As a technical communication scholar and professional, my research interests reside at the intersection of the human and technological, focused specifically on the way rhetorical agency emerges at these interstices. As technical communication scholarship and practice extends into user experience (UX), UX design, experience architecture, and usability testing, my research offers insights into changing understandings of what we mean by the term “user.” This user identity is less likely to be a human persona and more likely to be a collectivity of human activity and technological influence, including machine learning, artificial intelligence, and algorithm-mediated daily experience. We have entered the realm of the posthuman, and our technical communication theory, pedagogy, and practice must adapt to posthuman UX in order to understand and design the systems, communications, and experiences that account for the technological activity intertwined in posthuman agency.
My research focus on the emerging topic of posthuman usability in technical communication is the combination of two primary strands of professional and pedagogical experience.
I am a self-taught professional web developer. My only formal instruction in web development came in the form of a free HTML class I took in 1996 while a public secondary English teacher. We coded HTML using a text editor and previewed our code using the Mosaic web browser — which reveals something about my age, but also represents the strong influence Internet technology has had on my professional experience. I worked over a decade as a freelance web developer and have worked as a web manager on a higher education marketing team, either part-time or full-time, for the past 18 years. I now immerse myself in the very algorithms I study and analyze as a scholar, developing and managing search and social media marketing campaigns while improving search engine optimization (SEO) through content creation and marketing. Experience in web development reveals starkly the pervasive influence that networks, hardware, software, and algorithmic procedures have on daily life. As my research into posthuman agency has accelerated, I’ve theorized that SEO represents algorithmic usability, where human-generated content is manipulated for ease and simplicity of use by algorithmic processes that generate top-level search results. I’ve presented and published research from my experience as a technical communicator in the Proceedings of the 34th and 35th ACM International Conference on the Design of Communication.
Since training to become a secondary English teacher, I have taught students about writing and trained them to become better writers. Deeply influenced by the social turn in composition studies, I have focused my pedagogy on the collaborative social aspects of composing. Given the deeply mediated activity of writing through and with digital technologies, my research and teaching have focused on the collaborative affordances that composing platforms like Google’s G-Suite for Education and cloud-computing platforms like Box, Dropbox, and Google Drive provide for practicing collaborative composing. I’ve collaborated with a colleague at Old Dominion University to publish works on using Google Drive for collaborative composing in the Journal of Usability Studies, in the Proceedings of the Annual Computers and Writing Conference: Vol. 1. 2016-2017 (edited by Cheryl Ball, Chen Chen, Kristopher Purzycki, and Lydia Wilkes), and in collections published by IGI Global (edited by Binod Gurung and Marohang Limbu) and Utah State University Press (edited by Rich Rice and Kirk St.Amant).
Beginning with a “Theories of Networks” class I took with Shelley Rodrigo and Julia Romberger at ODU, my dissertation topic and research has shifted from a focus on literature and cultural studies (albeit with a technological overlay; my 1998 master’s thesis concluded with a comparison of non-linear narrative strategy in The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy with hypertext theory) toward a focus on networked agency in composing. I refined this focus with a class on theories of Technical and Professional Writing taught by Dan Richards, where I discovered the field of technical communication and realized that I had been working as a technical communicator for years without knowing it. I have honed my research to focus attention on tracing rhetorical agency as its emerges during online research practices. My dissertation seeks to trace, describe, and visualize the emergence of assemblage agency during online research as posthuman user experience. My object of study is a student conducting research using an academic library’s “one search” search interface, and my methods combine ethnographic observation with usability testing combined with mining network activity data from browser HTTP Archive (HAR) files. I’ve published my initial theoretical approach and visualization attempts in a special issue of Present Tense on platform rhetorics (edited by Dustin Edwards and Bridget Gelms) and presented these approaches at recent conferences including the International Critical Media Literacy Conference (Southern Georgia University), the Symposium on Communicating Complex Information (East Carolina University), and the annual Computers and Writing conference (George Mason University).
I seek to pursue posthuman UX in future research. Assemblage agency consisting of human and nonhuman entities is relatively straightforward to theorize through work by such disparate scholars as Bruno Latour, Jane Bennett, Rosi Braidotti, N. Katherine Hayles, James Brown, Levi Bryant, Ian Bogost, and others. Assemblage agency is devilishly difficult to trace and reveal, and the methods for doing so are clumsy and untheorized. I intend to adapt existing and explore new methods that technical communication scholars can use to uncover the black box of algorithmic and procedural rhetorical influence. The result of this work, which I intend to introduce in my dissertation, is to provide accessible heuristics and pedagogies that can help scholars and students alike recognize, reveal, and understand the shared agency that emerges in algorithm-mediated daily life. While algorithmic literacy is a term that Cathy Davidson and Ted Striphas have introduced to describe this awareness, my long-term research goal is to develop posthuman UX studies as a practical approach to designing products, systems, and experiences that both recognize assemblage agency and make explicit the shared nature of agency that emerges when humans use algorithm-mediated networked products.
Since I started working as a web developer at the University of Richmond School of Professional & Continuing Studies in 1999, I’ve engaged in designing online experiences for human and, increasingly, algorithmic audiences. The opportunity to study and theorize the very activities I’ve engaged in daily for the past two decades excites and engages me. I’m extending a long history of pedagogy and professional experience into the realm of knowledge making, and I’m eager to keep advancing.