the ROI on con/tested #cwcon terms


I suppose this follows along on the previous post’s discussion of the name of “computers and writing.” This starts with the second town hall on the subject of professional and technical writing in relation to computers and writing. Bill Hart-Davidson offers this visualization in his brief talk, which you can read here. In his work with Tim Peeples, he depicts the interests/territories of professional writing (in blue) in relation to the interests/territories of rhetoric and composition. He then asked, how would we draw “computers and writing?” Or perhaps, as he also suggested, we might chart out the fields using different terms.

I think the tough question is where has C&W fit in curricular terms? I would say as a topic in FYC, as an elective or maybe a required course within a professional writing major, and, in a few places as a concentration in a graduate program. I’d say the shape would like roughly like the r/c space, except jacked up on technology and diminished on the curricular side.

I think it’s useful to ask what are we doing then and where do we want to go next? The implied answer of the Town Hall is “somewhere hand-in-hand with professional-technical communication.”

I then happened into a panel on digital research methods (G1). There Rik Hunter raised the question of ROI in terms of the learning curve  in acquiring the technical skills to pursue methods for answering questions about data. There’s no doubt there’s a real challenge in acquiring a significant new set of methodological skills after graduate school and before tenure. After tenure, it becomes a different matter, not easier necessarily but different. Another presenter on that panel (I believe it was Kerry Banazek) discussed the ontological commitments that underlie choices we make about empirical methods and the ethical values at stake. Tim Laquintano’s presentation led to a discussion of why it seems that our discipline (meaning R/C in general) tends not to test the claims made in scholarship through repetition of methods. To me these are key observations folding back into the town hall and our questions about names and, in my view, our terminology. Specifically I’d like to con/test some key terms for their ROI and the ontological commitments they represent.


Or you could say that this post is an opportunity for me to complain about the term “multimodality” and its anthropocentric ontological commitments. If we were going to put Computers and Writing/Composition on Bill’s chart and use multimodality as a term, we’d have to say something like, “this one goes to 11.”

While there’s a pre-digital history and variety to multimodality, as someone like Jody Shipka would point out, mostly we use this term to talk about the combination of different media in digital environments. We argue that we are all called upon to communicate in a variety of media, so we should teach our students about such things. And since computers and writing has mostly been an offshoot of composition studies, that instruction has been primarily in two places: in FYC and in the preparation of FYC instructors. Much like Kirschenbaum’s notion of digital humanities as a tactical term, I see multimodality as a tactic to recruit composition studies for the purposes of computers and writing/composition. In some ways the multi- leaves writing alone. It makes writing one of many, part of the multi-, but a secure and stable part. That’s not to say that adding a video or image to a text wouldn’t alter what you’d write, but writing still remains a stable, separate, and identifiable entity.

Multimodality is also human-centered. In fact, this is often specifically announced: it’s people first, not technology. Again, much to the relief of composition studies humanists. And I agree that multimodality, at least as it is deployed in our discipline, is heavily anthropocentric. It is the human perspective that makes the media modes multi-, that brings them into relation with one another in a phenomenological-subjective synthesis.

Is there another way? Many I’m sure. How about a material, media-ecological approach? For experimental purposes, let’s remove the human entirely and look at a quintessential multimodal webpage (like this one). There are media types (or file formats)–html, jpg, etc. There’s a database (this is a blog). There’s the browser and the hardware. One could keep going, down to the circuit boards and out to the server farms. We’ve played this game before, but multimodal doesn’t make much sense of it. It mutes those things that are not easily experienced by the human subject. And because it does that, it is able to stabilize “writing,” preserving it for composition studies. That is to say that the text on this “page” looks like the text on a printed page.

But it ain’t.

Though I taught and sometimes ran a professional writing major for several years about a decade ago (wow, has it been that long?), I don’t feel well-positioned to talk about the field, especially not about technical communication. However, I am very interested in the pragmatic future orientation of Rik’s discussion of ROI. And I see the conversation about professional-technical communication happening in that vein. I see two, maybe 2.5, possibilities.

  1. First and foremost, we create return through pedagogy and students, whether you want to think about that idealistically or in the crudest cynical terms of tuition dollars. Once one gets beyond FYC (and getting beyond I think is crucial for our field and the reason why we are talking about Prof-Tech Comm), one has to be able to show the value to the students before they take the class. That is, you have to persuade them to become majors. I think this isn’t just about pedagogy or research to improve pedagogy. It has to be about creating scholarship that they can see as valuable to them.
  2. It can be about creating roles for ourselves in larger collaborative efforts on campus. I’m thinking primarily in terms of research but it doesn’t have to be. Our colleagues have problems (or we could call them research questions) and we have expertise that can assist in addressing them. I don’t think of this as “service,” though in some instances it might be. Instead I see it more as growing our research interests in response to problems that others also see and value solving. The .5 part of this answer is that, in response to these problems, one then might build the kinds of entities, like ELI Review, that Jeff Grabill discussed.

I don’t have a roadmap for doing this. For me, contesting terms like computers and writing/composition or multimodality are ways of envisioning alternatives. In a media ecology where the institutional assemblages securing writing are deterritorialized both risks and opportunities increase. For me, a (new) material, media-ecological approach offers ways to articulate rhetorical practices (across media) that will create more value for students and in scholarship; it might also establish a zone of disciplinary expertise for digital rhetoric moving forward.