The New Work of Composing

Scholarship on the Move:
A Rhetorical Analysis of Scholarly Activity in Digital Spaces
Literature Review

When analyzing each text, we looked for the ways it exhibited particular scholarly rhetorical moves, both those characteristic of traditional, conventional, print scholarship and those afforded by digital publication venues. Because digital spaces allow for the inclusion of multiple modes, we identified the ways each of these practices was illustrated across different modes: word, image (still and moving), sound, and navigational structure.

We isolated five categories of rhetorical moves to look for in our study: explicit argumentation, speculation, implicit association, dialogic exchange, and formal enactment. We chose these because they represent both the moves scholars have identified as characteristic of traditional academic scholarship and the moves they have identified as possible in new scholarly forms. These categories also reflect the scholarly activities Ernest Boyer (1990) championed—discovery, integration, application, and teaching—as well as the areas Purdy and Walker (2010) identify—design and delivery, recentness and relevance, and authorship and accessibility. These, Purdy and Walker argued, are distinctive in digital work but important to recognize when evaluating scholarly activity in all forms. As with any categorical scheme, our classifications are imperfect. Some moves might fall into more than one category; other moves fall outside the scheme altogether. However imperfect, this system provides a useful means to identify what scholarly texts do and how scholarly activities manifest and transform themselves in digital scholarship.

Explicit argumentation

Explicit argumentation includes those practices overtly taught in instructional materials (i.e., what we teach in our composition classes) and modeled in published scholarship (i.e., what authors do to get their texts published in respected academic journals and university presses). They fit the traditional research model and are what many of us intuitively do when producing scholarly work. Michael J. Cripps (2005) characterized the paradigmatic academic essay “as a largely textual enterprise whose success depends on the clear organization of ideas, active engagement with relevant scholarship, and a substantive contribution to knowledge or understanding about some slice of the world” (“visual rhetoric”). That is, it is a work that communicates primarily with words, includes an explicit thesis statement and linear organization, directly connects evidence and claims, and reviews relevant literature within a particular scholarly conversation, including conventional bibliographic citation.

These practices are intimately familiar to teacher-scholars in English studies. One can pick up nearly any composition handbook for enumeration of and instruction in these ideals, and reviewers for academic publications are generally asked to comment on them. Reviewers for the journal Computers and Composition, for example, used to receive an email that asks them to “comment as necessary on the following: importance of topic, adequacy of conceptualization, freshness of treatment, and success in integrating computers and composition in a meaningful way.” Because our pedagogical and research materials identify these argumentation practices as defining what constitutes (good) scholarly work, we looked for them in the texts we analyzed.


Other knowledge-making practices are possible, however, which led us to look beyond explicit argumentation. Despite (or perhaps because of) their prevalence, the rhetorical moves associated with explicit argumentation have been challenged and critiqued. Post-process and feminist scholars identify argumentative assertion as a defining characteristic of scholarship but insist that it need not (and should not) be. Gary A. Olson (1999), for example, called for abandoning the “rhetoric of assertion” (p. 9ff) in favor of a more feminine writing—a discourse that is dynamic, open-ended, and nonassertive (pp. 13-14; see also Kastman Breuch, 2002; Tobin, 2001). Lillian Bridwell-Bowles (1992) likewise pointed to how prevailing models of scholarship are “based on revealing a single truth (a thesis)” but affirmed that “argumentation . . . need not be the only form our scholarly writings take” (p. 351). She advocated “a less rigid methodological framework, a writing process that allows me to combine hypothesizing with reporting data, to use patterns of writing that allow for multiple truths . . . rather than a single thesis” (p. 350; see also Flynn, 1988; Jarrett, 2001). Elsewhere Joyce R. Walker (2006) explored the potentials for such speculative knowledge-making in digital venues. These scholars both value and promote other practices that produce knowledge—in particular, speculation: more tentative, less forceful consideration of ideas. Following these scholars, we also looked for evidence of speculation in the digital texts we studied.

Implicit association

Implicit association follows from the work of hypertext theorists, who argue that digital texts allow for knowledge produced by association and depend on reader intervention and interaction. Jay David Bolter (2001), for instance, affirmed that hypertext allows readers to draw connections and “make the text over in a direction that the author did not anticipate” so that new knowledge can be produced (p. 168). Michael Joyce (1995) reinforced this idea, presenting hypertext as both exploratory and constructive—an inventional tool through which people can create meaning through association (pp. 41-44; see also Landow, 1997; Johnson-Eilola, 1997; Bolter & Grusin, 1999). While hyperlinks are a primary method authors use to draw (and allow readers to draw) such associations, we also looked for other forms of knowledge-producing associations: juxtaposition of words, images, and design elements (see Allen, 2002; Barthes, 1977; Hocks, 2003) as well as non-citational gestures to sources and evidence (see Eyman, 2007).

Dialogic exchange

Social constructionists like Kenneth Bruffee (1984) contend knowledge comes from conversation. He professed, “writing of all kinds is internalized social talk made public and social again. . . . We converse; we internalize conversation as thought; and then by writing, we re-immerse conversation in its external, social medium” (p. 422). For Bruffee such dialogic exchange is the foundation of knowledge production: “Knowledge must be a social artifact. . . . created by a community of knowledgeable peers constituted by the language of that community” (p. 427; see also Howard, 2001; Trimbur, 1989). Indeed, Kenneth Burke's (1941) famous model of scholarly activity, the Burkean Parlor, privileges ongoing dialogue as the heart of scholarly inquiry and knowledge-making. Elsewhere James P. Purdy (2009) and other scholars (e.g., Barton, 2005) explored how digital spaces like wikis can allow for and model these activities. Thus, in our analysis we considered how digital texts encourage and enact direct or indirect dialogue.

Formal enactment

Finally, following visual perception (Gibson, 1986) and new media (Kress, 2005, 2003) scholars, we considered ways in which digital spaces afford formally enacting ideas, encouraging use of presentation and design as rhetorical scholarly moves. Adrian Miles (2003) asserted that digital scholarship allows for “interpretation through implementation” (introduction, 6th screen). We, therefore, identified places in our objects of analysis where authors take advantage of the design possibilities of a particular digital space to make meaning.