Digital Ethics in Quasi-Public Places: McKee and Porter

McKee and DeVoss‘s edited collection, Digital Writing Research: Technologies, Methodologies, and Ethical Issues, provides an array of technological tools and methodologies which may be used to study writing. The section we looked at last week, Part Three: Researching the Activity of Writing, covered time-use diaries, mobile technologies, and video screen capture. Some of the chapter authors, such as William Hart-Davidson, focus on the practical use of a technology: time use diaries to examine the integration of certain writing devices, like texting, into daily practices, via when and for how long a device is used. Other authors, such as Joanne Addison, focused on theoretical basis for using technology: mobile technologies as a way to investigate phenomenological experience.

This week’s section, Part Four: Researching Digital Texts and Multimodal Spaces, was highly related to our other readings by McKee and Porter this week. All the sources dealt with the differences between static and authors and published texts, vs. fluid online texts, spaces, and speakers.

Stuart Blyth points out the difficulty of coding online data, because it is not static, but fluid, with particular texts often changing over time. His suggestion is to collect copies of the web page at a particular point in time, and make notes using an HTML tag. His was the most detailed account of coding methods I have read thus far—providing protocol for tagging words, rhetorical moves, images, and even spaces and time-laps editing.

What I found interesting was the fact that, when this book was written, authors were still trying to find ways to freeze texts, rather than develop tools to track their development. Blyth does a good job of borrowing from film coding practices, in order to find ways to code online videos or animations, and comic practices for narrative, in order to enable time-laps analysis. However, this is not quite the same as looking at verbal/alphabetic texts changing over time.

Attending CEA this month, in St. Petersburg Florida, I met Chris Friend from the Texts and Technology program at UCF. He did a presentation about the application, Google Wave—which is slowly being phased out in favor of Google Docs. The premiere feature of this composition tool, however, which Christ drew attention to, was its ability to record the collaborative writing process performed on/in a document. It worked in real time, and at any point you could “rewind” so to speak and watch how different writers had edited and added to the document. There was also a chat feature which allowed people to talk about their changes as they worked. This feature was also time stamped to be replayed with the document recording.

Digital Writing Research was published in 2007, however many of the chapters would lead you to believe otherwise. Out of the two sections we  read, Google is only named once—in one paragraph. I think that Chris’s work is a great example of where composition methods of research might be going in the next few years.

McKee and Porter’s CCC article, “The Ethics of Digital Research: A Rhetorical Approach” was incredibly enjoyable read. Published in 2008, the article addresses the need for IRB and ethical guidelines, to be tailored for online environments. At the moment, IRB’s qualifications for review are based on 3 things—two of which the article deals with 1) whether the study looks at humans or texts, 3) whether the human data is public or private, 3) and whether the data is “individually identifiable” (“the identity of the subject is or may be readily ascertained by the investigator”).

To simplify: human subjects research needs review if it is: of people, private, and identified. It does not need review (is not human subjects research) if it is: of texts, public, and/or unidentifiable. McKee and Porter problematize all three of these binaries using real examples of ethical dilemmas in online research. They provide suggestions for how researchers may make ethical choices in their studies; in particular, they propose the deliberative process of casuistry, with special attention to the rhetorical situation of various web texts (purpose, audience, environment, expectations).

This work is supplemented in “The Ethics of Conducting Writing Research on the Internet: How Heuristics Help,” in which McKee and Porter provide a more detailed set of diagrams, which take the many fluid factors of online writing into account: degree of interaction, data ID, topic sensitivity, subject vulnerability, etc.

My favorite thing in this article was the below diagram, tracing the continuum between “Space” and “Place.” Something I inferred from this distinction was the difference between static, (two dimensional) texts, versus fluid (four dimensional?) digital texts. One can be tagged and coded easily, while the other requires something as complex as Google Wave/Docs.

In their CCC article, McKee and Porter discuss the difference between an author/person binary, versus a continuum. They quote Amy Buckman who says that “Most work on the Internet is semi-published” (qtd on 734).  McKee and Porter set this concept up against the idea of online texts as published documents which may be quoted and cited at will, within reason of fair use, without permission of the author. “In this respect” the authors continue, “the ethical guidelines governing fair use of others’ writing always apply, and the ethical guidelines of securing informed consent may also apply” (734).

The basis for their argument is very similar to one of Bruno Latour’s in We Have Never Been Modern, where he argues that there are no such things as concrete subjects or objects (people/texts), or essence and representation. Rather, he says that there are quasi-subjects and quasi-objects (like, semi-published), all of which have a subject or object identity, depending on what they are are in relationship to. In the case of online texts, McKee and Porter ask that we consider online texts relation to their writers, the writer’s intended audience, and their relationship to the researcher. Is the researcher part of that original, intended audience? Or would the author be disturbed to discover that their work was being analyzed and published by the researcher? That, ultimately, is the question, regarding informed consent.

In the CCC article, “Writing in High School/College: Research Trends and Future Directions,” Addison and McGee review the results of ten educational institutions (three high schools, two community colleges, two four-year public institutions, one four year private institution, one public MA granting institution, and one doctorate-granting, flagship institution) to aggregate data regarding student writing and teacher pedagogy.

One of the most interesting points to me was the data showing that faculty favor personal and in-class writing tasks, but they don’t  value workplace genres. While I understand not teaching something you aren’t yourself familiar with, and the need for personal reflection, I can’t help feel that college writing should include some preparation for disciplinary writing. This is why I favor the Writing About Writing approach (Downs and Wardle) –also discussed at CEA–because it teaches students about how writing works within particular discourses and ecologies, without setting out to teach in the disciplines themselves.

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