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Status Update

See that break in activity between December 2015 and June 2018? That represents my transition from one-course-per-semester coursework to candidacy exam, prospectus writing and defense, and dissertation work. I’m not a consistent blogger. Most of the posts to this blog came from requirements or expectations of graduate coursework.

Why the burst of activity? It’s about the job market. I’m building a professional site that reflects who I am as an academic researcher, scholar, and teacher. I want to put my best persona forward, but I’ll admit, consistent blogging is hard for me. Doesn’t make it less important, just a reflection on the challenge it presents.

It’s not that I don’t write. Doctoral candidates don’t “not write.” We write emails, we write feedback on papers, we write grant applications, we write dissertations, we write positions, and we write publications. I’m writing all those things. I’ve posted drafts of my nascent teaching philosophy and research statement to represent that writing work, but so much writing is done behind the scenes, out of the public’s sight.

I’m struggling through the labor of writing my dissertation, and it turns out that a blog post is a useful distraction from that labor. But it’s also true that I’m working on finishing touches on the initial draft of my first chapter, that I’m about halfway through my review of literature, that I’ve written up one set of methods and results my pilot study, that I have completed most of my data analysis for my final results. I’ll be writing six total chapters, one more than a “standard” dissertation (whatever that means), that includes two result chapters: one addressing the results of my methods, and one addressing the issues with my methods.

We’ll see if “I’m back” to the blogging thing, if I ever was really “there” in the first place. I’ll keep writing, and I’ll try to do more of that writing that’s visible to the public here.

 

Research Statement: A Draft in Progress

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.

Prior Research

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.

Web Development

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.

Composition Pedagogy

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).

Current Research

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).

Research Agenda

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.

Kindle in the Writing Classroom

Acheson, P., Barratt, C. C., & Balthazor, R. (2013). Kindle in the writing classroom. Computers and Composition, 30(4), 283-296. doi:10.1016/j.compcom.2013.10.005

Summary

325px-Amazon_Kindle_3

Amazon Kindle 3 by NotFromUtrechtOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

This article studies the pedagogical effects of using Kindle™ readers for accessing texts in an English classroom in 2011. The results demonstrate minimal changes in learning as a result of using Kindle devices for reading and writing, but predict the likelihood that students of the present and future seek to access texts in multiple modes using multiple platforms (like laptop or desktop, smartphone, and e-readers).

Findings

Two librarians and an English professor at the University of Georgia received a grant to provide Kindle 3.0 readers “to be used as an integral part of the writing classroom experience for students” (p. 283) in a literature and composition class. The three developed a mixed methods study to assess students’ “comfort with and use of technology, their preferred method for reading different types of texts, and their experience with the Kindle at the beginning, mid-point, and end of the semester” (p. 284). The researchers concluded that pedagogical aims were neither more nor less effectively accomplished with than without Kindles. “None [students] noted either benefit or liability in the use of the Kindles for learning” (p. 291).

Although learning outcomes were not affected, researchers noted that some students struggled with disorientation as they transitioned from print text to e-text. The researchers recognized the value of disorientation: “We as professors and instructional librarians would be wise to expect and even encourage new tools in the classroom; the disorientation that accompanies these evolutions is often paired with new and valuable possibilities” (p. 293).

The Kindle afforded searching, highlighting, annotating, and bookmarking, but not every student found those features useful. In fact, librarians and professor alike found students taking notes on paper with Kindles in hand during class sessions. The researchers realized that students accessed texts in multiple formats as conditions dictated. Some found print copies easier to read and annotate. All used their Kindles for reading, but most also used other digital devices to access texts.

Review

I found the conclusion that students “prefer access to materials in multiple formats” (p. 293) most interesting. This suggests that teachers must be prepared to support and provide information on multiple platforms for our students.

  • Provide Kindle section numbers and print page numbers for readings.
  • Expect students to highlight and annotate electronically and write marginalia in print copies.
  • Evaluate the fairness of asking questions about repeated uses of words as part of textual analysis, given the e-reader’s ability to conduct full-text searches.
  • Determine whether an e-reader’s ability to “read” the text back to the student is adequate to grasp its meaning and significance.

As a result of the study’s sharp focus on Kindle 3.0, I would recommend this article only to colleagues seeking information about the use of e-reading devices and/or e-reader software in classes. However, colleagues seeking insight into the future of digital text access will likely find the study informative.

Kindle in the Writing Classroom

Acheson, P., Barratt, C. C., & Balthazor, R. (2013). Kindle in the writing classroom. Computers and Composition, 30(4), 283-296. doi:10.1016/j.compcom.2013.10.005

Summary

325px-Amazon_Kindle_3

Amazon Kindle 3 by NotFromUtrechtOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

This article studies the pedagogical effects of using Kindle™ readers for accessing texts in an English classroom in 2011. The results demonstrate minimal changes in learning as a result of using Kindle devices for reading and writing, but predict the likelihood that students of the present and future seek to access texts in multiple modes using multiple platforms (like laptop or desktop, smartphone, and e-readers).

Findings

Two librarians and an English professor at the University of Georgia received a grant to provide Kindle 3.0 readers “to be used as an integral part of the writing classroom experience for students” (p. 283) in a literature and composition class. The three developed a mixed methods study to assess students’ “comfort with and use of technology, their preferred method for reading different types of texts, and their experience with the Kindle at the beginning, mid-point, and end of the semester” (p. 284). The researchers concluded that pedagogical aims were neither more nor less effectively accomplished with than without Kindles. “None [students] noted either benefit or liability in the use of the Kindles for learning” (p. 291).

Although learning outcomes were not affected, researchers noted that some students struggled with disorientation as they transitioned from print text to e-text. The researchers recognized the value of disorientation: “We as professors and instructional librarians would be wise to expect and even encourage new tools in the classroom; the disorientation that accompanies these evolutions is often paired with new and valuable possibilities” (p. 293).

The Kindle afforded searching, highlighting, annotating, and bookmarking, but not every student found those features useful. In fact, librarians and professor alike found students taking notes on paper with Kindles in hand during class sessions. The researchers realized that students accessed texts in multiple formats as conditions dictated. Some found print copies easier to read and annotate. All used their Kindles for reading, but most also used other digital devices to access texts.

Review

I found the conclusion that students “prefer access to materials in multiple formats” (p. 293) most interesting. This suggests that teachers must be prepared to support and provide information on multiple platforms for our students.

  • Provide Kindle section numbers and print page numbers for readings.
  • Expect students to highlight and annotate electronically and write marginalia in print copies.
  • Evaluate the fairness of asking questions about repeated uses of words as part of textual analysis, given the e-reader’s ability to conduct full-text searches.
  • Determine whether an e-reader’s ability to “read” the text back to the student is adequate to grasp its meaning and significance.

As a result of the study’s sharp focus on Kindle 3.0, I would recommend this article only to colleagues seeking information about the use of e-reading devices and/or e-reader software in classes. However, colleagues seeking insight into the future of digital text access will likely find the study informative.