The New Work of Composing

Scholarship on the Move:
A Rhetorical Analysis of Scholarly Activity in Digital Spaces
The Study

The core content of our chapter is a rhetorical analysis of scholarly texts in various digital venues for publication: peer-reviewed journal articles, blog posts, discussion group threads, and Twitter feeds. We consider the ways that digital texts present information, provide for speculative consideration of scholarly topics, use aesthetics and design to shape a reader's interaction with or understanding of the text's content, provide for ongoing conversations or reader feedback, or organize information in temporally complex ways. In short, we analyze how the digital texts we examined make meaning and are “scholarly.”

Why we selected the objects of analysis we did

Our objects of analysis represent a range of different digital spaces where scholars seek to produce knowledge. We selected Kairos Best Webtext Award winners from 1997 to 2008 because these texts have already been identified as exemplary scholarship. They were chosen by writing studies teacher-scholars as illustrating “outstanding work in both design and content” (“Best,” 2009). These texts serve as representative examples of the best of formal digital scholarship and thereby provide insight into the knowledge-making practices and rhetorical moves valued in scholarly work.

In addition to peer-reviewed digital publications, we also selected other types of digital scholarly texts. Because we wanted to explore the range of digital spaces in which knowledge can be produced, we looked at scholars' blogs, discussion group contributions, and tweets. We analyzed blogs that earned the John Lovas Memorial Weblog Award since its inception in 2004 (with the exception of the initial award winner, which is no longer online). This award is given each year to "an outstanding blog devoted largely to academic pursuits" ("Best," 2009); thus, its winners have already been identified as productive scholarly texts.

We also examined twelve discussion threads on the Techrhet listserv. Techrhet is devoted to topics of interest to teacher-scholars in computers and composition, so it provides examples of conversations among academic professionals interested in furthering knowledge in the field.

Twitter has recently become a popular digital technology, particularly among scholars in the computers and writing community. In 2009, organizers of the Computers and Writing conference explicitly encouraged attendees to Twitter in response to sessions and activities. The conference, in fact, had its own hash tag. Because it was published by scholars in an academic forum, we decided to analyze the conference's Twitter feed, focusing in particular on the tweets responding to one of the keynote presentations.

The limitations of our corpus

In order to offer thick descriptions of the scholarly activity in digital texts, we opted for more in-depth analysis of fewer examples rather than superficial analysis of many examples. This study is limited by its small corpus, and as a result we cannot draw conclusions about all digital scholarship. What we learn from analyzing this limited number of texts, however, provides a useful beginning to understanding the ways digital scholarship both reinforces and expands what constitutes academic work.

Our analysis is not meant to offer definitive conclusions but to continue the conversation about how scholarly work manifests itself digitally, as we believe this ongoing dialogue is crucial for the future of our field and academic work more broadly. Future work should test if our conclusions hold true for a larger corpus of digital texts. Such work might also expand beyond the texts themselves to study authors, journal editors, and digital and print book publishers. For our part, we are continuing, in our broader research agenda, to study how novice researchers make use of available digital resources to conduct research for academic writing tasks. This work allows us to consider how we can best prepare students to generate knowledge in a digital world (in both academic and non-academic venues).

Potential biases and problems in the coding scheme we developed

What we found in these texts was inevitably shaped by our coding scheme, and our own perceptual lenses inevitably shaped our readings of objects of analysis just as it colored the application of our coding scheme. Other readers might code the texts differently. They also might develop different frameworks; ours is far from the only possibility. Moreover, as academics we are trained to analyze and produce scholarship that follows the conventions of explicit argumentation; thus, we found these rhetorical moves easiest to find. It proved harder to recognize instances of speculation, implicit association, dialogic exchange, and formal enactment, even though we were consciously looking for them. While we knew what to look for to find examples of explicit argumentation, we are still discovering what to look for as evidence of these other rhetorical moves.