ENGL 840 -Blog Post #5: Monograph Summary

Bennett, J. (2009). Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Duke University Press.

For my monograph, I have selected Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A political ecology of things (2009) from Duke UP (complete preface available here).

Working in argumentative forms which run parallel to Latour’s Politics of Nature and Guattari’s Three Ecologies, Bennett argues (and here I must oversimplify) for a “vitality”-centered view of materiality which gives non-human objects agency (similarly to theories such as Actor Network Theory or Activity Theory) in order to recontextualize organizations, institutions, and political society through material forces “with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own,” which the author considers to be a “political project” which encourages “intelligent and sustainable engagement with vibrant matter and lively things” (viii).

There are some challenges to using such a text “as research.”  First, inherent in a “political project” is the implication of bias.  Second, very little of the research contained within contains a consistent or coherent experimental or synthetic method.  By example, an early passage helpfully labelled “A Note on Methodology” contains nothing a researcher would traditionally recognize as “methodological,” with the exception of claims that the author will employ a method of “demystification” (xiii-xv) for the material practices of knowledge.  What Bennett provides, in a sense, is the connection of the mystic illuminated Human Being with the mammalian Homo Sapien Sapiens – a “touch of anthropomorphism” (99) which parallels natural and cultural forms in order to demonstrate that our own agency is precisely as suspect as “vibrant materials'” agency would be – unless we are able as thinkers to synthesize the two.

On reading deeply into this text – my gut sank as I realized that (for my limited purposes here) Bennett’s work was not precisely helpful.  Exploring why, however, might be informative.

Last week I expressed a concern that this might prove off-track or tangential.  I wanted to study Bennett because I believe that austerity contexts for humanities graduate research really deal with the agency of money in the process of meaning-making, and the rhetorical agency of things as more valued in research production than ideas.  As such, it’s easier to obtain research support to generate products, viable prototypes, than it is to generate data – and much of Bennett’s work helps contextualize a theoretical ground for why that has been the case in the past, and why the future of discourse on such research might be not to ascend the “thing,” but to equalize the Cartesian intellectual subject by bringing the researcher down to the level of the political/ecological context of material production.

If this all sounds too heady, I’m struggling to make Bennett applicable.  Out of intellectual honesty, I want to keep it in to consider the challenges Bennett offers to traditional research paradigms, but the empiricist in me fears the consequences of a methods-and-methodology-free practice of research – which is essentially what Bennett’s political practice ends up being.  However, there might be some ways to apply this to the graduate student struggle for research relevancy.  More work is necessary.



ENGL 840 -Blog Post #4: Dissertation Summary

Unger, D. C. (2015). What peer-to-peer networks teach us about institutional service (Order No. 3734369). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1733665715).


In contrast to my analysis of the Smith dissertation, which dealt with a specific research process and use case for OSS applications in graduate student contexts, Donald C. Unger’s 2015 What peer-to-peer networks teach us about institutional service” is a deeply rhetorical and organizational analysis of academia discipline-wide, through the context of service relationships and responsibilities.

In his first chapter, Unger’s work studies the rhetorical and practical interpretations of the nature and role of service in the academy, and examines the conflict between post-structuralist liberal expectations of the academy against pragmatic, traditionalist questions of viability and productivity.  Through theoretical applications and institutional critiques in the second chapter, Unger hopes to resolve this opposition by considering service under peer-to-peer technological models which express service and support as relational rather than material or expertise-based, and through feminist care ethics which value the formation and growth of professional qualities through the lens of the interpersonal rather than the organizational context.

In the third and fourth chapters, the author applies these questions and the peer-to-peer resolution of liberal and pragmatic traditionalist approaches under specific disciplinary contexts – in Rhetoric and Composition, in Computers and Writing, and in Technical Communication (47-73).  Unger then provides a heuristic for considering how service does and does not function as a relationality, and how institutional critique serves to make visible the invisible “infrastructure” (37) of service and to blur the delineation between “critical thought” in the humanities and the “technical knowhow” of STEM disciplines (11).

Although this delineation is challenging, and the segregation between positivist and anti-/post-positivist notions still unclear (both in its presence and the necessity of its presence), the questions Unger raises are a necessary step in contextualizing my work on graduate research in the humanities – as the support of graduate research is inherently a form of (frequently informal) service, and the students’ practice itself is a form of service – as defined by Unger’s 8-point definition of service (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Unger's definition of institutional service
Figure 1: Unger’s definition of institutional service (101).

In exploring the “crisis narratives” of the humanities and their relationship to the current state of service and research in the field today (6-10), Unger’s work necessarily exists within ideological contexts which drive it toward specific solutions and conclusions about the nature of service and academic work in general.  However, this document may be useful to me because it recontextualizes and more carefully delineates service within the academy according to these ideologies and ethics of care and sharing, which reflect the use cases typical to the application of F/OSS within institutional contexts; as graduate students typically create research knowledge under mentorship, the questions which Unger asks about how we view service as inherently defined by relationships and networks provide a strong theoretical and ethical framework–which helps us to examine the ways in which research flows from service, service from research needs, and both from departmental, disciplinary, and institutional exigencies and contexts.

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)

ENGL 840 -Blog Post #2: Article Summary

Review: Aksulu and Wade’s “A Comprehensive Review and Synthesis of Open Source Research”

Aksulu, A., & Wade, M. (2010). A comprehensive review and synthesis of open source research. Journal of the Association for Information Systems,11(11), 576-656.

While it is useful to assess the progress of a field’s development, a research taxonomy is silent about whether or not the extant research is appropriate or productive. The taxonomy tells us only where the field is, not where it should be, or where it needs to go next. It can perhaps provide an indication of areas of overlap, but it says little about gaps. The categories may be mutually exclusive or near exclusive, but there is no way to know if they are appropriate, or exhaustive (584).

Aksulu and Wade’s combined qualitative/quantitative, taxonomic meta-analysis of Open Source research presents a fascinating “state of the field” view through Systems Theory (577) of various approaches researchers are taking in studying the OSS movement and its processes, products, and people.  Compiling and categorizing 618 separate peer-reviewed research-centric articles, the authors attempt to provide a current perspective on work researchers are doing within—and about—open source spaces.

The taxonomy includes seven primary categories (“patterns”), and an additional 57 subcategories (“codes” and “sub-codes”), for (non-exhaustively) identifying typical F/OSS objects of study – of these patterns (see Figure 1), the “Beyond Software” pattern (which applies to only 1/6th of OSS research published) contains subcategories of particular interest in humanities research, including the OSS paradigm, innovation, knowledge flow, standards, education, and user-centric production implications (579-83).

Figure 1: The "Beyond Software" pattern and sub-codes, which provide topics of special interest for humanities researchers, and which it might be argued require additional complication and refinement.
Figure 1: The “Beyond Software” pattern and sub-codes, which provide topics of special interest for humanities researchers, and which it might be argued require additional complication and refinement.

The calculated mean for codes per article is 2.19, significantly implying most research functions at the intersection of at least two sub-codes.

Because the Systems Theory methodology is multipartite and holistic, it is highly modular and capable of being appended or modified to include new research directions over time (592).  This serves the overall purpose of the study, which aims not only to contextualize and study current trends, but also identify directions of research coverage, overlap between research “patterns,” and venues for future research – which might productively combine data from multiple patterns to create new knowledge in the field.  This design also serves the multidisciplinary interests of F/OSS research, focusing not on specific avenues of contribution or data generation/sources, but rather upon specific objects of study which might serve multiple disciplinary, epistemological, and social questions.  The detached interest of the study serves its generalist applicability.

Figure 2: The authors' proposed framework for contextualizing F/OSS & OSR processes and forms through personal and organizational contexts. This heuristic form might prove especially valuable for rhetoric and TC scholars who are interested in the interpersonal meanings created and disseminated in the OSS space.
Figure 2: The authors’ proposed framework for contextualizing F/OSS & OSR processes and forms through personal and organizational contexts. This heuristic form might prove especially valuable for rhetoric and TC scholars who are interested in the interpersonal meanings created and disseminated in the OSS space.

I recommend this article as a strong model for anybody looking for a way to provide categorical meta-analysis on multi-disciplinary fields of study.  It presents a strong methodological model for understanding the intersections of multi-disciplinary research, as well as methods for contextualizing discipline-specific work outside of its native contexts (see Figure 2).  Although the article is written largely from a business-development standpoint, the work proves the adaptability of F/OSS for multiple contexts by moving the field of research outside of the exclusive realm of either business practice or product development.  However, I would argue that the study of paradigms and knowledge flow could have been further delineated into rhetorical, practical, and institutional concerns in order to provide further knowledge outside the range of production-centric research which contributed the bulk of the research indexed.

Considering this work as a contextualization of humanities-centered research in F/OSS, my previously studied article by Zoetewey presents an interesting codifying challenge.  While Zoetewey’s work studies the paradigm, standards, and knowledge flow implication of the F/OSS field, there is also an element of rhetorical identification which is missing, and which implies an incompleteness to Aksulu and Wade’s taxonomy.  I hope to resolve this difference through further study and proposed amendments to the patterns and codes listed here to further support the humanities’ perspective on this research topic.

(Body length – 495 words)

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”

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)