The New Work of Composing

Composing with Metadata in Mind

How do I navigate this? || References

Metadata Across the Curriculum: Teaching Standards


Synthesis by J. James Bono

Click on the map to read more about the synthesis layer.

It is important to note that while new forms of metadata—such as the folksonomies and geospatial data that undergird our analyses in this chapter—present new challenges and opportunities for scholarly work in all disciplines, both “readymade” standards and “Standards in the Making” (SITM) have always played a particularly important organizing role in rhetoric and composition pedagogy. One of Aristotle’s foundational contributions to the rhetorical tradition is his definition of Rhetoric as an art concerned with identifying, “the available means of persuasion” in a given context (trans. 1991, I.2, 1355b26f). From this idea arose approaches to rhetorical education and rhetorical analysis derived from intrinsically communal and situational theories based on the concentrated study of human actions and responses to deliberative performance. These ideas span a range of forms, from the classical topoi, which, as P. Christopher Smith (1998) explains, arise in “standard sequences in our speaking, according to which one thing we say naturally tends to follow upon another temporally,” to Lloyd Bitzer’s theories framing the rhetorical situation as a powerful tool for understanding the contexts within which rhetoric “works” (1968, p.4).

“A standard,” according to Bowker and Star (1999), “is any set of agreed-upon rules for the production of (textual or material) objects.”  Standards span “more than one community of practice (or site of activity);” they “are deployed in making things work together over distance and heterogeneous metrics” and “have significant inertia” (pp. 13-14). As Matt states, unlike hierarchically arranged metadata taxonomies such as those derived from geographic information systems (GIS), folksonomic systems of classification are emergent—not dictated by some content authority that hands down standards and protocols of annotation from on high—rather, the standards of “flat” folksonomic systems emerge from actual use, from successive readings, and from rhetorical motives. Folksonomic tags in the Flickr Commons project, Matt explains, both emerge from “multiple readings of the photograph” and “exist to motivate a ‘common understanding.’”

Defined thusly, standards can be seen as communal “property”—received and deployed as the “readymade” result of a long process of evolution and acceptance within, and across, numerous discourse communities.   The physical sciences, which form the basis of Bowker and Star’s definition of standards, hinge on the acceptance and modulation of standards—standards of measurement, standards of method, standards of behavior and logic, etc. Such standards are divined contextually from observation and experimentation, deliberated over in language, and described using logical or experimental proofs. These last few characteristics, those that center on faculties of argumentation and deliberation through discourse, have clear connections to the work of composition and rhetoric pedagogy in the university. Standards emerge through discourse—a trait not lost on scholars of rhetoric and composition such as Charles Bazerman who prepare students for knowledge work across the academic curriculum, from belles-lettres to the “hard” sciences. As Bazerman (1994) states, “with the regularization of practices, we can see how people can come to understand one another well enough to get along with what they are doing” (p. 87). A SITM approach to composition pedagogy would highlight the emergence of standards through discursive praxis and offer students a chance to intervene in the local consideration of those standards, how they are applied, and what they indicate about the knowledge work of a discipline.

Matt emphasizes a similar account of working towards a “’common understanding’ that standards possess strength,” in his discussion of how an SITM approach to metadata might function in the GIS classroom. Though GIS metadata is highly standardized, designed to facilitate the uniform usage across various cartographic technologies, those standards are the product of long processes of negotiations within the GIS community and among other disciplines that rely on GIS metadata standards. Instead of the hodgepodge of folksonomic tags applied in the “flat” categorical space of The Flickr Commons—many of which, Jentery reveals, “could be described as having little informational use to the LoC or other audiences”—it is in its uniformity and rigid standardization that GIS metadata finds authority and usefulness. What I find particularly interesting in Matt’s argument is that it describes how, unlike folksonomies where users can intervene in the development of SITM, access to the same standards that lend authority to “insider” disciplinary discourse offers grassroots organizations and individuals the power to interface with a broader disciplinary practice in ways that are novel yet still conform to the standard “grammar” of institutionalized GIScience.

What then, is the place of informal discourses and interdisciplinary discourse communities such as those that make up the Flickr Commons project?  And, if we consider disciplinary discourse in both its formal, readymade instantiations and informal, emergent ones, then what is the place of SITM within composition instruction invested in knowledge work “across the curriculum”?

Jentery’s reading of the LoC report on the Flickr Commons posits that the bulk (85%) of the folksonomic metadata found in the Flickr Commons project might be better conceived of as “implicit metadata” that reflects, “people’s online habits and practices: Who reads what?  Who links to whose site?  How compatible are these two tastes?  And so on.”  To this list, I would add, how people view metadata as an opportunity to intervene in the development of informal standards, themselves. As Curtis suggests, even relatively informal discourse spaces like the Flickr Commons are important sites for knowledge-production and exchange, or, more specifically, for observing the processes of knowledge accumulation and standardization as opposed to formalized, fixed products. Because we have no way of knowing the disciplinary investments of individual contributors to The Commons we have tended to consider such projects as interstitial spaces which reflect the emerging order of a fluid community. Despite the fact that most readymade standards, such as GIS metadata, gain their authority as the “standard” from their codification in disciplinary literature and, as Bazerman stresses, “the primary product of most disciplines, and a secondary product of all, are published texts, which are taken to constitute the knowledge of the disciplines,” new modes of digital publishing that allow “grassroots” participation by the public invite us to orient our students toward how authority is constructed across various processes of knowledge production, as opposed to their final products (1994, p. 104).

Compositionists such as David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky (2008) have built entire pedagogical frameworks around the idea of composition instruction as a broadly applicable practice of learning, engaging, and elaborating upon disciplinary standards reflected in formal texts by providing students with readymade models whose contexts and strategies must be inferred and adapted for new situations. In “Inventing the University,” Bartholomae describes the situation students find themselves in:

Every time a student sits down to write for us, he has to invent the university for the occasion—invent the university, that is, or a branch of it…He has to earn to speak our language…to try on the peculiar ways of knowing, selecting, reporting, concluding, and arguing that define the discourse of our community, since it is the nature of a liberal arts education that a student, after the first year or two, must learn to try on a variety of voices and interpretive schemes... (1986, p. 4)

In his polemical book on composition studies, English Composition as a Happening, Geoffrey Sirc (2002) criticizes Bartholomae’s approach to composition instruction as one that relies too heavily on formal, accepted models of disciplinary discourse, asserting that such pedagogies build, “Museums, peculiar sorts of cultural temples in which students are ‘invited’ to sample the best that has been thought and expressed in our language and maybe even…learn to reproduce the master’s craft" (p. 2). Following Diana Crane, Bazerman is careful to point out that not all disciplinary discourse is inscribed in formal, peer-reviewed scholarly texts; rather, “researchers in the disciplines often communicate information and knowledge-in-the-making in informal ways" (1994, p. 105). Viewed through the lens of SITM, however, Bartholomae and Petrosky’s pedagogy of teaching students to negotiate readymade disciplinary standards by creating local, individual contexts for discursive intervention is, in essence, the central work of the composition course, one that acts as a primary step in developing an effective understanding of and facility with disciplinary discourse. Bartholomae advocates that we not only teach students to “write” or “compose,” but to also develop ways to read and respond to the systems of knowledge and discourse in which their work operates, often before they are even fully aware of, or equipped to understand, the terrain of those systems.

Even in approaches to writing instruction such as Bartholomae and Petrosky’s, we see a concerted effort to value the contingent, the informal, and the marginal. Process-oriented metadata of all shades is applied to work that reflects knowledge-in-the-making about standards: notes are scribbled for the purposes of retrieval, arrangement, and memory; marginal markups suggest revisions; peer comments inform audience analyses. Such evaluative commentary is crucial to process-oriented composing. These annotations, however, respond to different exigencies than metadata in the Flickr Commons in two important respects: first, the comments written on papers are directed at a relatively narrow, known audience, whereas annotations made to The Commons are broadly disseminated. And, second, comments on papers are composed in the interest of developing a work that adheres to standards of composition, grammar, deliberation, and interface with the discourse of a community.

Curtis argues that the social markup of a text may help us to understand how knowledge production and exchange function and are received within a community. In other words, the accumulated metadata that is at the heart of the Flickr Commons can be viewed as the informatic trace of a long process of knowledge production and arrangement that is particularly helpful for imagining a SITM composition pedagogy in which metadata is read as a means of understanding how knowledge is arranged and made useful by a community. Further, highlighting this process for students within an SITM composition pedagogy, perhaps equips them with methods and perspective that encourage them to seek their own means of intervening in the establishment and application of disciplinary standards in ways that concurrently foster effective rhetorical performance across fields and systems that are both emergent and always already standardized.