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.


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.

scraping together fragments

Just some bits and pieces I’m reading as I work on a chapter I’ve submitted for an edited collection. The heart of it is a paper I’m resurrecting (from a conference presentation a few years ago) on the professionalization of graduate students, especially distance graduate students, and social media. Fingers crossed. Today, I’m just shoring up a few fragments that I’ve been reading recently that I’ll most likely incorporate. Trying to get back my good habits of writing every day, but that’s harder than it sounds when I cajole my students.

Collin Brooke on strong and weak ties and the media that help make them.

Anders Fagerjord on visibility as an academic. Lots of examples and links to further material here, too.

Nathaniel Rivers on scholartweeting at conferences, especially #RSA14

All of this wanders around somewhere between specialization, professionalization, and just plain behaving as a professional in the 21st c.


RSA 2012

Rhetoric Society of America Presentation image
Presented 5/17/12, Philadelphia PA

I presented (with some awesome co-panelists and colleagues from TTU) at the 2012 meeting of the Rhetoric Society of America. I thought it went well. Here’s the abstract:

“‘Writing Instructors Really Are a Pretty Selfless Lot’: Constructing Students and Technology on the WPA-L”

In the productive disciplines of rhetoric, composition, and technical communication, there is no shortage of online talk about our students and their technology. On blogs and popular websites, on listservs and informal communication of all types, teachers and scholars debate the digital native meme, think about the implications of integrating texting and YouTube production in assorted writing classrooms, and focus our scholarly and daily attention on the relationship between our student’s communication and the machines they use to produce it. Our theories of technology and our conceptions of students interact everywhere in all our various professional discourses, including our online talk; it is in those discourses that, as we teach and as we interact with one another, domination and freedom “are exercised in a relativized world” (McKerrow, p. 96). This presentation focuses on a lengthy conversation thread from the Writing Program Administrators’ e-mail listserv, examining doxastic conceptions of central disciplinary concepts like technology, students, and the goals of writing instruction (as one type of rhetorical production), and the complicated ways in which different doxa combine to form questionable pedagogical and philosophical arguments. How do scholars and teachers talk about students and technology; what conceptions of students and technology does that talk reveal, and how do those conceptions interact, combine, or conflict in professionals’ discourse?

Interested in the annotated presentation? Post a comment or tweet me at @cdmandrews for more.