Case study #3 – Ecosophical orientation of Spinuzzian Genre and CHAT Canons

In terms of discovering viable tools for understanding my selected Object of Study – namely, the rhetorical/pedagogical (visual) implicature of Blackboard Learn’s UI/UX design – Case Study #1’s vision of Spinuzzian genre-tracing proved an operationalization failure, which I resolved (as noted in Case Study #2) by arguing that:

“[w]hat 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.”

Were that I had at that point elected to restructure my Object of Study rather than double down on this significance of visual implicature.  However, I elected not to revise my position or OoS, arguing that the issue of Spinuzzi is not that victimhood narratives are not frequently accurate representations of the UI/UX environment, but rather that focusing on ameliorating such victimhood is rarely productive, stating that:  “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” (Nielsen, “Case Study #2”).  It is in this argument that I finally find issue with Spinnuzi, as well as CHAT and many other theories of analysis and practice from within the field of Network rhetoric; it is in the pursuit of a theoretical body of meaning functioning through networks—whether those networks be physical, digital, or genre-defined theoretical—that we fail to recognize the ideological drive of network practice.

I’ve spoken about ideology to a significant degree in most of my reading connections this semester; memetic jokery about the Capitalist Machinery of Death notwithstanding, ideology generally connects to technological adaptation, and technological adaptation (especially within the modern academy) defines the scope of networks.

The problem with Spinuzzi and with CHAT, then, is that such ideological purposes as serve as theoretical foundations for practice—as I had previously established in reading connections and case studies—are subsumed within the paratextual trappings of the theory itself.  To view Spinuzzian genre as an ecology of meaning is to argue against the virtue of a genre-based pedagogical canon, for instance. To argue, as Paul Prior does, that rhetoric before CHAT is “too centered on the producer rather than the system” (2007) is to make an implicit evaluation of both the rhetor and the rhetorical situation as non-viable sites of meaning in the digital, post-network ecology of post-modernity.

I have called this many things.  I’ve called it “technopositivism,” “Technoscientism,” “The Latourian Leviathan,” “Whiggish,” and “Whig Historicism.”  The assumption, implicit in almost all network theory, is that “onward” equals “progress.”  At the core of all the theories of practice observed in this course has been the presumption of progress through forward movement or network development and added complexities of form – and this (I’ll not say false, but I will consider its falsity) dangerous and damning presumption remains unresolved in both Spinuzzi and CHAT.

I would like to resolve this through the introduction of a third theory of practice (and not only because that is what is expected within this particular assignment) in the form of Guattarian ecosophical theory.  When initially applying CHAT in Case Study 2, I argued that “we can reclaim [objective] contexts by re-ordination of the space itself;” however, “first we must delimit the authority of [the object], and remove the limits of practice under the [object’s] model.”  I would argue that this is precisely the power Guattarian practice might offer – except that Guattarian practice is precisely as bogged down in the practices of ideological progression through neo-scientism. In effect, Guattari gives us an anti-authoritarian strain of systemic opposition which functionally adopts the ecological benefits of technological and epistemological progress (“society” as ecology) without acknowledging the practical origins of such “progress” within the psychological, psycho-social, and economic contexts he rejects.  Socio-anarchism as rhetorical theory.  Daddy’s money activism in psychotherapeutic contexts.

One might optimistically label this practice as “a reclamation” of the technopositivist space, but it would be challenging to claim that it is not in some way an extension of the pro-luddite visions of ecological theories of practice which views technology as a tool to subvert the selfsame technology—ideological peace through superior firepower.  When Guattari paraphrases Bateson (15) in noting that “for too long humanity has adopted ‘survival of the fittest’ as its maxim,” it is tempting to interrogate of Guattari precisely what point in human history he is studying; it is only through the lens of pure ideological representation that any modern (Western) culture of recognizable scale has – in the last century, at the very least – believed in (or executed social programs according to) this “maxim of humanity” on any cultural scale.

Let’s be overt, here.  Capitalism sucks.  Its influences on the “network society” are profound, and the inequality that it engenders into society is severely uncool.  Its influence is both perverse and pervasive to the point of becoming something akin to a toxicity of thought; as Slavoj Žižek (2005) notes “it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.”

For Guattari’s dependence on Whig progressive ideals of practice, here is a truth his text rejects: under capitalism, we also live in a time of unparalleled quality, perhaps the finest era of humanity not only in terms of the social, but the personal.  In history, the mean of humanity has never leaned so nearly towards absolute prosperity, security, and healthfulness.  The human polis has never experienced such wealth, been so well fed, so free of disease, so near-universally free by almost every metric of knowledge, of human bondage, of political franchise and representation.  Our public waters are cleaner, in urban centers around the world, than they have been since the onset of urbanization.  Our air is cleaner than it has been since the onset of industrialization.  And surprisingly few of our children have smallpox.

Is this a result of capital, and of the ideological and economic practices of capitalism?  Of course not – if anything, it is almost certainly because of the regulation of capitalist drives that humanity moves forward through this progress.  And yet the truth of the matter is that, while we could have less overfishing, we could have more renewable energy, and we could definitely stand to have less (or no) global warming, we did not live under capitalist systems when the disaster of human dominionism was born, and the resolution of capitalism would not reveal utopia, but the naked human desires which drive progress (and reveal equally that progress is not inherently productive).

We do not live in Leibniz’ “best of all possible worlds” (link), but we do live in the best of all possible times… to date.

So, how is this argument on my part not the Leviathan?  How am I, in declaring the best of all possible times, not engaging in technoscientism?  Well, in part, Guattari’s argument is inherently tied to the conceptual inexorability of sociological and environmental outcomes; that is to say, if social culture is toxic, that cultural toxicity influences the mind/self and the ecology of the environment similarly.  This has not, in practice, proven true – it is, however, a typical shorthand of specific Marxian predictive models of capitalism.  Technoscientism, the Leviathan—these concepts thrive upon a correlative feature of technology/science/knowledge and progress.  However, such a correlation does not exist.  Systems and the improvement of those systems and around those systems need not be directly (or even indirectly) entangled.

When analyzing my object of study, I recall my criticism of Spinuzzi during my first reading connections work on his Tracing Genres in week 4: “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” (link).  In other words, never trust a politician’s unemployment numbers while he is running for office, a barfly’s history of volunteering while he’s vying for a date, or an academic’s definition of genre while he’s formulating a theory.

That is to say, I address this issue with Guattari because it should be clear at the outset what Guattarian ecosophy cannot do – represent or comment upon reality.  Guattarian theory exists to comment upon the felt sense of a rhetorical or ecological space; this is, of its own right, useful.  If the Three Ecologies can demonstrate that environment, mind, and society are connected, then the ways in which mind and society might apprehend ecology still matters very much, because it is capable of modifying user behaviors (in this case, users being society) functionally in spite of realities which demonstrably negate the rhetorical claims of the rhetor/actor.

This is useful.  This, strangely enough, can be used to comment directly upon Blackboard Learn in ways CHAT and Spinuzzian genre theory cannot.

If it is easier to imagine the end of all social life than a minor change in the “interfacing” of capital with society, it is also easier to imagine the end of all learning on Blackboard than it is to imagine a change in the literal and rhetorical interfaces of Blackboard with the student-user or instructor-user.

Let’s get to the actual requirements of the case study assignment, and flesh out the relationship between the broader context and this specific object of study.

So, the question of Guattarian ecosophy—in the face of the pre-existing case studies of CHAT and Spinuzzian genre tracing—is how Blackboard functions as an ideological and rhetorical ecology, a confluence of mind/self, society/culture, and environment.

Let’s begin by moving back to Spinuzzi and the most rudimentary of UI/UX design principles.  At the core of assumptions of good design is a practice which meets the needs of users, and an interface which is developed in tandem with the user, either through feedback or other models of design, so that the core understanding of practice within the UI/UX environment is as naturalistic as possible.  What Spinuzzi shows us is that when UI/UX fails in this most basic expectation, users modify the work environment themselves, creating derivative genres of document and/or practice which function as either supplement or replacement to the non-naturalistic form.

Meanwhile, Prior et al. might be applied to the same UI/UX environment from the interpretive side of the (re?)design process – if Spinuzzi tells us about user behaviors in the face of design implicature, CHAT tells us about how designers might integrate such implicature by virtue of their point-of-entry into the aesthetic design process of UX.  For Prior et al., this demonstrates that “people, institutions, and artifacts are made in history” (2007), demanding a view of design which happens “in the world” as rhetorical “activity-in-the-world” and as only an initial step (“production”) in the multi-process “literate activities” of deployment and reception.

I have argued previously for entry into CHAT from the central point – “Functional Systems” – in a rejection of the linearity of Priorian process.  Prior advocates for entry at the most procedural level, “literate activity,” while a Spinuzzian, genre-oriented interpretation of the CHAT space of an object would expect theoretical entry at the ordinal layer of the “laminated chronotpes,” the most abstracted layer of integral practice or design.

It’s worth noting, then, that Guattarian ecosophy also encourages the understanding of functional systems as a point of entry into systemic analysis of an object – after all, both ethical and political “articulations” are inherently protocols of functionality, and unquestionably systemic (28).  When Guattari argues for a connectivity between the three, it is inherently systemic, ideological, spiritual, communal… social.  That is to say, we might argue that politics and ethics are inherently capable of being literacies, but they are not inherently literacies.  They are certainly not chronotopes, the laminae of ordination; which functionally provides a space for Guattari’s ecologies at the social-ordinal, global-environmental, and human-subjective scale only within the systemic layer.  Indeed, we see a place for them clearly demarcated within CHAT’s second layer quite clearly (people, artifacts, practices, institutions, communities, and ecologies).

So, what is the theory configuration of the “network” of Blackboard Learn in the rhetorical space – according to Guattarian ecosophy?  It’s hard to say.  In many ways, the notion that BBL is already factually a network problematizes projecting its entire “ecology” as a separate network of meaning.  However, we might presume it looks something like this:

Fair warning: this network illustration will also be doing double duty as part of my final illustration for the synthesis.
Fair warning: this network illustration will also be doing double duty as part of my final illustration for the synthesis.

Let us take a moment, one last time, with Genre vis-à-vis Spinuzzi in the above illustration: if we are to view the “micro”scopic level as accounting for “social-psychological stability, identity and [comforting] predictability [within] organizations” (45), then certainly the Guattarian ecological view of CHAT rhetorical practice makes sense if we view microscopy of the classroom environ not as ecology but rather as layer of rhetorical purpose (that is to say, the embodied layer of the laminae).  Meanwhile, the institutional/organizational context similarly holds to the expectations of Spinuzzian mesoscopy, which views genre as the “maintenance of activity systems,” which are intrinsic to “the construction of motives” within that genre.  Certainly, we can view this as an embedded rhetoric of maintenance-based (i.e. “status quo”) practice. By final extension, the macroscopic level is systemic and ideological, generalizing according to systemic practices of design, execution, and representation: a truly represented rhetoric of ideological practice and form which through the implicature of design enforces the dominant cultural ideological practices of the corporate interest (Blackboard Learn).

That is to say, the practical application of Guattari functions in parallel with the laminae and ordinations of Spinuzzian and Priorian theory, if–and only if—we view the environmental ecology as purely rhetorical (as we should, Cynically, based on its un-truth in representing “reality” as  rhetorically unreal – as discussed previously), and if we view systems (under CHAT, “Functional Systems”) as inherently socially relative.

To recap, and prepare the theoretical orientation of this case study for the final synthesis:

  • How does the theory define BBL?
    • This theory views the visual/rhetorical implicature of BBL as a coherently-designed, authoritative product (either intentional or not, likely not) of the macroscopic ideological practices of social-relative production – which can be demonstrated by the human-subjective lens and demonstrated by the environmental-rhetorical lamina as compared against other laminae.
  • What and/or who is a network node?
    • The nodes of this network functionally may be understood in many ways. However, for the sake of this illustrative model, we can safely consider both literate activities and functional systems as nodes.
  • What types of agency are articulated for specific nodes?
    • This is dependent upon laminal stratification. The move towards the macroscopic level of design implies a greater productive/authoritative agency.  Agency at the mesoscopic level must be negotiated communally, and at the microscopic level must be negotiated subversively.
  • How are different types of nodes situated?
    • As illustrated, each node is situated according to three interrelated strata – scope of genre inquiry (Spinuzzi), revised category of canon (CHAT), and ecosopic ecology (Guattari).
  • What are the types and directions of relationship between nodes?
    • The network is multidirectional; that said, specific features of the network, such as authority, likely flow from the macro through the meso and into the microscopic. Other facets, such as knowledge, might flow differently in specific contexts and from different originating nodes.  Standards likely flow from the meso outward into both the micro and macroscopic levels.  Meanwhile, if practices move “vertically” within the diagram, mediation and meaning likely are negotiated “laterally” between ecologies.
  • What moves within the network?
    • Everything: that said, most likely Objects of Study for the current research direction would be visual implicature, ideology, rhetorical meaning, authority, and standardized practices.
  • What happens to content or meaning as it travels through the network?
    • This would be entirely dependent upon content type, originating scope, ecology, canon, and lamina, or nature of practice. Effectively, the system (as designed) changes transformative articulations dramatically according to the originating site of both content and observation.
  • How do BBL networks emerge, grow, and/or dissolve?
    • Capitalism. Guattari is a little bit right, after all.

Synthesis Scaffolding

  • Which 2 – 4 theories are you choosing and why? How are they similar enough that you can justify getting them to work together? How do they fill each other’s gaps?
    • For the final synthesis, I am combining CHAT, Spinuzzian Genre Tracing, and Guattarian ecology, as per CS#3.
      • As discussed in the class session synthesis/theory tree activities, I view CHAT and Spinuzzian theory as essentially running in parallel in terms of scope of study, which are paralleled similarly in Guattarian conceptualizations of the ecologies of environment, society, and mind/self.
      • By extension, I would not argue that these three approaches “fill each others’ gaps,” but rather reinforce a zeitgeist or genre structure of ecological-rhetorical tropes/thought.  This tropic structure in part what I intend to study in my final case study synthesis.
  • How do these theories align with how you position yourself as a scholar?
    • As discussed in past writings, I view this as an interpretation of the practice of network theory through a pragmatic-rhetorical lens – one which views humanities & other academic practices as primarily rhetorical activities designed to generate general meaning rather than to discover specific information.
      • This aligns with my interest in pragmatics as a pedagogical foundation for instructional and theoretical practices.
  • How do these theories align with your own biases and background (the reason you came to this project in the first place)?
    • The Diogenean study of these practices (as applied to my Object of Study) serves to demonstrate that the track of network theory is a generally progressively Whiggish practice of technoscientism abstracted into an opposition toward non-rhetorical technoscientism which might prove oppositional to the rhetorical trends of the corpus of disparate theories.
      • This study inherently reveals a pragmatic bias in my own assumptions regarding not only these theories, but also my Object of Study – namely, that use value must be real, demonstrable, and measurable in standardized terms in order to prove viability as a course of practical application; in other words, the meaning conveyed within the textual premise of network theory must be able to be usefully segregated from its instigating pedagogical ideologies, or it is non-functional as a rhetorical practice.

Case Study #2: Applying CHAT and Hypertext to student UI/UX interactions in Blackboard Learn

The guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be, ‘Seek simplicity and distrust it’ —Alfred North Whitehead (Quoted in Norman, 1).


In my last case study, I spent a large amount of time experimenting to see whether or not we can study Blackboard Learn outside of the “victimhood” narratives inherent to most user experience study. Believing that Spinuzzian approaches could help students to understand and reintegrate the environment into their learning productively, I tried to “define the object of Blackboard Learn in any language which isn’t adversarial, or at least victim-based” (link). I failed, and concluded 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” – that Blackboard is, in short, not studyable as a network not because it was not designed as a network, but because it was designed as not a network.

I had hoped that CHAT might resolve these issues for me by working in cultural contexts which are designed to interpret meaning through interpretations of mediation. Sadly, I simply didn’t find any evidence that CHAT’s methods are actually applicable to “real” networks (link). Like Spinuzzian methods, CHAT seems from my perspective – and certainly for my Object of Study – to be one of those “theories” which functions best when you don’t apply it to any subject not selected specifically to serve as exemplar for said theoretical practice. I referred to Spinuzzi as an “interminably complex” process of circular definitions which may or may not resolve even the core questions of what genres are, let alone how we might understand them (link) and I tend to stand by that for CHAT as well. The problem here is, simply, the technopositivism of trendy scholarship. It has its merits, but it also – like the poststructuralists before – serves as the high-water mark of not actually creating anything that adds meanings, knowledges, or operationalizations to Objects of Study.

All of this is to say that I have looked at a lot of literature at this point, and even though everybody is talking about Blackboard Learn, not a lot of people are looking at it as a network – and nobody is using theories of networks to do so.

Perhaps the person who comes closest – at least in execution – is Adam R. Pope in his “The Ethics of Adopting a Course Management System” (link). Pope views the starting point of any critique of a CMS/LMS as an organizational study – not unlike Spinuzzi’s – of “the System Behind the System,” of the interpretation of the economic, educational, epistemological, and environmental exigencies which drive development processes and the people “shaping the CMS to the perceived needs of their target users, a process which we know to shape those needs as it meets them.” As such, teachers are forced in progressive pedagogical contexts to do what Pope calls “teaching around the CMS” in an effort to counteract a platform which shapes “the idea of what [is] and is not appropriate material for a given course,” resulting in a transformation of the classroom which strips instructors of their pedagogical agency: “we become powerless to resist or critique and instead learn to merely cope.”

The challenge for Pope, as much as anything else, is in combating the very notion of merely-customized “universal” platforms for learning, the System Behind the System being one which preferences solutions which look good in shareholder reports and quarterly earnings – and which require as little consideration of student/instructor needs as possible, instead shaping those needs to the context of pre-existing platforms for assignment, collection, assessment, and grading. Pope’s problem, in short, is the same as mine – CMSs (and Blackboard specifically, as Pope notes) are anti-humanistic and violently anti-agentic. Pope does not turn to traditionally network-affiliated theories, but rather Nielsenian UX contexts, such as Donald Norman’s work on Complexity and complication (link). In the end, I think that end-user-integrated networks demand usability theory over the more deeply philosophical practices of CHAT, Spinuzzian, ANT, or “Hypertext” theories. There is an honesty in the work that Pope does: the system does not work. Speak to the ethics of systems which are designed not to work. Advocate for a better system. Done.

Terry Locke’s 2007 “E-Learning and the Reshaping of Rhetorical Space,” in The SAGE Handbook of E-Learning Research (link), on the other hand, proves that other deeply philosophical contexts external to network theory can provide useful contexts as well for understanding the laminae of agencies and meanings mediated within CMS spaces. Opening with Keats, Bakhtin, and Gee, Locke is essentially an anti-Pope, exploring the space of the CMS and asynchronous bulletin boards such as Blackboard Learn through heavily theoretical practices in the established rhetoric/composition canon. For Locke, the CMS is a space which might be considered as fully under contexts of encryption and surveillance ethics as under user experience protocols. The CMS/ABB is a rhetorical space which has the potential “radically reshape” not only the rhetorical situation of learning, but the authority – and authoritarian practices – of teachers in the digital space. As such, when Locke asks to what degree instructors should intercede in learning contexts and discussion contexts (198), he argues that those instructors are already “confronted with questions in respect of instructional design” in the contexts of asynchronous learning (Locke here references Sorensen and Baylen’s 2004 “Learning Online” in QRDE, and I think this is a valuable rhetorical addition as well as a strong pedagogical contribution).

Still, while Locke’s arguments are deeply canonical in their adherence to standby research of the Rhet/Comp OWI discipline, there are hints of CHAT practices in his rhetorical study, as well. And so, when he argues that “when courses attract culturally diverse participants, modes of cultural inclusivity, reflected in participant behavior and environmental design, need to be explored so that difference is viewed as a resource and not a deficit” (198), one cannot help but think that the “imagined communities” of scale which Locke is engaging with are a little less imaginary in their struggle with asynchronous meaning – seeing as he develops curriculum at a New Zealand public university with a significant Maori student population (17%) and located on Tainui lands (link). And thinking on this spatial and demographic challenge – in Prior’s language – one might think of the laminae which complicate the mediation of meaning in a segregated, asynchronous space such as the ABB.

Finally, connecting to that CHAT-esque cultural-historic challenge would be Rajendra Kumar Panthee’s 2014 PhD Dissertation at the University of Texas at El Paso, “Inviting Citizen Designers to design learning management system interfaces for student agency in a crosscultural digital contact zone” (link). Panthee’s work is particularly valuable in its contribution to the cultural inter-network premises it explores, and the study of cultural values’ influence on mediated “readings” of Blackboard Learn’s interface. Deeply empirical in its preliminary methods, Panthee’s literature review and originating research demonstrates that BBL is constitutionally incapable of addressing the writing needs of peripheral students in culture, including multi-lingual, ESL, disability, and class/income-limited individuals.

The theme of Panthee’s study is one of excessive and unnecessary constraints, and of streamlining of privileged linguistic trends into the de facto use cases of non-privileged users. (Sure, there’s a Foucault thing happening here, too). Panthee rejects (through Slack and Wise, Nietzsche, and Foucault) the progress narrative as regressive, ethnocentric, and colonialist (54-5) – and rejects the assumption that the techno-positivism of hypertextuality (here expressed through hypermediacy and the desire for use to be “invisible” to the user) as a “solution” is viable, a technology which “attains the real by filling each window with widgets and filling the screen with windows” (Bolter & Grusin 210, qtd. In Panthee 36).

As such, Panthee argues, “new media technologies in general and LMS in particular can not be treated in isolation from their designers’ cultural, social, and linguistic norms and values. Media technologies [like Blackboard] play a crucial role in creating and disseminating a techno-cultural hegemony in a cross-cultural contact zone of FYC” (37). Panthee then, through a semi-structured feminist narrative inquiry, works with “Citizen Designers” (read: “Panthee’s students”) to remix features of Wiki platforms, blogs, and other Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 platforms in order to recenter multi-lingual and multi-cultural practices and mediations in the LMS space of Blackboard Learn – an exercise which encourages said designers to remediate, but also to consider the original mediation in more explicit terms.

Is this generally helpful? Is this broadly viable? Does this matter in the institutional or organizational context?

How does CHAT function to interrogate Blackboard Learn?

One of the first challenges of CHAT is segmenting or compartmentalizing BBL into a viable Object of Study. While CHAT’s authors argue that “the broadest context” for remapping an object is through the segmentalization of Laminated Chronotopes (embodied, represented, and embedded – certainly reminiscent of rhetorical arguments by Locke and cultural claims by Panthee), I would argue instead for compartmentalizing “functional systems” which inform both the laminated chronotopes and the activities of practice themselves (“literate activities”). My reasoning here is that CHAT’s goal is to understand chronotopes as activity studied “in the wild,” such as it is – but BBL is not “the wild,” but rather the hyper-real of Bolter & Grusin’s “widgets” of reality. It strikes me that the Laminated Chronotope only works as a jumping-off point into CHAT analysis if the student (or instructor, or administrator, or developer, or product representative) is able to make choices within the network context. As we’ve already established a few times over this semester, BBL lacks agentic potentials that allow embodiment, representation, or embedding by choice. And so we must move up one order of artifaction, and use CHAT to consider instead Pope’s “System Behind the System.” People, artifacts, practices, institutions, communities, and ecologies are perhaps the only actual manifest evidences that Blackboard’s designs function as intended, perpetuating and mediating systemic practices through the platform itself – what Pope would call “shaping needs as it meets them.” And so, while many authors consider the cultural lens (as Panthee does) through the people within the system, and while other pedgogical texts interpret activities (such as production, reception, and representation) on Blackboard through the chronotopes of embodying, embedding, and representingvery little work is actually able to commit to connecting the systems themselves to the productive acts within the three chronotopes themselves. As such, we have difficulty viewing BBL as code, and due to this limitation, similarly fail to view it as a process tree capable of being refined (embedding). We similarly have trouble recognizing BBL as presenting (and augmenting) the practices and rhetorical spaces of the physical classroom, and so frequently fail to conceptualize the possibility that it is, while less-than-perfect, capable of being refined into a post-traditionalist pedagogical space (as Panthee’s students have endeavored to do) and thus lose perspective on the act of digital projection (representing). And finally, we frequently fail to view the materials generated in Blackboard spaces as “real,” considering them at best a shade of their more complete (process-oriented) “counterparts” in the “real” classroom. In this we lose sense of the possibility of truly incarnate digital presence and the viability of digital learning for OWI contexts (embodying).

If we can reclaim these contexts by re-ordination of the space itself, we might be able to move beyond Pope’s “merely coping” and into viable digital pedagogy – but first we must delimit the authority of Blackboard, and remove the limits of practice under the BBL model.

The “challenge” as Prior would say, here, is that such practices are political, ideological, and impracticable. But – at least for CHAT – that may be a problem, for once, for another day. CHAT gives a viable context for reconceptualizing the chronotopes, not as a base, but as a substructure beneath the structure of learning (which is, itself, aligned under a superstructure of literacies and ecologies).

Are these structures and vertically-realigned laminae “nodes” in the traditional sense of the “network?” I honestly don’t know. The challenge here is that I stand by my earlier statement that Blackboard itself is not a network, but rather a collection of edges between various pedagogical, social, cultural, and economic networks and systems. What are the “networks” we’re actually studying, then? Classrooms, certainly, and intra-instructor and inter-instructor multi-section or even multi-course networks. Departments, to be sure, and institutions. Corporate/college relationships. But there is not a cohesive network to study top-down, or even to path through, which is precisely, I would argue, what makes the rhetorical nature of BBL such a massive beast to slay.

What moves through a network that is not a network? Standards. Regulations and protocols and rules and walls which keep gardens safe – and walled. What would Prior et al. claim moves through the BBL ultra-network? Meaning in literate practices, most likely. The problem there is that such meaning falls apart at the top, which we’ve previously discussed under Spinuzzi as apathetic to change, and thus apathetic to mediation and meaning for the lower network “hubs.”

In other words, CHAT can only demonstrate meaning mediation as a network feature of BBL if BBL has changed over time to respond to these mediations. It, quite frankly, hasn’t. And so it cannot be responsive (See Figure 1). If meaning does not change the network as it moves through it, then by definition meaning is changed itself by this transit. What must be studied next is how we have allowed these changes to go unnoticed, or unchecked.

How can Hypertext de-wall the garden?

Frank O’Connor, the Irish writer, tells in one of his books how, as a boy, he and his friends would make their way across the countryside, and when they came to an orchard wall that seemed too high and too doubtful to try and too difficult to permit their voyage to continue, they took off their hats and tossed them over the wall–and then they had no choice but to follow them. This Nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space, and we have no choice but to follow it. Whatever the difficulties, they will be overcome. Whatever the hazards, they must be guarded against” (John F. Kennedy, 1963).

Hypertext gives me a tool that I don’t think is standard (entirely) to the reading of Hypertext, but remains nonetheless very important: the rhetorical sense of community that is inherent to the act of hypertextual connections between messages and media.

Let us begin here: the locus of community is trust. Trust is ethotic.

What Hypertext does is build the visual ethos of texts by connecting them digitally/physically to related texts to build a community of meaning. Hypertextuality is the creation of alternative models of authority by the supposition of a separate community coalesced by shared (agreed) meaning.

In our current Object of Study – quite frequently – the shared meaning of the classroom-as-community is “Blackboard sucks, let’s use it as little as possible.” Is this bad? I’d argue it’s actually remarkably productive, an act of communal mediation which brings instructor and student(s) together under the contexts of synchronicity and relationality. It deconstructs authority, and designs course relations around the notion, not of Spinuzzian “victimhood,” but of intellectual and pedagogical “uprising.”

But it also functions within the literally hypertextual space of Blackboard Learn itself, where students function subversively by linking their classmates and instructor out into the “open” from the dark web of the proprietary rhetorical scope of Blackboard as a locus of control (read: “not trust”). And so, following hypertextual networks out of the deep web and into the shared, public space serves antiseptically, but also agonistically, to reject the rhetorical lens of Blackboard as encompassing the classroom, as walling the garden.

In this context, then, we might reiterate the relationality of hypertextual readings of Blackboard by saying that the nodes are both people and content, and the edges trust and authority which connect people to each other, people to content, and content to other content. Situated in contexts both external and internal to Blackboard (and, in ways, interstitially or liminally in transit between the two, negotiated spaces), agency becomes subversive, and the network becomes user-centric. A focus on communities of subversion and repurposing allows us to view the transit through (and out of and back into) the network as the negotiation of authority and the renegotiation of boundaries – the authority of the system being negotiated specifically by the role of that negotiation in defining the confines and constraints of the classroom.

What we have then through hypertextuality is a nested layering of scopes of inquiry (in the Spinuzzian sense), which moves through three layers:

authority of system → authority of users → authority of boundaries


Expanding upon questions of hypertextuality raised in Johnson-Eilola, we can use this case study to consider how community is expressed and built through connectivity – and how the directive connectivity of Blackboard Learn fosters – and hinders – that connectivity (and by extension, the sense of community.)  Exploration of cultural/economic/institutional contexts would then be tied – de facto – to the user interface experience and the ways the UI communicates boundaries; in response to this, we must consider not only the ways students and instructors navigate such boundaries, but also ways in which institution- and program-centric “modules” drive this learning experience and express pedagogical and epistemological ethos (e.g. the presence of TurnItIn functionality within submission processes.)  These technologies create new walls – walls which must in turn be negotiated yet again by students and instructors walled within the authoritative system of CMS practice and application.

Considering Johnson-Eilola’s community arguments, then, we can explore the rhetorical force of the UI as a commentary on mentor/student relationship, questions of absence, absenteeism, inaccessibility, dehumanization, isolation, and alienation – as well as professionalization and standardization.  “Community” does much of the work of contextualizing what is and is not within Blackboard – in part because Blackboard serves as a black box for knowledge and authority generation (to the end user).  As such, we might also even consider Joyce’s more “poetic” arguments about the ways in which hypertextuality allows students to express creativity; as we consider the ways in which BBL is designed to prevent this creativity in a hypertextual space, we also begin to see the ways that creativtity makes the authoritative intentionality of Blackboard Learn matter not at all.

What Hypertextuality teaches us, then, is this: whether we use Blackboard begrudgingly, abuse Blackboard intentionally, or ignore Blackboard together, we are already subverting its rhetorical purposes – if we do so as a determined, negotiated collective.



Kennedy, J. F. (1963). Remarks at the Dedication of the Aerospace Medical Health Center. San Antonio, Texas21.

Case Study #2 – Outline

Applying CHAT and Hypertext to student UI/UX interactions in Blackboard Learn

  • CHAT – Prior and the tracing impulse of challenge-based exigency
    • application of cultural-historic analysis practices for action based upon evolution of Blackboard over time
      • Spoiler – Blackboard has not changed over time.
    • Exploration of cultural/economic/institutional contexts as tied to the UI experience – consideration of ways in which institution- and program-centric “modules” drive learning experience and express pedagogical and epistemological ethos (e.g. presence of TurnItIn functionality within submission processes.)
  • Hypertext – Expanding upon questions of hypertextuality raised in Johnson-Eilola, consider how community is expressed and built through connectivity – and how the directive connectivity of BBL fosters – and hinders – that connectivity (and by extension, the sense of community.)
    • Considering Johnson-Eilola’s community arguments, explore the rhetorical force of the UI as a commentary on mentor/student relationship
      • questions of absence, absenteeism, inaccessibility, dehumanization, isolation, and alienation – as well as professionalization and standardization
    • From here, consider Joyce’s more “poetic” arguments about the ways in which hypertextuality might allow students to express creativity; then, consider the ways in which BBL is designed to prevent this in a hypertextual space.