Archive | prior RSS feed for this section

Case Study #2: Apply CHAT and ANT – CH[A(N)T] – to Google Analytics

Literature Review: Google Analytics, My Beloved OoS 

In general, researchers appear to use Google Analytics™ (GA) web analytics service as a tool for  measuring web visits and, to an extent, visitor behavior. In discursive terms, GA collects and visualizes an archive of traces of user interactions with web pages. The discursive activity of visiting (and, presumably, reading) a web page is seldom referenced in research that uses GA for measurement; instead, the archival trace of the discursive activity gets captured, archived, and visualized.

Most research uses an enthymeme that reads something like this: GA data can help developers improve websites. For example, Kirk et al. (2012), in an article seeking to monitor user engagement in an Internet-delivered genetics education resource developed for nurses, report that GA “informs approaches to enhancing visibility of the website; provides an indicator of engagement with genetics-genomics both nationally and globally; [and] informs future expansion of the site as a global resource for health professional education” (p. 559). Similarly, Mc Guckin & Crowley (2012), in an article evaluating the impact of an online cyber-bullying training resource, the CyberTraining Project, report that GA data have “allowed for the project team to further understand how best to optimize the product (i.e., the Website and the eBook) for ease of access and navigation by unique and referred users” (p. 629). Focusing more specifically on GA reporting over time, Plaza (2009) notes that “GA tells the web owner how visitors found the site and how they interact with it. Users will be able to compare the behaviour of visitors who were referred from search engines and emails, from referring sites and direct visits, and thus gain insight into how to improve the site’s content and design” (p. 475). Missing from the enthymeme are assumptions that connect GA to improved websites, assumptions that can be phrased in questions about the relationship between GA, website visitors, and website developers: What data are provided by GA that can directly relate to specific improvements in website design? What user behaviors can and should be examined via GA to evaluate the success of the website? What benchmarks should developers set to measure success or failure? While these questions are not ignored in research that uses GA reporting, they are not directly or specifically addressed. As a result, readers miss out on key assumptions that researchers make about specific ways the data provided by GA reports can and will be used to make concrete changes to website design and structure.

Bruno Latour’s (2005) introduction to actor-network-theory (ANT) identifies transporters of meaning among connections as “mediators” or “intermediaries.” An intermediary “transports meaning or force without transformation” while mediators “transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning or the elements they are supposed to carry” (p. 39). When researchers present GA as a means of measuring user interaction with websites, they generally describe GA as an intermediary. By describing GA as an intermediary, researchers ignore, potentially to their peril, the mediating potential of GA reports. For example, Dahmen & Sarraf (2009), reporting visitor analytics of an online art museum exhibition, claim that “through the use of Google Analytics, this research seeks to understand how the public used the Web representation of the special exhibition” (p. 2). Their report represents GA data as authoritative and unmediated; the GA interface that visualizes and reports visit data is accepted as accurate, without comment. Mc Guckin & Crowley (2012) take a step toward recognizing the potential mediating effects of GA reports by claiming to “ascertain the efficacy of GA as an effective resource for measuring the impact of the CyberTraining project” (p. 628), but they conclude, “Such information [provided by GA] proves valuable in the iterative development and dissemination of the project and has, directly, informed the planning of the new CT4P project” (p. 629). GA is considered a blackboxed intermediary for reporting web visits. In other words, current research offers little theoretical perspective on the potential mediating effects GA may have on the data it reports and visualizes. This blog post seeks to remedy that omission by applying both ANT and cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) to Google Analytics and the data it provides on visitor interactions with the website of the University of Richmond School of Professional and Continuing Studies (SPCS).

An OoS on the LOoSe

One of the most interesting aspects of using GA as my object of study (OoS) is that it remains a product continually in production. Although Google does not address it explicitly, it’s become clear that Google is working to make GA a digital analytics platform that expands well beyond the measurement of interactions on websites. I’m working toward a certificate of completion for Google Analytics Platform Principles (2014) as a followup to a certificate of completion I received for Digital Analytics Fundamentals (2013), and both of these online learning modules address Google Analytics as a broad-based digital analytics platform that handles data from a wide array of sources, even non-Internet-connected applications and appliances. The result, as I’ve experienced it, is that the Google Analytics Platform (yes, that’s the proper noun) is expanding its reach and scope on a weekly, perhaps even daily, basis.

This makes applying activity theories like the cultural-historical remapping of rhetorical theory (CHAT) and actor-network-theory (ANT) quite comfortable. GA as OoS is itself in active flux, continually redefining (perhaps more accurately expanding) itself for a fast-changing connected world.

ChOoSing a Definition

Screen capture of Google Analytics data model

Visualization of the laminated chronotope in Google Analytics. In this overview of the Google Analytics data model, the user (a CHAT node) engages with web content in space (interaction) and time (session).

CHAT might describe GA as a representation of practices within a laminated chronotope. As a tool that measures interactions between visitors and web pages, GA collects the results of “mediated activity:… action and cognition [that] are distributed over time and space among people, artifacts, and environments and thus also laminated, as multiple frames or fields co-exist in any situated act” (Prior et al., 2007, emphasis original). The action that gets represented as a visit in GA is loading a specific web page. Cognition gets represented in the action of following a link on a specific page to load a new page or resource. This activity is collected over time in a session, defined in GA as the time within 30 minutes a single visitor, identified by an anonymous, unique identifier and saved in a first-party cookie (“Platform Principles,” 2014) remains engaged within a surveilled website before leaving that domain or expiring the session time. GA represents all of the activity within that session in an aggregated visualization. Session data are collected over time and are the result of laminated activity among people, artifacts (like web pages) and environments (like browsers, computers, mobile devices and the like).

ANT might describe GA as traces of connections among networked actants. Actants captured in a web session might include the visitor, the technological interface (computer/mouse/monitor or mobile device), the web page content and links, the writer of the web content, the host server, the network gateways and cables, and many more too numerous to detail. ANT would likely chafe under the need to define the collecting mechanism itself, however, and suggest that GA might be an artificial data assemblage that needs to be reassembled. Specifically, since GA is a data framework that collects only preselected data points (“Tracking Code Overview,” 2012), GA might be accused of “filtering out” and “disciplining” the data collection: “Recording not filtering out, describing not disciplining, these are the Laws and the Prophets” (Latour 2005, p. 55, emphasis original). More useful might be the preprocessed data collected by Google Analytics servers; processing organizes the web session into a predefined framework, precisely the activity ANT seeks to avoid in its practice.

LOoSe the Nodes

CHAT might define nodes as literate activity “among people, artifacts, and environments” (Prior et al., 2007). Using this definition, GA includes such human nodes as website visitors, web writers (including CSS, XHTML, JavaScript, and other programmers), website designers and developers, and marketers who determine the content of the web pages and websites. In the case of the SPCS GA account, institutional nodes would include the University of Richmond and the School of Professional and Continuing Studies, each of which contributes in a meaningful way to the visual and textual rhetoric of the site. Working together as an ecology in the functional system of the website, these nodes would all be aspects of CHAT’s literate activity. Visitors might be ascribed limited agency for their roles in reading content and authoring linked narratives. Web writers, marketers, and developers would have full agency as content creators. The website itself is ascribed no agency; it’s not considered part of the natural ecology of the network. Institutional entities (UR and SPCS) have minimal agency as regulators of environment and work.

ANT defines nodes as actors, and there are myriad actors (more precisely, actor-networks) at work in GA. From the programmed codes written and interpreted to the software and hardware mediating and displaying web pages to the visitors and writers and programmers to the network providers and databases—ANT accepts any and all of these actants as nodes with the potential of agency. Latour (2005) refers to these objects as “the non-social means mobilized to expand them [the basic social skills] a bit longer” (p. 67) and confesses that ANT will “accept as full-blown actors entities that were explicitly excluded from collective existence by more than one hundred years of social explanation” (p. 69). The implication is that all the technological hardware and software — the GA code, the wired and wireless networks (cables, routers, and servers), and the Google Analytics processes server — work together to enable the web visitor to interact with this creation of the web writer, developer, coder, and marketer. This collective is incorporated at the moment of loading a web page, and its momentary connectivity is both enabled and expanded by agency of the object actors.

Where ROoSt the Nodes?

CHAT locates nodes in hierarchical relationships with one another in the network. Prior et al. (2007) conceive of literate activity producing socialized interaction within the functional system as part of the laminated chronotope of activity in space and time (Take 2: A Cultural-Historical Remapping of Theoretical Activity). In this hierarchy, web visitors are outside the system except during literate activity, defined as interacting with the multimodal text(s) within the site. Web writers, developers, and marketers are members of the functional system where literate activity (defined as creating and instantiating the multimodal text) occurs. The website itself is the functional system; the School gives the system chronological and spatial existence while the University gives the system technological existence. GA collects traces of literate activity among nodes within the functional system of the website, visualized and reported as interactions in space (between pages) and time (within sessions).

ANT flattens the network entirely. Latour’s (2005) conception of ANT works to keep the social flat (pp. 165-172), connecting all of the actor-networks (nodes) within the activity network in a single, non-hierarchical surface. Within GA, this flatness is largely retained within the report. All actor-networks have mediated, translated experiences of web content — there are no intermediary experiences, whether visitor or writer, software or hardware. GA reports a visualization of mediated network activity in a flattened data table. The flattened data table in GA treats the visitor’s web browser or operating system as equally significant to the actor-network represented by the visitor or web writer. Relationships between actors are largely un-disciplined; they are simply reported, regardless of the inherent logic (or lack thereof) in the relationship uncovered.

FootlOoSe Nodes

CHAT stresses an ecological relationship among nodes, limiting that ecology to the natural and material world (Prior et al., 2007). Visitors enter into the functional system of the website and navigate through it. Web writers, developers, and marketers engender the navigation links through the system, giving visitors pathways for narrative production. The website functions as the system, enabling web visits in time and space. The School provides content for the system, while the University provides the localized instantiation of the content in the website. GA records the traces of interactions within the functional system, visualizing them in laminated chronotopes in time and space. GA does not clearly identify the human actors in the network, preferring to aggregate identities. However, GA enables web writers, developers, and marketers to examine the traces of aggregated literate activity by visitors and revise website content and structure accordingly. This provides the opportunity for dialogue among human actors.

ANT stresses incoming connections among interconnected nodes. Latour (2005) frames this according to what it means to be a “whole”: “to be a realistic whole is not an undisputed starting point but the provisional achievement of a composite assemblage” (p. 208). Nodes that have more incoming connections than others are considered more settled and blackboxed, meaning they shift from being merely actors to becoming conduits for the flow of mediators: “an actor-network is what is made to act by a large star-shaped web of mediators flowing in and out of it” (p. 217). Such a star-shaped web of mediators is immediately visible in GA reports: the page in a website that receives the most visits or page views is the most connected page. This page is generally the website’s home page, and its purpose is not to provide content but to allow mediators to flow through it — to allow visitors to find what they’re seeking and connect to it.

WhOoShing through the Network

In GA, visit data — encrypted bits and bytes, assemblages of sequenced zeros and ones — moves from the visitor’s device to the GA server for processing and reporting. The collection process leading up to this movement differs between browsers (mobile and non-mobile) and mobile apps: browsers send data collections with every page load, but mobile apps bundle visit data and send it in timed intervals to protect mobile device battery life. This too simply describes a very complex ecology of network and computer hardware and software that transmits data from web content creators to web visitors to GA servers, but I’m limiting this discussion of movement to data from visitor’s device to GA servers. See the Google Analytics (2014) Academy “Data Collection Overview” video presentation (below) for additional details.

CHAT might describe this movement as distribution in the literate activity of viewing a web page or using a mobile app. Prior et al. (2007) define distribution as “the way particular media, technologies, and social practices disseminate a text and what a particular network signifies” (Mapping Literate Activity). In this case, two distributions occur: the distribution leading to reception (by the web page visitor) and distribution leading to the assemblage of visit data collected for interpretation on GA servers.

Screen capture from YouTube video

Visualization of Google Analytics data points. The tracking code packages visit (hit) data in an image request that looks like this. Screen capture from Google Analytics Platform Principles – Lesson 2.1 Data collection overview

ANT might describe this movement as the social. The assemblage of connections from hundreds of thousands of SPCS visitor pageviews flowing into the GA server could be what Latour (2005) calls “the social — at least that part that is calibrated, stabilized, and standardized — [that] is made to circulate inside tiny conduits that can expand only through more instruments, spending, and channels” (p. 241). In this case, the conduits are standardized in the GA’s preselected data points (“Tracking Code Overview,” 2012). When and if GA adds new data points for collection, these tiny conduits would be expanded. This definition also suggests that many other connections remain unsurveyed, Latour’s “plasma.” The assemblage of all connections would be the social fabric of the network.

Meaning Released from the HOoSegow?

CHAT might describe meaning as the result of literate activity in the functional system. Prior et al. (2007) map literate activity as a multidimensional process that can include production, representation, distribution, reception, socialization, activity, and ecology (Mapping Literate Activity). The results of this literate activity are recorded and transmitted from visitor’s devices to GA servers. The meaning of these data points are processed (interpreted) and reported as visualizations. That meaning becomes the basis of analysis; analysis leads to conclusions about visitor behavior, which in turn result in changes to the web content leading to new literate activities.

ANT, on the other hand, ascribes no meaning to the results of CHAT’s literate activity. Latour (2005) remains adamant into the conclusion of Reassembling the Social that the social is dynamic and active, not a substance: “the social is… detected through the surprising movements from one association to the next” (p. 246). As a result, what GA does in processing and visualizing the results of activity in the SPCS website is not about ascribing meaning, but about tracing associations. And because those associations (connections) are mediated by the limited data points collected, the processing done by the GA servers, and the visualizations available, the reassembled social of GA is likely too limited to trace the plasmatic connectivity of the visitor’s web browsing experience.

Networks Emerge, Networks VamOoSe

CHAT and ANT will agree on this: actors initiate, grow, and dissolve networks. Prior et al. (2007) and Latour (2005) build their arguments on the social activities of actors. CHAT engages those actors in literate activity, while ANT engages those actors as connected actor-networks. Only activity on the part of actors can cause the network to emerge. For CHAT, only the activity of web content creators, web developers, database administrators, marketers, and web visitors can generate the first packet of data to flow across the network from visitor device to GA server. For ANT, the list of actors can extend much farther into non-human actants, but the principle remains the same: actors must initiate the network. Actors can grow the network through more visitor sessions — by many measurements, adding visitor sessions and growing session length is my primary professional objective as web manager — and actors can also dissolve the network by removing a web page (authors) or no longer visiting the website (visitors).

ClOoSing Thoughts

GA itself is a fairly limited network. Its boundaries could easily be drawn around the connection between the GA code on the web page or in the mobile app and the GA server. Any other activity that either leads up to the connection or follows the connection — namely writing and viewing a web page or viewing and interpreting GA visualized data — could be seen outside the network. Except that CHAT and ANT seek to problematize such limited perspectives of networks by addressing the activity that enlivens connectivity. So for these two theories, I found myself widening the focus to include the biological (CHAT and ANT) and non-biological (ANT) nodes in the network. This perspective turns into an ecology whose various members are only momentarily connected at the moment of accessing a web page or mobile app. But in that moment, myriad connections reveal actors and build a remarkably complex assemblage of networked components. As a result, I found few limits in CHAT or ANT to addressing GA as my OoS — other than the shortage of meaningful English words that contain the character string “-oos”.

References

Dahmen, N., & Sarraf, S. (2009). Edward Hopper Goes to the Net: Media Aesthetics and Visitor Analytics of an Online Art Museum Exhibition. Conference Papers — International Communication Association, 1-28.

Digital analytics fundamentals [Online course]. (2013, October). Retrieved from Google Analytics Academy https://analyticsacademy.withgoogle.com/explorer

Google Analytics platform principles [Online course]. (2014, March). Retrieved from Google Analytics Academy https://analyticsacademy.withgoogle.com/explorer

Kirk, M., Morgan, R., Tonkin, E., McDonald, K., & Skirton, H. (2012). An objective approach to evaluating an internet-delivered genetics education resource developed for nurses: Using Google Analytics™ to monitor global visitor engagement. Journal of Research in Nursing, 17(6), 557–579. doi:10.1177/1744987112458669

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies

Mc Guckin, C., & Crowley, N., (2012). Using Google Analytics to evaluate the impact of the CyberTraining Project. CyberPsychology, Behavior & Social Networking, 15(11), 625-629. doi:10.1089/cyber.2011.0460

Platform principles: Website data collection [Video transcript]. (2014, March). Google Analytics Platform Principles. Retrieved from Google Analytics Academy https://analyticsacademy.withgoogle.com/course02/assets/html/GoogleAnalyticsAcademy-PlatformPrinciples-Lesson2.2-TextLesson.html

Plaza, B. (2009). Monitoring web traffic source effectiveness with Google Analytics: An experiment with time series. Aslib Proceedings, 61(5), 474-482. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/00012530910989625

Prior, P., Solberg, J., Berry, P., Bellwoar, H., Chewning, B., Lunsford, K. J., Rohan, L., Roozen, K., Sheridan-Rabideau, M. P., Shipka, J., Van Ittersum, D., & Walker, J. R. (2007). Re-situating and re-mediating the Canons: A cultural-historical remapping of rhetorical activity [Multimodal composition]. Kairos, 11(3). Retrieved from http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/11.3/binder.html?topoi/prior-et-al/index.html

Google Analytics. (2014, March 11). Google Analytics Platform Principles – Lesson 2.1 Data collection overview [Video file]. Retrieved from http://youtu.be/qQdPXouWeJE

Tracking code overview [Web page]. (2012, October 29). Google Analytics. Retrieved from Google Developers https://developers.google.com/analytics/resources/concepts/gaConceptsTrackingOverview#howAnalyticsGetsData

[Header image: I’m a Google Analytics Geek: Screen capture of the Google Analytics Academy]

Mindmap #6: Getting a Little CHATty

In this week’s mindmap I found myself struggling to remember where things were to which I wanted to connect CHAT. I added a node for Prior et al. (representing the core text and the various operational representations included in the Kairos Remediating the Canons topic) and for CHAT, with its three basic areas of focus: literate activity occurring in functional systems within laminated chronotopes. I also connected CHAT to a theorized, but not especially effectively operationalized, theoretical construct.

Mindmap visualization

Mindmap #5: Getting a Little CHATty (and very crowded) – Popplet

At this point in the term, theoretical stances and their connections to one another are starting to blur in annoying, but also somewhat useful, ways. As time puts distance between my reading of theorists (like Bazerman and Foucault), I find that I’m able to pick up on general concepts within those theories rather than specific theoretical positions. I recognize the importance of recalling and applying specific theoretical positions, and I’m not suggesting I’ve lost the ability to do so (although it may take a little note reading to do it effectively). But in drawing connections among theorists and theories, I’ve found that having a general understanding of major concepts provides tools needed to more accurately draw connections.

For example, as I inserted CHAT into my mindmap, I immediately recognized that CHAT’s functional systems are roughly analogous to genre tracing’s activity system, so I drew a connecting line between those two aspects. CHAT sees the functional system as a social aspect of rhetoric in the same way genre tracing conceives of activity systems as consisting of social groups whose members are influenced by impulses toward centrifugal or centripetal change.

While I can’t always articulate the specific way(s) that theories match, understanding some of the major concepts provides a quick connectivity that can be tested and supported (or refuted) as needed. This has been useful to me, as I find myself too often sucked into trying to understand very specific aspects of theoretical stances (what is that historical a priori, after all, and does it relate in any way to the laminated chronotope?) rather than working to grasp a macro-view of the concepts as they work together to form the theory. I suppose I’m continually seeking to see theory operationalized or revealed in an OoS, and that only rarely happens (Spinuzzi being the delightful exception).

To date, I have found our theorists building upon one another.

  1. Bitzer and his respondents start working on the rhetorical situation.
  2. Foucault (see part 1 and part 2) examines in minute detail discursive formations to develop conceptions of statements, discourse, and archives of discourse.
  3. Bazerman, Miller, and Popham start examining the socially active aspects of rhetoric and start theorizing rhetorical systems.
  4. Rhetorical systems need to be assessed, so DWAE addresses some of the issues and questions surrounding our assessment of online networked discourse.
  5. Systems are the focus of Spinuzzi, who addresses the way genres work with and against one another within systems.
  6. And Prior et al. demonstrate that even our understanding of rhetorical systems needs to be questioned, problemetized, and expanded to address Bakhtinian time-space and its relationship to literate activities in those systems.

Each theory builds on the work of its predecessors in clear and specific ways, ways that are much easier to see as we travel farther away in time-space from Bitzer, Biesecker, and Vatz. I’m pretty sure hypertext theory is going to problematize this seemingly smooth (in hindsight) transition from theorist to theorist.

Problematizing theory is clearly the goal, both of this class and of scholars of rhetoric. It’s rather enjoyable, if sometimes wickedly selfish and self-immolative. Do we face the possibility that we’ll problematize ourselves out of defensible theories?

sad cat picture - no more theory

And blog about that new theory, too!

[Rock Inclusions: Might these be laminated chronotopes, too? Creative Commons licensed image from Flickr user Travis]

Reading Notes: Theorizing a CHATty Canon

Cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) opens wide the theory of composition to the laminated materiality, space, and time of rhetoric, elements missing from the classical rhetorical canon that focuses primarily on the rhetor. “CHAT offers a richer map of activity. Where the classical canons mapped the situational, productive acts of a rhetor, this CHAT map points to a complex set  of interlocking systems within which rhetors are formed, act, and navigate” (Prior et al., 2007, Core Text, p. 22). Accepting the role these interlocking systems play in rhetoric offers a wide range of cultural and historical data points with which to map, examine, and articulate a discursive act, data points that are simply unavailable to us when describing a discursive act using the classical canon as a framework.

Not only does CHAT open wide composition theory, it also opens wide the eyes of those examining it for the first time, like me. CHAT is deceptively authentic in its understanding and depiction of rhetorical canon. There’s an element of the “duh” tucked within its pages of theory. It’s just so obvious once you start thinking about it. Rhetorical activity is not bound by classical canons; binding it so limits its vision, its breadth and scope. Rhetorical activity as it happens in public and private spaces combines a rich tapestry of histories, cultural memory and practice, semiotic systems, invoked and inscribed audiences, research processes, memory work, and rhetors. It’s an activity system that requires a far more nuanced and layered understanding of discursive formation than classical canons provide. While CHAT may not be the only theory that seeks to address rhetorical activity as actually practiced in real networks or systems, it’s certainly compelling and attractive.

The readings this week coalesced around the three aspects of the CHAT remapped rhetorical canon: literate activity in functional systems in laminated chronotypes (Prior et al, 2007, Core Text, p. 18). These three aspects represent levels working together heterogeneously in the creation, distribution, reception, and function of discourse. These levels are not hierarchical nor sequential; they function as cultural-historical aspects of the activity system that creates discourse. The CHAT rhetorical canon offers a nuanced, detailed, and localized framework for understanding and describing multimodal composition strategies, structures, activities, and assessments: “This perspective tunes our attention to multimodality, not as a question of which mode a message might be placed in, but as a question of how multiple modes operate together in a single rhetorical act and of how extended chains of modal transformations may be linked in a rhetorical trajectory” (p. 23). This concept of rhetorical trajectory embodies the activity of rhetoric in far more nuanced ways than Miller’s (1984) genre as social action or even Bazerman’s (1994) genre system or (2004) activity systems. “Trajectory” denotes a continuing path and connotes, to 20th century audiences, at any rate, the future embedded in space exploration as symbol of greater things to come. CHAT also recognizes the history embedded in genres, as Spinuzzi (2010) pointed out, by noting the rhetorical trajectories emerge from “extended [linked] chains of modal transformations” (Prior et al., 2007, Core Text, p. 23). This theory embodies the idea that discourse embeds within it both potential and actual activity; past, present, and future; rhetor and audience; purpose and symbolic system; context and meaning. And it places all of those aspects of discourse into cultural-historical time/space.

Prior: Remaking IO, Remaking Rhetoric: Semiotic Remediation as Situated Rhetorical Practice

Prior takes as his object of study the act of remediating an art object called IO, an interactive website with words and images. This web text illustrates the laminated process by which an interactive website received an update as a result of an update to Flash 5. Findings demonstrate the deeply-ingrained interaction among multiple media and levels of meaning. Prior calls for closer attention to “the situated and mediated practices of exploring new media” as a result of these findings, and calls upon CHAT as a “rich theoretical framework for exploring such situated, multiply mediated, semiotic and social practices.”

Engaging Quotation and Reaction

“This lamination of history can be seen, for example, in the way the site is organized around both PHP and Pythagoras, the way the web is remediating photography, the way Flash templates and PHP databases are negotiated through gesture (presumably one of our most ancient semiotic systems), and the way paper-and-pencil drawings guide the programming of screen dynamics.” (Prior, 2007)

As I read this piece, I found my daily life described in some accurate detail. I work with visualizations, gestures, orality, documents, databases, and new technologies to complete my daily tasks. In this sense I am multiply modal, but I think I am also historically laminated, perhaps in time and space. For example, I find myself working with the golden mean in mind (using the rule of thirds) when cropping digital images for use in online search advertising landing pages. I find myself relying on classical persuasive rhetoric to write landing page copy for these landing pages, copy that attracts prospective students and situates the potential learning to occur on the campus of the University of Richmond. There are many layers to my day-to-day tasks, and it dawns on me that I might consider them the subject of my doctoral study.

Van Ittersum: Data Palace: Modern Memory Work in Digital Environments

Van Ittersum studies the ways that writers use networked computers to accomplish rhetorical work through the lens of distributed cognition theory. Since knowledge work and memory work — as distributed cognitive processes — are mediated by tools, it’s important to understand ways that those tools influence and affect our memory systems and workflows. Van Ittersum’s project reveals that we need to incorporate these tools and their use in our understanding of memory work as members of the discursive system used to generate texts.

Engaging Quotation and Response

“Looking at memory work in terms of mediated activity expands the kinds of scenes that count as writing activity. For the writers I’ve interviewed, memory work is a central part of their writing, and construction and maintenance of their systems involves significant investments of time and effort.” (Van Ittersum, 2007)

Here’s my first reaction: “OK, so I’m getting a little paranoid now, because this describes so much of my initial and ongoing search for just the right tool for research. In these terms, I’m seeking just the right tools to add to my memory system for memory work as a component of the writing experience.”

Throughout last semester, and entering into this semester, I’ve been seeking just the right technology tool(s) to accomplish three tasks:

  • be a space for drafting and keeping track of many drafts in many forms;
  • be a space for tracking and recording my research process; and
  • be a space for note taking in all forms (visual, aural, text).

I’ve developed a partnership among tools through which I’ve conscientiously developed a system for tracking and recording everything I do as a PhD student. If I read a PDF, I want that text (if possible) and my notes digitized and searchable. If I read a text, I want my notes to be digitized and searchable. If I take class notes, write an in-class response, or do anything else in writing, I want to have digital and searchable versions. (Here’s where I formulated my needs in September 2013: Seeking the Best Research and Writing Tool.)

These tools form a vital part of my memory and knowledge work, and I’ve tried hard to find just the right set. I’ve settled on/for a recipe of Scrivener, Zotero, and iAnnotate (with a soupçon of Evernote for good measure), but I don’t believe I’ve found the ideal set for my needs. One adapts one’s processes to one’s tools, which suggests, as Van Ittersum (2007) reiterates, that the tools themselves affect the knowledge work that I do.

Bellwoar: Digital Health and Feminist (Re)Visionings of Healing

Bellwoar uses the web text to depict the importance of bringing forth aspects, especially invisible aspects, of the health care experience that are not immediately recognized or appreciated. Her depiction of the difference between a healthcare professional’s report on an office visit and the patient’s personal narrative of the visit is striking and disconcerting. The ways in which doctors see patients, especially female patients seen by male doctors, is limited, even shaped, by medical records and forms.

The experience of visiting a doctor is one of being seen in a completely different way from the way one sees oneself. When this is the case, what can be said about the identity of the patient? Does the patient’s identity in the medical files remain clinical and entirely disembodied from the patient’s perceived self-identity? Bellwoar appears to believe that it does, as the mediated experience she narrates reveals very different perspectives on identity and knowledge between patient and physician.

Bellwoar used CHAT to compare the visual privilege of the physician’s experience with the visual privilege of the digital, and warns that seeing is not an objective phenomenon or experience. Seeing is mediated, and it’s important that we recognize and make visible those invisible aspects of seeing that exist in all envisionings.

Reactions

Although Bellwoar’s web text embedded audio, it remained a largely visual experience, following the pattern of privileging the visual in the digital. As a result, it offered few “quotes” that could be pulled and discussed. However, the web text as a whole caught and kept my attention because it did what Bellwoar called the work of theory: “The work of theory is to make visible that which is invisible” (Bellwoar, 2007). What no one could have known was the affinity I have for her message. My wife is a two-time cancer cervical survivor. She more than understands the invisible character of medical practice. Among other issues she continues to handle almost 20 years after the last surgeries, my wife’s internal organs are, literally, invisible, even on X-ray, ultrasound, and CAT scan. They have migrated as a result of scar tissue and reconstruction. As a result, even when physicians (all but one male) review her films and “see” her organs, they literally have to ask her which organs are which. They can’t see. Only she can see and know. Without seeing the films, she can point out where her organs are in her torso. Her memory and experience are the key to unlocking the knowledge work that her team of physicians need to treat her.

Joyce R. Walker: Constructing a BIG Text: Developing a Multimodal Master Plan for Composition Instruction

Walker’s web text uses the somewhat unfortunate story of an advanced class in public writing at her institution as an instructional and cautionary tale on the importance of explaining CHAT-inspired composition strategies and theories to both first-year writers and to external audiences questioning the value of composition strategies that fall outside of the expectation for standard research writing. She encourages the use of many narratives to tell the story of composed texts, narratives that explain and represent the system-wide work required and completed to create the text, including research into materiality and appropriateness of mode to audience and purpose. The goal of the web text is to articulate a strategy to incorporate CHAT-oriented approaches into FYW classes. She defines the following five steps toward accomplishing that goal.

  1. FYW must attend to the materiality of texts. It is important to offer students the opportunity to make knowledgeable choices about software, hardware, structural organization, and to examine the rhetorical potentials of different visual, aural, and alphabetical compositions. It is also important for students to understand relationships between experimental compositions and those which can be identified as appropriate to various academic disciplines.
  2. Course assignments for a CHAT-based first-year writing program must encompass complex compositional processes and must encourage both active manipulation of these processes and reflection about the effects of different compositional choices. These activities must be visible to both course participants and outside audiences.
  3. CHAT-based writing courses must articulate a research-oriented perspective towards the available compositional choices — students must understand that effective choices can only be made through a rigorous research process.
  4. Students and instructors can use descriptive narratives to outline, analyze, and make explicit the possible “range of materialities” available for any given composition activity, highlighting not only the choices that composers make, but the robust nature of the research involved in these kinds of composition activities. Narratives also allow composers to include discussion of choices made by those who distribute or receive and make use of the texts in different ways.
  5. Students should be given the opportunity to test their writing in varius ways in public situations, and to incorporate into their work for the course observations about the life of the text as it moves into the world. (Walker, 2007)

Interesting Quotation and Reaction

“If this is indeed our need, then first-year writing courses must become more fertile, flexible, and associative places for learning, but they must also become locations for research, places where students are asked to interrogate both their writing and their literate practices.” (Walker, 2007)

My immediate reaction was “Yes!!! This is what I’ve realized about my writing class (to which I can’t give the time of day over the weekend because I’m writing my own work and reading my own assignments).” I really have been deeply affected by the research I’ve already done in the PhD program, all one-and-a-half classes in! I teach adult students returning to school, and I want them to come away from my ENGL 201U class with an understanding of writing that applies to all aspects of their lives—personal, professional, and academic. I want them to interrogate their own assumptions about writing and to be conscious of every decision they make about what they write, how they write it, and for whom. This is new for me; a year and a half ago, I wanted students to read texts and writing about them. Now I want them to read themselves as a text, then read the assignment as a text, then read an article as a text, and THEN write into a conversation about that text that takes into account all the readings they’ve done in the process of creating their final text—which could be a new media project. They’re resistant, but putting the process into practical, applicable terms outside academe has had the desired motivational effect.

Technological (Mediated) Issues

I believe one of the most troubling issues facing the use of digital technology in composition is the speed of technological obsolescence. I faced the issue of obsolescence related to technological standards at several turns in these readings. I faced the first challenge in the Prior web text with the very technology that forced the remediation — Flash. My tablet, where I generally read and annotate non-monograph-length texts, won’t run Flash, so I found the experience inconvenient and rooted to one of two technical spaces — my laptop or my desktop. On my desktop the day I tried to watch this text, I never did see any one of the embedded videos in full, because bandwidth issues (likely brought on by the fact that my wife and two daughters were all watching different video streams at the same time) restricted my ability to load the files completely. This made me very conscious of the software, hardware, and network mediating my experience as viewer/reader. These are real and serious considerations, and efforts should be made to develop and utilize platform-agnostic interfaces and programming tools to eliminate these restrictions.

I faced a second challenge in the Bellwoar web text with embedded audio files; as a result, my experience of her web text unintentionally privileged the visual (which she warned against in the content of the text) and affected my reading of the text in negative ways. Neither Chrome nor Safari would successfully play embedded audio files. Ultimately, Firefox was the only browser that appears to have mediate the experience accurately. This, too, made me aware of my mediated experience and led me to wonder about the technical skills of the author—perhaps she designed for a specific browser, failed to adhere to XHTML and CSS standards, or hasn’t updated (remediated) the experience with newer versions of Quicktime. She may even have tested the cross-platform compatibility of the project at the time of its release and found it worked in most major browsers, but changes and updates to browsers and standards may have resulted in the challenges I faced. Issues of obsolescence like this limit the experience for the end user in real and frustrating ways. Had I not been a savvy web user, I would not have even noticed that the project included embedded audio files.

screenshot

No audio: Here’s what Chrome displayed when I tried to access an audio file. Notice the warning message in yellow at the top of the page: “QuickTime Plug-in 7.7.3 has crashed.”

And I faced a third challenge in the Walker piece. In this case, external links caused issues of obsolescence. In Walker’s notes, two external links resulted in errors. The first was a link to what was probably once a free online photo gallery of pictures of the original public writing works that were the subject of the public writing class project. The link pointed to http://good-times.webshots.com/album/547607245HsCYRw?action=&track_pagetag=/page/photo/goodtimes/college&track_action=/ViewActions/FullAlbum, but following this URL results in a fancy 404 error page (the standard “page not found” error code recognized by search engines and crawlers) for “Smile by Webshots.” I assume that Webshots (found in the domain of the original URL) was bought or otherwise acquired by Smile, and the original free gallery either expired or was otherwise removed from the original interface.

screenshot

Dead link: Here’s what I saw when I tried to follow the photo gallery link. Notice there is nothing to explain what might have happened to the gallery I was seeking.

The second “dead” external link was to the “Western Herald online Archive” (screen 9 of the web text). In this case, following the URL (http://media.www.westernherald.com/media/storage/paper881/news/2006/02/14/News/English.Class.Explores.Experimental.Writing-2121873.shtml?sourcedomain=www.westernherald.com&MIIHost=media.collegepublisher.com) resulted in a truly dead link, not a 404 error. Based on the variables being passed in the URL, I assume that the Western Herald’s archive at the time of Walker’s writing was hosted by the collegepublisher.com domain. Westernherald.com appears to still be the correct domain for the newspaper, but I could find an archive of back issues or the article via search on the current website.

screenshot

Dead link: Here’s what I saw when I I tried the Western Herald link. There’s something a little whimsical about the error message Chrome offers, as if to suggest perhaps the browser, rather than the link or the user, might have been at fault.

The apparent lack of publicly-accessible archives is a subset of the issue of obsolescence that will likely affect many external links as time goes on.

These issues make me question whether technology-mediated texts should be composed for long-term or archival consumption. In my opinion, this CHAT space is dated, both in design and technology, and should be remediated for 2014 and beyond. But I recognize that texts are created in space and time, and there are real and serious questions about whether they should be “updated” for futures.

References

Bazerman, C. (1994). Systems of genre and the enactment of social intentions. In Freedman, A., & Medway, P. (Eds.), Genre and the new rhetoric (pp. 79-104). London, UK: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.

Bazerman, C. (2004). Speech acts, genres, and activity systems: How texts organize activities and people. In Bazerman & Prior (Eds.), What writing does and how it does it: An introduction to analyzing texts and textual practices (pp. 309-340). New York, NY: Routledge.

Bellwoar, H. (2007). Digital health and feminist (Re)visionings of healing [Web text]. In P. Prior et al., Re-situating and re-mediating the Canons: A cultural-historical remapping of rhetorical activity [Multimodal composition]. Kairos, 11(3). Retrieved from http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/11.3/binder.html?topoi/prior-et-al/index.html

Miller, C. R. (1984). Genre as social action. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 70(2), 151-67.

Prior, P. (2007). Remaking IO, remaking rhetoric: Semiotic remediation as situated rhetorical practice [Web text]. In P. Prior et al., Re-situating and re-mediating the Canons: A cultural-historical remapping of rhetorical activity [Multimodal composition]. Kairos, 11(3). Retrieved from http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/11.3/binder.html?topoi/prior-et-al/index.html

Prior, P., Solberg, J., Berry, P., Bellwoar, H., Chewning, B., Lunsford, K. J., Rohan, L., Roozen, K., Sheridan-Rabideau, M. P., Shipka, J., Van Ittersum, D., & Walker, J. R. (2007). Re-situating and re-mediating the Canons: A cultural-historical remapping of rhetorical activity [Multimodal composition]. Kairos, 11(3). Retrieved from http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/11.3/binder.html?topoi/prior-et-al/index.html

Spinuzzi, C. (2003). Tracing genres through organizations: a sociocultural approach to information design. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Van Ittersum, D. (2007). Data palace: Modern memory work in digital environments [Web text]. In P. Prior et al., Re-situating and re-mediating the Canons: A cultural-historical remapping of rhetorical activity [Multimodal composition]. Kairos, 11(3). Retrieved from http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/11.3/binder.html?topoi/prior-et-al/index.html

Walker, J. R. (2007). Constructing a BIG text: Developing a multimodal master plan for composition instruction [Web text]. In P. Prior et al., Re-situating and re-mediating the Canons: A cultural-historical remapping of rhetorical activity [Multimodal composition]. Kairos, 11(3). Retrieved from http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/11.3/binder.html?topoi/prior-et-al/index.html

[Apollo 11 Trajectory Map: Creative Commons licensed image from Flickr user Ian T. Edwards]