. I’m kind of in a grey area epistemologically,” she explains. Her ethnographic approach, which interests her in “the theory-driven points of view,” permits her to admit to strong biases. “I think there’s value in creating descriptive accounts of phenomenon within new theoretical frameworks that make visible previously invisible aspects of that phenomenon” she said. “It makes the strange mundane and the mundane strange again.”
As a self-taught, new fan of ATLAS.ti, Sarah too is learning as she progresses, experimenting with how to make the application work within her methodologies. This spring she worked hard with the networking view tool and is now concentrating on coding. ATLAS is “very object-oriented,” she said, treating chunks of a transcript as a whole document. She’s impressed with its analytical power and its visual capabilities that helpfully reveal networked relationships among research artifacts. “It’s a tool for analysis, but network views can also be research products” she noted.
Currently Sarah is continuing to code interview data for an article about how gathering data for the operations report structures staff work activities at the supercomputing facility. She is also writing a proposal for a book about the infrastructural function of writing and documentation for technical organizations.
Sarah offers to share what she’s learned about ATLAS.ti with other DePaul researchers. She’s found that talking through the process is mutually beneficial. If you’re interested in learning more about the application, please contact the SSRC[firstname.lastname@example.org] or Sarah [email@example.com].