Preliminary Dissertation Proposal: Technology AT the Center? A Rhetorical Analysis of Digital Writing on the WPA-L

Inspired somewhat by the example of my colleague Dr. Time Barrow ( and his often highly reflective (if sometimes silent) blog, I continue by posting the text of my pre-proposal.

… with some significant (SIGNIFICANT) revisions to come down the pipe now that I’m through exams. This document was submitted and approved in April 2012. Then I went to Lubbock and got massive feedback, read Sid Dobrin’s Postcomposition, and wrote my exams and was forced to think through a number of transformative issues. Watch for my summary of (but likely not the entire text of ) my formal dissertation proposal in the near future. There are some weird gaps in this that I’ve shored up, and have come to a more interesting point of research (at least I think so…) that this document begins to tap at.

Proposal Outline

  1. Overview
  2. Background: Composition Studies and Orthodoxy
  3. Perceiving Technology, Defining Disciplinary Texts
  4. Research Questions
  5. Methodology
  6. Chapter Outline
  7. Works Cited


This dissertation investigates “technology” as an ideological construct and a subject of formal and informal discourse in composition studies, describing the field’s doxastic assumptions about technology and writing. In other words, it examines “technology” as a commonplace in composition studies, assessing attitudes toward and arguments about the discipline’s changing relationship with “digital writing” (Porter). To do so, this study will undertake a critical rhetorical analysis of email conversations on the Writing Program Administrators listserv (WPA-L), a major disciplinary discussion forum and significant site for the manifestation of disciplinary ideology.

A series of theorists inside and beyond composition studies (Lanham; Haas; Selfe; Porter; Rice) has argued for the importance of attending to medium and technology, or to the changes digital communication has brought to our understanding of writing and rhetoric. Because it has historically been tied to a particular set of material writing practices, research in composition studies hasn’t always explicitly treated issues of media or technology in its understanding of the field—though a scan of recent publications in rhetoric and composition will show this situation to be changing. This dissertation will examine recent scholarship and perform a rhetorical analysis of academic listserv discourse to discover commonplace understandings or attitudes about technology in composition studies; it will also by necessity grapple with the value of “metadisciplinary” research (Massey & Gebhardt 4) and confront methodological issues related to rhetorical analysis of multi-participant digital writing.

Background: Composition Studies and Orthodoxy

Composition has formed and validated itself as a discipline through historical and taxonomic studies since the 1960s. Disciplinary self-analysis is a significant epistemological tendency in composition research—especially a fascination with professionalization and ideology. Many of the discipline-forming research studies from the middle of the twentieth century do so by writing the historical connection between classical and contemporary rhetoric or by constructing a narrative of pedagogical decline; The oft-cited work of Corbett (Connors, Selected Essays), Crowley, Horner, Kinneavy, and Kitzhaber being but a few exemplars of this tendency. For composition researchers and teachers in the rhetoricizing 1960s and even more so in the taxonomizing 1970s and 1980s (see Fulkerson; Berlin), the making of a contemporary composition pedagogy was often done through writing disciplinary history. Hawisher et al describe the “increasing self-reflection” (125) that came with the growth in professionalism of the 1980s, while Connors (who himself puts composition history to work in contemporary practice in works like Composition-Rhetoric) calls the 1990s the “era of disciplinarity” (“Composition History” 4).

In acting out this disciplinary self-analysis, composition and rhetoric has tended to define itself against a politicized orthodoxy, a set of ‘bad guys’ including formalism and current-traditional pedagogy, the politics of English literature departments and the academy, positivistic approaches to the composing process and cognition, and even the universal writing requirement. In the last few years, however, a series of scholars have claimed that composition and rhetoric is floundering and center-less. Fulkerson (2005) argues that composition is “a less unified field than it was a decade ago” (680), citing widening variation in the goals, pedagogies, and theories behind its coursework and scholarship. Composition has no real sense of what “good writing” might be or how it might best be taught—if it even teaches writing in the first place. Durst, after reviewing the major outcomes of 20 years of composition scholarship (1984-2003), argues that composition is “in something of a rut” (1677) because there is no “powerful orthodoxy within composition studies to work against, such as current-traditional teaching or the cognitive emphasis” (1677).  Smit argues that composition’s profoundest accomplishments, “professionalization of the field and the promotion of the writing process” (6), are now being called into question, and that we have no new knowledge left to make and no central method to use in making it. As Smit claims: “for all practical purposes, the major concepts, paradigms, and models we have to work with in dealing with these issues are already known and widely accepted, [such that] there is little hope we can reconceptualize writing in startling new ways” (3). Indeed, he adds, “we do not even know how to think about the nature of writing differently than we do now” (3), and rather spend much of our time remapping and “reconfiguring” the field (7). This is likely accurate, as a scan of recent article titles in CCC will show a flagship interest in labor issues, writing majors, responsibility, and disciplinarity in as much frequency as assessment, clarity, and professional, institutional, or classroom writing practice.

The result of this disciplinary centerlessness is a pedagogical and theoretical stasis much like the one Geoffery Sirc writes of:

“The cause of our current stasis? Doubtless the major influence has been composition’s professionalization, its self-tormented quest for disciplinary stature. The price we have paid for our increased credibility as an academic field has been a narrowing of the bandwidth of what used to pass for composition.” (qtd in Rice, New Media/New Methods 284)

What Sirc recognizes is that the new orthodoxy is not a scholarly movement or pedagogical agenda, but rather a narrow and traditional view of composition as an abstract set of humanistic values and intellectual processes developed in and evidenced by essayistic literacy. The cause of our disciplinary stasis—or at least the stasis perceived by writers like Smit—is a version of composition that doesn’t theorize about writing in relationship to how it is created in various media or with particular technologies. This is precisely the sort of thing the analyses of Durst, Smit, and others overlook as they “fashion” their visions of the discipline (North 6).

James Porter makes such a case in his preface to Digital Writing Research, describing a headless professionalized composition that “no longer focuses predominantly on studying composition practices, ironically” (xii) and above all ignores digital writing as a significant part of the discipline’s narrative and research agenda. Though research into composition and digital writing studies has been an increasing trend, it continues to be relegated to subfield status, and many broad, argumentative assessments of composition and rhetoric—such as the ‘state of composition’ commentary of writers like Durst and Smit—fail to adequately deal with technology as an increasing influence on composition research and pedagogy; in particular, they fail to deal with digital writing technologies developed in the last 10 years. Durst only briefly speaks to technology rhetoric, new media, and computers and composition in his overview of the field; his essay mostly reifies the orthodoxy of medium, the orthodoxy of our assumptions about what our students know about writing with technology as a vague “contextual factor affecting postsecondary writing” (1671). Similarly, Smit doesn’t write about technology as a major facet of what we know (or don’t know) about composition as a discipline.  Fulkerson, in “Composition at the Turn of the Twenty First Century,” merely footnotes technology (via computers and composition) as perhaps an issue in composition, but not a major approach. (Michael Salvo makes a similar case about cultural studies’ tendency to ignore or otherwise fail to account for technology—an important example for him is also Berlin’s map of the discipline.)

It would be fallacious to argue that this point hasn’t been made in composition before. There is no shortage of arguments about the need for composition and rhetoric, along with other rhetorical, productive disciplines, to look more carefully at technology. Christina Haas, Richard Lanham, Gail Hawisher, Cynthia Selfe, nearly every author in Digital Writing Research, and many others reiterate some version of the call to look At rather than Through technology along with our study and teaching of discursive practices. Resistance to this in composition and rhetoric tends to be out of a romantic humanism that disdains instrumentalism (Reid; Hawk; Bolter), out of a critique of capitalism or entrepreneurialism (Carter; Kemp) or even out of an anti-technological-determinist stance (Johnson).

Perceiving Technology, Defining Disciplinary Texts

In her important 1997 study, Writing Technology, Christina Haas argues that:

If literacy scholars are to pursue the Technology Question, make decisions about pedagogical uses of technology, and take an active role in technological development, it is essential that we examine the underlying theories of technology that are a powerful (if unarticulated) force shaping attitudes and actions toward technology. (167)

This question is updated and reiterated in 2007 by Kimme Hea’s chapter in Digital Writing Research; she asks composition researchers to:

challenge inequitable constructions and representations of technology to create more equitable electronic spaces and relationships–a position that can be instantiated through a critical, situated methodology for research through and on technology. (273)

There seems to be a widening gap between the kind of writing composition theorists have traditionally dealt with and the new kinds of writing that are quickly overtaking contemporary culture: digital writing and digital communication.  This study examines not what digital writing is or does, but how the field of rhetoric and composition sees itself in terms of this paradigm shift. Taking as an underlying sense that composition has continued to rely upon outdated theories of composing, this dissertation intends to examine the status of technology in composition studies. Rhetorical analysis is an appropriate method for systematically examining this kind of disciplinary thinking. It also speaks to a tradition of investigation taken by scholars such as Cynthia Selfe in Technology and Literacy in the Twenty-First Century, who examines the various rhetorics that complicate literacy education’s representation of technology.

Haas’s rhetorical analysis examines scholarly discourse in English Studies publications (College English and College Composition and Communication). Selfe examines government, private sector, education, and public belief systems shaping national technological literacy programs. This dissertation will take into consideration samples of current scholarly discourse in journals and books, as Haas does, but will focus more of its energy on online community discourse, in particular e-mail discussions on the Writing Program Administrator’s mailing list (WPA-L), a contemporary space for ubiquitous and disciplinary but often unexplored teacher-to-teacher discourse. The WPA-L is a rich site for non-scholarly professional discourse that treats the same material as is treated in academic publications, but in a less formal manner.

A series of scholars have examined composition studies through its textual output, only a tiny sample of which can be pointed to here. Haswell’s “NCTE/CCCC’s Recent War on Scholarship,” for example, constructs an argument about composition by studying the “two flagstaff houses of postsecondary writing teachers” (199) through their bibliography. (Haswell uses the CompPile database for 1939-1999.)  Derek Mueller’s “Views from a Distance: A Nephological Model of CCCC Chairs’ Addresses, 1977-2011” is only the most recent in a series of studies that examine CCCC chairs’ addresses in order to gain insight on composition; Mueller’s study connects these with CCC abstracts in order to get what he refers to as a “network sense,” exploring concepts and linkages in order to create an assemblage disciplinary patterns (index.html).  These studies and others like them reasonably focus on a reading of composition from the top down: a reading of its scholarly output or the direction of its leadership. These operate at a discipline-wide level of critique. Many studies begin at the opposite level, local rather than national, and examine the textual materials of composition teaching: course documentation such as assignments and syllabi (Lutz and Fuller). This dissertation will examine composition studies—or one version of composition studies, more accurately—from the bottom up: taking its corpus from the discourse of its people (which includes but is not here limited to its leadership in terms of traditional scholarly output) and their everyday texts.

Glenn Stillar argues that “everyday written texts” have significant and complex roles, most especially that they “powerfully summon and propogate the social orders in which we live” (1). Texts do not simply share, report on, or promulgate ideology, they make it manifest. Texts are motive and interest; not only—as Stillar and other critical rhetoricians argue—those of the individuals involved, but also those of “the whole host of social systems and structures with their attendant resources ‘speaking through social agents” (6). A disciplinary listserv, then, where participants are engaged in thinking through, sharing, and debating ideas focused specifically on composition, is likely to be a particularly dense and powerful incorporation of disciplinary values, attitudes, and commonplaces. Email lists, though “seemingly innocuous” as Moses and Katz argue, are deeply ideological (71). This is at one level in their technological/corporate creation; at another level (one more important to this study), email lists play an important role in connecting widely spread members of academic communities, forming those communities even as the lists are instantiated by them. Hyman argues that ListServ is “one of academia’s most dominant technological tools” (18), working like “invisible colleges, professional conventions, and journals” (20) to quietly build and spread scholarly discussions. Purdy and Walker (in a forthcoming book from Computers & Composition Digital Press) note that email lists provide important examples of “conversations among academic professionals devoted to furthering knowledge of and in the field” (study.htm). Purdy and Walker’s analysis of the Techrhet discussion list (along with academic blogs and Twitter activity) describes how ideas shared online help to produce the knowledge of the field. These studies and others point to an understanding of the WPA-L and texts like it not solely as ephemera, but as significant discourse of composition studies. The ideology of composition studies is just as present in the exchanges of the WPA-L as it is in the abstracts of College Composition and Communication, Research in the Teaching of English, or Kairos; thus it provides just as much opportunity to glance at the ideological “state of composition” as a research piece by Smit or Porter.

The chairman of my Master’s thesis, Dr. Randall Popken, early in any graduate composition course, would exhort his students to join the WPA-L. According to his syllabi, this was in order to cultivate our understanding of contemporary composition (a common course task included oral reports over two weeks’ worth of WPA-L discussions, which would be assigned right alongside oral summaries of recent CCC articles). This exhortation has no doubt had consequences: a colleague of mine under Dr. Popken, who now holds a PhD in rhetoric from Texas Women’s University, considered herself to finally have “made it” in composition when she was personally reprimanded by Ed White on a WPA-L thread. Though not universally agreed upon as “representative” (certainly not in a purely empirical sense), the WPA-L is often described as a major semipublic forum for the field (Krause; Rice “Signoff”; Schirmer). Certainly it is an important distribution site for research surveys. Loosely connected to the Council of Writing Program Administrators (itself a major national association in composition), the WPA-L is a rich site for professional discourse that treats the same material as is treated in academic publications, but in a less formal manner (In a similar vein as Purdy and Walker, this dissertation will attempt to resist simple formal/informal scholarly/unscholarly dichotomizing of disciplinary discourse). The WPA-L, because it is read and written by a broad spectrum of professionals in composition rather than a smaller group of scholars invested in a special interest, provides an opportunity to see the motives and interests of the broader discipline through a different filter than its traditional scholarly publications.

Research Questions

The research questions below are designed to explore such discourse in an emic (Black), non-prescriptive manner. The answers to these questions may point toward recommendations and further theory, but are intended to be descriptive in nature. The first of these revisits and transforms Haas’ basic question:

  • What commonplace understandings or attitudes about technology in composition studies can be found on the WPA-L?
  • In WPA-L discourse in particular:
    • How do participants write about the influence of “technology” or digital writing?
    • What do participants mean when they write about “technology” or digital writing?
    • What conceptions of writing, composition and technology does that talk reveal?
    • How do those conceptions interact, combine, or conflict in the artifacts?
    • What are typical rhetorical tactics, narratives, or warrants that participants rely on as they discuss or argue about these issues?
  • How representative or influential to composition studies do participants in the WPA-L feel that discourse is? What role do participants perceive the WPA-L to have in disciplinary knowledge?


To grapple with these questions, this dissertation will undertake a rhetorical analysis. An approach to thematic criticism, it will focus on a small set of concepts with myself, the researcher, as a primary interpreter (Huckin). Such a rhetorical analysis attempts to “identify and constitute the ‘rhetorical’ features of discursive artifacts” (Farrell 303) in order to “group and synthesize related shards and fragments of discourse” (311). In particular, this dissertation will take the theoretical program of critical rhetorical analysis (broadly described by McKerrow) and the structure and goals of an ideographic method (McGee) to analyze and characterize conflicts between the doxa related to my research questions.

“Method” is a difficult term for critical rhetorical analysis. Critical rhetoric is a highly diverse and fragmented approach to symbolic texts, without a singular sense of or program for its methodology. An eclectic approach is, as Laura Gurak notes, particularly appropriate to online communication’s hyper-everything pace and structure (161). The structures and procedures of criticism (or “method-”) are something continually constructed and reconstructed by the critic in conversation with their chosen artifact; the interpretive logos of critical rhetoric (its “-ology”) is provided by the orienting framework of critical theory. Since there is no central methodology that such critical scholars can turn to, the goals of the critic and the characteristics of the object of criticism provide the possibility for helpfully emic (open and responsive to the text) and usefully etic (mindful of previous theory) approaches to critique (Black; Blythe). Thus, it begins with content analysis and takes up rhetorical analysis colored by critical theory.

Because my goal is to examine the material reflection of disciplinary assumptions and construct an analysis that betrays the explicit and implicit conflicts between those assumptions, the dissertation will rely in particular on the concept of doxa as the construct of interest. Most basically described as the competing truths allowed and promulgated by rhetorical texts, Raymie McKerrow argues that doxa are typified by concealment, a kind of hidden knowledge that controls distribution of symbols and power (109). In “The Pedagogical Missions of Professional and Technical Communication Programs,” Jay Gordon calls doxa “beliefs that are popular, but unspoken or unexamined” (115).  Amossy’s work on doxa constructs the following taxonomy of doxic elements: doxa-as-topoi, which largely includes structures like Aristotle’s topoi koinoi, the logico-discursive patterns that act as “formal models into which specific contents can be poured” (477); and doxa-as-commonplaces, or “shared beliefs and opinions that underlie any utterance” (478), the “explicit or implicit opinions and representations” (480) that may go so far as to be recurrent, banal, stereotypical, and worn out. Doxastic knowledge is ideological knowledge that not only provides a conceptual thread by which to analyze statements in an artifact but also frames how the critique of domination or freedom might progress (McKerrow 96). With its goal of sociopolitical exposé of “the discourse of power” that produces all types of texts (McKerrow 103), critical rhetoric can make useful sense of diverse textual production. Most of all, ideological criticism provides a moral imperative for critics, an urge to see “the existence of powerful vested interests” manifested in texts (Wander 92). Amossy, Gordon, and others have described the formal difficulty in analyzing doxic elements, and this dissertation shall speak to this as well.

My primary artifact, or object of criticism, is set of discussion threads from the WPA-L listserv. A pilot study examined a thread from October 2010, “the class isn’t online, so you have to accept assignments on paper.” This study will use key disciplinary terms such as “digital writing,” “technology” and related concepts (substrings such as “tech,” for example) in the literature to discover messages and threads such as one from June 2011, “writing horseshow-of-horse-heading-east teachnology.” I will draw my corpus from the WPA-L stable archive at and will initially use the archive search function to discover topically-relevant messages. For the sake of this study, I will limit my corpus to threaded discussions treating the subject of technology from 2011; through criterion sampling I will be able to narrow a large body of text to a particular phenomenon. An initial search of the string “technology,” for example, brings 785 individual text matches; many of these, however, are cued to signatures (“New York City College of Technology” or “Massachusetts Institute of Technology”) that will be filtered out. My original plan has been to work through hand-coding the data using downloaded files and browser/computer search functions. I am also exploring software such as ATLAS.ti for data analysis.

These will all be examples of a kind of multispeaker, nonlinear, multithreaded, asynchronous, semipublic listserv discussion that bears only minute similarities to oratory and other genres of long persuasive texts and presents problems for traditional methods of rhetorical criticism. Traditional approaches such as neoclassical criticism, metaphoric criticism, or narrative analysis depend on structures that don’t necessarily appear frequently or extensively in e-mail discussions; other traditions of rhetorical analysis wouldn’t even see anything worth examining in ephemeral texts. Ideological perspectives such as critical rhetoric, ideographic criticism, and even dramatism take expansive views of the worthy object of criticism and offer broad categories and perspectives for seeking meaning, rather than focusing on particular devices or structures, and are thus ideal for these sorts of texts. Because of the nature of these texts, the dissertation will need to speak to the ethics of online research (Sidler) and the complexity of digital rhetorical situations (DePew).

An analysis of such a diverse and complex artifact will not be able to simply follow Huckin’s clean process for content analysis (pose question, define construct, select corpus, determine units of analysis, gather data, interpret findings), though that is the general trajectory. My goal is interpretive, an attempt to identify and categorize rhetorical moves associated with doxic elements in the discussion. The analysis will roughly follow McGee’s program for ideographic criticism, using the broader frame of critical rhetoric and its perspective on doxa and ideology (rather than focusing on the slogan, McGee’s primary discursive object). Extracted from McGee, the process goals for such an analysis are to:

  1. Isolate doxa, or the popular but unspoken conceptions, in a carefully selected fragment of discourse.
  2. Expose what those doxa hide, ignore, or make absent in reference to the social, political, cultural, and historical context of the chosen artifacts.
  3. Characterize the conflicts between all of the doxa in the artifact, with an eye to explaining the misunderstandings, the elisions, the polysemic meanings, and the projected ideologies “latent in rhetorical discourse” (McGee 509).

As Blythe notes, coding for latent units such as doxa that “require the coder to make an interpretation, to infer purpose” can be difficult. They require a “sensitivity to context” that is difficult to manage (215); attempting to describe a detailed coding scheme for doxic elements before the corpus is generated and read is nigh impossible; coding schemes will be constructed rhetorically, in recursive conversation with the text. Coding will thus emerge through early reading of the texts themselves (Blythe; Huckin).

In Digital Writing Research, DePew argues that researchers “should be examining more features of the communicative situation rather than merely an artifact it produces” (52); although the text (whether oral, graphical, written, or otherwise) necessarily takes center stage in any rhetorical analysis, we can learn about digital rhetoric by interpreting author’s intentions, audience’s responses, local contexts. By solely working from textual analysis, “researchers risk perpetuating their own personal biases: They propose an argument; support it with a theoretical framework; analyze a text or several texts through this theoretical lens; and validate their proposition” in such a way that is informative and significant, but limited by intentionality of the researcher (54). Complex digital texts—certainly texts of any medium—demand an ethical treatment as much as they demand an emic, open one. Thus, the proposed rhetorical analysis, along with my own understanding of the relationship of the WPA-L to the rest of the discipline, will be complicated, confirmed, and challenged through triangulation via survey and/or case study. Participants (readers of the WPA-L and authors in specifically studied threads) will be asked to describe the type, level, frequency, and importance of their participation on the list; this portion of the study will attempt to clarify participants’ own understandings of the WPA-L’s role in the discipline in order to answer my research questions.

Finally, I try to offer a prudent reading; one that avoids trying to vilify groups in the conversation and that instead engages in a self-reflexive critique of freedom. Such a reading recognizes that an objective stance is impossible and undesirable, but that a “stance of innocence” that the critic reaches by “vibrat[ing] what they see in the text against their own expectations and predilections” (Leff 344). A sense of phronesis provides a way for the critic to be ethical without resorting to modernist moral generalizations: as Kuypers notes: “Prudent actors engage the particular with the general good in mind,” where “what is good is viewed in terms of human commitment and is time bound” (457).

The dissertation’s attempt to examine the ideology embodied in utterances and appeals in the discourse is similar to Ratcliffe’s goal for rhetorical listening: that of “conscious identification.” Ratcliffe notes that by eavesdropping, approaching discourses emically, and proceeding within an accountability logic, we can “analyze claims and cultural logics” in order to “[revise] identifications troubled by history, uneven power dynamics, and ignorance; as such, [conscious identifications] may foster cross-cultural communication on any topic” (19). The goal of this study is not to criminalize or deify participants or the discipline, but to examine the dominant representations of technology in composition studies.

Chapter Outline

Chapter 1: Introduction – This chapter will work from Fulkerson, Smit, and Durst to describe composition’s epistemology and contemporary sense of a disciplinary orthodoxy (or lack thereof). It will treat the notion of ideology. It will also describe the purpose of metadisciplinary research in composition studies.

Chapter 2: Literature Review – This chapter will cover literature in composition, new media, and technical communication (including new media communication). It will include a discussion of techne, literacy, digital writing, 21st century pedagogy, and change in composition, rhetoric, and technical communication literature.

Chapter 3: Methods – This chapter will review methods of rhetorical analysis, especially constructing a method of critical rhetorical analysis for community or social digital texts. It will describe methods of analyzing doxic elements. It will discuss collection, categorization, and analysis of method. Furthermore, it will discuss the ethics of online research, triangulation, and the complexity of analyzing digital rhetorical situations.

Chapter 4: Analysis – This chapter will present the WPA-L analysis, organized by theme and doxic elements, and will include survey and case study analysis.

Chapter 5: Conclusion – This chapter will provide further interpretation of the data and its implications for composition, for technical communication, and for rhetorical analysis

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