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What Camera Should I Buy?


What Camera Should I Buy? tl;dr — This is a long post, so here’s the gist: Cameras don’t really matter, because they all work basically the same way. What, how, and why you make photographs are more meaningful questions to ask when you’re getting serious about photography. Grab something, anything—even your smartphone—and make photographs deliberately. A deliberative, contemplative, and reflective approach toward the images you make and share is much more important than the camera. This applies to visual researchers, but I’m pretty sure it applies to most image-making scenarios. Every so often I get an email or message from someone who writes to ask: “What camera should I buy?” This is a tricky question to answer, and I usually respond with questions of my own: What are you going to photograph? What do you want your camera to do for you? How much can you reasonably spend? Do you care about having multiple lenses? Do you care about how your camera looks, as an object, in addition to how it sees? I’ve answered the question of “what camera to buy” enough times that it occurred to me to write a post about it. It’s weird that I even get this question, though; I’m nowhere near a professional photographer, nor do I keep up with gear. If you say “I’m thinking about buying X Camera,” it’s quite likely I’ve zero experience with that camera. I use cameras to make photographs in the processes of conducting research, and in the processes of living everyday life. That said, I have learned a lot about what I want from photography (and cameras are pretty important to photography), so if reading about what I’ve learned is useful to others, then please to enjoy… Leveling Up as a Photographer The folks at DigitalRev recently posted a video that pretty well mirrors my own journey as an amateur photographer. It’s very tongue-in-cheek, and well worth five minutes of your time: width="690" height="410" src="" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen> Thankfully, I skipped Level 1; I’ve experienced several of the remaining levels to varying extents, though. For example, I did completely geek out on gear (Level 2) before I became a student of photography (Level 3) and embraced the philosophy that a camera should go with one everywhere (Level 4). I dabbled in the hobbyist phase (Level 5), but became bored by message board arguments and the gear pedants and zealots that thrive there as an invasive species (see Level 1). I’m nowhere near an “Online Legend,” Level 6, though I have had a couple of photos make Flickr’s “Explore” page, including this one, which picked up 300 faves and over 20,000 views in a 24 hour period. That was a trip, since I’m lucky to get 1,000 views and 20 faves on any given Flickr photo. Flickr and Instagram mystify me. Images that I think are well-composed and interesting, such as this one, rarely receive much love. DigitalRev’s take on this is spot on, but I digress… Obviously, I don’t earn my living as a photographer, so I kind of sidestepped Level 7; like many photographers, amateur and professional, I strive to reach Level 8, in my own way. But it takes a while to figure out what you want from photography. It has taken me the better part of the last 3 or 4 years, shooting and editing almost daily, to kind of be happy with what I’m doing and to get what I want from cameras—to get them to see what I see with my eyes and brain. Your mileage will vary, of course. So, What Is a Camera, Anyway? It’s a box with a hole in it. Seriously, that’s it. Every camera, ever, is a box with a hole in it. Despite the dizzying array of dials, buttons, and menu options on contemporary digital cameras, the damn things are just boxes with holes in them. I wish someone explained this to me many years ago. “Wait a second,” you’re thinking. “Surely it’s more complicated than[...]

Visual Rhetorics, Visual Methods


Visual Rhetorics, Visual Methods Just before the Fall, 2015 semester began, I tweeted a link to my Pinboard collection of articles and blog posts related to visual research methods. My message was simple: if you teach visual rhetorics or visual methods, here are hundreds of syllabus-worthy links in one handy place. But even as I shared that collection of links, I worried about how colleagues in the field might interpret the collection, and whether they would even find use in them. This worry stems from the possible mismatch about what each of us considers to be representative of visual rhetoric. I don’t mean this in some strictly subjective sense, but in the broader sense in which our field’s view of visual rhetorics has congealed and become normative. Even though I’ve written about the relationship between visual rhetorics and visual methods in various places, I’m aware that I’ve never made the connections, overlaps, and productive divergences particularly clear in spaces such as Twitter and here, on my blog. My fear is that teachers and scholars who are familiar with (and teach) mainstream approaches to visual rhetorics may be unclear as to how links such as this Slate post about Chinese, Taiwanese, and Japanese brooms—to take just one recent example—is useful for teaching and exploring visual rhetorics. In this post, then, I’ll try to clearly and succinctly explain my perspective on the relationship between visual rhetorics and visual methods for teachers and scholars in rhetoric, writing studies, and related disciplines. Historical interests in the visual, aural, multimodal, and multisensory aspects of persuasion and composition are by now well established. But our approaches to the visual, in particular, are predominantly reception-oriented. This is no critique, but a statement of fact regarding the scope and methodological focus of most of our field’s formative scholarship on the visual. Research in visual rhetorics overwhelmingly involves analysis of extant images (still and moving) and other extant visual phenomena. Those projects that use images in the processes of empirical research—for example, Cushman (2011) or Wickman (2010)—are outliers rather than evidence for prevalent or even emerging trends. It may seem as if I am oversimplifying; I am not. The differences really are this simple. But make no mistake: reception-oriented approaches to visual rhetorics are essential to our (and our students’) understanding of visual phenomena. My own arguments for using visuals in the processes of empirical research of writers and rhetors, I hope, draws from, complements, and extends reception-oriented approaches in different ways, toward different ends. Visual research methods, in other words, are closely parallel to the traditional analyses and subject matter of visual rhetorics. The great majority of the links posted in my Pinboard collection are selected with my empirical, visuals-made-in-research approach. There are many, many posts highlighting what we might call documentary photography or photojournalism. There are very few posts featuring the work of anyone who might unambiguously be called researchers of writing or rhetoric. So why did I argue that this collection is useful for teachers and researchers of visual methods and visual rhetorics? For those interested in making images as part of research in rhetoric and writing (or teaching such approaches), there are hundreds of links that serve as inspiration, that feature compelling and often novel subject matter, that execute common visual methods (though for admittedly different purposes and audiences), and that present challenging or even orthogonal approaches that might help clarify and improve our work. And for those interested in analyzing extant images from a variety of perspectives, the collection is a treasure trove of opportunity with a decidedly realist bent. The post I linked to about brooms, for example, is more art photography than photojournalism, but it’s r[...]

Picturing Writing with Visual Research Methods


Picturing Writing with Visual Research Methods In Academic Writing as a Social Practice, Linda Brodkey (1987) argued that composition studies needed a new cultural conception of composing, one that reimagined the tired trope of the alienated and anguished writer who writes alone. In a chapter titled “Picturing Writing,” Brodkey relies heavily on visual metaphors; she passionately argued that we need new pictures of writers and composing practices in their rich, socially situated complexity. She asked readers to re-see writing, to consider alternative viewpoints, and in the process, to break away from popular perceptions of composing, particularly because such perceptions obviate new, different, or even challenging perspectives about writing (58). More recently, Jody Shipka (2011) draws on Brodkey to suggest that one charge of contemporary composition research is to foreground and make more visible the circulatory processes of composing and textual distribution (38). In response to these and similar exigencies, I compose with photography as one way in which to see writing anew—a method for re-seeing the complexity of composing processes by literally and systematically picturing writers and writing. As a qualitative researcher focused on the activities, objects, and environments of composing, I conduct ethnographies and case studies of writers in everyday life—from academe and industry to religious practice and social gaming. In these studies, I use traditional fieldwork methods such as semi-structured interviews, participant observation, and artifact collection and analysis. In my early fieldwork, I often used photography and videography as well, mainly as means of augmenting observational fieldnotes and capturing informal talk, gestures, and spatial and material arrangements. A few years ago, however, I realized that my use of visual fieldwork methods, while beneficial, was also somewhat facile in its execution. I learned that over the last four decades, social scientists have explored the nuances of visual methods in studies of social life (see, for example, Pink, 2007; Spencer, 2011; and Pinney, 2011), of which writing is, of course, an inescapable mediator. The subfields of visual anthropology and visual sociology have enriched my understanding and use of visual methods in fieldwork. These approaches have developed in parallel to our own field’s explorations of visual rhetorics, resulting in complementary empirical perspectives on visuality and visibility. Writing in the world: a tiny geocache container and scroll for logging visits. More recently, therefore, I have adapted approaches from visual anthropology and visual sociology to the study of writers and their composing practices and environments. Doing so has resulted in many trials and errors, but the struggle has been rewarding: I have learned to use visual methods to explore, analyze, and present the rich materiality of everyday composing practices, and in the process, to formulate new pictures of writers and writing that may be generative for participants and composition researchers alike. More important, by using visual methods in field studies I have been able to create new forms of material engagement with participants about the role of composing in their learning, work, and play. While critics such as Susan Sontag (1977) have suggested that photography results in the distancing of photographic subjects from photographers, I have found opposite to be true: Visual methods of fieldwork result in qualitatively different forms of intersubjective understanding between researchers and participants. Composing with photography throughout fieldwork can help researchers of writing move beyond mere tautological illustration; by using visual methods, researchers may document and engage simultaneously. More important, participants may see their own composing environments, tools, and practices in new ways, from different perspectives. A technique known as photo-elicitation uses fieldwork photograph[...]

Gonzo Academicus


Gonzo Academicus Justine Bateman—actress, entrepreneur, mother of two, and media consultant—enrolled as an undergraduate at UCLA in the fall of 2012, at the age of 46. She maintains a Tumblr about the ups and downs of her experience called Get a College Life, and she has inspired many others who have enrolled in college at “nontraditional” ages. The blog is continually engaging, and I love when she posts the hand written cheat sheets created by her and her peers. About a month ago, she posted about one of the most bewildering aspects of navigating a typical undergraduate curriculum: general education requirements. I vividly recall my confusion at the need to map compulsory subject areas to the many course options available when I was an undergrad at Oregon. And one of the compulsory general education courses over which students typically have little choice is first-year writing. Bateman’s argument makes sense. She wrote: “Also, just found out that I have to take these ridiculous GEs I was trying to get out of. I petitioned to substitute these very topic-similar upper division classes I’d already taken for these basic, lower division classes and they refused. I really don’t see the academic logic. If I’ve taken the more advanced versions of the classes they want me to take and I received A’s in those classes, doesn’t that give weight to the argument to use them as replacements?” Many schools will substitute courses, but many schools also have a general education credit hour requirement that must be fulfilled in order to graduate (and the logics are often rooted in accreditation and administrative concerns). More important, where it might not matter if one took Anthropology 212 instead of Sociology 103 in order to check off the “social sciences” box of the general ed. curriculum, there’s typically little leeway when it comes to the writing requirement. After a couple weeks, Bateman once again expressed her frustration with general ed, and with the writing requirement in particular: “Already set for next quarter. Italian, Business Law, and Computer Organization (CS33 - Machine Language). (And a required english composition class they’re forcing me to take. Really?)” I admit, I had three nearly simultaneous reactions when I read this post: (a) a defensive response rooted in my own attachment to writing as a worthwhile academic pursuit; (b) a sympathetic response rooted in my own desire to navigate both undergraduate and graduate curricula as quickly as possible while minimizing time and effort spent on subjects for which I had no investment; and (c) a thought experiment response rooted in a desire to push back against (a) and (b): what if taking the class improved one’s writing, regardless of their circumstances? I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot in the last six months or so. Like many of my peers in academe, I’ve always been “good at” writing. But then again, I mostly write for academic audiences, and academic writing is regularly critiqued for being obtuse, jargon-filled, overly hedged, and generally esoteric. Picture a continuum where, on one end is the argumentative acumen of a gifted third grader and on the other is Susan Sontag and John McPhee (or whomever you’d like to substitute for these masterful non-fiction writers). If I’m being honest, my prose is much, much closer to the gifted third grader than it is Sontag and McPhee. The reality is that I still have so much to learn about writing, and about being a better writer. And I get paid to study writing. As I thought more about Bateman’s predicament within the context of my own ability as a writer, I started to think about my own need to continually learn and improve. A few months ago I re-read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and realized that I’d gotten into lots of bad habits. I also read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well[...]

Shanghai Street Food


Shanghai Street Food During the summer, when I told people that I was going to (or recently returned from) Shanghai, I was often immediately asked about food, and sometimes specifically about street food. If you know much about me, then you know that I’m a food utilitarian. I eat for calories. I simply don’t care much about food beyond sustenance. This does not mean that I don’t enjoy food; I do. I enjoy the things I eat every day so much that I eat almost the same things, every day. But I am no foodie. I will try almost anything, and Shanghai presented many opportunities for new culinary experiences. About the only thing I had that was challenging was stinky tofu during breakfast. Served cold, this everyday snack actually smelled fine to me—and was quite wonderful when it hit my tastebuds. On it’s way down my esophagus, however, it exploded in a kind of fermented, spicy, heartburny miasma. Despite that, I’d probably try it again… As it turned out, just outside the West Gate of the Baoshan campus of Shanghai University, about a 1.5 mile walk from where I stayed and taught, is Jufengyuan Road, and area that Shanghaiist calls one of Shanghai’s street food meccas. I came to know this area well, visiting daily. As the Shanghaiist post notes, The actual Jufengyuan strip isn’t even the main attraction with its fruit wagons, skewer carts, etc. The real deal begins at the alleyway just right of the bridge connecting Shanghai Uni’s west entrance to Jufengyuan Lu - identifiable by the covered picnic tables, shrouds of steam, and scraping of woks. Here, you’ll find fried noodles and rice galore, shawarma, skewers, Chinese breakfast crepes aka jianbing , fried chicken, and our favorite, big Xinjiang skewers with ribs, chicken legs, and other animal parts spitted on medieval-looking metal swords. This area is amazing. The smells, the open flames, the masses of people moving about carrying xialongbao and sizzling chicken and steaming soups—it’s essentially what I envisioned when conjuring the phrase “Shanghai street food,” and it was incredible that I was within walking distance for two weeks. And while I came to appreciate one stall’s very spicy noodles, I was much more interested in simply being there than in sampling all of the food on offer—the street food scene along Jufengyuan Lu was atmospheric, enveloping, all-encompassing. At this point, I want to write a few words about my experiences with street photography in Shanghai before I share some photos of the street food scene… I never felt unsafe during my brief time in Shanghai, even though I stumbled into areas of the city where tourists and laowai are rarely seen. However, there were a couple encounters that I’d describe as “dicey,” and each involved my use of a camera at the time. I’m fairly conspicuous as a street photographer; I love to shoot in low light and at night, and I’m a stickler for sharpness and legibility. This means that I typically stand out—with a big Manfrotto tripod, a Nikon D7000, a wireless shutter release, and a tendency to shoot low angle, wide frame shots. In other words, people can easily see what I’m doing, and in the process, they may become curious, shy, amused, etc. This shot, for example, was taken in front of about 25 scooter taxis and their drivers—to the left of frame, and behind the camera—all facing me as I set up, and all watching me with interest. This was photography in front of an audience, and after I made a couple of acceptable shots, I moved along the crowd, showing everyone the resulting images. It was both odd and fun. But I take few “candid” or furtive street shots. If you see close-up, legible images of people in my street photographs, there’s a very, very strong chance that I asked for permission before shooting. So, in touristy areas like The Bund, nobody cared abo[...]

Three Ontological Provocations


Three Ontological Provocations

I was invited to give an Ignite presentation at SIGDOC 2013.

This was my first try at giving a presentation in this format, and I must say, it's much more enjoyable than the typical academic talk.

All of the photos here are from my ongoing fieldwork exploring the geocaching community. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this talk!

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Shanghai Graffiti


Shanghai Graffiti

I have a few more posts from my summer teaching in Shanghai on the horizon, including today’s on graffiti and stencil art.

I spent much of my time on the Baoshan campus of Shanghai University; I learned quickly, thanks to some impressive heat and humidity, that there were areas of campus that remain shaded throughout the day. For example, many of the main instructional buildings had bicycle garages at the ground floor, like this one:

The walk to my classroom was about a mile or so, and I covered most of it by moving through the bicycle garages of a row of instructional buildings. And since I spent a fair amount of time there, I noticed some interesting stencil graffiti, which I couldn’t help but photograph.

Overall, however, there were few examples of graffiti that I saw during my two weeks in Shanghai. It's a big city, though, and I saw only a fraction of it!




This is the trailer for the film Visitors (from the folks behind Koyaanisqatsi).

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I appreciate photography and videography of human emotion, particularly the many wonderful expressions and iterations of joy and happiness and ecstasy. Sadness and anger and outrage may be compelling, too.

But I have relished frowns for as long as I can remember. The frown is rich with potential—a frown needn’t be disapproving, austere, or frightful. Indeed, frowns are perhaps, above all, thoughtful.

The frowns in this trailer are all the more fascinating because they lack any context. All we have are rhetorics of display that work in multiple directions simultaneously—as viewers, we try to understand the meanings behind bunched eyebrows and tilted heads, but those we view seem to be starting at us (or something), working out the the same kinds of calculuses.

Everyday Details


Everyday Details While I was in Shanghai, I spent half a day in and around Jing’an Temple, a key site of contemporary Han Buddhism in China. This is a fascinating place for many reasons, but what I found most interesting were the everyday details—from the feel of architectural materials and their accompanying visual flourishes to the smell of incense and the sounds of visitors lobbing yuan coins into the central metal tower. If you regularly read this blog, then you’re possibly aware of my ongoing multisensory ethnography of Eucharistic Adoration practices. Perhaps out of researcherly habit, I found myself zeroing in on Buddhist analogues while I was at Jing’an Temple, taking many photos of the seemingly small, often fleeting and sensory everyday details that help make a sacred space sacred. What we often overlook, though, are the details that make everyday spaces what they are. We can extrapolate from these exemplary spaces, I think, and look at quotidian spaces in new ways. [...]

Shanghai Selfies


Shanghai Selfies

Folks in cultural studies and related fields have been banging this drum for years: we are immersed in images. We have been, sure, but awareness of ambient photography has recently gone mainstream in a big way.

I’m actually glad that I’m not studying a phenomenon like selfies right now; I’m mildly surprised by the amount of work that's already been done.

I’m a reluctant photographic subject. In point of fact, I despise pictures of myself. But sometimes they’re necessary, sometimes being in a photo is polite and tactful, and sometimes they can simply mark a happening or event.

I spent two weeks in Shanghai last month, teaching a short professional communication course at Shanghai University. I’ll have more to say about this experience in subsequent posts; for now, I’ll just say this: I loved Shanghai, I loved my students, and I can’t wait to go back.

On a few occasions during my time in Shanghai I felt compelled to photographically document my experience, mainly for my family, by using this tried and true equation: human + location = experiential documentation.

I realize that these aren’t selfies, per se, but they’re as close as I’m likely to get. [1]

  1. Photo 1: a door at Jing’An Temple; Photo 2: a little tea garden and spicy peanuts (I was the only laowai there); Photo 3: Yuyuan Garden footpaths, sensibly designed to soothe and massage bare feet.  ↩

Found Photo Fodder


Found Photo Fodder I haven’t commented much on the death of Google Reader, and while this post is marginally about RSS (and, really, about tagging within RSS), I don’t really have much to say about Reader that adds anything meaningful to all of the excellent things that have already been written. Instead, this post is about found photos, sources for those photos, and the use of such photos in professional presentations. Over the last few years, I’ve received some minor kudos for developing conference presentations that are visually arresting and compelling. I’ve heard lots of good feedback from folks whose opinions I value about the effectiveness of my presentation style, which is heartening. During the first couple of years that I worked on developing this ethos, I predominantly used striking images that I found on the web (hence my use of the term “found photos,” which, technically, is different from the actual definition of found photos or vernacular photography, but not unlike that definition either, but that’s for another post…). Indeed, when preparing a presentation, I would often begin with the images, mining Google Reader posts for visuals that evoked or supported ideas I was trying to convey verbally. After giving a talk, folks would often ask: “Where do you find all those cool images?” In reply, I would usually joke that it was a “trade secret.” But really, it was just simple sifting and winnowing using RSS. In Reader, I subscribed to several image-intensive feeds, many of which were from Tumblr. These feeds have always made my RSS experience a pleasure, for mixed in with discourse-heavy posts from fellow academics, tech blogs, and news sites were often incongruent and arresting photos. Over the years of using Reader, I probably looked at 100,000 or more photos.[1] When I stumbled across an image that was striking for whatever reason—and I learned to develop a sense of what would make an interesting and effective slide-ready image—I would simply use Reader’s tagging function to label the post “photos.” That’s it. When it came time to prepare a talk, I’d open my list of posts tagged “photos” in Reader and simply j/k my way through, looking for visuals congruent with the scope of my presentation. I had thousands of posts tagged “photos” in Reader,[2] which means that I had my own archive of visuals that might evoke the presentation ethos I’d developed over time. However, over the last two years I’ve moved away from using such found photos in my presentations, preferring instead to use my own images to support my work for two main reasons. First, I’ve been developing approaches to using visual research methods in qualitative studies of writing, and consequently, many of my talks have covered this work. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I’ve been working hard on developing rhetorically engaging visuals of my own, honing a visual phronesis related my academic work alongside the verbal and written craft. Regardless, when Reader died, so too did thousands of tags. This is but one example; I also used tags to code data in Reader, I used tags to mark items related to research reading, and I used tags for a variety of other things (one of my favorite tags was “holy shit,” reserved for a bevy of truly amazing and awe-inspiring posts). I moved to Newsblur in mid-June, and I’ve been very happy with the service. No tags, though, and no import for the archive of tagged items from Reader users (there are some other options, I realize, but that’s not the point of this post). And yet, I still have the desire to single out arresting images. In the old days of Reader, I would some[...]




Last week, I attended a one day forum exploring intercultural education.

Near the end of the forum, during an informal panel discussion, an audience member asked a question about scaffolding—how might we better scaffold intercultural learning experiences in order to effect outcomes?

As the panel member began his answer, my mind drifted…

Specifically, I began to think about this particular pedagogical metaphor—scaffolding. It’s something I first heard about in graduate school, and it’s actually something that became a part of my dissertation and eventual job talk (the first time I was on the market).

It’s a metaphor that’s commonsensical; teachers create scaffolds for student learning in a variety of ways, from the readings they choose through the pacing of lesson plans and the presentation/discussion of appropriate models. Scaffolding helps students reach higher (metaphorically) than they could without them.

I started to wonder—what if we approached the metaphor a little more literally?

Let’s say that I’m painting a two story house. I’ll definitely need scaffolding of some kind to help me reach second story eves and trim and walls.


My point is this: scaffolding is not necessarily where I’ll start. Indeed, I’ll probably jump in and start prepping the first story. I might power wash the exterior walls, scrape peeling paint, take a wire brush to window trim badly in need of a thorough cleaning.

And then the taping! So much taping is involved in this job. Much of this necessary (really, crucial) prep work will be done without scaffolding (but maybe a step ladder at times).

There’s something to be said for not having scaffolding—or not putting such an emphasis on scaffolding right away—but valuing some immersive work at the ground level. How much can we do without scaffolds?

It’s been a good six or seven years since I was introduced to the metaphor of scaffolding, and it has shaped (and even clouded) my pedagogical practices. It’s seems healthy to think through our dominant metaphors from time to time, even if only during a daydream.

Diary of an A1349


Diary of an A1349 2 April, 2013 Awakened at 4:37 a.m., top-button depressed and face-down; flipped, mostly horizontal. Light-bringer mode; quick-check. Displaying 3 @replies from the previous 24-hour period—alerts in lock screen + banners. Swiped. Retrieve and display Lexington weather. Banners for 6 emails are discarded in turn. Asleep. Awakened at 4:46, various angles, moving, light-bringer mode in lock screen. Elevation change. Asleep. Awakened at 4:48 by 110 volts; charge commenced. Asleep, horizontal. — [ Email received 5:02 ] [ Email received 5:23 ] [ Email received 6:08 ] [ Email received 6:24 ] — Awakened at 6:32, top-button depressed, light-bringer, time-giver, status check, horizontal. Asleep. — [ Email received 6:46 ] — Awakened at 6:52, voltage disengaged, horizontal. Asleep. — [ Various angles, moving, slipped into semi-vertical position, top down. Moving for 32 minutes, south-southeast; distance traveled 1.74 miles. ] [ Patterson Office Tower, elevation gain; rest, semi-vertical, 108°. Joined network. ] [ Email deleted 7:58 ] / [ Email deleted 7:58 ] / [ Email deleted 7:58 ] [ Email deleted 7:59 ] / [ Email deleted 7:59 ] / [ Email deleted 7:59 ] / [ Email deleted 7:59 ] [ Email moved to folder 8:00 ] — Awakened at 9:06, top-button depressed, time-giver. Asleep, semi-vertical 108°. — [ Email received 9:39 ] [ Email received 10:27 ] — Awakened at 10:34, SMS/iMessage alert, lock screen: Aaron asked if him and 2 of his friends can stay at our house tonight. I figured u wouldn’t care but thot I’d ask Asleep, semi-vertical, 108°. — [ Email received 11:13 ] — Awakened at 11:14, SMS/iMessage alert, lock screen: It’s gonna be way colder than they prepared for. Movement. Semi-horizontal, positioned-in-hand. Message swiped with index finger, SMS app opened, iMessage reply started. Typing with single index finger, electrical impulses. Well, I won’t turn them away, of course. Not exactly thrilled about it, though. Movement. Semi-vertical, 108°. iMessage reply received and displayed: Yeah me neither Asleep, semi-vertical, 108°. — [ Email deleted 11:21 ] / [ Email deleted 11:21 ] / [ Email deleted 11:21 ] — Awakened at 11:31, SMS/iMessage alert, lock screen: Mesa asked if she could go shopping with Lucie tonight but I told her she’s grounded. She asked for how long. Movement. Semi-horizontal, positioned-in-hand. Message swiped with index finger, SMS app opened, iMessage reply started. Typing with single index finger, electrical impulses. No. I won’t know how long until we have a chance to talk to her. Asleep, top-button depressed, semi-vertical, 108°. — [ Email received 12:16 ] [ Email received 12:18 ] [ Email received 13:13 ] [ Email received 14:36 ] [ Email received 15:10 ] [ Email deleted 15:16 ] / [ Email deleted 15:16 ] / [ Email deleted 15:17 ] / [ Email moved to folder 15:23 ] / [ Email moved to folder 15:29 ] [ 2 new app updates received ] — Awakened at 15:32, top-button depressed, time-giver, semi-vertical, 108°. Asleep, top-button depressed, semi-vertical, 108°. — [ Email received 16:24 ] [ Email received 16:57 ] [ Email deleted 17:12 ] / [ Email deleted 17:12 ] — Awakened at 18:17, top-button depressed, time-giver, semi-vertical, 108°. Asleep, top-button depressed, semi-vertical, 108°. — [ Various angles, moving, slipped into semi-vertical position, top down. Elevation change. Moving for 31 minutes, north-northwest; distance traveled 1.72 miles. ] [ Home. Horizontal. Joined home network. ] — Awakened at 19:06, top-button depressed, swiped. Open Twitter app, update feed, displaying @s. Displaying feed, current. Upswipes, electrical impulses, slow scrolling back in time. Asleep, top-butt[...]

Craft Tweets


Craft Tweets What would craft tweets look like? I’m thinking here of an (admittedly poor) analogy between craft tweets and craft beer… I created an experimental Twitter account a few weeks ago. Called @the_smudges, this account builds from an idea I first started floating during formal talks I gave in the fall of 2011, when I was on the job market (at some point, I’d like to give a more meaningful, public version of this talk). The idea behind the talks, and behind @the_smudges, is fairly simple: in the course of our everyday, we leave traces—like smudges on countertops, light switches, and alley walls, or through our generation of digital ephemera. The smudges of everyday life are thus traces of human (and nonhuman) behaviors and entanglements. And we might think about what those smudges mean as we look for and describe them. From this basic idea I built an argument about tracing and exploring digital smudges in practice, and I drew from one of my ethnographic studies to ground my argument. I’m fascinated by everydayness. I’ve been practicing my attention to smudges for a few years now. And I envision @the_smudges as a place where, in one carefully crafted post each day, I might practice the craft of writing rich ethnographic observations that meaningfully evoke ordinary affects (Stewart, 2007)—actions, experiences, potentials, trajectories, intensities, and sediments. I suppose the audience I have in mind are folks similarly interested in ethnographic observation, everydayness, and broader meanings invoked/evoked by smudges, folds, interstices. These tweets aren’t meant to be anything more than viable, meaningful ethnographic observations. I’m not trying to write poetry. I am interested in slowing the pace of flow-based media, of working at and through writing carefully, well. In contrast to my normal tweets, these are much more intentional, slow, meditative. I hope. So that’s all preamble to the primary purpose of this post: exploring the notion of craft tweets. Yesterday morning, I hiked to the Kentucky River overlook at Raven Run. On the return portion of the loop, I stopped for a few moments, struck by the nearly fluorescent green moss covering a hundred and more stones on either side of the wooded trail. The lighting conditions were ideal: a slate gray sky, sun not yet overhead, a damp forest floor, and a winter-driven paucity of vegetation. Here’s the tweet that I wrote for yesterday: Beneath this gray sky and its little wet snowflakes all the moss-covered stones in the woods glow, luminescent.— The Smudges (@the_smudges) March 1, 2013 As best as I can recall, here’s the process of writing the tweet: First, keep in mind that I don’t carry my phone into the woods; I started thinking about how to represent in writing this moment of ordinary affect as I stood there on the trail in the morning quiet...I was still about 2 miles from my car. I thought about the moment as I hiked.I thought about elements of experience—sky, colors, sounds?, stones or rocks?, is the light snow important or not?I started drafting, in my head.I traded words for other words—fluorescent? luminescent? incandescent? glowing?As I hiked on, I thought about craft; what if I could workshop this one tweet? How might I slow it down, think it through, iterate?I drafted some more, continued to take in my surroundings, avoided slipping in the mud, dreamed of a private wiki for workshopping craft tweets with other folks.I thought about craft beer, about my colleagues Jenny Rice (say yes to the text) and Jeff Rice (what is the nature of obsession? the relationship to craft?).At the parking lot, I opened the car door, found[...]

Contextual Ambivalence: Images + Inscriptions


Contextual Ambivalence: Images and Inscriptions In my last post, I talked a bit about the potentially dizzying contexts of production and use that accompany nearly any photograph. I argued there for the importance of understanding—to the extent possible—the meaningful contexts of production in subsequent interpretations of photos. And while I argued against the notion of a photograph-as-text—as a self-contained unit of meaning irrespective of its social processes of production and use—I also willingly conceded that photographs are indeed meaningful (in fact, ontologically and epistemologically multiple) without rich contexts of provenance and circulation. My argument was simply that we should strive, whenever possible, to recover contexts of provenance, circulation, and use as a means of transcending superficial “readings” of photographs as texts. This refresher serves as preamble to an intriguing book of found photographs that speak to a kind of contextual ambivalence which I hope builds upon my last post. Ransom Riggs’ (2012) Talking pictures: Images and messages rescued from the past is described by the author as a coffee table book of vintage found photos. width="640" height="360" src="" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen> It’s a really neat book, with some startling pictures, but it’s ambivalent in terms of how it treats contexts and photos as stand-alone objects. One the one hand, Riggs presents these images as meaningful in themselves, as examples of the curious, nostalgic, voyeuristic, and vernacular. He argues for their value through arrangement—by placing these geographically, temporally, and situationally disparate photos in a collection together and then arranging them thematically around notions such as “Clowning Around,” “Life During Wartime,” and “Hide This Please.” Simply doing so has worth and value. The images are arresting, interesting, full of life and pathos and curiosity. They are “crammed” with meaning, as Barthes (1980) has argued—“The photographic image is full” (p. 89). And yet Riggs’ ambivalence also argues something of the opposite; all of the images in his book are deemed significant because each couples photography—writing with light—and inscriptions—writing with glyphs and symbols. The images are chosen and arranged because they say something in two modalities simultaneously, because they include writing. Because they aren’t crammed full (enough) and overflowing with meaning (enough) on their own. They are not texts-without-writing. In his brief but insightful introduction (and in the video above), he notes: “I became a collector, albeit an odd one; my primary interest was in snapshots that had writing on them” (p. xi). He argues that “A photo might seem absolutely ordinary, but for a few words scribbled on the opposite side” (p. xii). Those few words—that microcontext—transforms the images from something mundane (here, he shows a blurry image of a rock wall, a street, a street sign, and some shrubs—“as banal as snapshots get”; p. xii) into “hidden gems” (p. xii). Indeed, for Riggs, the smallest bit of written context is transformative (p. xii): “It lent the mutest of snapshots a voice” (p. xiii). “The best inscriptions,” he argues, “make a snapshot feel current, no matter when it was taken” (p. xiii). The inscription which transforms the blurry, banal street photo is this: “Rock wall near Rose Bowl, Pasadena Cal. where Dorothy found a Baby Girl on Jan. 24 1961” (p. xii). These images+inscriptions include something else for Riggs, and for peo[...]

Contexts, Image Making, and Understanding


Contexts, Image Making, and Understanding “Writing and picture making have, in many significant ways, replaced human memory and become the primary means by which twentieth-century Western humanity remembers.” Ruby, 1995, p. 113. For the first time in my life, I have grown a beard. When I look in the mirror, I see myself and I see my dad in myself. For most of my life, my dad wore a beard, shaped not unlike my own at the moment. Before he died, his beard was mostly gray, though his thick, dark head of hair remained. Growing up, I was most often compared to my maternal grandfather—an active, outdoorsy, stubborn, stocky bull. He was bald save a ring of hair above the ears and around the back of his head. He never wore a beard, so far as I know. He was athletic, strong-willed, even a bit obnoxious at times. On several occasions during the time between my 6th and 10th birthdays, I remember my granddaddy (that’s we called him, because my mom called him “daddy”) arriving at our suburban Bay Area home unannounced, causing uproar, laughter, shouting, and joy from my mom, my brother, and I. Shortly after the initial commotion, he would head into our kitchen, grab a spoon and a tub of Dreyer’s ice cream from the freezer, and walk out the front door. My brother and I would give chase, and he would speed off—a 60-something man running, with ice cream!—around the block, leaving my older brother and I despondent, unable to keep up. My granddaddy wrestled with us, and I remember trying to hang on to his legs with all of my strength as he motored through the living room. He taught me how to throw a spiral. I grew up knowing I was like my granddaddy—active, outdoorsy, athletic, strong-willed, and more than a bit obnoxious. But I didn’t look all that much like my granddaddy. There were physical resemblances—for example, my dad was 6’ 2”, but my granddad was only around 5’ 10”; I take after my granddad. No, it wasn’t until I watched my dad die in 2008, after his last confrontation with cancer, that I realized who in my family I most resembled. It’s not even really close, actually. This was a significant realization. I had developed a narrative that I’d long told myself: I look more like mom and granddad, and my brother looks like dad (my brother is a couple inches taller than I am). But that narrative wasn’t accurate; I’d been telling myself the wrong story. I look like my dad, more and more as I get older. And my brother looks like my mom as he gets older. With my new beard, I look in the mirror and I see my dad staring back at me sometimes. This is not an unpleasant feeling, but it is unsettling nonetheless. I suppose that I would know this whether I had photographs of my dad or not. But I can’t help but think that I know this in large part because of those photographs. I certainly don’t have any writing from my dad to supplement my memory of him—at least none ready to hand. He didn’t leave me a letter or a journal, no will with special instructions. Not that he would. I have a few vivid memories that I can recall at almost any time: The day that he almost got into a fight with another man after one of my Little League baseball games—I remember the light of that day, the slant of sunbeams across a field of grass, looking up at my dad cradling a portable cooler and fold-up chairs, ready to fire on this man for a reason I didn’t know.The time he picked me up from a day hike on Mt. Diablo and took me to Frosty Freeze.The first time he held my son and played with him.The day that he and I took BART to see Cal play football at Memorial Stadium. But how much can I not recall?[...]

Visual Research Methods: A Photo Essay


Visual Research Methods: A Photo Essay

I spent some time over the Thanksgiving break building a new section to my primary website where I explore empirical visual research methods. [1]

I realized, though, that the new section stands alone as a pretty decent photo essay exploring visual research (and its usefulness) in some of the studies I’ve conducted in the last three years. I’ll say more about visual research methods in forthcoming posts, but for now, I wanted to share an overview of this approach with readers.

This new section of my site is not intended as a detailed discussion of visual research; rather, my hope is to provide some basics for a broader audience that might like to know a bit more about my research program and methods. That being said, for regular readers of this blog with expertise and interest in the study of writing and rhetoric, my hope is that the photo essay is interesting, thought-provoking, or otherwise worth a few minutes of your time.

Check it out if you have a moment! Visual Research Methods

  1. Two quick notes: 1. at the time I wrote this post, the site was working well in every web browser I’ve tested, including tablets; however, I’m having some problems with stability on my iPhone, so reader beware; 2. I used a handy little app called Exhibeo to build the slideshow; there are several hundred lines of Javascript that make this thing work, and I’m happy with the way that Exhibeo streamlined that process!  ↩

From ZPD to WAGR: An Activity Theory Primer


An Activity Theory Primer Context I recently gave a talk to members of Frontera Retorica, a graduate student chapter of the Rhetoric Society of America at the University of Texas at El Paso (and also my grad school alma mater!). They asked me to talk a bit about activity theory basics and some things that researchers in writing and rhetoric might consider when using AT to design a study. What follows is a written version of my talk. Tl;dr: a very basic overview of activity theory and why it’s useful, a perspective on why AT and rhetorical genre studies go together like PB&J, and some brief thoughts on deploying AT in studies of writing and rhetoric. If you’re an AT veteran, there’s nothing new here; if you’re new to AT, this may be useful! AT as a theoretical frame Nardi (1996) notes that activity theory is a “a research framework and set of perspectives,” not a hard and fast methodology or single theory (p. 7). Another way of thinking about activity theory is as a particular governing gaze (Emig, 1982); it’s a way of viewing everyday human activity, with a corresponding framework and relatively stable nomenclature for understanding that activity. Grounded in dialectical materialism, “activity theory focuses on practice, which obviates the need to distinguish ‘applied’ from ‘pure’ science—understanding everyday practice in the real world is the very objective of scientific practice” (Nardi, 1996, p. 7). Activity theory, therefore, “is a powerful and clarifying descriptive tool rather than a strongly predictive theory. The object of activity theory is to understand the unity of consciousness and activity," (Nardi, 1996, p. 7) a very Vygostkian perspective (more on that below). Activity theory is rooted in the phenomenological facets of lived experience: “consciousness is located in everyday practice: you are what you do” (Nardi, 1996, p. 7). And what you do, as Vygotsky, Lave and Wenger (1991), Nardi and O’Day (1999), and Kaptelinin and Nardi (2006), have pointed out, is “firmly and inextricably embedded in the social matrix of which every person is a part,” a matrix comprised of people, histories, genres, technologies, and material artifacts (Nardi, 1996, p. 7). Activity theory “incorporates strong notions of intentionality, history, mediation, collaboration and development in constructing consciousness” (Nardi, 1996, p. 7). Indeed, mediation is perhaps the key theoretical idea behind activity. We don’t just use tools and symbol systems; instead, our everyday lived experience is significantly mediated and intermediated by our use of tools and symbols systems. Activity theory helps frame, therefore, our understanding of such mediation. What mediates the everyday lived experience of contemporary individuals absent of writing and rhetoric? Almost nothing… In this sense, we might view activity theory as a methodological foundation for studying lived experience, following Spinuzzi (2003): “a methodology is the theory, philosophy, heuristics, aims, and values that underlie, motivate, and guide the method[s]” (p. 7). A Generational History of AT (aka “CHAT”) Proto-First Generation The work of Russian psychologist Vygotsky and his students in the early 1930s may be seen as the (proto)first generation of AT (though most everyone agrees that this wasn’t actually activity theory, as we’ve come to know it; instead, Vygotsky and his colleagues were exploring sociocultural psychology). His main works detailing some of the perspectives (particularly mediation) that would[...]

The Future 5000


The Future 5000 This post has one aim: to explore what I want to do with this blog, going forward. This is a bit of metablogging, then—blogging about blogging. There’s a good chance none of this will interest you much; I won’t be offended if you click away… I’ve used my blog to host a variety of different kinds of posts over the years, and I’ve never really limited the direction and scope, other than to say that this is my “research blog,” a way of differentiating what I post here from what I post (or might post) in other, especially shorter-form venues. Two things have led to this particular post, however: 1. I haven’t blogged much this year, and 2. I haven’t been inspired to blog much this year. Truth be told, I’ve been less inspired to publicly post much of anything, especially in the last few months. This may come as a shock to some who know me well, considering I have some 14,000 tweets, a few thousand Flickr photos (many of which are private, though), and I’m a fairly regular Instagram user/poster. But in reality, I tweet far less than I used to, I’ve never been on Facebook, I’ve essentially abandoned Pinterest, I never really got into Google+, Meme is dead, and Flickr is mostly for my family and very close friends. For a while, I thought that I’d found a sweet spot with a shorter form blog, Notemaking, where I’d post more frequently about interesting current issues as a way of publicly thinking through items of potential research/practice interest. But really, that fell flat for two reasons: 1. I didn’t always feel like posting, especially when most of my time is far better spent working on (and writing for) my research program and working on teaching-related concerns; and 2. who the hell cares what I think about such things anyway? There are many awesome folks out there who maintain frequently updated short-form blogs; I’d rather read them than me, too. One of the things I really admire about Clay Spinuzzi’s blog is the way that he shares his thoughts on scholarly research through his frequent reviews. I write annotations now (over 100 in the last year), and I’ve played around with formatting and posting some of them to the blog. But after writing many, many more annotations in DEVONthink than I actually posted to my blog, I realized that I likely read and annotate very differently than Clay, and so posting my annotations to my blog—even in revised form—just doesn’t accomplish the same thing that his excellent reviews do. Moreover, my annotations are my annotations, and while I’ve long been a proponent of public sharing, my research notes don’t translate well to broader dissemination. I like keeping them in DEVONthink and using them the way that I do. But this is all preamble to the aim I described above: what should this blog be, and how do I want to use it? I’ve figured a lot of things out in the last couple of years. It took me a while to develop practices and routines that work for me as a professional academic. By no means do I have everything figured out, but I think I’ve got things pretty well sorted in terms of having a clearly articulated research program and well-defined practices for accomplishing things to push that program forward. I certainly didn’t know what I was doing when I finished my PhD and took my first academic appointment in 2009. I didn’t really know what I was doing, actually, until sometime in 2011. Yes, I was still productive, and yes I [...]

The #1000genres Project


The 1000genres Project “Genres are not simply text types; they are culturally and historically grounded ways of ‘seeing and conceptualizing reality.’” — Spinuzzi, 2003 This semester, in my Composition and Communication course, freshman at the University of Kentucky will be exploring genres in detailed and meaningful ways, seeing genres as forms of social practice and action (Wenger, 1998; Miller, 1984), as stable-for-now sites and instantiations of ideology (Schryer, 1993), as carriers of provisional knowledge (Shirky, 2008), and as culturally and historically grounded ways of knowing and being in the world (Spinuzzi, 2003). That’s a mouthful, so let me say this another way: we’re going to be investigating genre all semester, and we’ll be documenting instances of genre in everyday life via Instagram and Twitter. More importantly, we want you to help! Where are the genres of your everyday life? What kinds of genres are the norm in your profession, discipline, or vocation? What genres are unique to your city, town, or region? What genres are important to you, and why? Through the #1000genres project, we’ll be documenting the genres that surround us here in Lexington, at UK, and in local academic and professional contexts. In the process, the collected images and descriptions of genres will become source material for student projects near the end of the semester. Why are we focusing on genre in this way? Because of David Russell, of course! People do not “learn to write, period,” notes Russell (1995). Instead, he argues, “one acquires the genres (typified semiotic means) used by some activity field as one interacts with people involved in the activity field and the material objects and signs those people use” (p. 56). For Russell, “writing does not exist apart from its uses, for it is a tool for accomplishing object(ive)s beyond itself. The tool is continually transformed by its use into myriad and always changing genres” (p. 57). Stated another way, he notes that “Learning to write means learning to write in the ways (genres) those in an activity system write” (p. 57). The #1000genres project is largely about learning how to learn genres—to recognize different genres in the world, the ways those genres arise from and operate within given social contexts, and the ways we might adapt our communication strategies to better match the norms and expectations carried through specific genres. But in doing so, we’ll also consider the ways that people not only adapt but in fact change genres over time. Participating is easy! Take a picture of a genre that interests you (for whatever reason); write a brief description of the genre or how it operates; tag that photo #1000genres and post it to Instagram, Twitter, or both. That’s it! Here’s an example of a branding genre at UK, and an example of a spatial genre on campus. Here are several genres layered and considered. We probably won’t always nail it—sometimes things that seem like genres might be something else. But that’s ok. The point is to be looking, thinking about genres, and documenting what we see. We can learn even more about genre by seeing the things you post. What kinds of genres are ubiquitous in your world? Show them, and show others![...]

TCQ Special Issue: Contemporary Research Methodologies


TCQ Special Issue Call for Proposals

Are you developing novel research methods or methodologies in technical and professional communication? Are you working on adaptations, extensions, or reevaluations of existing technical communication methodologies? Are you interested in shaping new research directions in the field?

We want to hear from you!

Along with Clay Spinuzzi and Christa Teston, I’m editing a special issue of Technical Communication Quarterly on contemporary research methodologies in the field. The full CFP is included below—please download it and consider putting together a proposal!

We’re also happy to talk with you about proposal ideas and to field queries; please feel free to email me at!

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Annotations | Weinberger, 2011: Too Big to Know


Annotations | Weinberger, 2011 [ NB: “Annotations” are occasional posts that explore selections from my research reading—articles or books—in rhetoric, technical and professional communication, and related fields. ] Weinberger, D. (2011). Too big to know: Rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren’t the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room. New York: Basic Books. This is a book that, like Clay Shirky’s work, is written for an educated lay audience, but that has tremendous influence for folks in both academe and industry. Unlike some books in this genre, Weinberger’s work carries a learned gravitas that others rarely approach. I think that, for researchers in Rhetoric and Writing (and related fields), Too Big to Know is one of the most important popular books to emerge in the last decade, for reasons that I’ll explain in more detail below. But the upshot for scholars of writing is this: Weinberger reinforces many of the things that scholars in our field have been saying for years: writing is epistemic; there are multiple ontologies and epistemologies at work in the world; things are messy and complex and always already rhetorically fraught; writing is bigger than books, but written genres carry and instantiate what we call knowledge; knowledge and facts are spatially, temporally, historically, societally, and socially conditioned and thus provisional. Weinberger’s argument, in a nutshell, is that “knowledge is becoming a property of the network, rather than of individuals who know things, of objects that contain knowledge, and of the traditional institutions that facilitate knowledge” (p. 182). From the Prologue forward, this argument is explored—sometimes tacitly, but often explicitly—through the tension between what can be committed to print, (cf. Updike’s paper trail, p. viii; “book-shaped thought,” p. 96–100) and what the affordances of networked knowledge mean for an exponential expansion of writing work (cf. Chapter 7’s discussion of Mendeley, Open Notebook Science, Eureqa, et al.). In this post, I’ll hew mainly to Weinberger’s juxtaposition of print-based knowledge making and networked knowledge making. One of the first moves that Weinberger makes is to question the role of expertise, the notion of accuracy, and the notion of credibility, among other ideas that have become entrenched in Western culture. He asks, “Does there turn out to be a benefit to letting events have blurry edges of ignorance?” (p. ix; cf. Spinuzzi, 2009). The focus on the instantiations of knowledge—primarily written instantiations—is clear from the start: “Transform the medium by which we develop, preserve, and communicate knowledge, and we transform knowledge” (p. ix). In other words, change the shape and delivery of written communication and you change the shape and understanding of knowledge, facts, expertise, and a host of innumerable ontologies. A central claim of Weinberger’s initial chapter is this: “Our most basic strategy for understanding a world that far outruns our brain’s capacity has been to filter, winnow, and otherwise reduce it something more manageable” (p. 4). We need to distill abundance and complexity so that we can wrap our arms around it. The early information age facilitated the sifting and winnowing; our databases distilled essential information into categories and classifications: “our information systems worked only becaus[...]

Annotations | Hutchins and Klausen, 1996


Annotations | Hutchins & Klausen, 1996 [ NB: “Annotations” are occasional posts that explore selections from my research reading—articles or books—in rhetoric, technical and professional communication, and related fields. ] Hutchins, E., & Klausen, T. (1996). Distributed cognition in an airline cockpit. In Y. Engeström and D. Middleton (Eds.), Cognition and communication at work (15–34). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. This piece is interesting from a number of perspectives, but I want to focus here on the methods section, which is both fascinating and disappointing to me. So, this isn’t a full annotation of the piece, though I will provide a bit of context up front. The chapter begins with a transcript from a flight simulation involving a commercial airline Captain, First Officer, Second Officer, and two different ground crews (air traffic control). This transcript, of course, makes little sense unless you are familiar with the vagaries of commercial airline flights; indeed, this is part of the point. The authors foreground a systemic approach for analyzing this scenario early in the chapter. Analysis of a system, rather than an actor or even (only) the interactions between actors, calls for a different unit of analysis, they contend, one that must foster the description and exploration of “the cognitive properties of the cockpit system that is composed of the pilots and their informational environment” (p. 17). The unit of analysis, then, is a system of distributed cognition (p. 17). The chapter, Hutchins and Klausen explain, is a descriptive implementation of a theory of distributed cognition—they’ll go through the episode of flight simulation chronologically and describe the actions and operations of actors as occurring within a system of distributed cognition. “We will attempt to show,” they argue, "that certain observed behaviors are instances of certain theoretical concepts. It is only by mapping from the data to a theory that we can generalize beyond the specifics of these observations” (p. 17). This leads them into the cognitive problems of actually doing what they say they’ll do, a meaningful digression, therefore, into their methods section. In their study, “the theoretical interpretation of some events may depend on the meanings that the participants themselves attach to those events” (p. 17). There are no simple operational definitions of terms that will easily and seamlessly allow readers to interpret, with the authors, the meanings at the research site. So, the authors argue, “we must rely on an ethnography of the setting to provide the interpretive bridge from the structure of the recordings of activity to the terms of the theory of distributed cognition” (p. 17). This moves them into a discussion of their data collection, and the specific affordances of those forms of data. Some of this is very Inside Baseball (which is worth attending to), but it’s also somewhat cynical, as we’ll see below. They note that “One way to protect oneself from the possibility of unexamined assumptions” in writing up ethnographic research is to try to build some kind of “objectivity” through which such assumptions are banished (p. 18). They point out that these kinds of approaches “cling to a ‘coding scheme,’ a set of ‘objective criteria’ for the existence of instances of various classes of events” (p. 18). Here’s where the c[...]

Case Histories of Instagram


Case Histories of Instagram

Normally, I wait until a paper is published before releasing a free and accessible version for download. However, because of the speed of change around Instagram, the popular, mobile photo-sharing application, I decided to release this one to the public well ahead of its October, 2012 publication.

I’ve been interested in how people use Instagram for a while now. And since I primarily study professional communication in digital environments (and particularly social software), I became increasingly interested in how organizations were using Instagram.

The 2012 IEEE PCS conference theme is communicating vision; while I didn’t have an in situ Instagram project in the works, I thought that some approach to organizational uses of Instagram would be relevant to the conference theme.

Rather than trying to design and conduct a new study in the midst of the four other studies I was running at the time, I decided to work on developing a coding schema that I and other researchers might use as an entry point for exploring the organizational use of Instagram.

This paper describes that schema by systematically analyzing several months worth of Instagram photos produced by organizations in three very different sectors: NPR, a prominent news organization; Heifer International, a sustainability-conscious non-profit; and ModCloth, a vintage clothing retailer with an impressive, multi-genre social software strategy. I used a content analysis methodology to produce case histories of Instagram implementation within these three organizations. This approach is necessarily limited, of course; I hope to follow up with an in situ study soon.

The paper has been favorably reviewed, and I expect revisions to be minimal. If you’d like to cite this paper before October, I've provided the basic details; otherwise, look for the official version with page numbers soon.

I hope this schema is useful to other researchers, and I hope that this exploration of Instagram in professional communication contexts is also of interest to folks who study social software. Let me know what you think!

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Learning Analytics for Collaborative Writing


Learning Analytics for Collaborative Writing

Paul Gestwicki and I have recently published some results from last year’s work in developing and studying an application that traced and visualized contribution and edit histories in Google Docs. Our short paper was published in the proceedings of the Learning Analytics and Knowledge conference last week. I’ve included a pre-publication version of the manuscript below.

Working on this was a really fascinating experience; our in-process work was mentioned in the 2011 Horizon Report, and our focus on learning analytics for collaborative writing gained some attention from Educause—we presented our findings during their spring 2012 focus session on Learning Analytics a couple of weeks before the LAK presentation.

I want to thank Holden Hill and Phil Parli-Horne for their contributions to the project. Holden and Phil were undergraduate honors fellows that did the bulk of the technical development of our prototype. I also thank Erika Johnson, a former Ball State doctoral student, who helped me conduct fieldwork for our study of the prototype among computer science students.

We’re working on two more outputs from this study—one for the computer science education community and one for the computers and writing community. So, more to come! Please let us know what you think of the project!

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