Case Study Rubric

Theory cannot be assessed.  All applications of theory are purposefully subjective, overly-broad, interpretive, and deeply personal.  Ideologically, I find the process of applying rubrics to creative inquiry both impossible and developmentally prescriptive.

However, I am being graded.

That said, here is my very useful theory assessment rubric.

Rubric - Case Study/Theory Synthesis
Rubric – Case Study/Theory Synthesis

ENGL 840 -Blog Post #3: Dissertation Summary

Smith, V. A. (2015). The use of 3D sensor for computer authentication by way of facial recognition for the eyeglasses wearing persons (Doctoral dissertation, Colorado Technical University).

For this entry, I am looking at a Vincente A. Smith’s dissertation-length research report in the field of systems engineering, which attempts to explore the restrictions of cost-effective facial recognition for glasses-wearing users.

Smith’s report is highly technical, but essentially studies computer-based facial authentication through sample-based study of real-world 3d-systems-based PC access.  Using these results, it then attempts to address a primary research question and multiple sub-questions:

1) How 3d sensors might aid in glasses-inhibited facial identification for personal users; and 2) what the merits are of 3d sensing over traditional technologies for users, 3) how detection rates have improved over time, 4) what requirements reduce false positives/negatives, and 5) what improvements are needed to hardware in future iterations (76-8)?

Through literature review, research, and metaanalysis, Smith attempts through these questions to establish improved low-cost methods for resolving authentication and access concerns for eyesight-impaired users and to provide recommendations for future development.  To the extent that his research argues for a resolution of this issue, this argument is supported by existing research which demonstrates the limitations of these technologies in current professional, personal, and governmental contexts and the need for new processes which increase the viability of access for all users.

Smith’s literature review is comprehensive and serves to support his research goals and delimit his research processes by building upon previous reporting; additionally, his methodology is sound and well-documented, if limited by various significant factors.  It is these factors – and Smith’s resolution of the challenges they present, which make this research useful to my general studies.

The research grapples with multiple limiting factors, each of which are exacerbated by the researcher’s graduate student status and limited research funding and access: hardware (83, 101) and software (47) availability, cost, and support (as well as laboratory security); sample size, sourcing, and privacy (80, 99); expertise restrictions (101); and time restrictions (36).

The narrative of Smith’s resolution of these issues has proven an invaluable resource when extrapolating qualitative research narratives regarding graduate student austerity limitations from research reporting.  I selected this as a case study even though Smith is outside the humanities: a choice made because Smith’s reporting is frequently (and remarkably) transparent regarding the restrictions of austerity upon his methodological/reporting choices.

Given this transparency in a broad (and technologically complicated) research process, Smith has proven an excellent resource for studying the limitations (and workarounds) of austerity-contextualized work.  Smith’s deployment of F/OSS solutions reflects several arguments from Zoetewey’s “The Rhetoric of Free” regarding how researchers navigate financial limitations through deployments of counter-strategies which necessitate inferior/non-standardized results.  By contrast, this dissertation also serves to demonstrate categorization blind spots in Aksulu and Wade’s research synthesis; it, and much research like it, runs parallel with and intersects F/OSS research concerns – but does not name or address such paradigms and would challenge categorization in their model.

Due to its technical specificity, while this research is specifically useful within trends I am studying I would not recommend it for general F/OSS studies in the humanities.

(Body length – 500 words)

Mindmap Week 6: OR, On the virtue of deletion

Figure 1: Section of popplet with standard rhetorical elements grouped and connected according to scholar.  This arrangement reduces the complexity of edges between concepts.  Assume connection of all nodes in this subgroup.
Figure 1: Section of popplet with standard rhetorical elements grouped and connected according to scholar. This arrangement reduces the complexity of edges between concepts. Assume connection of all nodes in this subgroup.

This week I did something differently.  Instead of my traditional movement of adding three nodes and some connections from the readings, this week I began to curate my Popplet to a degree where the Popplet reflected my overall final view of what is useful to me in the field thus far.  This largely resulted in my deleting early works from weeks 1 and 2 which were cluttering the central field, and reducing rhetorical functions to a central focus from which expanding theories are based (see Figure 1).

In addition to the general deletion of most W1 sources (excluding Biesecker), this week I added new content in four primary sections: 1) I created a CHAT section from which I will be expanding notions of “challenge” and multimodality in technology, 2) I created a central Poststructuralism node to connect ideologies of contingency and theories of epistemology to a central belief structure to mirror current-traditionalism, pragmatism, etc., and 3) I added Pierre Bourdieu and his Social Theory of Practice (and its theory element of “habitus” as a connection point for ANT and CHAT.

Finally, 4) I connected “rhetoric” as a field concern to notions of “the real” and Baudrillard as a point of connection to pragmatism, reality, and the semiotic work of Charles Sanders Peirce as a jumping point for future critiques of remediation techniques in CHAT.

In terms of Mindmap formatting, I have worked to unify formatting and relocate nodes to minimize edge overlapping.  This was assisted somewhat by the deletion of excess nodes and connections.  The revised color key is as follows:

Orange: School of thought, theory, or ideology
Green: Elements of rhetorical argument/form
Black: Authors/Theorists/Texts
Red: Specific Theories and theoretical elements
Pink: Broad concepts and contexts of meaning.

The current mindmap can be seen in Figure 2 below.  A high-resolution form can be viewed by clicking on the attached image for Figure 2.

Figure 2: Current Mindmap configuration.
Figure 2: Current Mindmap configuration.

 “It only does everything”: On CHAT, Challenge, and the Archive – A Reading Connections Synthesis


Because I was out for a family emergency and other family responsibilities last week, and classes were cancelled the week prior – resulting in some activities being moved in or out of the course period – I’ve been having some trouble reassembling a viable schedule of assignments that approximates the experiences of my classmates.

As such, I am going attempt to synthesize the readings from the last two weeks into a much larger general Reading Connections activity (at least twice the standard length) in order to attempt to make the connections I would have been expected to make in-class last week.

Because I was not able to previously select a CHAT reading, I have selected the secondary reading of “Remaking IO” by Paul A. Prior – the only reading not assigned to another student.

I have created a digressive exploration of my contextualization of our ability to “know meaning” through the study of rhetoric, titled “An Anecdotal Digression on Knowing, God, Rhetoric, and CHAT” – I feel it may provide an interesting (if controversial) context to my following argument.

I will also create an additional blog post responding to two fellow students’ works from previous weeks, a third post with my upcoming rubric assignment, and a Reading Connections post on Latour, Joyce, and Johnson-Eilola which resolves the questions I intend to raise in this week’s RN activity.

The general theme of this extended explanation, I suppose, is “don’t miss class if you don’t want to do make-up work.”


Mediated activity involves externalization (speech, writing, the manipulation and construction of objects and devices) and co-action (with other people, artifacts, and elements of the social-material environment) as well as internalization (perception, learning). As objects and environments are formed and transformed through human activity, they come to embody the goals and social organization of that activity in the form of affordances for use. Affordances do not determine how an artifact is used, but do make particular uses easier or harder. Mediated activity also means that action and cognition are distributed over time and space and among people, artifacts, and environments. Distributed activity inevitably crosses social and historical boundaries so that activity, people, and artifacts are always heterogeneous. Activity is thus also laminated, as multiple frames or fields co-exist in any situated act. (“What is CHAT”)

Prior et al. provide a challenge to the typical representation of the rhetorical argument, largely through the recodification of “delivery” (4-6) within the context of medium, rather than as a product of traditional rhetorical/oratory forms revised into new literacies. However, this challenge is also a reclamation of previous rhetorical knowledge; in recalling an anecdote from Plato’s Phaedrus, for instance, the authors note that “it is important to recognize that rhetoric was already multimodal for the ancient Greeks” (5).  As such, the re-application of (“re-distributing”) delivery serves to demonstrate the blind spots in rhetorical/theoretical approaches based upon the leaner dependencies of written rhetoric in the current-traditional mode of the modern academic discourse.  The challenge I would issue to Prior et al. here, however, would be to go further, and to demonstrate through the investigation of re-capitulated delivery the blind spots of their own knowledge/conceptualization of production, as well.  In searching for a meaningful lens for interpreting delivery, the authors argue that it encompasses “mediation and distribution” by illustrating methods of delivery, presentation, circulation, diffusion, formatting, encryption, and intermediation (e.g. print/screen/speech, read silently/aloud/recorded, delivered digitally/by mail/by hand) – but in doing so, a scholar with a historical interest in methods of literary and data production might note that each of their methods of construction and dissemination had preexisting, functioning corollaries within the current-traditional period.

Were the dependencies of rhetorical knowledge under the current-traditionalists so lean?  Or were the assumptions of production simply that – assumed as clear and delineated according to the course of most progress in the field at the time?  Latour would warn us that to append the label of “social” to a process or product is to play at a doubled meaning (more on this in the next Reading Connections), and that to explore this meaning one must be careful not to equate the challenges of the two.  What is social is not Social, and what exists in society is not societal.  Similarly, the challenge of exploring rhetoric “adapted to new modes” (4) may be the dual meaning of that exploration: new to who? New in what sense? Newly studied, newly created, or newly published upon?

Figure 1: A modified representation of the current-traditional expression of rhetorical canons. This model is argued against by Prior et al.
Figure 1: A modified representation of the current-traditional expression of rhetorical canons. This model is argued against by Prior et al. (12).

I would argue that the functional “newness” of these “new modes” may be no more that “newly combined”: the exploration of mediation and production as well as mediation and distribution within the same platform – for the first time, a text is digitally designed, digitally produced, digitally distributed, digitally consumed, and digitally interpolated on the same platform (See Figure 1).  Does this create new knowledge within the void of prime movement?  It’s not clear. Prior et al. would further revise this model through the application of “cultural-historical remapping” of the canons of the “synchronic rhetoric” of classical production (17-25).


Figure 2: A proposed laminar mapping model of CHAT rhetorical canons.
Figure 2: A proposed laminar mapping model of CHAT rhetorical canons.  Each facet of Activities, Systems, and Chronotopes might be combined iteratively with each other singularly, pluralistically, or totally – none is exlusive or exclusionary (18).

The challenge of the CHAT method of resolving rhetoric, then, might be that increased complexity does not inherently increase the probability of resolution of the rhetorical space.  In looking at the authors’ provision of a rhetorical model for consideration under CHAT (see Figure 2), we witness the creation of a factorial model of interpretation and interpolation which would yield for a single act of rhetorical production/distribution/consumption at least 126 different permutations of singularly-categorized meaning.  In reality and practice, the similarly-delineated functions of mapping approach irreducible levels of complexity even within the practical limitations of their own (restricted) model (factorially derived, a combination of mapped edges would yield over a quarter million interpolations of the rhetorical process).  Add a single chronotopic category to the Prior et al. CHAT model, and each act of rhetorical mapping yields over one million results.  Add additional sub-nodes of systems and activities, and the functional scope of the model yields infinite results.

As intriguing as solutions through mapped models of infinity might be (Hilbert’s Grand Hotel comes immediately to mind), part of the point of such models is to reveal fallacies of interpretation and paradoxes of mathematical proof – not to provide functional solutions to rooming shortages.

In theory, CHAT provides us a more nuanced context for exploring how works are created and distributed into meaning.  In practice, CHAT has made rhetoric omnipresent, omnipotent, infinite, and unknowable.

Does this help us?


The consideration of “challenge” (never directly named in such form, but hinted at in discussions of laminar, asymmetrical exigencies under Goffman, and of task-oriented actions under Sheridan-Rabideau) in mapping rhetorical meaning (10-11, 27) is perhaps CHAT’s major avenue of contribution to novel models of rhetorical inquiry – refining necessarily and significantly the notions standard within previous models.  Rhetoric, that is to say, not only occupies a need-based context, but a space, conditional restrictions, and cultural-historical context which cannot be reduced to a singular point of emergence – traditional exigence.

Figure 2: The current presentation of IO in Google Chrome Version 48.0.2564.116 m. Note the broken borders compared to Prior's illustrations, as well as the missing input frames, textual outputs, video outputs, and JPG slicing forms. Emulation of the current source code within the Netscape environment is similarly non-functional, due to the incompletely-linked BOB libraries.
Figure 3: The current presentation of IO in Google Chrome Version 48.0.2564.116 m. Note the broken borders compared to Prior’s illustrations, as well as the missing input frames, textual outputs, video outputs, and JPG slicing forms.  Emulation of the current source code within the Netscape environment is similarly non-functional, due to the incompletely-linked BOB libraries.

The challenge of “challenge,” of course, is knowing when it is differentiated from traditional exigence.  In “Remaking IO, Remaking Rhetoric,” Paul Prior effectively puts CHAT analysis practices to use in examining an art project titled IOIO is an interactive mixed-media site (which is remarkably technologically dated by any modern coding standard – a point I will return to momentarily) which functions as something of an interactive web-based pop-art photography installation.  Mapped through Prior et al.’s methods of Mapping Literate Activity (19-20) within a “multidimensional model” of (non)language function (due to the heavily image-centric nature of the current iteration of IO), Prior attempts to provide “insight into the visual, gestural, and filmic quality of the semiotic objects” of IO’s current presentation (as of the time of writing – the current iteration no longer performs correctly under current browser protocols and due to dependencies on the libraries for the pseudo-AI “Bob,” which no longer function; see Figure 3).

Does this reading of multimodal, digital texts actually present an exigent challenge within the frame of the semiotic objects presented in IO?  “Remaking IO” largely functions, especially before the conclusion, as a semi-ethnographic exploration of what the current-traditionalist movement would likely label a narrative of “revision processes.”  However, despite promises of an exploration of the meaning of multimodal artifacts, much of this meaning is lost to contemporaneous contexts of the link itself and the inability of the site to be meaningfully archived and explored by the reading user.

As such, the value of CHAT for exploring a project like IO is not made clear at the present time by work such as Prior’s.  This reveals a more significant challenge to the exigent notions of multimedia, multimodal rhetoric – and one known to the Current-Traditionalists and Plato well before CHAT’s formulation – the loss of knowledge within the technological, social, and historical vagaries of canon.  The work of CHAT is, in a much more traditional sense than Foucault would argue for, a de facto creation of neo-archaeological processes.  From the Library of Alexandria to the Archimedes Palimpsest, from the relocated lost masters of Lang’s Metropolis to IO, the recapitulation of multimodal work is inherently reclamation more than illustration, and exists within exigent challenges which greatly overshadow the rhetorical certainty of any such analysis as CHAT might actually provide.

In reading Prior’s article, one can’t help but think of Barthes and Foucault.  Strangely, it is in the heterochronicity at the center of Prior’s study of the processes of refinement and revision that the author is least dead – permitting the reader and scholar the least authority to engage with the developmental process (and presentation) of the work on the work’s own terms.  The text is broken, and so only the author and the past can speak to the text in the present condition. This, I believe, is where the future of CHAT would be best directed – at its own blind spot, the deference to a rhetorically-cosmic authority which ignores the inherent challenge of segregating the author from the author’s meaning.


NEXT UP: CHAT, BOURDIEU, & LATOUR – A Match Made in Contexts

For Prior, the story of the (re)formation of IO is one of reclamation, lamination, and remediation.  Perhaps the moment of articulation most intriguing to me is when Prior notes that “both [professors] noted that the revised IO marked the first time they had completed an object that had elements they did not understand and could not reproduce or repair.  [The students] had areas of expertise that were basic to the revised IO and that [the professors] were unlikely to ever develop” (2007).

It would not be vogue to say this, but Prior has demonstrated in this sentence, I believe, the impossibility of ever tracing rhetorical associations in multimodal texts.  The languages of media are multifaceted in ways which prevent meaningful creation of meaning through analysis, and the specialization of the creator over and above the consumer, mediator, or analyst is an inevitability of the process of creation.  Social contexts are too multivariate to ever be successfully interpolated into texts.  As CHAT demonstrates, a meaningful mapping diagram for multimodality is effectively infinite in scale.  To map a path through it is to inflict an intentionality of process upon a developmentally reactive challenge which is lost in a web of technology, hardware, software, society, culture, meaning, purpose, exigence, audience, author, psyche, theory, and bodies and spaces which can never be reconciled.

How do we interpret an infinity of meaning, one which can be reduced and simplified infinitely and still yield a need for infinite further regression before being simplified to the point of meaning?  I would draw upon my discussion with Dr. Richards on the parallels between rhetoric and God – rhetorical “truth” is, quite probably, unknowable, ineffable, and prone to melting your face off if discovered, a la “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

What, then?  I believe that CHAT’s primary contribution to my interpretation of networks – as pertaining to meaning, rhetoric, interpretation, et cetera – is that of my self-determined element of exigent “challenge.”  This (combined with the perpetuation of my belief that the more theories we generate for studying meaning, the more we prove the old adage of nihil novum sub sole est) produces a lens for recapitulating exigencies as the springboard for discovering contextual meaning in multimodal and digital rhetorical spaces – as an extension of past archaeological acts of discovery and meaning-making.

I will return to this in my next post.  It is my goal to consider the following week’s readings by Johnson-Eilola, Joyce, and Latour through the lens of this archaeological consideration, and challenge the assumptions of value from multimodal contributions as different by accentuating current-traditionalist parallels in artifact and argument structure.  I will do this through an integration of social theory, including practice theory by Pierre Bourdieu, as an extra-disciplinary reflection of practices laid out in Latour’s ANT contributions.


Prior, P. (2007). Remaking IO, remaking rhetoric: Semiotic remediation as situated rhetorical practice. In P. Prior, J. Solberg, P. Berry, H. Bellowar, B. Chewning, K. Lunsford, L. Rohan, K. Roozen, M. Sheridan-Rabideau, J. Shipka, D. Van Ittersum, D. & J. Walker (Contributors), Re-situating and re-mediating the canons: A cultural-historical remapping of rhetorical activity. Kairos 11.3.

Prior, P., Solberg, J., Berry, P., Bellwoar, H., Chewning, B., Lunsford, K. J., … & Van Ittersum, D. (2007). Re-situating and re-mediating the canons: A cultural-historical remapping of rhetorical activity. Kairos11(3), 1-29.

An Anecdotal Digression on Knowing, God, Rhetoric, and CHAT

If you’ll pardon the digression: in order to begin looking at the framework of CHAT as a useful metric for exploring the “real-world” modeling of discourse, we absolutely must first have an answer to the question of whether or not “rhetoric” is “real.”  I think this is, of course, an impossible task, but it’s one I nonetheless embrace as a necessary implementation in the face of any theory that argues to revise the canon of either theories or texts in order to better align interpretation of discourses with the reality of discourses.

I once argued with Dr. Daniel Richards (within the context of Technical Communication’s place within the English Studies disciplines) that the value of studying rhetoric in society is the same as studying God in society – my position being that although neither are most likely real, and there is no evidence for the realness of either, the ways in which both lay members and experts of the community categorize, select, exclude, and support according to the belief in each illuminates their social function.

Needless to say, a devout Baptist like Dr. Richards – who is also a devout intellectual progressive with a love of theories which highlight the contingencies of truth and focus – was consternated by the overt implications of such an argument.  For Dr. Richards, the challenge of viewing rhetoric as “unreal” in the same sense as God functions as “unreal” in spiritual and social contexts proved sixfold:

1) As a Christian, his default tendency is to view statements about the irreality of God to be value judgments.  By extension, he admitted to a gut-shot reaction of assuming that similar statements about rhetoric must be equally judgmental.

2) He felt the argument positioned rhetoric as an item of faith rather than fact, which is constructed by readings of texts rather than presumptions of truth. As a corollary of this, one is (horrifically enough in the Digital Humanities) able to simply reject the value of rhetoric based on this belief – to argue that it contributes nothing that does not already exist without it.

3) The argument tends towards inferences that rhetoric is about a personal relationship with truth, as spirituality has generally been accepted to be in the late 20th and 21st centuries (especially in western contexts).  The interpretive nature of the act, then, implies that what rhetorical/religious genres do exist are the products of interpretation rather than revelation.

4) As a corollary, the personal is inherently microcosmic in the realm of “reality”.  In religion, the microcosm of personal faith is established (and is tied in most spiritualties to a greater, cosmic whole).  In rhetoric, we have not yet developed a model for viewing personal rhetoric as connected to the greater whole in a way which allows rhetoric to be “cosmic” in applicable scope.

5) The challenge of empiricism weakens the pursuit of knowledge of God, reducing God’s domain to the margins of what is not empirically demonstrable.  Similarly, rhetoric exists at the skirt of positivist claims – being purely personal and interpretive, rhetorical concerns are rarely touched upon in RAD scholarship.

6) Finally, there is the implication that rhetoric, like religion, might recall the Marxian categorization of “opium of the people.”  The attached weight of this claim (today) is often viewed as denigrating towards the spiritual – as most readers (today) infer Marx to be arguing that religion distorts reality and makes us complacent.  Of course, in the 19th century opium was viewed to be largely a social boon which had saved many lives and prevented untold pain.  As McKinnon argued in Critical Sociology, in the 21st century we might well translate the idiom as “penicillin of the people” (2) – or, as Marx himself argued “the soul of a soulless culture.”

I don’t bring up this discussion between Dr. Richards and myself to be contrary, nor simply to play at words.  In the end, Richards conceded that such an interpretation was pragmatic, provided a new perspective for “reading” rhetoric as a field, and allowed for a more compassionate reading of the social contexts of rhetorical meaning.  He also argued that such a position had severely limited use in the field, and would likely not be adopted by anybody doing rhetorical study.  I can’t help but agree with his final assessment.

I bring this up because I think it is important to understand why even brilliant rhetoricians struggle against the notion that rhetoric is not inherently real, nor the study of it inherently productive – even though at their core rhetoricians understand that the contrast between contingency of meaning and efficacy of mechanisms cannot be reconciled.  At the very least, this question will drive my argument for the remainder of this analysis, and so must be addressed.

When Dr. Richards argued against my position, he found it challenging, I believe for three reasons – first, rhetorical study has tended not to permit the rejection of rhetoric as an inherently valuable object of study (for obvious reasons); this means most rhetoricians, even the most brilliant, have never developed a defense of rhetoric as an object of study in the way most other disciplines, both within the humanities and without, have been expected to.  They simply have been trained out of the habit of position defense by the tradition of contingent truth.  Second, it is deeply personal; rhetoric, like religion, is a subject which Dr. Richards is expert in and has invested thousands of hours into refining his understanding of.  To equate the two is to challenge their segregation in a dissonant fashion.

Third, it is a doggedly pragmatic argument.  Rhetoric, like religion, manifests only in mechanism and effect.  Since there is no prime mover which can be defined, the challenge of rhetoric always returns to that absence.  For the theorist, this creates a fertile landscape for intellectual play.  For the pragmatist, it presents a void which must always be addressed before the “real work” can begin in the field – for both religion and academic study of rhetoric.

For the pragmatist, rhetoric (and God) tell us not about themselves, but ourselves, and serve as a mirror to reflect the processes, desires, and structures which created our own need to know ourselves.

I would argue that CHAT is a first step in an attempt to address the void of prime mover, though certainly not to fill it, and to recognize the inherent “unrealness” of discourse, genre, and rhetoric in general as a construct of our own desire to know our own selves.

That alone is reason enough to study it.  But I think it offers more than that.

Case Study #1: “Reconsidering Blackboard Learn outside of “Victimhood” Narratives: Spinnuzi, Genre Theory, and the Reclamation of the LMS Space”

In Clay Spinuzzi’s 2003 Tracing Genres Through Organizations, the author argues against interpretations of user experience according to the narrative of “victimhood,” of the user as beset upon by the networks of genre-related communication which oppress the inherent will towards creative or unique solutions (13), resulting in a view of the networked whole as a collection of “barriers” to efficient production through over- or mis-management.

What Spinuzzi is fighting is the stereotyping of how users engage with systems, crashing against the unfeeling systems placed by designers and administrators.  This is challenging to me, because I want to study Blackboard Learn as a locus of user experience.  Blackboard Learn is a stereotype.  It’s a shorthand for “how to do a bad thing poorly while completely disregarding users and their experiences.”  The narrative shorthand of the Blackboard user is one of abbreviated (or negligible) agency.

This raises an interesting challenge, because it’s difficult to define the object of Blackboard Learn in any language which isn’t adversarial, or at least victim-based.  However, Spinuzzi does offer a view towards a more concomitant or parallel analysis of the segmented hierarchy of Blackboard use through his three levels of scope (30-34).  Moving between contextual/organizational, goal-oriented/conscious, and reflexive/habitual operationality and forms of genre, the researcher can obtain a more gestalt, holistic view of the functional apparatuses of knowledge which function to construct the overall mechanism (“network?”) of BBL.

Figure 1: Representation of Blackboard Learn as a corporate network influencing users through feedback and feature implementation
Figure 1: Representation of Blackboard Learn as a corporate network influencing users through feedback and feature implementation.  This model might be seen to accentuate the removal of agency the further into the hierarchic structure of BBL one transits (i.e., the more like a student user one becomes.)  This model also emphasizes the notion of blackboard as deliverable product for schools and administrators.

What is a node in this model?  Do nodes exist at each layer of operationality, with edges existing laterally between users and sites, and vertically between layers according to directional relations of context, content development, and authority (see Figure 1)?  Are nodes institutionally-situated, with each organization functioning as a scale-model network of the overall BBL object, and each department, instructor, class, and student existing as a subnetwork of that form (see Figure 2)?

Figure 2: Representation of Blackboard Learn as a network of sub-networked situated contexts, which plow through institutions from a central node of BBL service. This model might be seen to emphasize the inter-relationality and parallel structures of the many discrete subgroups of institutions, instructors, departments, classes, and students as products within the BBL service.
Figure 2: Representation of Blackboard Learn as a network of sub-networked situated contexts, which plow through institutions from a central node of BBL service. This model might be seen to emphasize the inter-relationality and parallel structures of the many discrete subgroups of institutions, instructors, departments, classes, and students as deliverable products for blackboard and investors.

Or do nodes exist within the context of the user experience itself, according to Spinuzzi’s three layers of scope at the individual level?  We might envision this as a network of uses and actions taken by the student, or the instructor, or the developer – however, to visualize it as a process which would include the three would be next to impossible, since the service of Blackboard Learn acts as three different tools for those three different groups.  Rather, the function of BBL acts as an expression of capital, labor, and authority, which would require the student to be able to assert authority, or labor, to leverage against the network itself (see Figure 3).

Figure 3:
Figure 3: Representation of the cyclic relationship of power, operationality, influence, and innovation in BBL networks.  There is a consistent flow of authority vertically (pictured clockwise here) downward to the student-access level.  In order for Spinuzzi’s model to function, a necessary workaround would have to exist to allow students to both participate in-network, and also modify the terms of use in such a way as to exert power or influence over BB, Inc. or introduce innovation and novel operationality to the BB software itself.  Since no such workaround is known to exist, the cycle of innovation necessary for the network to possess Spinuzzi’s “self-programming” aspect is lacking – that is to say, labor does not generate new value within the system, nor augment and transit the system itself.  All innovation, even when it is present, is site-limited.

The answer, of course, is that nodes in networks aren’t real.  The node can be each of these, or none, because the “network” of Blackboard Learn is not an actual objective network, except inasmuch as it is a collective of connected servers, code repositories, and user terminals which function to perpetuate digital information in a cloud-based software platform.  The question, according to my reading of Spinuzzi, is which model of node identification reveals fair, viable, holistic information about how users navigate and negotiate the space.  Spinuzzi would likely identify such nodes according to use cases and transit through an action-oriented process which can be traced and navigated from ideation through execution.

Similar to the question of nodes, the question of edges/relationships is inherently subjective, intentional, and desire-based.  The issue here – one of the primary assumptions necessary to function within Spinuzzi’s interpretation of genre moving through organizations, in fact – is that one must grant agency to organizations themselves, as well as to the inanimate functions of that organization’s production (Latour 1992); although interagentivity does not overtly present itself in Tracing Genres,  Spinuzzi argues for interpretations of networks both within Tracing Genres and elsewhere which would certainly require resolving these agency questions (“Genre and Generic Labor”), but which requires the subversion of the traditional divide between capital and labor in order to instead create hierarchies of labor, some informationally productive and some not.  For Spinuzzi, the edges which provide functional cohesion within the network are those which connect users with facets of the network, and which are negotiated or subverted through direct action, habituation and streamlining, rejection, modification, and the application of labor through interpretation and interrelation (43, 63).

Spinuzzi’s model would show us that networks can grow and evolve through the modification and innovation of users, but this presumes much which is true of socially- and organizationally-structured genre is also true for literal, actual networks.  Of course, this is not true.  A student can no more influence the direction of growth of Blackboard than they could physically recode the space itself.  Blackboard, as designed – and it is a human-driven, designed  platform and network – yields a correct route, and incorrect routes do not execute planned action.  As an extension of this, it is almost impossible to negotiate questions of agency within the “network” of Spinuzzi’s genre-tracing archaeology when considering Blackboard Learn.  Only through direct research of how student and instructor users of the platform navigate the space (e.g. Pretorius & van Biljon 2010) can we determine how and where such agency as might exist is limited, and where it expresses itself.


Spinuzzi’s work provides a contextual model for understanding that users engage with networks at multiple levels of intent and cognition, and his Tracing Genres creates a tripartite model for interpreting holistic information about use through the recognition of various directions of intent, agency, and movement through the networked space.  As such, his theory is seductive, both in the traditional sense of appeal and in the Baudrillardian sense of the subversion of standard hegemonic power structures.  However, Spinuzzi’s work only functions in networks and genres which allow for the presence of “back channel” solutions or definitions – or automation – where the labor of produced meaning functions through multiple venues of contribution or habituation.

This may be useful, but would not escape the question of victimhood.  Such work has been done repeatedly at this point (Mabila et al., Mathews et al., Pretorius & van Biljon), and has yielded the consistent conclusion that the network is designed to prevent open learning, introspection, or innovative practices of streamlining and habituation under designed protocols (with the possible exception of processes which would fall under the purview of “academic dishonesty,” and might warrant additional study but fall outside the purview of this argument; examples include cookie- and test-scrubbing, multiple submissions, clock-hopping, multi-tab browsing and testing, collusion, and illicit access to instructor-side course materials and management functions) (see Cluskey et al.; Vincent; and Katoch).  Various researchers’ findings have established that Blackboard does victimize users.  While Spinuzzi may be correct that the researcher is not a hero-in-waiting for the victimized user, the user may still be well and truly beset upon.

Furthermore, if one rejects the self-directed, self-contained, self-programming agency of non-human actors in networks (i.e., if one sees a reducible complexity to network relations which restrict networks to actors as agents of change, embracing action theory but not Spinuzzi’s eventual synthesis of ANT into it), then relations are still expressions of power or the abdication of power.  Given that power is an inherent facet of how access-restricted networks (i.e. hierarchic structures such as Blackboard Learn) function, content and meaning then travel through avenues of power, and are restricted by those authority-centric contexts.

What this means, finally, is that Genre Theory and genre-tracing make for interesting holistic views of the process of meaning making within the Blackboard network, but only within the highly-idealized context of the best-possible model of navigation – one in which the user has the power to subvert and habituate, and experience is designed non-agonistically.  However, Blackboard is designed agonistically, if not antagonistically; a platform cannot be designed and implemented primarily to provide authoritative knowledge and assess users’ incorporation of that knowledge in a prescriptively-graded environment and not be hostile to independent agency of meaning.

While Spinuzzi may be right to call for the death of victimhood as a U/X context, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t victims, only that we must cease to contextualize our studies through ameliorating their victim status.  We may, instead, consider how “Blackboard makes victims of us all,” not through the agency of the object, but through the presumption of agency and design where there is none – where features come into being out of a vacuum of instructional desires, and are appended into a whole which is not designed to function holistically, but modularly.

References and recommended readings:

Cluskey Jr, G. R., Ehlen, C. R., & Raiborn, M. H. (2011). Thwarting online exam cheating without proctor supervision. Journal of Academic and Business Ethics, 4, 1.

Katoch, K. S. (2013)Academic Dishonesty: Issues and Challenges. Pedagogy of Learning, 1, 2.

Latour, B. (1992). Where are the missing masses? The sociology of a few mundane artefacts. In W. Bijker & J. Law (Eds.), Shaping technology—Building society (pp. 225–259). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Mabila, J., Gelderblom, H., & Ssemugabi, S. (2014). Using eye tracking to investigate first year students’ digital proficiency and their use of a learning management system in an open distance environment. African Journal of Research in Mathematics, Science and Technology Education18(2), 151-163.

Mathews, M., Mitrovic, A., Lin, B., Holland, J., & Churcher, N. (2012, June). Do your eyes give it away? Using eye tracking data to understand students’ attitudes towards open student model representations. In Intelligent tutoring systems (pp. 422-427). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Pretorius, M., & van Biljon, J. (2010). Learning management systems: ICT skills, usability and learnability. Interactive Technology and Smart Education7(1), 30-43.

Spinuzzi, C. (2012). Genre and Generic Labor. WRITING RESEARCH, 487.

Spinuzzi, C. (2003). Tracing genres through organizations: A sociocultural approach to information design (Vol. 1). Mit Press.

Vincent, D. (2013). Promoting Academic Integrity in Assessment in Online Distance Learning. Technology-Mediated Learning, 40-42.

RN#4: Spinuzzi – Exploring the virtues of layered sociocultural design

“As I looked at the other incidents in which participants had improvised genres, I could see that these generally introduced more flexibility into the system. The police officer had substituted the unofficial genre for the more cumbersome official one – but she still had both resources. She had built flexibility into the system, but she had not simply traded the old genre for the new; she had redundancy in case she needed it. Yet since each genre has its own ‘logic,’ that redundancy isn’t simple substitution, it’s a redundancy in ‘logics’ as well. The more genres you introduce into the ecology, the more complex the task of managing genres becomes.

By the time I was visiting campuses for job talks in 1999, I was able to talk coherently about how I was mapping these genre relationships via genre ecology diagrams. At one campus visit, I tried to explain these diagrams to a professor from another department. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Network diagrams'” (Spinuzzi 2009).

On the Art of Talking In Circles

I think my favorite word in the English language may be “rhizomatic.”  Not because it’s a useful word, mind you, or one–if we’re being honest–I’d ever use in earnest, but because it’s one of those great words that proves that the more you know about something, the less you can articulate it, the less you care to articulate it, and the less you notice that you haven’t articulated it.

I am not implying that “network,” “modality,” and “ecology” are these sorts of words (nor “genre”) but, yes, I am.  Of course, the issue here is the commutative property of these terms – each is used to explore and explain the next, and so the definitions for each become interminably complex except within the specific context of the whole.  And so, the notion of the network is inexorably tied to the definition of modalities.  The ecology of genres becomes entirely integrated within the rhizome of disciplinary knowledge.  And the discipline is fully rhizomatic.  This is, or is not, completely inescapable.  However, it is certainly happening.

Figure 1: Detail of craquelure, Leonardo da Vinci's La Gioconda
Figure 1: Detail of craquelure, Leonardo da Vinci’s “La Gioconda” (c. 1505)

As this is happening, has anything been said?  Certainly.  Even I’m not cynical enough to argue that circularity implies non-argument.  But what has been said is assuredly circular.  And if Deleuze and Guattari argue for the “smoothing” of cultural meaning as alike to water seeking cracks and finding its own level, well… culture still surely doesn’t act that way for all the theorizing that it might.  And so I would argue in counter that it is precisely the microscopic non-uniformity, the cultural craquelure, which provides the cultural map along which we might compose a network of our knowledge.  We are not looking at a system moving towards uniformity, but a representation moving towards entropy.

If the Post-Structuralists can just pick random French words and use them critically, well, so can I.

The Big Question: Are Genre Ecologies Networks?


“If knowledge isn’t self-knowledge it isn’t doing much, mate. Is the universe expanding? Is it contracting? Is it standing on one leg and singing ‘When Father Painted the Parlour’?”
– Tom Stoppard, Arcadia


Clay Spinuzzi (Link for Personal Website)
Clay Spinuzzi
(Link for Personal Website)


I don’t call upon the Post-Structuralists lightly.  Clay Spinuzzi’s Tracing Genres through Organizations is, I would argue, a redoubtable archaeology of reconstruction.  It is only because I take the “connections” part of “reading connections” so seriously that I would dare take Foucault back out of the closet having been done with him so recently.

However, like Foucault before him, much of the intellectual enterprise of Spinuzzi’s work is ethically directive – to the point where it makes me question the veracity of motions towards objectivity – the defusing of “victimhood” and the proposition of pragmatic analysis.  As Hubert Knoblauch notes, “by using notions such as ‘utopian system,’ ‘reactionary’ solutions […] or ‘subversive’ interactions which generate innovations from below, Spinuzzi gives his methodology a slightly (micro) political tone which, in the end, does not seem very far from those ‘designer as hero’ tropes he criticises in the beginning” (295).

This is not to call Spinuzzi’s work incomplete, insincere, or dishonest, but rather to indicate that it–as much as the work it serves to revise–is driven by an epistemology and ideology which is both obdurate and assumed in his arguments.  Some might call this dishonest, but I view it as inherently necessary to studying new networks of meaning.  However, I do wish Spinuzzi were more transparent about performing what is, essentially, an ethnographic archaeology of a singular genre form and applying its suppositions to the field of genre theory as a whole.  As he quotes regarding the broad application of ethnography, “a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing: superficial social research may confer the illusion of increased understanding when in fact no such understanding has been achieved” (Nyce & Lowgren in Spinuzzi 16). This is my main concern – for Spinuzzi understanding the ecology he studies, for myself understanding Spinuzzi, and for those attempting to perform this sort of archaeological tripartite research themselves.

There are unspoken assumptions, and that is essentially always dangerous. This ethnography-centric assessment of workplace communication lends itself towards not only Western ideals of communication, but even Midwestern and Middle American ideals and workplace values and expectations.  It is restrictive, and it provides a “superficiality” which bottlenecks the analytic process.  It is performative, and thus works toward a specific end which restricts Spinuzzi’s lens–either necessarily or not.

However, the work of exploring genre ecologies and tracing their contours has value specifically for the ways in which it subverts through its ideology the presumptions of genre theory which came before it.  The integrative approach of Spinuzzi’s “three levels of scope” (26-37), similarly provides a concomitant method for appreciating the broader contexts of microcosmic causes and effects within design.  However, I also have the concern that such work may not always be as valuable – or as explicit – as the primary example within this text, which notably has some 150+ pages within which to be explored and contextualized.  How a multiphasic analysis might function in a meatier ethnography, I’m not certain Spinuzzi is able to illuminate.  He certainly implies that time, longitudinality, is a nearly-necessary facet of meaningful genre tracing (such as through the lens of activity theory-based study, or through the duration of ethnography necessary to subvert Nyce and Lowgren’s “little knowledge”), and this presents special challenges for executing on – and testing – his model meaningfully in many contexts.

However challenging these presumed (i.e., recommended) restrictions on “ecological” tracing may prove, the ideology of “the long way” is almost Zen-like in its apprehension of a truth value which is likely to be missing from almost any ethnographic “snapshot.”  If there is one variable which Spinuzzi’s text truly contributes to the methodologies of network study, it is Δt.

If I might divert into 5th grade book-review mode for a moment:

I really enjoyed Spinuzzi’s Tracing Genres.  It presents a problematic method, but much of the problem lies in that it is trailblazing – and for every issue I took, the text was carefully crafted to resolve the last lingering concern I had through new approaches and the recognition of new questions.  Finally, I am a big fan of incomplete theories, and of theorists who are in the constant state of self-revision, of converting “knowledge” into “self-knowledge” and internalizing the universal functions of Truth into personal study of objects which reveal truth.

In his blog, Spinuzzi asks what might change were he to have come across the label of “network” before “ecology” in describing genre, concluding that “the metaphor of network, like the metaphor of ecology, only gets us so far. But it does point us toward some interesting analytical approaches” (2009).  Spinuzzi previously notes that his new text, Network (2008) synthesized activity, genre, actor-network, distributed cognition, and several other major theories in an attempt to expand and in some small way resolve the questions of genre-specific meaning and user experience.  I like that Spinuzzi throws everything at the wall and sees what sticks.  His methods lack a moral certainty (though they may be flawed in that respect) which is, after recent weeks, decidedly anti-French.  As Baudrillard argued that Foucault replaced the authority of power with his own power to declare authority, I feel that he would, contrarily, praise Spinuzzi’s methods as a seduction of the ethnographic form as a solution of its own in the generation of knowledge.

When Spinuzzi says that “genre ecologies develop, change, and form contradictions,” what his study reveals to me is the craquelure, the indelible spaces between readers/users and texts/genres. What I see is those anti-Deleuzian cracks which connect throughout the greater cultural work, and which reveal patterns of wear, conditions of entropy, and the slow, interminable decay into fixed meaning.  By being aware of that movement, perhaps we might restore or at least preserve texts and genres as breathing, living works which age, sag, and acquire gravitas naturally, and over time.

If you ask me, that’s a fascinatingly analog notion in an increasingly digital space.


Knoblauch, H. (2005). Book Review: Tracing Genres through Organizations. A Sociocultural Approach to Information Design, Clay Spinuzzi, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2003, 264 pp. ISBN 0-262-19491-0. Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), 14(3), 293-296.

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

Spinuzzi, C. (2009, July 09). What if I had called them “Genre Networks?” Retrieved February 08, 2016, from

Stoppard, T. (1993). Arcadia. London: Faber and Faber.