Critical Theories of Digital Writing


Hawisher, Gail E. and Cynthia L. Selfe. “The Rhetoric of Technology and the Electronic Writing Class.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 42, no. 1, 1991, pp. 55-65.

Summary: Hawisher and Selfe analyze texts about computer use in the composition classroom against observations in the classrooms of some of these authors. They find that many authors of texts supporting computer use in composition speak highly of the computer’s role in de-emphasizing the teacher, allowing for students to work more collaboratively and spend more time in each class writing. Their in-class observations, however, only support the claim that students spend more time in each class writing.

Selfe, Cynthia L. and Richard J. Selfe. “The Politics of the Interface: Power and Its Exercise in Electronic Contact Zones. College Composition and Communication, vol. 45, no. 4, 1994, pp. 480-504.

Summary: Selfe and Selfe investigate to what degree computer usage in the composition classroom may act as a border for marginalized students, if not a colonizing force over them. The authors point to the orientation of the “desktop” that privileges white collar work, the inherent cost of programs and networking, the color of the cursor hand and other graphic symbols that assume whiteness for the normal user. They conclude by encouraging compositionists to involve themselves as much as possible in the development, whether departmentally or larger-scale, of the interfaces they will need to use with students to avoid having to be passive users of marginalizing programs.

Ball, Cheryl. “Show, Not Tell: The Value of New Media Scholarship.” Computers and Composition, vol.21, 2004, pp.403-425.

Summary: Ball first clarifies two types of scholarship concerning new media: scholarship about new media (traditional alphabetic texts that use the linear style of argumentation to address issues pertaining to new media) and new media scholarship (using new media as part of an academic argument, although not bound to linear styles). These terms are situated within larger conversations about getting promotion or tenure, which ultimately affects writers’ ability to pursue new media scholarship.  Ball provides examples of both scholarship about new media and new media scholarship, locating most of her examples within the journal Kairos, which she edits. These examples show a range of approaches to breaking out of linear, alphabetic-privileged texts, and Ball provides ways of reading those texts in an academic fashion to demonstrate that these types of scholarship also belong in tenure and promotion folders.

Meeting Cheryl Ball

UAH graduate teaching assistants with Cheryl Ball

Cheryl Ball’s “Show, not Tell” sets the stage for the type of scholarship that many of us would like to create. I first encountered her work when I heard her speak at the Virginia Peck Composition Series at Middle Tennessee State University, where she discussed multimodality in relation to assignments that give students practical skills beyond the normal NCTE goals. This presentation pushed me personally as a teacher to consider the online portfolio assignment I was giving to students at UAH, which Alanna Frost (far right in the picture) helped me realize is one of the major issues facing rhetoric and composition. This was perhaps the beginning of my acceptance of rhet/comp as my Ph.D. field as an English literature M.A. student, and the memory has stayed with me.


Go to the current issue for Kairos and look first at the interface. How is it set up? Compare the current design to the archived first volume. What differences do you see, and what do you think drove the continuing changes we enjoy today?
In the current issue for Kairos, how does the content bear out what Ball argues in “Show, not Tell”?

Questions for Discussion:

1.) Beyond the Foucault-ian problems of control by observation in a computer-driven composition course, what other problems might we encounter in terms of encouraging students now to write in online spaces? How do/might we cope with these problems as we explain their affordances to students?

2.) Clearly, from her article, Ball advocates for an increased awareness of affordances in new media scholarship. How does her personal site engage with multimodality in different ways? How does this compare to the work she encourages in Kairos?

3.) In what ways do the concerns of Hawisher, Selfe, and Selfe anticipate the advent of Web 2.0 technologies? If computers represented a possible colonizing danger, what potential dangers do Web 2.0 technologies bring with them?

4.) Does Selfe and Selfe’s description of how computers are used unequally in minority/majority schools allow for comment from Nelson’s “Dream Machines”?

5.) To further the idea of the “map” in Selfe and Selfe, how does this map de-center Western notions of the world?

Chinese World Map

A Chinese map of the world, illustrating it as the Middle Kingdom.