PPSM: Distribution and Centralization

One readily observable aspect of the PPSM is the varying degree to which different online rhetoric and composition journals have been geographically distributed or centralized. This pattern is interesting because the broad accessibility of online rhetoric and composition journals and the common availability of distance-mitigating digital communication technologies—including email, instant messaging, and wikis—suggest that journal authors, editors, and sponsoring locations need not be in close physical proximity. However, the PPSM reveals that many journals are strongly centralized in specific locations. Of course, neither wide geographical distribution nor centralization is inherently superior; there is great value in the range of perspectives that presumably comes from a distributed base, as there is merit in the focused attention on local lines of thought and the tighter control of production that might be expected from a centralized group. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to investigate this distinction to explore how location functions in online spaces and texts.

The PPSM reveals two main patterns for online rhetoric and composition journals: a pattern of wide distribution and a pattern of strong centralization. A prime example of the former is seen in the journal Kairos, the pool's most thoroughly distributed online rhetoric and composition journal. As evident in the animation below, Kairos’s pool of contributors has been dispersed nationally throughout its publication.

Quicktime pluggin missing Figure 1. Maps of Kairos’s contribution activity through its years of publication.

In its first year of publication, 1996 (which encompassed three issues), Texas Tech University, Kairos’s original sponsoring institution and the location of several founding editors, is the map's most prominent symbol, but institutions in states including North Dakota, Indiana, Florida, and New York also have significant presences. By 1997, one year into Kairos’s publication, Texas Tech was no longer the most prominent location, and notable locations were spread throughout the country, including New England and the West Coast. This pattern of broad distribution has continued throughout Kairos’s publication. Although some institutions have maintained persistent visibility, their relative prominence waxes and wanes. New institutions emerge frequently, demonstrating that the journal’s distribution is not predicated upon a small set of recurrent locations. Throughout Kairos’s publication, Texas Tech University has had a noticeable, but not domineering, position in the journal’s geographical distribution. Since 2006, after the journal transitioned to a server at Michigan State University provided by the Writing in Digital Environments (WIDE) Research Center, Texas Tech’s visibility has decreased markedly.

Kairos exemplifies a core map pattern as a journal that, from its inception through its current publication, has been widely distributed in authorship, editorial staff, and sponsoring location. This diversity is revealed by the broad geographical scatter evident in the image below, which is an aggregate representation of all Kairos contribution locations for the period between 1996 and 2008.1

Aggregate map of Kairos’s contribution activity through 2008.Figure 2. Aggregate map of Kairos’s contribution activity through 2008.

The journals Academic.Writing and Across the Disciplines reveal a variation of this pattern. It is appropriate to treat these works as a unit, because in 2004 Academic.Writing and the print journal Language and Learning Across the Disciplines merged to form Across the Disciplines. The animation below demonstrates that the total geographical distribution of these journals has not been quite as extensive as that of Kairos, partially because of a lesser publication output, but it has covered much of the same national area.

Quicktime pluggin missing Figure 3. Maps of contribution activity for Academic.Writing and Across the Disciplines through their years of publication.

However, as shown in Figure 4's aggregate map image below, a difference between Kairos’s pattern and Academic.Writing/Across the Disciplines’s is that the latter’s distribution is mostly predicated upon a limited number of pillar locations, including Colorado State University, Southern Connecticut State University, Georgia Southern University, Florida State University, and The McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Aggregate map of contribution activity for Academic.Writing and Across the
Disciplines through 2008.Figure 4. Aggregate map of contribution activity for Academic.Writing and Across the Disciplines through 2008.

Colorado State University was the sponsoring institution of Academic.Writing and continues to be the sponsoring institution of Across the Disciplines. It is also the location of many founding and current editors. Colorado State University is consistently the predominant location in the journals’ distribution, or only slightly less so (as in 2004), although the other institutions mentioned remain persistently conspicuous. As such, although Academic.Writing/Across the Disciplines is widely distributed, it is concentrated in a few key locations to a degree that Kairos is not. Interestingly, these nodes are in areas that are not extensively represented in other online rhetoric and composition journals, such as the Rocky Mountain region and the Southeast. Additionally, as evident in Figure 3, after the 2004 founding of Across the Disciplines, there has been a general trend toward increased distribution and less concentration at Colorado State University.

Kairos and Academic.Writing/Across the Disciplines are examples of one of the PPSM’s main patterns. It is perhaps unexpected that more online rhetoric and composition journals do not fit this model of distributed publication, given our presumption that digital communication technologies negate obstacles of physical distance. However, several online rhetoric and composition journals have been strongly centralized. A productive example of this pattern is the earliest-published journal in the pilot data set, The Electronic Journal for Computer Writing, Rhetoric and Literature, which began in 1994 under John Slatin at the University of Texas’s Computer Writing and Research Lab (CWRL). This journal was published until 1997, and as demonstrated in the aggregate image of its full publishing period, it was almost completely local.

Aggregate map of The Electronic Journal for Computer Writing, Rhetoric and Literature’s
contribution activity through its whole period of publication (1994-1997).Figure 5. Aggregate map of The Electronic Journal for Computer Writing, Rhetoric and Literature’s contribution activity through its whole period of publication (1994-1997).

Currents in Electronic Literacy, which began publishing in 1999 also under John Slatin at the University of Texas’s CWRL, mostly adheres to the pattern established by The Electronic Journal for Computer Writing, Rhetoric and Literature. Currents in Electronic Literacy continues to publish as of 2012, and as the aggregate image below demonstrates, it is also locally concentrated (although it has drawn contributions from a geographically wider pool than its predecessor).

Aggregate map of Currents in Electronic Literacy’s contribution activity from
inception (1999) through 2008.Figure 6. Aggregate map of Currents in Electronic Literacy’s contribution activity from inception (1999) through 2008.

Figures 7 and 8, aggregate images of Inventio's and PRE/TEXT: Electra(Lite)'s respective publication periods, also reveal centralized geographical patterns. Inventio has been largely centered at George Mason University, and PRE/TEXT: Electra(Lite) was strongly concentrated at the University of Texas at Arlington and the University of Texas at Dallas.

Aggregate map of Inventio’s contribution activity through its whole period of
publication (1999-2006).Figure 7. Aggregate map of Inventio’s contribution activity through its whole period of publication (1999-2006).

Aggregate map of PRE/TEXT: Electra(Lite)’s contribution activity through its
whole period of publication (1997-2000).Figure 8. Aggregate map of PRE/TEXT: Electra(Lite)’s contribution activity through its whole period of publication (1997-2000).

Given the potential for distributed production that digital communication technologies afford and that some journals leverage, it is possible to see a kind of inconsistency in online journals that are strongly centralized. One might make the claim that the medium inherently grants such journals the appearance of addressing broad, geographically diverse interests, while actually serving the endemic investments of one locality or a limited group of scholars. However, the data do not seem to support this interpretation. It should be noted that none of the strongly centralized journals mentioned were, or are, limited local publications. All have received contributions from national sources, and in many cases international sources from several continents, including University College Dublin, RMIT University in Melbourne, University of São Paulo, the University of Saskatchewan, and the National University of Singapore, among others. It also might be tempting to view online journal concentration as a preliminary stage that new publications pass through or a consequence of their being created at a time when the Web was immature. However, the data do not support such understandings either. Although The Electronic Journal for Computer Writing, Rhetoric and Literature is the earliest-tracked journal, and it is largely centralized, Kairos began publishing only two years later in 1996, and it is the most widely distributed journal in the data set. This fact undercuts the argument that distance-mitigating digital technologies were not robust or familiar enough to be used for distributed production in the early days of online rhetoric and composition journal publication. Also, long-running strongly centralized journals continue to publish today, which rebuts the argument that centralization is a germinal stage for online publications as they mature toward increased geographical distribution.

The continued centralized production of online rhetoric and composition journals suggests that there is something highly functional about this mode. Without assigning particular motives, it is possible to speculate that the advantages of centralized online journal publication are not directly associated with widely distributed input. There is generally a lower barrier to online publication than to print publication in terms of monetary outlay, personnel, and materiel. Often, large-scale print publications must be sustained by a notable figure or significant group that can secure financing and a continued means of production. Moreover, the subject matter of print publications generally must appeal to a group that is either sufficiently broad or resourced enough to support ongoing production.

In contrast to these comparatively high barriers to print publication, centralized online publication provides a forum for specialized lines of thought, excluded groups, and local entities (such as individual institutions, departments, and programs) that would not be possible in print. Online publications allow in-house interests to reach a wide audience while keeping production investments and labor outlays minimal. They also permit experimentation in form and content without a large resource risk. A few people at one location with access to a web server can generate a sustainable online publication.

It is possible that online rhetoric and composition journals share a medium but differ in their reasons for its adoption. The data suggest that some journals take advantage of online networks' potential for widely distributed input, others for their capacity to make alternative interests widely accessible through modest means, or still others for the opportunity to experiment without large material risk. As such, it is not necessarily the possibility of distributed collaboration that drives the production of all online journals, but perhaps also the low entry barrier, the potential for wide circulation of local interests, and the capacity for low-risk experimentation. If nothing else, centralization underscores that, at least in some scenarios, gathering journal staff together in one physical location is important to production. Even in a networked, digital milieu, being together at a particular place and time can matter.

In addition to online rhetoric and composition journals that fit the two main patterns of wide distribution and strong centralization, there are also those that reveal transitional or hybrid patterns. Computers and Composition Online is one such example. This online publication began in 1996 as a branch of the venerable print journal Computers and Composition to “provide a venue for manuscripts that did not lend themselves well to the text-based format of a hard copy journal” (A Brief History, n.d.).2 The PPSM reveals interesting concentrations and shifts in Computers and Composition Online’s geography, evident in the animation below.

Quicktime pluggin missing Figure 9. Maps of Computers and Composition Online’s contribution activity through its years of publication.

Computers and Composition Online began in 1996 as a shared project between Keith Comer at the University of Karlskrona in Sweden and Margaret Syverson at the University of Texas. However, this iteration of the journal shows little production until 1998 when the University of Texas became its sponsoring institution and the location of two of its five editors. As evident in Figure 9, after a few years, the journal appears to have entered a period of dormancy, followed by a relocation in 2003 and strong concentration at Bowling Green State University in Ohio under editor-in-chief Kristine Blair. From this point forward, the journal has remained strongly centralized at this location as its sponsoring institution and the site of most of its editorial staff—despite drawing authorial contributions from an increasingly wide national (and recently international) pool of scholars.

Computers and Composition Online’s pattern of movement, concentration, and gradual distribution resembles the cycles of disintegration and reformation visible in Enculturation, as shown in the animation below.

Quicktime pluggin missing Figure 10. Maps of Enculturation’s contribution activity through its years of publication.

Enculturation began publishing in 1997, and was strongly centralized at the University of Texas at Arlington. By its second year of publication, the University of Texas at Arlington had a greatly diminished prominence, and the journal incorporated contributions from international institutions, including the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands and the University of Lüneburg in Germany. In 1999, the journal was again concentrated at the University of Texas at Arlington before branching internationally in 2000. Then, Enculturation seemingly dissipated, only to reform again in 2002 at three pillar locations: George Mason University, Purdue University, and Syracuse University. In 2003 and 2004, George Mason University retained its predominance, although it was less significant, because the journal was more distributed geographically throughout the country. After 2004, the journal was dormant until 2008, when it reformed, now strongly concentrated at George Mason University and The George Washington University, which are in close physical proximity.

It is worthwhile to inject this location-focused examination with some information about the scholars involved to illuminate this progression. It is possible to claim that Enculturation’s pattern of concentration, dissemination, and reformation is connected with the editors that founded and guided it. In particular, editor Byron Hawk, originally at the University of Texas at Arlington during the journal’s inception and later at George Mason University, seems to have been a significant factor in the journal’s shifting geographical pattern. Additionally, the journal’s reformation in 2002 around George Mason University, Purdue University, and Syracuse University appears connected to the locations of editors Thomas Rickert, at Purdue University, and Collin Brooke, at Syracuse University. Both individuals were at the University of Texas at Arlington in 1997 and were part of Enculturation’s editorial staff.

The Writing Instructor demonstrates a pattern similar to Enculturation’s. This journal is unusual in the data set because it began as a print publication in 1981 before transitioning into an exclusively online format in 2001. This is different than journals such as Computers and Composition Online and PRE/TEXT: Electra(Lite), which function (or functioned) as complements to ongoing print journals. Like Computers and Composition Online and Enculturation, The Writing Instructor has a trend of irregular publication; between 2001-2007, the journal did not publish in 2003, 2005, or 2006 (see Figure 11 below).

Quicktime pluggin missing Figure 11. Map of The Writing Instructor’s contribution activity through its years of publication.

Although it is one of the few online rhetoric and composition journals with a notable West Coast presence, The Writing Instructor has been largely concentrated at Purdue University in Indiana. This is potentially connected with the consistent presence of editor David Blakesley and several editorial staff members at Purdue, a trend that seems similar to that of the latest iterations of Computers and Composition Online and Enculturation at their respective locations.

These geographical/biographical connections suggest that some online journals—even those that incorporate distributed input—are chiefly driven by a single scholar or a small group of scholars, and that such works tend to be centralized. Again, there is nothing inherently positive or negative about this structure, but the data suggest that the vitality of such works tends to wax and wane in accordance with those scholars' ability to sustain the publication. For an illustrative parallel, we might reach back in rhetoric and composition history and consider Fred Newton Scott’s relationship to the Department of Rhetoric he created at the University of Michigan in the early 20th century. As Susan McLeod (1997) suggested in “WAC at Century’s End,” the department thrived while under Scott’s stewardship but it was unable to survive without his guidance, and after his retirement it was quickly absorbed into the Department of English (pp. 69-70). This relative precariousness also may be an aspect of publications strongly linked to a small group of scholars. A journal can flourish as long as the responsible scholars provide sustained engagement, but it may lie fallow or cease completely if other obligations—tenure review, position changes, occupational workload—interfere.

To frame this issue in rhetorical terms and to return to our connection of biography and geography, we might consider publications in terms of ethos, but extend the concept beyond its conventional connection with individuals. It is possible to consider where a particular publication’s ethos resides—in a person or group, a region or institution, or the journal itself. It is possible to make the argument that the journals in the study's data set draw their impetus from different sources; some of them seem to be driven by scholars, others collect around institutions despite personnel changes, still others move locations and personnel without serious disruption.

If we consider this variance with regard to longevity and output, Kairos has had the longest duration of consistent yearly publication and the most prolific output with multiple issues produced in all years of its existence except 1999 and 2004, when single issues appeared. It seems that the journal itself has accrued an ethos which has persisted through multiple changes of editorial staff and a shift of sponsoring location. Kairos staff members are aware that the journal’s character is steeped in mutability, as editor Cheryl Ball (2008) revealed in issue 13.1: “I’d like to remark that if Kairos is consistent at one thing besides publishing great scholarship, it does so while always being in transition.” Nevertheless, it would be erroneous to view Kairos as the only active and prolific journal. In 2008, the last year tracked in the study's data set, three other journals published: Computers and Composition Online, Currents in Electronic Literacy, and Enculturation. Some of these venues are strongly centralized or have progressed through cycles of distribution and aggregation, and as discussed, their ethoi may reside more in persons or places. There seems to be vitality in multiple orientations.

If we were to use this information heuristically—say we were starting a new online rhetoric and composition journal—we might determine how to construct the publication’s ethos and then operate with a corresponding methodology. Works that draw their impetus from an individual or small group are flexible and potentially sustainable, but they are highly dependent on the continued influence of that person or group. They tend to wax and wane, publishing sporadically as opportunity allows. Centralized works that publish consistently tend to do so by consolidating ethos in a specific geographical location—most commonly a department or program. Such appears to be the case with Currents in Electronic Literacy, which has continued to publish through the University of Texas’s Digital Writing and Research Lab (formerly CWRL) despite the unfortunate 2008 passing of John Slatin, who was a key supporter of the journal. Widely distributed journals seem to thrive by consciously embracing turnover in authorship, production staff, and sponsoring location. However, without a dedicated, consistent presence assuming responsibility for publication this structure may require the development of a critical mass so that the journal takes on its own ethos as an entity. Such an autonomous ethos is difficult to achieve, and it is equally difficult to hypothesize how it may be cultivated.

These and any other tentative recommendations should be tempered by the knowledge that the future may not resemble the past, so the patterns of online journals in this study may not necessarily presage future developments. Indeed, by giving due attention to the importance of chronology, we might acknowledge that this study's sample period covers a unique occurrence relevant to its subject: the rise of the Web. The early years of the Web were a period of formal experimentation in online media, and in recent years online genres appear to have become progressively stable. Journals such as Enculturation and Kairos were comparatively experimental in their earlier issues, but as the conventions of online academic journals coalesced, the journals have become increasingly standardized. Cheryl Ball, Beth Hewett, Douglas Eyman, and James Inman (2006) remarked upon this aspect of Kairos in “Kairos: The Next Ten Years,” which appears in the journal’s tenth anniversary issue:

Kairos has certainly matured, having grown from a graduate-student-produced and -reviewed journal to one whose staff and review board includes top names in the field (although, we are happy to say, the staff and review board still contain experienced junior and senior scholars). These changes certainly show the field’s evolution but they also complicate the journal’s ethos. Where once the journal had a necessary flavor of reactionary youthfulness, playfulness even (an ethos that many on staff and, we suspect readers, still rightly carry), we now find ourselves examining the journal’s ethos with certain expectations in mind.

This shift is not unique to Kairos; it is a systemic effect of the maturation of the Web. We might view the pilot data set’s most experimental journal, PRE/TEXT: Electra(Lite), with regard to this broader trend toward stabilization. Although formally adventurous, PRE/TEXT: Electra(Lite) existed for only a few years, which seems to connect with Eric Crump’s (1996) statements in “RhetNet: Wondering & wandering & cyberpublishing” that Kairos’s overtures to mainstream academic print conventions gave it a better chance for legitimacy and longevity than more experimental works. It would seem that some of the threat to conventional academic mechanisms that Crump identified in the experimental publishing platform RhetNet has itself become institutionalized in formats such as blogs. A work such as The Blogora, produced by the Rhetoric Society of America and sponsored by the University of Texas’s DWRL, assumes a role similar to RhetNet, Megabyte University, or PRE/TEXT: Electra(Lite), but in a more sanctioned, less transgressive format. Blogs are now an accepted element of academic discourse and even earn institutional awards. As such, the formal experimentation characteristic of many early online journals has (perhaps expectedly) standardized into relatively established genres with known features and conventions.

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1 The aggregate image shown in Figure 2 demonstrates that Kairos has had greater activity in certain areas of the country, such as the East Coast, Florida, Texas, and the Midwestern region comprising Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio. This trend is visible in online rhetoric and composition journals as a whole and is a potential point of further investigation.

2 It is worthwhile to note that this excerpt taken from the official Computers and Composition website suggests that even a publication devoted to the intersection of digital technology and composition views online formats as an other space to contain works that are unsuitable for print. Nothing about online formats' unique advantages for exploring this subject is mentioned in the statement.



Author Information

Jeremy Tirrell
UNC Wilmington