Today’s #writefirst push; I want to get back in the habit of more regular blogging, so hopefully this is the first of a number of Monday Morning posts. But I’ve said that before…

Today I’m wrestling with a research project I’ve gotten started this year, the first phase of which I presented at ARWS 2017 earlier in the  year. In particular, I’m wrestling with the pragmatics of process and method (what I’m doing and how and why) as well as some larger So What/Who Cares? issues that present themselves as the research project has turned a slightly different way in my mind.

Briefly, I am looking at writing studies program websites as a way of trying to understand how program philosophies are presented to the public. Recent and infuriating news about the trolling of the much-beloved Purdue OWL makes this a bit more prescient than usual, as I am reminded of how academic programs are constrained by the same network dynamics of searchability afnd scalability (boyd 2010) as everyone else. In my ARWS talk, I asked a handful of questions, but the two big ones were:

  1. How do we hock our majors to the students we want to be in them?
  2. What lines do we repeat again and again, and what underlying assumptions do those show off?

Eliding a summary of findings for now, I’m more interested in talking about problems with my research. In particular, I’ve been dipping into the research on constrained agency; my attention to this problem gained focus when a colleague asked the room about how much agency departments and programs really have over their university web content. In her experience, program web pages are written by marketing and communication or other admissions-related agencies in the university, rather than the departments themselves. Who writes web content for programs, and how much agency do departments have in showcasing or controlling their web narrative?

Sticky notes and hand-written menu items on a paper wireframe for a websites
Using low-fi participatory design to think about how program pages might be structured, but our work is complicated by university website templates.

 

Briefly, constrained agency is a “situated, contingent form of agency that ‘emerges at the intersection of agentive opportunities and the regulatory power of authority’” (Weber, 2013, p. 290). Institutions both enable and constrain the writers working within and for them; the content that is published in the name of the institution (in this case, a university program’s website) reflects the university, the program, and the individuals in a program, though each of these subjects has different levels of control over and responsibility for that content. (Add local dynamics and pressures to the mix, and generalizing about web content becomes quite a mess, indeed!)  Subjects are “multiply situated” with “diffuse and shifting social locations” that causes uncertainty for rhetors in those spaces (p. 290). There’s a great deal more rabbit hole there, of course, but the idea has been both generative and frustrating for me.

Introducing constrained agency makes my research project quite a bit messier, raising the level of difficulty for making claims about how writing programs represent themselves and thus how they contribute to a public sense of disciplinarity. As it should. University web content is heavily constrained, and that context is something I have to deal with. On top of that, there are plenty of examples of programs that, frustrated with the governance, technologies, or processes involved in university web content, use blogs or external sites to tell their programs’ stories. (Which may or may not themselves be constrained by university social media policy and governance!)

Screenshot of Cascade content management system, showing available content blocks.
Screenshot from the backend; working in the university’s CMS.

Writing about program websites is suddenly a more fraught enterprise than it was already (currency of data, collection, storage, coding, and the array of method/ological problems they present). Lisa Meloncon, whose research on TPC programs has been very influential in my own toeing into this corner field, has sent up some clear red flags related to research involving program websites. First off, program websites are often “so awful and/or so geared to enrollment (in the corporate sense)” that it can be impossible to collect specific or useful data about programs. Currency is, again, a problem here, as she reflects (the emphasis in this quote is mine):

Some of the early practice decisions I made and later regretted was I started by simply looking at websites. I was about 30 or 40 schools in when I realized the mistake because I had just had a conversation with a program administrator who was annoyed that they couldn’t get their website content to be updated to the actual requirements. That was when I decided I had to use course catalogs. Thus, I had to circle back and re-confirm every data point. I also didn’t gather data in a systematic way, which early on the process meant I had a lot of holes that eventually had to be filled. The biggest thing was that I initially didn’t really gather course information. I just had gathered the requirements, but when I went to start analysis, I realized that without the course information, I would have trouble making any sort of generalizable claims. Thus, I had to circle back around again.  (http://tek-ritr.com/practices-of-research)

Meloncon’s observations point to constrained agency and how tough (read: impossible?) it can be to make generalizable claims about how programs structure themselves based on their web materials. I think that looking at writing problems not as free, full agents but rather constrained agents at best (and subjects in many cases) is an entirely useful constraint for my project. I just haven’t worked out how, yet.

This is a useful problem as I’m thinking about the next phase of data collection and analysis. To look at how TPC/WS programs represent themselves, do I chase down blogs and social media for external sites that aren’t under university governance? What about contacting TPC program admins to collect the variety of forms of program advertising they do on campus? When we’re hocking our major program, we use a variety of media, including our Facebook page, individual emails to potential majors, power points or short talks to students in Core Lit and FYW courses, and cards and flyers given to academic advisors or left in public spaces on campus. That’s potentially a lot of material to gather. And then there’s ever-present risk of junior faculty wasting time on the wrong projects (or the fear of taking too much time on the right projects).

Finally, to the bigger issue of So What/Who Cares?, one I wrestled with through my Ph.D. program, as I have a tendency to be interested in arcana. Ultimately, how is all this useful? Am I just taking this as a case of constrained agency? How might this project usefully add to the literature on constrained agency? Or is this part of the disciplinarity research I’m partial to? In our ongoing and multifaceted conversation about disciplinarity in TPC, Writing Studies, and rhet-comp I am particularly interested in repetitions and consensus–what we say we are as a field and what the things we write reveal about who we think we are as a field. What do I add to conversations about pragmatism, efficiency, and technocentric values (and the critiques of such) in TPC as a discipline? Is the news about the Purdue OWL a relevant way in, here?

More questions than answers. More writing to go.

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