The New Work of Composing

Scholarship on the Move:
A Rhetorical Analysis of Scholarly Activity in Digital Spaces
Discussion Boards: Overview

In this section of our text, we offer analysis of twelve threaded discussions (postings by multiple members) of the Techrhet listserv. In general, we think that our analysis of these types of communications could be applied to a whole range of asynchronous environments, including online discussions related to specific events or specific organizations, or exchanges that make use of social networking services. Our focus was on text-based exchanges that included teachers and scholars in computers and writing.

As Avi Hyman (2002) noted in his article “Twenty Years of ListServ as an Academic Tool,” ListServ has long remained one of the most useable digital tools for the building of ongoing scholarly discussions:

ListServ has been the great equalizer, allowing all parties to speak in the same manner, regardless of their level of technology and bandwidth access. The entry barrier has always been lower than other related technologies. Thus, while the hyperbole continues to swirl around the Web as an educational medium, the quiet e-mail message, magnified through the use of ListServ, continues to dominate academic discourse, staying the course after nearly 20 years of service. (p. 17)

Along with this sustained presence in and "dominat[ion]" of “academic discourse," one of the primary reasons we used these discussion group threads as one of our objects of analysis is that these spaces seem to mediate specifically toward certain aspects of scholarly knowledge-making that are more dialogic and speculative than the print-based scholarly writing in journals and books. Although Hyman (2002) cited numerous studies (Berge & Collins, 1995; Harasim, Hiltz, Teles, & Turoff, 1995; Rojo & Ragsdale, 1997) that have argued that discussion group participation can account for a significant proportion of scholarly activity on the part of many academics, these kinds of communications are rarely used in the assessment of scholarship for promotion and tenure purposes.

The situation now is much the same as that identified by Teresa M. Harrison and Timothy Stephen in their 1992 article, “On-line Disciplines: Computer-mediated Scholarship in the Humanities and Social Sciences,” where they noted that ListServ-based communications do not carry the legitimacy of more traditional forms of scholarly production. This same type of assessment is still common: the nature of these kinds of interactions and the affordances for the ListServ discussion as a genre continue to affect their perceived usefulness as evidence of scholarly production. Nevertheless, these spaces continue to be used frequently.

The discussion group that we have used for our analysis, Techrhet, enjoys widespread use; it has had an active membership since 2000. An active scholarly discussion group such as this one, we argue, can represent the type of scholarly interactions and communications that we feel could be reevaluated using our framework.

General description of Techrhet posts

Posts to the Techrhet listserv range from messages from one person to exchanges between 15-20 individuals; such exchanges range from relatively short posts of a few words or sentences to longer ones equivalent to a page or more of text (although this is rare). Total word counts for a longer thread can exceed 4,000 words of original text, approaching the length of some journal articles.

The posts we analyzed illustrate this range. For example, one of the shorter exchanges, headed “Facebook for English teachers,” includes only seven posts, exchanged between six people. This post took place over a relatively short period of time, from January 8, 2009 to January 9, 2009, and includes 534 words of original text. Meanwhile, one of the longer posts includes two different threads, “Eating your own dog food,” which then morphed into “Synecdoche Heresy.” The original “Eating your own dog food” thread took place from June 5, 2009 to June 6, 2009. It includes six people and six different posts. This discussion was then taken up as a new thread, “Synechdoche heresy,” which includes an additional five people (with one person carrying over from the first thread) and 14 posts. Posts for this new thread extended primarily from June 5, 2009 to July 8, 2009, with a final post entered on October 8, 2009. The final word count of original text produced in both of these connected threads is 4,828.

Our primary interest in presenting these posts is to offer examples of how these threads represent a similar range of scholarly activity, within our framework, to the other kinds of texts we analyze. Although the conventions of the genre encourage a more informal tone and style, and actually discourage the kind of conclusion-making typical of a traditionally organized, print-based scholarly text, these posts nevertheless contain a wide range of supportive community activity and scholarly exchange.

The Prezi below provides results of our analysis.