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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.


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.


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, 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.


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 ( 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 domain. 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.


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.


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

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

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

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

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

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