The Untrained Eye
I was introduced to Kairos (both the word and the journal) in August 2015, when I started my first semester as a graduate student at West Virginia University (WVU) in the Professional Writing and Editing program. As a research assistant with Cheryl Ball, editor of Kairos and professor at WVU, I was thrown into the entirely new-to-me field of rhetoric and digital publishing.
Kairos was a friend from the beginning, a companion who introduced concepts to and clarified complex ideas for a student struggling to understand what rhetoric really is and how technology is changing the publishing field. And it’s been doing so for students, teachers, rhetoricians, and digital publishing enthusiasts for 20 years now: The first issue was published in January of 1996, and since then, it has gained over 45,000 readers per month from all over the world.
It is that first publication, when the journal was called Kairos: A Journal for Teachers of Writing in Webbed Environments, that I want to pay tribute to today. 1996 was a different world—the Internet had just started moving into classrooms and homes, Times New Roman was the typeface of choice for online documents, and I was only three years old—which could imply that the relevancy of texts from 20 years ago is for nostalgia at best. But, as I read the first issue of Kairos, I found more than sentimentality: I found insight and knowledge that is just as applicable to my current studies as scholarship published last week.
Let’s look back at the Kairos of twenty years ago.
Issue 1.1 is what I would affectionately call beautifully clunky. Its design is what brings about the most nostalgia for me—the blaring blue hyperlinks against the off-white pages, blocks of Times New Roman, and lots of busy frames. The color scheme is different, too, with blacks and bold reds instead of the pleasant blue of today’s Kairos. The archival version of 1.1’s design was revised and archived for a reason: It can be difficult to navigate and, occasionally, difficult to read.
There is beauty in it, though. Take a look at Anthony Rue’s "The Case of Object #143 or A Manifesto of CineTextual Writing" and its delightful, clickable GIFs. And when was the last time you saw yellow text on a black background, like in the introductory node of Walt Carroll’s "Get to Know John Burroughs" ? As you move into the webtext itself, the body text changes to black on a textured, beige background, but it still brings back memories of an older Web. Then there is Online Writing Labs: Should We? Will We? Are We?, a compilation from five authors, with punny owl photographs and icons hidden throughout the hypertext.
It all reminds me of how much digital publishing has changed, both since 1996, and in the last few years since I’ve waded into the field. It’s easy to look at 1.1 and find things that I would change (serif fonts, color scheme, navigation), but as I read the twenty-year-old webtexts, I was most struck by how the authors and editors used the Web to its fullest, 1996-esque extent. They tried new things—each webtext is evidence of that—and tackled the challenge of working with emerging technologies. And they did so successfully. The revised design may be easier to work with, but it’s more rewarding to see the original.
As regular readers of Kairos know to be true, one of its most attractive features is its innovation—its unique ability to compile information that is new, relevant, and interesting. The journal was already doing something new, even back in 1996: It not only tackled the field of writing for the Web, but it also was its own example of a webtext.
The first issue secured its footing in digital rhetoric by introducing new topics to its readers and building the foundations for further research. Two topics in particular caught my attention.
The lead topic was online writing labs (OWL), a standard resource in today’s writing classrooms but a relatively new concept 20 years ago. I personally cannot remember a time when the Purdue OWL was not my go-to resource for citations and document formatting, both as a student and instructor. It never occurred to me how much discussion surrounded their implementation—What about non-verbal cues? How could OWLs affect walk-in writing centers? What resources are necessary to build an OWL from scratch? Such questions were tackled in Online Writing Labs: Should We? Will We? Are We?, the first multi-author collaboration in Kairos. Together, the texts by Stuart Blythe, J Paul Johnson, Camille Langston, Jane Lasarenko, and Suzan Moody remind me to consider all aspects of new and emerging technology, beyond pedagogical.
Another webtext in the Features section, "What Matters Who Writes? What Matters Who Responds? Issues of Ownership in the Writing Classroom" by Andrea Lunsford et al., questions aspects of text ownership. They discuss the idea of writing as collaboration and how that may apply to instructors of writing. I was intrigued by this webtext and reminded of a discussion in my first rhetoric-focused graduate class this past Fall. Our conversation was inspired by Laurie Gries’s (2015) Still Life with Rhetoric: A New Materialist Approach for Visual Rhetorics, and we, too, examined the notion of authorship: As memes and images move through the Web and are edited, copied, imitated, and otherwise modified, who owns the new versions? Who holds authorship? That discussion is a testament to the issue’s relevancy.
These two slices of Kairos 1.1, one focused on OWLs and the other on authorship, are examples of 20-year-old research that can continue to inspire students and teachers alike.
Looking back at Kairos 1.1 can be daunting, most of all because, at a glance, it looks like everything about the journal has changed, from the design and content to the number of webtexts included in each issue. Even its title moved from a strict pedagogical approach to a focus on the intersection of rhetoric, technology, and pedagogy. The journal is 20 years old; it’s no surprise that, as teaching in webbed environments changed, so did the scholarship surrounding it.
Mick Doherty, the founding editor of Kairos, was clear about his intentions for the journal in his 1.1 "From the Editor" webtext: “This journal is (or, more accurately at this point, aims to be) a resource for discovering and discussing the issues that face teachers of writing in hypertextual environments.” Elizabeth Pass, in her "From the Assistant Editor" webtext, said that it should be a resource, a place to find “what’s new and exciting in the field of writing in webbed environments.”
As it now stands, the purpose of Kairos has broadened: “. . . the mission of Kairos has been to publish scholarship that examines digital and multimodal composing practices, promoting work that enacts its scholarly argument through rhetorical and innovative uses.” So, then, here is the question: Does Kairos 1.1 meet the standards set in its current mission? And, arguably a more important one, is Kairos 1.1 still relevant and useful to today’s readers?
My answer to both questions is an exuberant, animated yes. Kairos has reigned in the digital rhetoric field for 20 years as a source of innovation, freedom, and inspiration for authors and writers, students and teachers, the untrained and the wise. The old saying in creative writing or English courses comes to mind—you must know the rules before you can break them. What better way to learn, to train, than to see those rules challenged and broken multiple times a year for two decades?
Technologies change; our ability to be inspired by them and learn from them does not. Don’t forget those pioneers, the authors and editors who built a journal out of nothing. Take a look at Kairos 1.1 and see how webtexts from the late nineties are still relevant today.