A Million Unforeseen Ways In
As creators of the Writing Studies Tree (WST), we have already witnessed a number of ways our users interact with this site that we did not anticipate, and we hope that scholars will continue to remix, reuse, and repurpose our work. While we set out with our own initial design principles, we also recognize that, per Collin Brooke (2009), the “ecology of practice” of the site “includes not only those practices involved in the production of a particular interface, but those made possible by it,” such that “users may take up and repurpose interfaces, expanding their ecology of practice beyond a designer’s intentions” (p. 49, emphasis added). For us, the best possible outcome is that our community will embrace this project as a launch pad for further development and research.1For this reason, we have already shared the custom code written for the project on GitHub under a CC-BY-NC-4.0 non-commercial license, and we hope soon to share the data itself (as distinct from our already public visualizations of it) through the rhetoric.io project.
The examples that follow are based on conversations with real users, but the names and some specifics have been changed for use in this article. As these use cases demonstrate, aggregating and visualizing mentorship data and stories can offer more than an individual benefit or immediate impact: there is also a cumulative effect on the degree to which members of an academic field recognize themselves as interconnected, as part of a collaborative family network. Moreover, browsing through the branches of the WST can elicit new questions in keeping with distant reading’s “inventive and generative capacity” as a research heuristic (Mueller, 2012a, p. 199).
- Larry, an undergraduate at a small university, is interested in pursuing a graduate degree in writing studies. His advisor has suggested that Larry look for an individual scholar, or a group of academics, working in the sub-field he is most excited about, but the list of programs in the Doctoral Consortium in Rhetoric and Composition presents the intimidating challenge of reading through dozens of individual program websites to learn about faculty and their interests. Larry knows a few names from the texts he read in a Writing about Writing course his Freshman year. He searches for those names in the WST, which leads him to not only the other people they’ve worked with, but also the schools they all attended, where they currently teach, and a set of keywords that each person has used to tag her research. These keywords help Larry devise a new search for “digital rhetoric,” a term he had not previously encountered, but around which his research interests and application process now begin to cohere. Navigating by these keywords also takes him to new, more distant branches of the WST network, widening his knowledge of the field.
- Tricia is a writing program director planning a team-building day around the WST, inviting the instructors in her department—both full-time and part-time—to map out their academic family trees. Over wine and pizza, they then compare maps with one another, revealing similarities and shared experiences. Through this process, the department members not only build community but also construct an archive of institutional memories that might otherwise be lost. The WST extends this important work by providing a space for these academic family trees to live and grow as their branches intersect with other people and institutions already in the system. In this way, the WST is not a static archive or empty container into which already-known facts are to be merely deposited, but a recursive tool for exploration and discovery.
- Dana, a student in a graduate course in Composition Theory, discovers that one of her favorite scholars is located out on the fringe in the WST Full Network view, as if disconnected from the rest of the field. This revelation encourages her to unearth the scholar’s education and employment data from dissertation records and author bio statements. A gap like this in the WST might point to a gap in the historical knowledge of the field, prompting important archivable research.2Alternately, this discovery could signal a gap in the WST and not in our knowledge. The WST can function as a “macroscope” (Sula 2012), but in order to find gaps in our knowledge of the field, we need the WST to reflect as accurately as possible the knowledge of the field. When Dana enters this information into the WST, it is instantly aggregated with the research of hundreds of peers around the world, and individual histories are operationalized into a network. Her actions shift her from a passive consumer performing exercises only for a course to a scholar actively building knowledge in a public, networked space, one who contributes valuable data to other members of her field.
- David, who is teaching Dana’s graduate course in Composition Theory, has always introduced students to influential articles and books in the field, but he struggles with helping them understand this scholarship as more than free-floating, disembodied ideas. He uses the WST to contextualize the authors of assigned texts, displaying the people they’ve studied with, who they’ve worked alongside, and who they’ve mentored. He then instructs students to design reading lists and research projects that build on these discoveries. Tracing and extending connections of family, keywords, or locations, David’s students emerge with a more robust understanding of ongoing conversations in the scholarly community. The class can then use what they learn to add new links, citations, and keywords to the WST individual pages they started from, documenting their research trails and enhancing the usability of the WST for other researchers and future classes.
- Rachel is searching within her current metropolitan area for a new position in writing studies. She sees a job advertisement for a large public urban university, but, although she is familiar with the institution, she does not recognize the name of the contact person. Rachel knows the adage, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” but in this case she doesn’t know who she knows. What Rachel wants to determine is if she has any connections to this person she can make use of in preparing for the application and interview. Using the WST, Rachel searches for the individual and views his Family Tree to see who he is connected to directly. Rachel then clicks on the icon for the person she knows in the job contact’s tree to find his individual page, helping to jog her memory of what they have in common. This search highlights for Rachel her shared interests, shared institutional history, or other shared connections with those working in her prospective department, helping her to situate herself professionally within this potential working environment. The WST democratizes the process of professional networking: rather than leave the power dynamics of the job search invisible, it makes more transparent the ways in which personal connections may inform the hiring process.
- Diane is a scholar who is working on building her academic online presence. After exploring options such as existing professional networking and social media sites, she realizes that none of these platforms really showcase her relationships to the mentors and peers to whom she credits her success, or effectively highlights her influence on those she mentored. Unlike most CVs and resumes, the WST describes the relationships she has built, not just the products she has worked on; and unlike most social networking sites, the WST can provide rich descriptions of those relationships, instead of the flat, one-size-fits-all “friend” or “follower.” Using the WST, Diane creates an interactive personal archive that dynamically displays her academic network in a variety of ways, so future employers, researchers, and students can use her presence on the WST to find out who she has worked with, in what capacities, and where.
- Bianca, a researcher who is trained as a linguist, is working as an instructor of English Language Learners' (ELL) writing classes and as a writing program administrator. Bianca does not self-identify primarily as a scholar in writing studies, but would like to find collaborators for a research project and potential article stemming from the findings of those doing ethnographic work with ELL students. Using the WST's keywords feature, Bianca discovers that the terms she uses to label her work already exist in the database, and by clicking on these terms she finds several scholars who are also interested in the intersections of language learning and ethnography. She then uses this information to search for shared connections and to contact these scholars for a potential collaboration.
- Peter and Carol are studying composition history, working through the archives and rusty file cabinets at a mid-sized university to trace the origins of portfolio assessment in basic writing classes. While sorting through documents and gathering information, they begin to note the many interpersonal connections documented in the ephemera and oral histories they are collecting—so many connections that the circles and arrows between names begin to overwhelm the notebooks they are using for organizing their data. Carol and Peter originally set out to associate people with practices, not necessarily people with each other, but the connections they’ve discovered add a new layer of data collection that they feel is interesting and important to document. By adding these connections to the WST, they can link otherwise anecdotal or fragmented stories into a scalable visualization of patterns and outliers, opening up new research vantage points. Moreover, their contributions help to build a reference that future compositionists can draw upon in their own research projects.
[ + ]
|1.||↑||For this reason, we have already shared the custom code written for the project on GitHub under a CC-BY-NC-4.0 non-commercial license, and we hope soon to share the data itself (as distinct from our already public visualizations of it) through the rhetoric.io project.|
|2.||↑||Alternately, this discovery could signal a gap in the WST and not in our knowledge. The WST can function as a “macroscope,” but in order to find gaps in our knowledge of the field, we need the WST to reflect as accurately as possible the knowledge of the field.|