ENGL 840 -Blog Post #1: Article Summary

Topic introduction: Graduate Research within Austerity Contexts

My project this semester is to examine how Free/Open Source solutions (F/OSS; alternatively, Free/Libre Open Source, or FLOSS) function within the practice of graduate student research – especially under the constraints of austerity and institutional power.  It is my goal to approach this topic through meta-analytic research on pre-existing research reporting by graduate student researchers, looking for and tagging specific terms, phrases, and methodologies which indicate the presence of such constraints in the process of producing meaningful research, and attempting to discern to what degree such constraints function to limit or redirect research while also describing and examining methods student researchers use to circumvent such restrictions within ethical frameworks.

I am intrigued by how graduate student research functions as a material concern, both in terms of the material funding of such work and in terms of the F/OSS and FLOSSS materials used and produced (or not) due to the limitations of that funding.  I hope to examine the ways in which graduate student researchers might create, synthesize, “hack,” or otherwise operate materially to subvert traditional funding-centric research models.

One challenge I am aware of is that research which has been so limited may not, frankly, have been published at all.  Thus, what is available to be studied through such meta-analysis is not a fair representation of what it means to perform research under constraint, but rather of what success performing such research looks like.  I hope to refine and expand my protocols to partially resolve these concerns over the coming semester.

(Body length – 250 words)


Review: Zoetewey’s “The Rhetoric of Free”

Zoetewey
Dr. Meredith Zoetewey (CV Link)

Zoetewey, M. W. (2013). The Rhetoric of Free: Open Source Software and Technical Communication During Economic Downturns. Technical Communication Quarterly22(4), 323-342.

In this article, Zoetewey attempts to resolve various rhetorical interpretations and implications of the word “Free” within F/OSS and FLOSS for institutional contexts, especially through the lens of austerity restrictions on Technical Communication departments.  Arguing that F/OSS and “lean media,” while necessary approaches to software and support for cash-strapped Technical Communication departments and programs, are categorizations with multiple meanings, interpretations, and rhetorical possibilities, the author offers four possible interpretations of the F/OSS movement, licenses, and concept.  This work, Zoetewey argues, is necessary because “technical communication’s mission [is] knowledge work and knowledge management,” and the understanding of such software distribution models is not only conducive to producing knowledge in the academy, but is knowledge of value itself – also, a comprehensive understanding of Open Source “presents unique opportunities for technical communicators to demonstrate [necessary] competencies” in communication epistemology, communication skills, and institutional literacy (323-24).

Figure 1 within Zoetewey, showing how focus groups responded in terms of their personal understandings of the implications of "free" within the context of F/OSS (330).
Figure 1 within Zoetewey, showing how focus groups responded in terms of their personal understandings of the implications of “free” within the context of F/OSS (330).

From these assumptions, Zoetewey engages in case-study-centric surveys and focus groups (at a TC-heavy academic conference and at a medical-services provider) and theoretical samples based on interviews (within internship programs and in professional writing classrooms) in order to create an analytic framework for understanding how TCs in different contexts might view “free,” “open,” and “libre” tools/implications, and how these tools might be set apart from proprietary solutions (325-330).  From this study, the author explores how participants traditionally tend to understand the notion of “free-ness” within F/OSS (RQ1), how users tend to compare F/OSS alternatives to proprietary tools within production contexts (RQ2), and how users understand open source practices within their own institutional needs and expectations (RQ3).  Using this RAD data, Zoetewey then offers recommendations for understanding – and presenting – F/OSS within institutional austerity contexts (331-41), finally arguing that “technical communicators [must] use and (re)make support structures to buoy F/OSS initiatives, keeping issues of accountability in mind” in order to create ground-up movement towards software which not only expands communication and research capability, but improves both access and accessibility (341).

Personally, I view this article as an essential contribution to discussions on the accessing and dissemination of free information within institutional contexts.  Although there is a significant amount of TC scholarship on F/OSS ideologies, the truth is that Zoetewey has reduced the argument to its essential core – we are, largely, broke.  Research, the production of knowledge, and communication, in its myriad, digital forms, cost money.  Thus, the temptation is to view F/OSS through the lens of austerity and simply view it as settling for inferior products due to superior cost-benefit ratios.  Zoetewey proves this is not productive – that austerity is key to understanding how F/OSS operates, but that the “free”-ness of open source is not purely monetary.

I hope to apply this conceptualization to graduate-level research in austerity contexts; I think it is necessary for anyone interested in these questions to grapple with this article first – to acknowledge that the exchange of “free” information is not inherently tied to monetary questions; but also to realize that these questions cannot be extricated from each other.

(Body length – 500 words)

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