5390: Article Commentary 7: Materiality Observed

O’Hara, K. P., Taylor, A., Newman, W., & Sellen, A. J. (2002). Understanding the materiality of writing from multiple sources. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 56(3), 269-305.

It’s always a shock–both stylistically and organizationally speaking–when I go from reading primarily narrative and interpretive theoretical scholarship to more analytical, empirical pieces. The vast difference in writing task structure and voice offers both challenge and freedom. A traditional empirical piece offers me a challenge to keep reading through its much drier tone but also gives me the freedom to skip and hop around without worrying about missing a quick but critical turn of an idea. Cave diving is nice, but a quick discursive snorkel is refreshing–while still offering crucial conversation with theory and beautiful evidentiary seascapes. (There. I do believe I’ve quite killed that metaphor.)

O’Hara et al indirectly note their primary audience in their abstract and second paragraph–they are writing specifically with technology designers in mind, with a second primary audience (not really secondary) being academics in writing research. The structure of the document, especially the direct and highly structured nature of its final discussion section, reflects a clear pragmatic attention to designers, while the more thorough literature review and findings sections speak to academics interested in theoretical implications.

Beyond differences in structure and relative complexity and length of sections, the document was remarkably univocal in tone–of course, this tone consisted of the highly nominalized style that most readers of multiauthored quasiexperimental and quantitative reports will be familiar with. The piece is filled with the expected abstract “considerers” and “arguers.” However, this style doesn’t go too far; readers and writers “interact,” designers “develop,” and for the most part there are plenty of actors and actions to keep the style from being overly dry. The article is completely jargon-free, and relies only on the most important of disciplinary terms, and is quite readable. (Which is important, because it’s so l-o-n-g.)

The writers make a ‘niche claim’ that is modestly but firmly put. They make the shared knowledge claim (to their audience) that cognitivism ignores materiality in many ways, and then make the disturbed knowledge claim (with a thorough but rapid literature review) that even materialist writing research has ignored all but productive writing tasks. Their claim is that writing tasks are more hybrid than given credit for, and explore the material reading/writing relationship, incorporating distributed cognition theory into their discussion. This is an engaging claim, and situated and argued in such a way that it helpfully complicates materiality studies.

An in situ study, the authors recorded and observed behaviors of writers completing their tasks, complementing and fleshing out their analysis with interview data. They compiled their observation data with interview materials to discuss a series of interactions and relationships between writers, source materials, compositions, and cognitive processes. Good stuff.

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