Digital rhetoric(s): One thing or two?

This was the GREATEST POSTER EVER. I had it on my wall as a kid. Where are you now, Yoda poster? Where are you now?

I like to check out the “what’s new” stacks at the front of the library when I’m waiting for the circulation staff to dig my InterLibrary Loan books out of whatever secret ILL dungeon they’re kept in. Usually my search is only moderately fruitful, but recently I happened upon a book with a familiar-sounding title: Theorizing Digital Rhetoric (2018, eds. Aaron Hess and Amber Davisson). I checked it out and hauled it and my other finds back to the office. Flipping through, I was struck by the fact that 

I only recognized one or two of the names in the edited collection’s TOC, and soon came to realize that this was a Digital Rhetoric text out of comm studies, not my more familiar grounds of digital rhetoric nee tech comm and computers and writing. I (at least feel like) I read a great deal of scholarship in digital rhetoric, so the feeling was weird.

Further skimming had me wondering how different these two digital rhetorics really are. After all, we publish in (some) of the same journals, and there’s certainly plenty of interdisciplinarity in the two fields. But what do the reference lists say? There were citations I was expecting to see and not seeing, and so my researcher curiosity was piqued. Having come fairly hot off a reading of Network Sense: Methods for Visualizing a Discipline and having a years-long methodological bent towards distant reading, I decided on a quick citation analysis to try to do a little network sensing of my own.

In addition to Theorizing Digital Rhetoric (I pulled the full list of citations down from the ebook preview PDF), I pulled citations from Douglas Eyman’s (2015) Digital Rhetoric: Theory, Method, Practice. For this first step, I was just curious and only looked at two texts (now noted, respectively, as TDR and DR). For the next step (yes, this project will continue), I’d like to add all citations from the Perspectives and Definitions of Digital Rhetoric special issue of Enculturation (issue 23). And then on from there. 

As noted above, this is just a first prod for curiosity’s sake, and probably doesn’t mean too much. There are about a zillion limitations to the data I collected, beginning with the notion that I’m comparing apples and oranges: DR is a single-author text, and TDR is an edited collection with 22 authors. While DR has a reference list of over 300 texts, TDR’s was over twice that number. Also, this data is limited to reference lists, and can’t stand in for a more sophisticated, granular look at *how* (and how often) they are cited in the bodies. Finally, the data’s not very rich–at this point, my database doesn’t go past first authors and titles.

All this hedging means I’m not getting too excited and racing off to press yet; but I am curious, and do think there’s something to be seen in the looking. Comparing the lists is a distant reading, a proto-venn diagram of two digital rhetorics. You might even call the result a central reading list for digital rhetoric theory in the two (?) fields. A common ground.

On with the findings:

Briefly, the list included over 900 individual citations. I pulled out all duplicate citations from TDR; the overlapping list I’m describing in this post is all about co-occurrence, not frequency.

33 of 900 citations were exact matches: the same text from the same author cited in both books. (I don’t have the exact number at the moment, but the list of common authors cited in both books without the same text requirement is not significantly longer.)

Among these shared names are what I would consider “classic” interdisciplinary overlaps in rhetoric, internet, and media theory: Burke, Gurak, McLuhan, Lanham, and Manovich, and others you might read in a new media or digital rhetoric survey.

27 of the 33 overlapping citations are books. 23 of those books were single-authored (33 authors on the list in all, counting second or third authors on the few multi-author pieces). 7 of the 33 citations were of female authors.

Only 6 of the overlapping citations were of journal articles:

  • Lloyd Bitzer, The rhetorical situation (P&R)
  • Aaron Hess, In digital remembrance: Vernacular memory and the rhetorical construction of web memorials (MC&S)
  • Jenny Edbauer Rice, Unframing models of public distribution: From rhetorical situation to rhetorical ecologies (RSQ)
  • Carolyn Miller, Genre as social action. (QJS)
  • James Porter, Recovering delivery for digital rhetoric (C&C)
  • James Zappen, Digital rhetoric: Toward an integrated theory (TCQ)

On the overlapped list, 5 authors showed up on the list for two different publications, giving them a particular center of gravity on the two reference lists:

  • Burke (both Rhetoric of Motives and Language as Symbolic Action)
  • Landow (both Hypertext, and Hyper/Text/Theory)
  • Lanham (Electronic Word and Economics of Attention)
  • Rheingold (Virtual Community and Smart Mobs)
  • Bolter, Jay David (though one is the dual-authored Remediation and the other is Writing Space)

Other texts that grabbed my attention for a variety of reasons:

  • Collin Brooke, Lingua Fracta. I just like this book and was happy to see it showed up on the overlap list; it’s a pretty damn important book of digital rhetoric theory in its own right.
  • Carolyn Miller shows up seven times on reference lists in Theorizing Digital Rhetoric. (Genre as social action is in both TDR and DR, but “What Can Automation Tell Us About Agency?” is Millers’ most-often cited article in TDR). She comes in third for frequency on reference lists in TDR, only after Kenneth Burke (15 times, because it’s Comm Studies) and Aaron Hess (10 times; he is one of the collection’s co-editors).

There are certainly many more questions here than answers. Does this mean anything at all? Would this overlap list make for a good reading list fodder (heavily excerpted) in a digital rhetoric course? What are the central texts in the various versions of digital rhetoric that we work from? What’s the long tail really look like? Are there two digital rhetorics, or one? That is, are the citation lists reasonably separate, as many citation lists on specialized topics must be, or are they far apart, showing an odd gap in two fields claiming the same space?

All questions I’m looking forward to chasing down.


Because the world needs another blog post about teaching and guns

Because the world needs another blog post about teaching and guns

You don’t realize you’re on edge until a klaxon sounds and you look at your colleague’s face and see your wigged-out-ness reflected in their eyes.

Short story: I grew up in Texas. I have been teaching in Texas for my entire career (more than 15 years, oh my!) The idea of a gun doesn’t really faze me; neither does the reality of a gun. I have held and fired pistols of various kinds and sizes, hunting rifles, shotguns, black powder guns, BB guns, and semi- and fully automatic weapons. Guns in the woods, guns at the military shooting range, guns at your friend’s house, guns in the truck, guns in the dark. I am by no means a marksman, and neither do I own a gun—for no other reason than I’ve never really needed to. When the Texas Legislature opened up public college campuses to concealed carry license-holders, I didn’t find myself quaking in terror at the notion that a student might have a gun because frankly, I wouldn’t have been surprised that kids in Stephenville or Abilene, TX were packing even before that time. No, I don’t want guns on campus. But pragmatically, guns have been on campus.

Today, I teach our university’s technical and professional writing service course, which is always populated in part by criminal justice majors—both students who haven’t yet entered the workforce and working or retired officers seeking a degree for reprofessionalization. It would be absolutely stupid for me to think that there’s not a registered, concealed handgun in my class any day of the week. And the thought doesn’t bother me; it doesn’t factor into my interactions with students—or I don’t feel like it does. Neither does it make me feel safer than colleagues teaching elsewhere. The fact of guns is for me simply that: a fact. Guns are.

But between the increasing and sustained volume of the school shooting conversation (another one this morning!) and the news about package bombs in Austin, where my uncle and cousin live, and Schertz, the little town East of San Antonio on I-35 where my grandparents lived and we spent so many, many visits growing up, I guess I really am secretly a bit wigged out. I didn’t learn that until this morning, in the middle of a conversation in my office on campus with Sarah, when the fire alarm (which I’d never heard before) went off in the building and the accompanying announcement was cut off. Those few—maybe five?—seconds after the sounds stopped and before the next sounds began, as we waited, not sure what—if anything—was going on. Reading each other’s wide eyes waiting for pops or bursts or something. And then another klaxon and an announcement that all was well. Do not evacuate the building. Ourbad. We’re sorry the alarm went off.

Unannounced tests of the fire alarm are fine, I’m not complaining. But the nervous chuckle and thank goodness after the announcement stopped and we realized we weren’t under attach which is something I’d never stopped to think about before really seriously. That moment made me realize maybe I am on edge. Just a little.

Research(er) problems

Research(er) problems

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.  (

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.

The New Year Thing

After taking a real break from work for the Christmas-to-New Year’s stretch (one that began earlier than intended thanks to the Corpus Christi WATER CRISIS of December 2016), it feels good to contort my body back into desk mode (#beastmode?) and get started on 2017-ward tasks. Reviewing articles, pushing out emails, developing material for new courses, scribbling notes to fill into Digital Measures later this week, checking off Habitica tasks, and all the other attendant things that go with sitting down in your chair for the first time in a… while.

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2017 Goal 1: Make some goals.

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2016 has been a dramatic year in many ways, but I’m not talking about national politics or the death of Carrie Fisher. (i will not take a tangent on obsessions with mortality in pop culture, i will not take a tangent on obsessions with mortality in pop culture, i will not take a tangent on obsessions with mortality in pop culture.) 2016 has been a year of intense personal and professional change. (I feel like I should quote “Burning the Christmas Greens” at length here, but somehow the lines

At the thick of the dark
the moment of the cold’s
deepest plunge we brought branches
cut from the green trees

to fill our need,

seem overdramatic. And did I just put a blockquote in a parenthetical aside?) Regardless, I don’t like change. Ask anyone. But this year brought self-imposed upheaval to a person who has never ever liked big changes. It’s been hard—harder than I thought it would be and in ways I didn’t expect—on myself and my family. And I don’t know if I can say that it’s easier yet, but there are good things. Great things. New relationships, new friendships, new opportunities, new mentors. New taco recipes. New habits and approaches to tasks. New students that I love (I love the old ones too, don’t worry!) and new work yet to be done.

I’ve succeeded (or at least feel like I’ve succeeded) at some things, and failed at others (whoa, vaguebooking much?), and am painfully aware of the ways I still need to figure out the whole research / teaching / service balance of my new professional location. But I’m feeling great about work / life balance. And seriously: Habitica, y’all.

Goals for 2017? Still working on them. They’ll probably amount to some version of the following: More writing, always. Try new things. Get less fat. Resolutions? Nah, no resolutions, because like you I always break them.

Mostly, it’s just time for a new notebook for 2017. Even if there are still a few too many blank pages left in the old one.