Rhetoric & Writing Portfolio Michael Wojcik 2007-2008

The 2007-2008 academic year is my first in the DRPW program, and as a new rhetoric scholar (and a part-time one at that), I've spent most of it learning about the field rather than focussing on my own projects. And as a consequence, some of those projects have not developed as quickly as perhaps they ought; but I am determined to remedy that before the end of the spring semester. On the whole, I believe this has been a productive year for me and a successful beginning to my career as a rhetorician.

Coursework

My previous studies in the humanities were in literature, so while I have a decent background in critical theory and a smattering of composition theory, I had not previously studied rhetoric in any significant way. Consequently I began my program last fall with AL805, the History of Rhetoric, taught by Rochelle Harris. I filled out my fall semester with an independent study guided by Bill Hart-Davidson investigating ways to compute an estimate for an author's ethos in a collection of texts; that project is still underway but should have more demonstrable results soon. (Some materials from it are included in this portfolio.)

For the spring semester I'm taking Mike McCloud's WRA410, Advanced Web Authoring. It's serving as an introduction to digital rhetoric, a chance to explore the user-facing technologies (XHTML, CSS, Javascript, etc) that complement the back-end technologies I work with professionally, and — thanks to Mike's emphasis on process — an opportunity to work through a typical development cycle for the user interface of a web-based application. I'm also doing a joint independent study in visual rhetoric with Kristen Flory, under Danielle Devoss's guidance. There we're combining an introduction to the broad field of visual rhetoric with a specific focus on typography and color as rhetorical elements.

Major Projects

Pragmatism and Rhetoric

Rochelle Harris taught AL805 this year, and she structured that course around a number of smaller projects rather than a large final one. But she did assign a final inquiry project that included a short paper and a corresponding multimedia presentation for class.

Mine was an inquiry into the possible relationship of American pragmatist philosophy to rhetoric, an area that caught my interest in the first weeks of class when we read Isocrates, who I felt had some parallels to the Pragmatists. (See also the rhetor presentations below.) While this is not untravelled ground, I found the investigation very useful for me as I developed my own understanding of rhetoric, and I believe this remains a productive area for further study.

This project resulted in the paper Rhetoric is its Effects (PDF), which includes an author's note and short reflection. I've also included in the portfolio an XHMTL version of the notes I collected while working on this project, which I kept as a mind map in FreeMind. The XHTML version contains an image map of the mindmap itself, in condensed format, and a folding outline of the map's text. I think this document is interesting as a view into the inquiry process. (When I began to compose the final paper, I exported the mindmap into LaTeX using an XSLT stylesheet I created for that purpose, so I could then import that into LyX and edit it into the first draft of the paper.)

(For the multimedia portion of this project I created a small video game, in the first-person image-object-action genre popularized by Myst. In the game, the player wanders about gathering ideas about pragmatism from various key figures in its development. I didn't include it in the portfolio because to be honest it's pretty silly, but it is available on my website.)

Estimating Ethos

My fall independent study project was to investigate ways to computationally estimate an author's ethos in a collection of texts. Essentially, it asked whether, given a set of digital texts, I could devise software that would compute some metric for each author that would have an interesting relationship to what human judges might describe as that author's standing, in those texts, for making appeals to ethos — that is, to arguing based on the audience's perception of the author's authority.

I admit that this project is not as far along today as it should be, though I have accumulated a significant body of materials and notes, and I've put considerable thought into the design and implementation. Given the approaching C&W date, I'll be moving this project along briskly in the next few weeks. (A charitable reader might view this as an exercise in the common academic practice of letting oneself be backed up against a deadline...) In the meantime, I have included further discussion about, and some of my work for, this project in my portfolio.

MultiBib Design

My project for WRA410, Advanced Web Authoring, is an online multiuser bibliography application ("MultiBib") built with an XHTML and CSS front end and a PHP and MySQL back end. Development of the application itself is just beginning, but I recently completed the design packet, including a user experience strategy statement, information views, etc.

Color in Candidate Websites

As part of our joint visual rhetoric independent study, Kristen Flory and I are collaborating on a project to study the websites of this year's US presidential candidates. She's looking specifically at the use of typography as a visual-rhetorical element, and I'm doing the same with color.

Much of the work for that project to date has consisted of research (I have a working bibliography of color resources exported from Zotero) and discussion, but we have submitted a proposal (PDF) to present it at the Thomas R. Watson Conference in October.

Other Significant Exercises

Some other products of possible interest from this year's studies:

Professional and Scholarly Activity

Being new to the field of rhetoric, I did not publish or present any work this year. I did, however, get to see some relevant presentations at MLA and here at MSU. For the upcoming year, I have one conference proposal accepted and another pending.

Conference and Presentations Attended

At the 2007 MLA conference, I saw a panel on the future of work "in the discipline" (which, this being MLA, meant English and other modern language studies, in some vague fashion). Presenters included N. Catherine Hayles and W. J. T. Mitchell, both of whom will also be speaking at the Watson conference in October. The panel was interesting mostly as evidence that there's still a healthy contingent of established scholars in English studies who are suspicious of new media, or not particularly well-informed about them, or both. Hayles did present an interesting (if perhaps not very practical) vision for dissolving disciplinary boundaries in favor of teams of scholars of various competencies working together on shared interests. I took a moment after the panel to speak with her and suggest that the organizational model she's exploring has some similarity to the "agile" movement in software development.

I saw a poster session for work in new media, mostly by graduate students. Much of it was largely in the established new-media-text genres: interactive poetry, resistant interactive texts, etc. There were projects that struck me as innovative, though, and some interesting text-processing and text-metadata work. This was a good opportunity for me to start thinking about some aspects of digital rhetoric — the affordances of digital texts and so forth.

I was also pleased to attend a special session on the last day of the conference titled "Disciplinarity ... and Beyond?", sponsored by the Division on the History and Theory of Rhetoric and Composition. Speakers included Anne Ruggles Gere, Patty Harkin, Jim Sosnoski (an old friend from Miami), and Steven Mailloux. As usual this was something of a mixed bag, but everyone had interesting insights. Jim described a virtual-reality project he's been working on for some time — Virtual Harlem — which has proven successful enough to move from a dedicated platform at UIC to Second Life and is now being extended by a group of scholars in France, to document the expatriate Jazz musicians who left Harlem for Paris.

Also this year, I was fortunately able to attend the talks here on campus by Karl Stolley and Sid Dobrin, and to meet with both of them informally as well. Though I'm not a compositionist, I was intrigued by Sid's challenge to composition studies; since I'm a theorist at heart, I'm sympathetic to his call for theories of writing. Karl, on the other hand, was speaking on subjects that are near and dear to my heart, at least professionally, since I'm committed to technological standards and independence from proprietary black-box data formats.

Proposals for Upcoming Conferences

My proposal (PDF) to present the Estimating Ethos project at Computers & Writing in May was accepted.

Kristen and I have submitted a proposal (PDF) for the Watson conference, next October, to present our analyses of the rhetorical use of typography and color in presidential candidate websites.

Reflecting on the Year's Progress

This has been a busy but substantial and foundational year for me. With my relatively long experience in literary studies and critical theory, I started the year unsure just what sorts of reseeing rhetoric might lead me to.

I began my previous academic career with feminist theory, and moved from there to postcolonial theory and then into a general interest in the construction of subjectivities and how subjects acquire various roles and agencies in systems of hegemonic power. As a literature scholar, I studied that primarily in terms of the functions of narrative. I still believe narrative is important, but rhetoric offers a different (if related) set of insights and affordances for investigating this sort of question.

Consequently, I've spent a fair bit of time in the past year thinking about just how I'd define rhetoric. I'm working on a short essay for my own purposes, to try to articulate some of my thoughts on the matter.

Overall, this year has let me see how rhetoric as an intellectual discipline and a general scholarly field will fit into my collection of intellectual tools. Studying the history of rhetoric gave me at least a passing understanding of the basic terminology and ideas of the field and its development, and the independent study in visual rhetoric is doing the same for that branch. Advanced Web Authoring is an important exercise in the practical application of some of these ideas, as well as a useful introduction to user interface technologies that I do not normally work with professionally.

What I'd like to do in the coming year is study some of the major aspects that I wasn't able to focus on this year. That would include contemporary rhetorical theory, digital rhetoric, and methodology. Obviously C&W, and hopefully Watson, will be excellent opportunities to get public feedback on my work; C&W will be my first presentation as a rhetoric scholar (and my first academic presentation of any sort since 1999). My other major goal for this coming year will be to begin to define my thesis project; even though I'm ostensibly a part-time student, it would be good to get started on that.