Birthing the Diss

My project explores two basic questions: First, how has do-it-yourself (DIY) publishing changed since the popularization of the Web? Second, what might those changes tell us about the ways in which we conceive of and teach multimodal, public writing?

To answer these questions, I look at the ways in which DIY publishers have taught each other about the affordances and challenges of certain aspects of their work as they have come to terms with emerging networked and digital technologies in the so-called late age of print. My source for this analysis comes from the Canadian magazine Broken Pencil (BP).


Founded by pan-am cultural critic and publisher Hal Niedzviecki in 1995 — the same year the Web went mainstream — BP is a widely-read magazine that has covered zine culture and independent arts. Throughout its 66 issues, BP has reported on DIY publishing and independent arts primarily in Canada, but increasingly over time, the rest of the world. Although many columns have come and gone throughout the years, it has consistently published feature stories, letters, excerpts, editorials, and reviews of zines and other DIY media, always considering the stakes of cultural intermediaries through articles like “The 7 Dollar Website” (issue #3),  “7 Reasons to Get a Shot-Gun and Kill Your Modem” (#5), “Photocopied Politics” (#6), “Media Monopoly on Zine Culture” (#10), “E-Zines” (#23), Where the Fuck Are the Zines?” (#36), “Zines Aren’t Dead” (#50), and “Zines are Undead” (#57). Moreover, with a current circulation of over 5,000 they’ve served as an important epicenter for North American DIY culture, not only playing the role of critic, but also sponsor.

The current plan is to begin the dissertation by reviewing how self-publishing and DIY culture have historically been addressed in comp/rhet, and to create more space for discussing it (1) in a digital context, and (2) in relation to other aspects of rhetoric besides production, especially delivery. This is especially important in DIY publishing, as writing cultures and communities are primarily created through a desire to simply make and circulate texts. In Chapter 2, I develop a methodology and method for my historical reading of DIY culture since 1995. This will likely involve grounded theory, but at the moment I’m interested in thinking about the ways in which I can intertwine multiple narratives in Chapters 3 and 4 — histories of BP, of course, but also histories of comp/rhet and histories of technology. Ultimately, I am trying to situate and contextualize the conversations within the pages of BP to talk about what’s different about self-publishing in 2015 and what this bodes for the future of writing and self-publishing. To manage this, I’m planning to break Chapters 3 and 4 chronologically, with the former focusing on 1995-2003 (early Web) and the latter focusing on 2004-present (Web 2.0). These dates also serendipitously represent a break in editorship, which will help manage the data. The final chapter, Chapter 5, takes stock of these histories to argue for pedagogies that encourage students to make writing spaces and communities using contemporary self-publishing technologies.

So why am I writing a history of BP, a 20-year spanning Canadian magazine about zines, as part of a composition studies dissertation? First and foremost, my field has very little understanding of the history of digital writing as it has enveloped or emerged from print culture. Second, and probably more importantly, we also have little understanding about what DIY means — or could mean — for our writing pedagogies. How do DIY writers learn for instance, as new tools and technologies emerge into already existing writing ecologies? How do we tap into students’ obsessions and passions without ruining them? How do we encourage them to go public with their work? I’m hoping that by reading back issues of BP, I’ll be able to generate some generalizations about:

  • the history of BP, specifically, and DIY publishing more generally in the last 20 years
  • the rhetorical strategies of independent writers in the face of increasingly privatized tools and spaces
  • the nature of self-sponsored writing and the nature of delivery systems

So what’s next? Or rather, what’s first? One of the major takeaways from my hearing last month was to immediately dig into the data itself — that is, to read BP both distantly and closely. But because access to most back issues required me to use digital scans of pages in Proquest, I could not really see the context for BP in all its printed glory. For example, Proquest carves up publications for content, truncating things like advertising or their “using Broken Pencil” page — and yet in a participatory community like zines, it’s important to see who is advertising in the magazine and how the editor-curated content relates to those ads.

Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 10.52.25 AM
Screen grab from Proquest index of BP #1

So a day or so after I passed I emailed founder Hal Niedzviecki who had already welcomed me and my project in an email exchange last summer. He offered to send me all the back issues of BP, which I received in the mail earlier this week from my wonderful editor at BP, Alison Lang.

Dissertation data! Thanks, @greasycop!

A photo posted by Jason Luther (@taxomania) on

In the meantime, the last few weeks have seen me gathering texts about archives, history, and coding, specifically from the perspective of grounded theory so I can begin to experiment with the ways in which I might read BP. Joyce Neff, for example, argues that grounded theory requires the researcher to code in waves, starting with something called “open coding,” a early, generative process where concepts emerge from a quick reading of the text(s). I might read several reviews from BP, for example, that use language to refers to impurity, obsession, niche, or other concepts evoked in DIY. Neff suggests developing an exhaustive list and then worrying later about validating terms through a more refined coding process called “axial coding.” Gesa Kirsch has uses a similar approach as she attempts to understand social circulation in women’s medical journals from the late 19th/early 20th century. Social circulation, as she and Royster argue in Feminist Rhetorical Practices, “invokes connections among past, present, and future in the sense that the overlapping social circles in which women travel, live, and work are carried on or modified from one generation to the next and can lead to changed rhetorical practices Here we are talking about evolutionary relationships—not just revolutionary ones—and more mediated legacies of thought and action, such as, things that we absorb even without conscious awareness rather than a static sense of direct inheritance.” (23). What Kirsch uses is a method also articulated in Feminist Rhetorical Practices called “tacking in” and “tacking out,” which balances close readings of a text with more traditional methods of using secondary research or thinking broadly using critical imagination. I was lucky enough to hear about these experiences myself as Kirsch has been a visiting professor at SU this semester and has taken the time to lead several grad student writing groups. 

The plan, then, is to read those issues of BP that are relevant to Chapter 3 (#1-30) alongside texts on methodology so that by the end I can actually write Chapter 2 with something concrete in mind. Then, I hope to read for Chapter 4 and write that chapter with a more specific method in mind. The revisions of those chapters, then, will ideally align them. From this, I’ll have a better sense of the lit review in Chapter 1 and where I might go with Chapter 5, when I discuss DIY and pedagogy.

All told, I hope to have almost 3 chapters drafted in the 16 weeks (80 days) I have this summer — which, as some people have more or less told me, is insane. But before I get too overwhelmed, I should note that if I break it down — 80 days, 160 pages of writing — that’s only 2 doubled-spaces pages a day or about 500-600 words. Totally doable, right?

Works Cited

Neff, Joyce Magnotto. “Grounded Theory: A Critical Research Methodology.” Under Construction: Working at the Intersections of Composition Theory, Research, and Practice. Ed. Christine Farris and Christopher M. Anson. Logan: Utah State University Press, 1998. 124–135. Print.

Royster, J. J, G. E Kirsch, and P. Bizzell. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Southern Illinois University Press, 2012. Print.

Experiential learning and materiality

kolbOne of the more interesting questions to come out of my recent teaching experiences with DIY publications like zines is how teachers measure rhetorical success of their students’ public texts, whether they take the familiar forms of civic writing, multimodal embodied forms of protest, or through more ephemeral social media. More specifically, I’ve been asking and speculating about the role rhetorical circulation plays in that question, and what it might mean to differentiate between learning about the concept (i.e as a subset of critical reading skills) and experiencing it (i.e. producing texts that actually circulate). In short, what does it mean to really experience circulation — and by extension what does it mean to experience rhetoric?

Lately I’ve been looking in a few disparate places to answer that question. Thinking about it literally has led me to experiential learning theory (ELT) — originally conceived by John Dewey, developed in various ways throughout the 20th century (by folks like Vygotsky, Piaget, Lewin, Jung, and Freire), and more recently theorized and applied by David Kolb. Although he developed his theory in the early 70s, Kolb’s book, Experiential Learning: Experience As the Source Of Learning and Development (1984), is widely influential, having been cited more than 20,000 times (including a few times in the pages of CCC). In a more recent text from 2005, Kolb and Kolb define experiential learning as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience (Kolb, 1984: 41)” (194). This grasping was initially characterized via two pairs of dialectically opposed modes: Concrete Experience (CE) v Abstract Conceptualization (AC) and Reflective Observation (RO) and Active Experimentation (AE). As the authors put it:

Experiential learning is a process of constructing knowledge that involves a creative tension among the four learning modes that is responsive to contextual demands. This process is portrayed as an idealized learning cycle or spiral where the learner ‘touches all the bases’ — experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting — in a recursive process that is responsive to the learning situation and what is being learned. (194; emphasis mine)

This creative tension is created by asking learners to scuttle between acting and observing, analyzing and experimenting, consuming and producing. Yet because human experience is the basis for this model, such tensions cannot occur in just a classroom. Central to ELT is Lewin’s notion that transactional learning occurs via the interdependency of individuals and their environments. Kolb and Kolb use this to create what they call learning spaces, which emphasize learning as “a map of learning territories, a frame of reference within which many different ways of learning can flourish and interrelate. It is a holistic framework that orients the many different ways of learning to one another” (200).

Conceptual map of a learning space using nine modes of experience (Kolb and Kolb 2005)
Conceptual map of a learning space using nine modes of experience (Kolb and Kolb 2005)

As I re-read Anne Wysocki’s intro to Writing New Media (2004) this week, I was struck with the similarities between the ways both ELT and new media attempt to highlight this interdependency between agency (individual) and structure (environment). More specifically for Wysocki, a materialist definition of new media allows students to “see a possible self — a self positioned and working within the wide material conditions of her world, even shaping that world — in that object” (21). Aside from Wysocki’s decision to reject traditional definitions of new media as inherently digital, I love this piece for how it pushes teachers of writing to consider not so much “technology” as monolith as much as the tools and materials with which we ask students to write. Interestingly, many of the lessons in the Activity portion of her chapter ask students to occupy various positions within ELT’s learning space. In one exercise, students take two hours out of their weekend to observe and jot down any and all visual texts. When they come to class, Wysocki asks them a number of reflective questions about how and why they chose those texts, how they shape action and ways of thinking, etc.  As she argues at the end of this section, she’s “not trying to lead the class to definitive conclusions about sight,” but “to see how much visual attentions are called upon in our day-to-day actions” (25). There is more to this lesson, which is connected to other lessons, but I point out this sliver to note how some of tensions articulated by ELT are working in this example. Students are asked to use concrete experience (CE) — writing down what they see — as a occasion for reflective observation (RO) —  via large-group discussion — which is put into tension with abstract conceptualization (AC) when they are ultimately asked to conceptualize the role visual rhetoric plays in our moment-to-moment material experience.

I realize I risk bastardizing ELT with such an application, so I’m not totally committing to this analysis, but for now I am interested in ELT enough to see how it might help me start to approach a question like “how do students experience rhetoric or rhetorical circulation?”

Next up is to look back at Michael McGee’s “A Materialist’s Conception of Rhetoric” to think about what he means when he drops a knowledge bomb like this one:

…the whole of rhetoric is “material” by measure of humans experiencing of it, not by virtue of our ability to continue touching it after it is gone. Rhetoric is “object” because of its pragmatic presence, our inability safely to ignore it at the moment of its impact … From the material perspective “speech” is an integral part of a “speaker/speech/audience/ occasion/change” phenomenon, peculiar as an element of rhetoric because it survives and records the moment of experience. (23; emphasis in original)

Exigence(s) for the diss

The more I talk about the minor exam with folks in my program, the better I understand how it can lay important groundwork for the dissertation. Although the goal is to produce an annotated bib and publishable article by the end of the year (at the latest!), it’s clear that these can feed at least two chapters of the diss. Needless to say, and as I mentioned last week, this is an exciting and terrifying time, knowing the weight of these choices for future work and scholarly identity. The rub at the moment has to do with considering the exigence of my work. Why exactly would this dissertation matter? Or perhaps, how could it matter? I have a rich, multimodal site worth pursuing, but the exigence and questions for that study are a bit hazy. One faculty member advised me to reflect upon what bothers me about the field and start there. When I do, I think about a few things.

First, I think about the need to explore literacy and writing as an ongoing and complex process — as networked, multimodal, and difficult to predict. We have many theories and tools in place for these conceptions of literacy, but virtually no RAD writing studies of amateur writing cultures doing it. Moreover, like Jody Shipka, I’m bothered by the tendency in the field to equate “technology” with the digital. More explicitly, I wonder how “old media” and its meanings/uses get altered through a particular new media lens. How do codes and spatial templates, for example, constrict the possibilities of form? How do digital technologies assist — as well as limit — the circulation of writing? Again, zine communities, which embrace a variety of modes for production and distribution, provide an interesting space for learning the nuances of our writing tools.

Second, I wonder if we overdetermine our pedagogies; that is, in pursuit of our own relevance/professionalism, we place too much emphasis on curriculum, assessment, and instruction. As a ex-writing center director and continuing consultant and teacher I’ve been more attracted to true studio models of writing, where teachers/consultants create or restrict the conditions for various attempts at writing, but do not micromanage the interactions. How might a more responsive, ongoing syllabi, where readings are curated by students and occasions for writing/heuristics are co-constructed (to give a few examples), open up some of the possibilities for learning? My sense is that zine makers — as self-organizing communities — have a lot to teach us about the autodidactic functions of literacy.

Finally, for many years, when it comes to the way writing works more generally, I’ve been struck by ongoing tensions between structure and agency. That is, I wonder when or in what ways is writing the product of sociocultural forces and when is it the act of our own choosing. In what cases are those acts of our own choosing actually the product of structuring forces? Here I am drawn to the work of Marilyn Cooper, Deb Brandt, Berkenkotter and Huckin, and the theories of Pierre Bourdieu.

Taken together, I imagine a diss that studies the various spaces and moments of zine-making —  individual composers cutting and pasting in their rooms, writers and presses trading at zine fests, and interactions on online spaces like We Make Zines — to consider what a DIY praxis or self-sponsorship might teach us about multimodal composing and pedagogy. Two or the more compelling questions for me include: Why print and why now? What are the affordances of the medium in an era of Tumblr or Twitter? Secondly, how do self-sponsored zine-makers develop and learn multiple literacies? How can these be traced at the level of composition, production, and circulation?

The only problem with this approach is that I don’t quite trust it — yet. That is, depending on what I’m reading, or who I’m talking with, these problems/questions shift. At the same time, this might not be as much of a problem as it feels like at the moment and that these shifts are important for winnowing toward a more consistent prospectus. To come to terms with this, I’m planning to take the approach that another faculty member suggested: to write dissertation chapter maps every few days. That is, spend an hour or so summarizing what I imagine a chapter looking like and to try and generate as many of these as possible as I read through my exam bib. It’s difficult to know what a map might look like before the thing is written, but if I understand this properly, I need to be reading for potential ideas for setting up my study. I’ll start with Shipka’s Toward a Composition Made Whole. More soon…


Cintron’s Angels Town

This week in my advanced methods course we read the first 4 chapters from Angels Town: Chero Ways, Gang Life, and the Rhetorics of Everyday (1998) by Ralph Cintron. Though I hadn’t heard of Cintron before this semester, I’ve been anticipating this book since the syllabus was distributed in January because (1) we’re breaking it up over two weeks of the semester and (2) other members of the program have lauded it in passing. Obviously the book carries some weight. So what is that weight?

What’s striking right from the preface is Cintron’s reflexivity. Cintron combines critical ethnography with rhetorical theory to provide a thick portrait of a Latino/a neighborhood in Chicago and extends that portrait to a larger commentary on the relationship between representation, power and language in everyday life (note to self: read de Certeau). As he notes early in the preface, “one of the book’s controlling questions is How does one create respect under conditions of little or no respect?” (x). He admits the problem in answering this question, reducing the method of fieldwork to “the difficulty of finding the truth inside the lie, the lie inside the truth” (xiii).

Cintron spends the first chapter examining this problems of ethnography and representation by recalling his own background as the son of a Texas farmer, defining the true field site as the text that is constructed by the ethnographer, analyzing the power of the researcher through the interplay of ethos and logos, etc. But what struck me most about the intro is its inductive approach. When Cintron narrates his data-collecting process — 300 pages of notes, 91 tapes, 100+ documents in one round and then a slew more in yet another round years later — and then we see how he arranges that data by navigating specific moments with Don Angel, Valerio, and others alongside his own interpretations, I get the sense of how messy and chaotic this project must have been. Although Cintron isn’t always explicit in connecting his dots, the reader certainly benefits from what must have been a rigorous revision process.

A couple of questions for me as I read through these chapters:

  • Last week as we read and discussed an anthropology of writing (AOW), we heard perspectives about how an AOW studies so-called mundane sites like the workplace; this is different from ethnographers of the early and mid 20th century who studied othered, exotic sites and cultures. In chapter 2 of Angel Town, Cintron take up the question of romanticizing the subject: “For those who read and write ethnographies, the fieldsite is an ethnographic trope that generates both the spell of the exotic (romance) and resistance (science) to that spell” (16). Cintron tries to address this contradiction by studying a mundane map of Angeltown that “deflates the exotic and, in so doing, amplifies it” (16). As a researcher interested in studying a site that has shaped my own identity (self-publishing) I worry that I might fall prey to the romance Cintron evokes in this chapter. When we study material and subjects near and dear to us, then, how do we balance the romantic with the scientific? Does Cintron succeed in chapter 2 and throughout Angels Town?
  • A CCC review of Angels Town called my attention to Cintron’s move to construct metaphors from his data. This made sense to me given the inductiveness of his project. But is his reading of data too figurative? That is, does he ever make too much of certain details (his reading of Valerio’s obsession of cars, for instance)? Is his rhetorical reading of certain instances of everyday life in Angeltown paradoxically too sweeping?
  • Finally, given that Cintron’s fieldwork is now 20-25 years old, how might our privilege of distance help us assess the significance of this work in terms of cultural anthropology and writing studies? What do we need to take from this for our own work, and what needs to be left alone?

Ethics and Ethnography


This week I’ve been knee-deep in ethnographic studies, compiling a bibliography on zines and self-sponsored writing. Depending on how you define ethnography, I’ve been hard-pressed to find any other method at work except historical analysis. Granted, some of these studies are more empirical than others, but pretty much every one of them has used a combination of textual analysis, interview, and observation (with some more emic in their perspective than others). Interestingly, in the intro to one of the least transparent studies (yet unarguably the most influential), Notes From Underground (1997), Stephen Duncombe illustrates “the anxiety of authority” that Patricia Sullivan identifies in “Ethnography and the Problem of the ‘Other'”:

Still others will be disappointed that I’ve written a book on zines at all. Isn’t this just another exploitation of zines, “selling out” the underground to the above-ground world? Perhaps. But alternative culture has already been discovered — the more important question is who will represent it and how. The ways in which I explore and explain the world of zines certainly bear the mark of my theoretical interests and political concerns, but I’m of the world I write and my concern for the underground runs deeper than its status as this (or last) season’s cultural exotica. More important, I’m a conscientious observer and a careful listener. And I believe that what zinesters have to say and what zines represent are too important to stay sequestered within the walls of a subcultural ghetto. (20)

Duncombe justifies his ethics by adopting the emic perspective of charitable participant-observer. And yet at the end of Notes he argues that as long as zines cling to a negative identity — an identity always at odds with but also attached to a dominant consumer culture — they will be politically ineffective. In fact, in a new afterward for the 2nd edition (2008) he accuses print zines of being little more than “an exercise in nostalgia,” characterizing zines as a bohemic ghetto (212). Of course Duncombe also lauds zines throughout Notes, but readers are left wondering how zinesters themselves — especially the thousands who still practice zine-ing — feel about this characterization of them.

Perhaps an even more problematic example is Fanzines (2010) by Teal Triggs, who has been accused of printing zine covers without the permission of the authors or barely dialoging with her research subjects at all, a problem that led her to get several facts wrong in her book. While Triggs employs a purely historical/textual analysis in Fanzines, if the accusations are true, this is not only a legal issue for the zine community, but an ethical one that puts folks like me — potential researchers of zine communities — on notice. At the very least, perception is reality and zinesters have good reason to doubt the intentions of academics who are interested in speaking for them. Luckily, as Janice Radway has recently argued, many zinesters are also academics and librarians (like Jerianne at Underground Press) so they’re not completely divided communities.

In any case, the ethics of ethnographers are taken up by several readings this week and I’d like to focus on two widely cited essays in particular from Ethics and Representation in Qualitative Studies of Literacy (1996): Tom Newkirk’s “Seduction and Betrayal in Qualitative Research” and Patricia Sullivan’s “Ethnography and the Problem of the ‘Other.'” Both advocate for a more critical understanding of ethnography, especially those that “study down” (e.g. examine the literate practices of those with less power), but represent slightly incompatible views of how to mitigate the ethical problems such qualitative work engenders.

For Newkirk, the problem is informed consent: how to make research subjects aware that the information they provide could render them negatively — as racist teachers, bourgeois professionals, or unethical citizens. For Sullivan, a research project should “ultimately aim to benefit those whose voices, texts, and circumstances make [our] understanding possible” (98). For Newkirk, ethnography should allow for (and probably require) some bad news; Sullivan, on the other hand, is less comfortable with those conclusions, seeking to not just inform subjects of their representation, but to include them in actively constructing it. For Sullivan, self-reflexivity — “the explicit rendering of one’s own theoretical and political assumptions and beliefs as well as one’s experiences and emotions in the process of fieldwork — isn’t enough. Power-sharing discourse should be present throughout the research process where, “[p]articipants are involved in framing research questions, collecting and interpreting data, commenting on, and sometimes in, the final text” (109).

This is perhaps where Sullivan and Newkirk are incompatible. While Newkirk argues for dialogue with participants within the process — especially with the consent agreement and “interpretation of problematical situations” during data gathering. Sullivan, though, would give participants more agency than this, involving them from the get-go when framing research questions and deciding which data is relevant data. I wonder, though, if Sullivan is painting too idealistic a picture of the research process. I wonder this partially because I can’t imagine wandering into a zine convention on onto an online zine community and asking them what questions should be asked. I’d receive empty looks or snide rebuttals. After all, if I don’t know what I’m looking for, then why am at that site.

One study I’ve encountered through my  bib that does emulate an ideal research practice is Katherine Schultz’s “Looking across Space and Time” from RTE in 2002. In that fairly influential study, Schultz uses multi-site ethnography to understand the literacy practices of high school students across contexts, in school and out. From her data analysis, Schultz find three themes from out-of-school writing: “(a) writing was largely a private practice they kept separate from their school lives, (b) writing was used to take a critical stance, c) writing was a bridge between their homes and school worlds” (368). One of the major and important conclusions to evolve from this last pattern is that once students graduated, they stopped writing out of school. Part of what I liked about this study was Schultz’s narration of how she triangulated data with her student participants even as she helped cart them back and forth from school to job in her car: “I showed the findings to the research participants to determine if the findings seemed valid from their perspectives” (367). And when she discusses the teachers in the study, she characterizes them as thoughtful and relevant. In fact, one implication of her findings is that school sponsorships of literacy have an indirect effects on self-sponsorships of literacy.

Even though I think this is an ethical study, it makes me wonder what kinds of decisions she had to make throughout the process. Did she show her work to the teachers, who more or less have a back seat in the study? I wonder what other example studies in the field are useful for discussing Newkirk, Sullivan, and others this week. Thoughts?

Mortensen’s “Analyzing Talk about Writing”

I was going to do a detailed summary of Bazerman’s “Theories of the Middle Range in Historical Studies” (Written Communication, 2008), the most fab read for CCR 635 this week, but hot damn if Tim didn’t knock this out of the park already. Instead, I’d like to focus on the piece Tim and my fellow bloggers didn’t address in their posts this week (being late to the game affords me such perspective): Peter Mortensen’s “Analyzing Talk About Writing,” one of five selections we read from Kirsch & Sullivan’s landmark 1992 book, Methods and Methodology in Composition Research. The piece is worth revisiting because (a) it’s a bit of messy read, and (2) its arguments have important outcomes for writing instruction (as opposed to curricula or assessment), including writing centers.

Mortensen’s chapter aims to provide an complicated exploration and critique of the methodologies of discourse analysis in composition studies. For Mortensen, talk about writing, or “conversation in which speakers attend to text or the processes of creating text” (105), is limited because any representation of such talk about writing in research “cannot begin to capture the texture of what people say when they discuss a piece of writing in progress” (106). Thus, inquiries into talk about writing fundamentally lead to a rhetoric about how talk about writing works within any given site. This sets up Mortensen’s own methodology — rhetorically analyzing various studies of discourse analysis to see which arguments are un/persuasive and why.

He begins by identifying three ways of analyzing talk: conversation, pragmatic, and functional analyses. With conversation analysis, researchers “attempt to make sense of talk from the perspective of its participants.” And yet those perspectives are complicated by something called “intersubjective understandings,” meanings negotiated between subjects that extend beyond the immediate talk observed by the researcher. In some cases the researcher knows the context; in some cases, not. But because of intersubjectivity, it is important for researchers to be explicit to readers about their level of familiarity with the subjects: the extent to which they knew why the subjects were speaking, their communicative goals, etc. Mortensen then analyzes a study 1987 by Freedman and Katz (from this edited collection) that looked at talk in writing conferences. From this study, Mortensen identifies two methodological problems with conversation analysis. First, conversational analyses have the burden of identifying who defines “normal” in a conversation — the participants? the researcher? If it is the participants, then the researcher should develop a method to triangulate findings. In the Freedman and Katz example, Mortensen suggests gathering the teacher and students’ interpretations of the conversation, which would have validated or challenged the researchers’ analysis. This would also insure that they “respect the agency of their subjects and not cast them as purely ‘resources'” an argument he makes later in the chapter.

A second problem Mortensen raises is that a strict structural analysis of turn-taking (looking at adjacency pairs, for example) isn’t valid without taking the conversation’s context into account. He cites Irene Wong’s examination of the negotiability of content per topic in a given conversation. (She found, for example, that in tech writing courses teachers were more willing to negotiate certain genres that were more alien to them, but asserted authority when they were more confident with content.) While Mortensen reasserts that “it impossible to render an accurate transcription of a conversational exchange” (111), detailed transcriptions of conversations, complete with nonverbal utterances, is essential to conversational analyses.

While conversational analyses examines how meaning is negotiated by participants through conversation, other methods of analyzing talking — pragmatic analysis and functional analysis — suggest a more taxonomic approach where conversational codes and rules are prescribed prior to conversation. Specifically, pragmatic analysis prescribes rules for “what normal conversation ought to be” (112) and is influenced by H.P. Grice’s “cooperative principle” which provides a rubric of sorts as to how conversation can be “maximally efficient, rational, and cooperative.” Although Grice’s principles prescribe behavior, pragmatic principles are useful for describing utterances (and apparently folks like Marilyn Cooper have used them with student papers). The difference between pragmatic analysis and conversational analysis is that the latter is “far more circumspect, and sensitive to local ethnological norms of talk, in their formulations” (Toolan qtd. in Mortensen 113).

But Mortensen doesn’t discount an approach that is “constitutive and prescriptive,” one that “assumes that conversations appear orderly and coherent because speakers are predisposed to agree on the rules that govern what units can be combined to make well-formed utterances” (113). Functional approaches ignore negotiation and assume an ideal conversational experience where participants share the rules for discourse to the extent that they “strike simultaneously the same mental chord in their listeners’ mind and their own (114). While Mortensen’s definitions aren’t very clear to me, his example of Gere and Abbott’s study of high school conversation groups is illustrative of functional analyses’ methods. In their study they use a taxonomy of utterances based on function that allow them to quantify talk. While “meaning is not openly negotiated,” with a functional analysis, context needs to be accounted for in exchanges.

In addition to providing sketches of these three approaches to discourse analysis, Mortensen outlines poststructural perspectives from Derrida, Phelps, and Susan Miller. Interrogating both the primacy of writing (over speech) and prior conceptions of subjectivity, “the writing subject demands that we attend not only to inscription, or to the moment of inscription, but also to the panorama of human activities that condition intention and interpretation” (118, emphasis mine). Mortensen argues that we can address such panoramas by viewing dialogues as intertextual and intersubjective. Intertextuality is the notion that “all texts are related through the references they make to one another, whether subtle or obvious” (118). Intersubjectivity seems to suggest that social worlds are co-created through communication, through language. As Mortensen puts it “the social structures that shape human relationships are held to be prior to the construction of individual minds” (in other words there is no “self” prior to others) (120).

Mortensen ends the the piece by highlighting some of the gaps in research in talk about writing, Namely:

  • Many studies of talk about writing have acknowledged intersubjectivity since negotiation in conversation is proof that we are endlessly working through social structures (Seinfeld immediately comes to mind). These studies have looked at how people talk about writing. However, fewer studies have looked at “the influence of talk on a particular piece of writing, and vice versa” (121, emphasis original). The few studies that have been done on this question, argues Mortensen, are interesting because they “yield unexpected findings” (note that “unexpected findings” seems to be the golden standard when it comes to research goals — see Bazerman this week).
  • Research on talk about writing have been limited to school settings — primarily secondary and post-secondary classrooms. Research at workplace sites or in other settings might yield interesting (unexpected?) findings.
  • Sociocultural factors like race, class, gender, etc. haven’t been satisfactorily accounted for in studies of talk. Marginalized subjects, in particular, will require new methods since researchers, according to Mortensen, obviously “identity with the dominant culture” (123) and will distort findings.

Mortensen concludes by arguing that any “research on talk about writing creates ‘fictions’ that relate the researcher’s experience of the phenomenon under study” (123). To make such fictions ethical, then, Mortensen argues that subjects should play an active role with respect to the research (hence his criticism that Freeman and Katz do not ask their subjects to weigh in on their conversational analysis). Although Mortensen doesn’t mention it, this perspective seems to be an illustration of the reflexive feminist research methods Sullivan, Schell and others have argued for (and Barton critiques). He leans on Haraway to legitimize the argument that “researchers must respect the agency of their subjects and not cast them as purely ‘resources’ from which to approximate knowledge for reproduction” (124).

Looking back more closely at Mortensen, seeing how he calls all studies fictions, I now wonder if he believes that empirical studies are even possible. He gives pragmatic and functional analyses praise, so I think he deems them worthy pursuits, yet his critique at the end of this piece makes me wonder how serious he would take empirical (more positivistic) studies.

He also doesn’t seem to address how a better understanding of talk about writing might affect pedagogy. For me, talk seems to be one of the most important — if not thee most important — means to improving writing instruction. And yet studies of talk about writing don’t seem to get taken up in CCC (I admit this is shaky assessment on my part). Have we adequately focused on instruction (as opposed to assessment or curriculum)? When we talked about writing pedagogy last semester in CCR 632, it seemed like we focused an awful lot on the “what” of the classroom and not so much the why or how. How do we structure our class discussions, for example, so that we break the initiate-respond-evaluate triplet Hugh Mehan found in 1979 and that still dominates our classrooms? What studies have we published on the affect of student-led discussion on their writing? I ask this because in WRT 205, I’ve long tried to use principles of academic writing to teach students how to write discussion questions. (See handout below.)

Writing discussion clusters

Perhaps this also interests me because in its rawest form, writing centers only have talk, they only have instruction to work on in their ongoing development. Consultants don’t design assignments, syllabi, or curricula and they certainly don’t assess writers. How does the writing center site affect talk about writing?