In the past decade, the proliferation of technologies like cloud computing and mobile devices have impacted the writing practices of professional and student writers. But even with new technologies, old practices and technologies don’t simply vanish. My research examines the ways digital writing technologies intersect with writers’ material practices and lives. I ask questions like, ‘How do writers use X technologies in their everyday, material lives?” and “How do writers integrate digital and material technologies in their writing practices?”
The focus of my current project are ePortfolios. I examine how students and alumni of writing programs that require assessment ePortfolios use (or do not use) those ePortfolios in their everyday, material lives. Specifically, I investigate how writing students and alumni use ePortfolios in their searches for employment. Though ePortfolios are often used primarily by writing programs as assessment tools, they are often “sold” to students as tools for the job search. But whether, how, and why students and alumni use ePortfolios in this way is still open for investigation. I am currently conducting a genre study of ePortfolios to investigate these practices.
For this study, I use two types of data: interviews with ePortfolio stakeholders and the ePortfolios themselves. I am conducting interviews with students and alumni of writing programs that require assessment ePortfolios and with local businesses that routinely work with or hire students and alumni of these programs. Both types of data are currently undergoing qualitative analysis with my research team, which, in addition to myself, includes a graduate assistant and an undergraduate assistant. We are using methods of qualitative, inductive analysis on both the interviews and the ePortfolios. Though the study is ongoing, early analysis indicates that alumni from one school in the study show three patterns of ePortfolio use after their programs: some students discard the ePortfolio entirely, some students make small revisions to the original ePortfolio, and others discard the original ePortfolio in favor of an entirely redesigned ePortfolio. These revisions or redesigns reflect tensions between the perceived expectations of two different ePortfolio audiences: assessment audiences and industry audiences. Alumni perceive assessment audiences to expect the ePortfolios to demonstrate mastery of theoretical material through lengthy descriptions and analyses of the projects in the ePortfolios, whereas they perceive industry audiences to expect very little text focused on how the author can contribute to a given workplace.
This study contributes to rhetorical genre theory and digital rhetoric. It is an example of what happens when rhetors’ perceive tensions between two very real but very different target audiences, and it also speaks to the ways that material concerns and constraints shape rhetor’s digital writing and delivery practices. Additionally, this project has implications for writing pedagogy; many of the data point to the need to teach writing students not just how to create a rhetorically savvy ePortfolio, but how to use it as well: students need to learn how, when, and where to get the ePortfolio into the hands of its target audience and how to use it most effectively when searching for employment.
I am currently writing an article for publication based on this project. This project will also be a part of my larger, book-length project on ePortfolios. The next phase of this project includes a nationwide survey of technical and professional writers, with interviews to follow, and semi-longitudinal case studies of individual writing students tracking their use of ePortfolios on the job search.
I am also currently revising articles for publication based upon my dissertation project and preparing the next phase of that project as well. My dissertation project asked, “How is writing distributed across tools, artifacts, and bodies for a group of face-to-face writers collaboratively planning a written document.” Using a grounded theory method, I conducted a micro-analysis of writers at a non-profit planning content for their annual report. I coded video data of this session, looking at the writing tools, written documents, and gestures used by the participants in the session. I found that these writers seamlessly integrated digital and material writing technologies in planning their text.
This study has significance for writing theory, rhetorical theory, professional communication, and writing pedagogy. The project highlights the interconnected nature of materiality and embodiment and of rhetorical invention and arrangement by examining their concurrent nature in workplace writing. My project underscores the importance of material spaces for brainstorming, which is relevant to both professional communicators and student writers.
I have two articles currently in second-round review based upon this project. “Distributed Writing as a Framework for Examining Writing as Embodied Practice” is currently in review at Technical Communication Quarterly, and “Writing as a Distributed Cognitive Act: A Situated Study of Workplace Writers” is currently in review at Written Communication. In the next phase of this project, I am planning a more ethnographic approach, seeking to study how writers working on difficult, long-term projects integrate digital and material technologies in their writing practices. This work will be featured in my second book, which will examine intersections among the digital, the material, and the embodied.
The scope of this research agenda is wide, though its impacts remain focused. These studies have implications for theories of digital rhetoric, materiality, and embodiment—and the ways these three subjects are intertwined. Furthermore, it has implications for creators of writing technologies, such as Apple, Google, Adobe, and Microsoft. When writers’ natural uses of writing technologies—both digital and material—are better understood, developers will be able to better support writers through technology that fulfills writers’ needs.