The Scholar Electric

News and updates from CCDP


September 27, 2011

Trip Report: The Dartmouth Seminar on Composition Research

contributed by Tim Laquintano

In American higher education, writing instruction has been historically localized in English departments. This legacy has presented barriers for advocates of WAC and WID, who have pushed to develop programs that distribute writing instruction across the curriculum. If that legacy has created problems for the teaching of writing, though, it’s also created problems for writing research. The kinds of empirical research questions WPAs might need to address in their home institutions don’t always square with the textual and historical methods often taught in English departments, where many of those rhetoric and writing PhDs have trained. That’s the writing studies methods conundrum, although programs certainly have developed localized responses to this issue. Some PhD programs have split from English departments into stand alone departments, a move that might provide more robust opportunities for diverse methods training. Other programs, like the program I graduated from at UW-Madison, provide composition-specific methods courses, and then encourage students to bolster their methods by taking courses in other departments, like education.

Held for the first time last August at Dartmouth’s Institute for Writing and Rhetoric, the Dartmouth Seminar on Composition Research was designed to help sharpen the methods of composition researchers, with some participants in attendance because they have experienced manifestations of the methods conundrum in their own scholarly lives. The tacit assumption that seemed to float through the seminar was that writing studies needs to sharpen its methods (to be fair, writing studies is not the only relatively young discipline where I’ve heard complaints about methods; I’ve heard similar complaints at internet studies conferences). As Charles Bazerman pointed out in the seminar introduction, we need more carefully articulated methods for the sake of local administration projects, national intervention (where statistics is the coin of the realm), and interdisciplinary collaboration. This is especially important in international contexts, as European writing research comes from applied linguistics, and interdisciplinary collaboration requires carefully articulated methods.

The seminar consisted of an intense two weeks of group classes and individual meetings with workshop facilitators. Workshops offered perspectives on both qualitative and quantitative methods. Twenty-six people attended, some of whom were faculty and some of whom were graduate students. Christiane Donahue, the workshop organizer, coordinated an immaculate and extremely rigorous seminar. She collected information about our projects months in advance to create relevant programming and generate reading lists. She kept a loaded program on track, and she scheduled some of the major writing studies methods gurus as facilitators.

We began with some virtual sessions months in advance of the seminar. On site, Charles Bazerman began the seminar talking about general approaches to methods and methods as a series of principled choices made in situ. Cheryl Geisler then spent three days teaching a tightly focused discourse analytic method of qualitative coding, which included individual consultations with Geisler almost every day to talk progress. Geisler’s approach made me think hard about segmenting qualitative data for analysis, especially because the grounded approach I use has far less to say about how such data should segmented. Even though I am developing a coding scheme via grounded theory for my own research, Geisler’s system will surely be useful in the future, and it made me reexamine all of the assumptions I have made about the schema I currently use.

Drawing a crowd early on a Saturday morning, Chris Anson and Les Perelman gave an excellent seminar on writing program assessment, and Perelman gave a separate but equally fascinating seminar on the shaky use of statistics that the College Board uses to argue for the validity of the writing portion of the SAT. Christiane Donahue ran a discussion on writing and knowledge transfer. Christina Haas gave two sessions, one about nonparametric statistics, and one about research ethics. Finally, Donahue tapped into Dartmouth resources and drew on faculty and staff members to run sessions on statistics, data visualization, and working with review boards and institutional research offices.

I tended to pay close attention to my methods in graduate school, and I received good training from my own program in the English department and from the education department. I attended the Dartmouth seminar because in the past year I collected a large new qualitative data set that generated some specific issues I needed to address before I began analysis. The centerpiece for me was thus opportunities for individual consultations with the facilitators. I came looking for help sorting out analytic procedures for the seventy-some interviews I have now completed with three vastly disparate groups of writers. I had opportunities to meet with the faculty and have extensive conversations about the data set. In addition I met with facilitators about undergraduate research and an article in process. These consultations aligned with the general philosophy Christiane Donahue had for the seminar: each participant should use the seminar to do what was best for his/her project.

From what I understood, there are plans for the seminar to be an annual event. I assume it’s most appropriate for advanced graduate students, junior faculty members, and faculty looking to retool. I suspect it will be most helpful if you have advanced far enough on a project to know what kind of methodological problems you are having. Again the structure of the seminar and Christiane Donahue’s work to tailor the seminar will make it profitable for a wide range of participants. I feel like I received good methods training in graduate school and I still learned something every day. I’m hoping this year will be just the first in a long string of methods seminars, and if you can secure funding from your institution, it’s well worth the time and effort for those looking to shape a large project.

My greatest regret will be having missed the scene from the first seminar that may become the subject of lore: Charles Bazerman belting out tunes in tenor accompanied by two seminar participants.


May 31, 2011

Researching Well with Others: On Google I/O and Interdisciplinary Collaboration

Contributed by Brian McNely

“What is it that you do?” asked the gentleman sitting across the large round table in the cafe area during lunch at Google I/O, the annual software developer’s conference held in San Francisco.

“I’m a professor at Ball State University,” I said.

“Oh? What department?” he replied, no doubt wondering if I worked in HCI, computer science, or informatics.

“I’m actually in a department of English,” I said, noting the raised eyebrows and grins from the three others sitting at the table. “I study and help develop applications for distributed work, especially to facilitate networked writing collaboration,” I explained.

“Man, you must be the only English Professor here!” he said.

He’s probably right. I was likely the only English Professor at Google I/O, both this year and last, when I traveled to the conference with my research partner, Paul Gestwicki, a computer scientist at Ball State. But that probably shouldn’t be the case. Those of us in the computers and writing community should probably be spending more time hanging out with developers at developers’ conferences (e.g., OSCON, PyCon, Defrag, etc). And software developers should probably be spending more time with hanging out with computers and writing researchers.

Why? Let me tell you about the most popular breakout session I observed at this year’s I/O, by far: “Programming Well with Others: Social Skills for Geeks.”

At the 2010 version of this conference, attending breakout sessions was much as you might expect; you peruse the agenda, select a session based on subject matter, presenters, or (ideally) both, and amble casually into the room a couple minutes before the start. That’s what I’d planned to do about 10 minutes before the Social Skills for Geeks session, and that’s when I noticed the line of people waiting to get in, stretching down the hall for about 150 feet, and out into the Developer’s Sandbox venue, where start-ups displayed their wares.

This was nuts. Here, at a conference comprised of 5,000 or so developers, were a couple hundred people standing in line to attend a breakout session about social skills and collaboration. In other words, here were a lot of folks passionately interested in the very things that many in the computers and writing community study…

The session itself, led by Brian Fitzpatrick and Ben Collins-Sussman, was fascinating, as were many of the follow-up questions from attendees during Q&A. There were no open seats that I could see (and I was sitting in the back row), in a room that probably held 400–500 people.

The session started with a simple statement: “we’re here to talk about working with human beings.” Early in the session, Fitzpatrick suggested that “the social stuff is really hard. It’s more squishy. It’s a lot less deterministic.” Collins-Sussman added that, essentially, if you want to be a sucessful software engineer, you need to focus on the social aspects of developing and shipping your applications.

One of the recurring themes from this session was the importance of writing work in supporting the everyday collaboration practices of developers. “You need to document it [your work],” one of the presenters argued. “If it’s not written down anywhere, you will still see people coming in and arguing with you. Keep a trail of documentation so people know where you’ve been and where you’re going.” Fitzpatrick and Collins-Sussman were likewise focused on organizational culture, and, not surprisingly, writing’s role in shaping and mediating that culture (even though they didn’t describe it in those terms).

For example, during the Q&A period following the presentation, a 23 year-old developer asked a question about disruptions caused by a new team member who is in his 40s, and who isn’t respecting the norms of the collaborative. Fitzpatrick and Collins-Sussman suggest that this is a case of “cultural invasion.” “Are there specific development practices that you all adhere to?” they asked. More importantly, “is it [the culture] documented?” they added.

Their answer to the young developer focused on cultural norms, the documentation of those norms, and the role of the developers themselves—not the management team—in helping to enculturate new team members.

“What are the tools you use on a regular basis to define your culture?” they asked, more generally, adding that in their own practice there’s a strong focus on the social and interactive aspects of group work—things like beers on Friday, nerf guns in the workspace, and eating lunch together (while not necessarily talking about work). Social media is important too, as interstitial writing work that helps mediate collaboration and enculturation.

Clearly in evidence at I/O is this realization: there’s a whole lot of people in overlapping disciplines like software engineering and development with whom we might form productive relationships as we broaden the scope and reach of our work. Indeed, in organizations like those described in the Social Skills for Geeks session, the knowledge work of software development, as Grabill and Hart-Davidson note, looks like writing (e.g., code commentary, Scrum), “or is substantively supported by writing” (e.g., cultural norms and practices). Writing, Grabill and Hart-Davidson argue, “is how knowledge work carries value in organizations.”

Fitzpatrick and Collins-Sussman argued something very similar.

Kopelson contends that composition studies, as a field, primarily consumes ideas from other disciplines, exerting “little to no interdisciplinary influence.”

Perhaps by spending more time with software developers, researchers in computers and writing can better effect the robust interdisciplinarity that we’ve been seeking, in a way that can truly enrich both disciplines.

I, for one, am going to keep hanging out at developer’s conferences…


May 24, 2011

Using Wikis to Increase Student Meta-Awareness of Discourse Production

Contributed by Rik Hunter

Many educators have asked students to work collaboratively on wikis. Take for example this list of school and university projects using Wikipedia. And the increasing adoption of wikis for teaching was the focus of Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop’s recent New York Times article, “For More Students, Working on Wikis Is Part of Making the Grade,” in which she describes how students at several Singapore universities are being required to collaboratively write articles—in one example, on digital media in India (it’s unclear from the article whether these students are writing for Wikipedia). The professor involved in this project explains how his students learning has improved through a writing-to-learn approach. Rather than memorization of information for exams, students had to engage more profoundly with the material in order to write about it. Moreover, he’s using the assignment to put students in a public writing situation and help students gain a broader and deeper notion of audience, one in which they not only edit each other’s work but also receive feedback from readers beyond the classroom.

I could go one regarding the benefits this professor describes, but instead, I want to focus on a topic that fundamentally speaks to teaching about writing and teaching with Wikipedia or wikis in general. I’ve been interested in the often-at-odds mindsets that come with conceptions of individual and collaborative authorship as well as how these mindsets manifest in school and voluntary sites of writing such as Wikipedia. In my teaching, the aim has been to help students recognize these mindsets and learn about the “conflict and tension between the values, beliefs, attitudes, interactional styles, uses of language, and ways of being in the world which two or more Discourses represent” (Gee, 1989, p.7).

Based on my research on the World of Warcraft Wiki (WoWWiki), I’ve found it’s necessary for contributors to have the ability to shift mindsets when writing in a particular context. That is, from what I’ve seen on the wiki’s talk pages, those contributors who are less skilled in collaborative authorship stand out, for example, in the way they will use “I” and “my” to talk about their contributions, while more experienced contributors tend to use “we.” I see something similar in my writing courses. For instance, I’ve had students who started new articles on Wikipedia and come back later to find it marked for deletion. The initial response is panic: “Will I still pass the assignment if my article gets deleted?” Or students want to know how I will separate their edits from those of others. Of course, I expect these reactions. That they worry about the grade is natural in the context of school. What students come to see is that the text they have contributed to Wikipedia is no longer theirs alone. It can be revised by others: deleted, moved around, expanded. They have to learn how to work with others, and separating out who did what loses importance, hopefully. It makes for a productive conversation, and I often find myself going back to Candace Spigelman’s (2000; 2004) work on writing groups. She found that more experienced writers “shared common ‘insider’ knowledge about writing theory, processes, and strategies …” (2000, p. 119) and that less experienced writers had difficulty in their peer review groups because did not share these beliefs, values, attitudes, and practices regarding writing. She suggested that novice writers needed to learn how to be more like the experienced writers before they could fully benefit from writing groups.

Both my research and Spigelman’s point to the importance of uncovering the ways of being a particular kind of writer in a particular situation. Having them write on Wikipedia is one way to accomplish this goal. It’s less about what they’re writing or how well and more about helping them develop a meta-awareness about how that writing is organized by circumstance—in this case, what it means to write somewhere other than in school and as an individual.

What I’ve described here is similar to what Robert E. Cummings wrote about in his Inside Higher Ed article: “Before they begin writing to Wikipedia, however, we use a series of low-stakes writing assignments to learn about the “discourse community.” We learn about the five pillars of Wikipedia, we read the Wikipedia film style guide, and we consider how we will react if our contributions are removed or criticized.”

In contrast to my assignment, Cummings broaches discussions about Wikipedia’s culture before asking students to contribute to Wikipedia rather than after. But the activity we’re both asking of students is to go beyond writing for Wikipedia and consider what it means to participate in a discourse community. In addition to Wikipedia policy and guideline articles that explain how to participate on Wikipedia, part of learning to work on Wikipedia, I would argue, includes asking students to examine what happens between writers on article talk pages and why talk pages serve an important function in the collaborative writing process.

Schneider, Passant, and Breslin (2010) report that recent studies of Wikipedia have found that “Talk pages have been added more quickly than articles, growing at a rate of 11x, compared to 9x for articles. Over a 2.5 year period, edits to Wikipedia Talk pages nearly doubled from 11% to 19% of all page edits, while article edits nearly halved from 53% to 28% of all page edits” (p. 2-3). They add that Viegas (2007) found articles with talk pages had been edited more and have more editors. I think it’s fair to say that more revision will result in better writing. And while I haven’t studied whether more talk results in more revision that results in better writing on WoWWiki, my experience tells me that “featured articles” have many—sometimes dozens of—contributors to talk pages and are generally much longer than talk pages of non-featured articles. More importantly, talk pages are one of the main sites of enculturating newcomers.

At the end of the day, I want students to be able to recognize the characteristics and norms of the writing culture they find themselves within. To ask and answer certain questions when entering a new writing situation, such as What kinds of knowledge count? What methods of knowledge construction (e.g., collaborative) are valued and effective? Study of and participation on a site of writing like Wikipedia can give students powerful knowledge that helps them to navigate through future writing situations.


May 17, 2011

Rethinking Academic Publishing Conventions

Contributed by Virginia Kuhn.

I was delighted to contribute to the new CCDP blog for many reasons, not least of which is my high regard for the press’s creators who have been so integral in advancing the need for active and critical engagement with emergent technologies. Indeed the recent blossoming of the digital humanities only serves to highlight the work that digital rhetoricians and composition scholars have long been engaged in carrying out.

I have been a bit removed from the field of rhetoric and composition for the last six years or so, given that my faculty appointment is in cinema. In fact, this year was the first CCCC I have been to for many years since I typically attend SCMS (Society for Cinema and Media Studies), which also convenes in spring. This year, however, I presented at both SCMS and CCCC and the issue of digital publication, naturally, arose at each.

The issues surrounding digital publication are obviously quite numerous and they raise questions that many of us have been grappling with for years: Will digital presses help cure academic presses, which, unable to recoup the cost of publishing highly specialized monographs, are failing? How does one assess and jury digital work? What about fair use and copyright when media is added to words? Should the move to digital publications come from senior scholars or from graduate students and junior faculty?

The bigger question of course, is which conventions of academic publishing associated with books should be applied to digital scholarship and which should simply be abandoned. Several examples arose at a CCCC panel The New Work of the Digital Book in Composition Studies (N.04), as panelists Cheryl Ball, Ryan Trauman and Debra Journet discussed some of the obstacles they’d encountered in creating a digital anthology for CCDP. Two of these I find particularly striking and they center on issues surrounding peer review and those of indexing and archiving digital work.

Cheryl Ball noted that peer review is untenable when one considers media elements like video where the face of the author is often shown narrating the argument, and this proved an obstacle to their process. And I firmly believe that the jurying of work for publication is one of the strongest features of the academic process, and further, that if digital scholarship is to be taken seriously by traditional academia, it must be juried. Still, clearly our peer review practices have not kept pace with the affordances of the digital.

Indeed, several experiments in public review of academic texts online have commenced over the past few years. In 2006, the Institute for the Future of the Book partnered with McKenzie Wark and designed an interface to place drafts of his book GAM3R TH3ORY, on the if:book site in paragraph size chunks to which readers were invited to add their comments. Harvard Press, having already issued a contract for the book, played along. Although McKenzie exhausted himself responding to the onslaught of commentary, he noted how valuable the feedback proved as he completed the manuscript. And while there have been several forays into this type of public peer review since then, GAM3R TH3ORY, remains a remarkable example in that the emphasis was not only on the public commentary, but also on the very structure of a book-length text and how it might be reimagined.

Shortly thereafter, the Institute created ComentPress, a WordPress plug-in designed to allow comments of large texts at the paragraph level. Projects that have attempted open peer review using CommentPress have served to shed light on the process itself, seeding great conversations along the way. Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence includes a chapter with an overview of the history of peer review (defined as “the assessment of manuscripts by more than one qualified reader, usually not including the editor of a journal or press”), which, it turns out, is more akin to censorship than to quality control. Likewise Noah Wardrip-Fruin used Comment Press in tandem with conventional manuscript submission processes with his book, Expressive Processing. Based on the experience, he concludes that blind reviews actually hampered his efforts at revision since weighing the often-disparate and conflicting comments one receives, is aided when one has a sense of the commenter’s expertise.

If anonymous reviewer commentary is simply less helpful, anonymous authorship is downright impossible, as Cheryl noted in the example with which I started. Even if the video elements included in an article do not reveal the author (as most of mine do not), masking one’s identity is problematic logistically speaking. For instance, I tend to stream video from the Internet Archive when I publish with it, and recently I had an article due to a digital journal; in order to keep the review blind as is the journal’s policy, they suggested I create a dummy account at the Internet Archive. I have a long standing IA account and really would hate to both waste its resources and complicate matters in that way—authoring with video is far more time consuming than with words alone and added these steps significantly increase that workload.

And it just felt wrong.

What sort of authoring practices are we promoting when we insist that an author mask her identity at every step? Often the type of contextualizing one must do to make a strong argument necessitates some hint of one’s scholarly or institutional identity. Moreover, this trend suggests a type of removed distance and disinterest masquerading as objectivity. Scholars should care deeply about their work (logos, pathos and ethos!). This is not to say that a publication should not be rigorous, but simply that such rigor is often achieved when authors disclose their subject position and, by explaining their methodology, defend their approach. Further, as the digital sphere evolves at lighting speed, the scholarly mission ought to be to transform and shape the terms of the discursive field, rather than merely critiquing it from the sidelines. This requires affiliating ourselves in writing. I see this as an ethical imperative.

I think it’s worth noting an older example of this public peer review using digital media—in anticipation of her 1998 keynote to the CCCC, Cindy Selfe sent a draft around to various listserves, asking for feedback. At the time I was a graduate student in a computer pedagogy seminar, making my first web pages. I was quite taken with this move of Cindy’s, finding it to be equal parts daring, humble, and intellectually generous. It was typical of both the collaborative nature of the community of computers and writing, even as it presaged these more recent efforts that signal the blossoming of the digital humanities.

In text-based digital work, the logistics of peer review are more straightforward—whether it’s public or done behind the scenes, one can use text to responds to text. This gets muddied when we had media elements: not only is it difficult to give feedback toward revision, it’s hard to index and archive pieces that use the registers of sound, image and video in addition to words.

Again, this issue arose at the CCCC panel, The New Work of the Digital Book. Ryan Trauman showed a very cool interface he’d designed for indexing this anthology, one that did not simply adopt the static index of the codex. His interface looked great and it’s certainly one I’d want to use, but it’s also programmed in Flash, which renders it problematic in terms of both its deployment on various mobile devices (the Apple-Adobe feud rears its ugly corporate head) and it also becomes non-repeatable such that it’s got to be reprogramed for each use. I’d like to use it, but really I can’t. Moreover, Flash does not allow one to include distinct urls for each component it houses, and this significantly hampers functionalities when one wants to point to a specific section of a larger piece. Flash is also not terribly text-friendly so it prevents web indexing even as its updates have become more and more frequent over the last few years making older versions difficult to access. Having published several Flash pieces myself, I am alert to this concern and am always looking for an alternative.

For all of these reasons then, I spend a lot of time looking for the perfect digital platform for media-rich work. I am especially interested in applications created by academics for academics, rather than those emerging from corporate interests: what is under the hood matters. To that end, I recently published a piece in Scalar, an emerging application created by the Vectors team and the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture. This piece, Filmic Texts and the Rise of the Fifth Estate, was published in the International Journal of Learning and Media in February, just on the heels of Alex Juhasz’s Learning From YouTube, the video-book published by MIT Press in a prototype of Scalar (It’s worth noting that the IJLM is also published by MIT Press.) There are all kinds of reasons for loving Scalar, from the nuanced relationship between text and media elements it allows, to the blog-literate WYSIWYG, and I’ve written about them within the article For my purposes here then, I want to highlight one element of Scalar: the functionality that allows many visualizations of both a single “page” as well as a larger “book” or “article”. While some of the views are programmed in Flash the developers programmed a new visualization view in HTML5 just this past week. The screen capture below gives a quick visual of the possibilities:

The field of rhetoric and composition studies is so wonderfully adept at reflecting critically on pedagogical practices, and interrogating received wisdom about the nature of academic literacy and argument. This same lens desperately needs to be trained on the processes of publishing at the pragmatic, but more importantly, at the philosophical level. We can then decide which conventions ought to be carried forward and which should simply be shed, their usefulness having long since passed.

Critical inquiries such as this have the potential to update our work, and indeed to transform it in really exciting ways.



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