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.

Food Lables to Indicate Nutritional Value? What Kind of Value?

So, it is a lot of work to read food labels. And it’s depressing. Did you know that 17 out of the 18 barbeque sauces that Walmart carries contain two main ingredients: tomato paste, and high fructose corn syrup? That’s right. And, yes: I’m that obsessed with reading labels. And yes, that particular brand which did not contain HFCS as the #2 ingredient did cost more per ounce than the others. You start to feel my pain. So many Americans have no choice but to buy the foods which fail to provide them with adequate nutrition, or satisfy their appetite. And just as many are not aware, that is what they’re buying. nutritional Reformers are trying to make changes, but it’s been difficult, since industry is addicted to cheap ingredients . . . and who isn’t trying to save money these days?

I was intrigued to discover a couple months ago that Michelle Obama has actually staked a major claim in this particular national issue of concern. I found out, through this article in the NY Times, discussing a deal she’s orchestrated with Walmart, who has agreed to run a new line of healthier foods, and to print labels clearly marking the nutritional value of various canned goods.

The measure are, of course, not without controversy, since Walmart has developed such a bad reputation in regards to local ecologies, economies, and business. However, Mrs. Obama seems to understand the underlying socio-economic issues at play in national health by going after the number one grocery seller to low-income families, as well as the number one competitor when it comes to American retail. The hope is that Walmart’s changes will put pressure on other big companies such as Kraft who, up to this point, have refused to budge regarding their nutritional content, or even honest communication thereof through labels. This article on‘s blog outlines the debate surrounding the deal.

I was interested to learn, that England had a heated debate last summer about whether or not to implement their own form of a nutritional labeling system, which involved a metaphoric traffic light shining green, yellow, or red to indicate health value. The system is used voluntarily by other countries in the UK As one can imagine, food companies did not like the idea of customers seeing a red flashing light when they encountered their products. Imagine, knowing what you’re eating. Scandalous.

If I were to weigh into the conversation, I’d mainly like to draw attention to the fragile balance of concern between the quality and quantity of food value. Formulating, as Latour would say, “matters of fact” into “matters of concern” requires us to decide what kinds of facts concern us.  The new policies Michell Obama has worked for, focus on quantitative measures trans fat, sodium, and added sugars.  This seems like a good place to start. But perhaps, the conversation should remain open to other forms of measurement as well. Jessica Mudry’s research points to a misguided sense of nutritional measurement in western science; hopefully these new reforms will act as a forum for the re-composition of these assumptions. Many believe that particular ingredients which are known to be both harmful to most people’s health and used in excess (such as HFCS and fructose) should be flagged with a warning label (as tobacco is), taxed, or banned all together. I think that the current measures are at least a step in the right direction, articulating matters of concern in a stronger network of association.

Danah Boyd, New Media, and Discourse

Our readings this week were all very interesting, and mostly related to online composition and studies of its complexities.

Dana Boyd’s dissertation was a fun read; I now understand why she is such a popular author, especially as a blogger. Her writing style and voice are incredibly personable as well as intelligent. I hope I can develop a similar communication style. In Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics, Danah did an ethnographic study of teen’s cultural and social practices with new media networks during the rise and fall of MySpace (c. 2004-2006).

Her methods were truly impressive:  she scoured hundreds of thousands of profiles on sites as various as LiveJournal, Xanga, MySpace, and Facebook, while also observing chatrooms, immersive online environments, and other sites of teen interaction. in addition to her online investigation, she traveled to ten different states to formally interview 94 teens in their home towns. Wherever possible, she used random sampling, and her involvement with technology companies gave her access to data not usually available to users. Her triangulation included her subjects–teens themselves–as she interacted with them about her research over the 2.5 years of her study. It also included adults within the communities where the teens she interviewed were located. No doubt that her intern, Sam Jackson, and other new media scholars also helped to shape her analysis and interpretations of these communities.

Her theoretical foundation is interesting to me, because without ever mentioning ANT she describes the importance of investigating networks of practice without privileging either online or offline environments, people, objects, or sites–but rather moving along all these axises equally (50-55). She bases this approach on the writing of Jenna Burrell, whom I will have to read. Like Mol and other Praxiographers, she also rejects the divide between subject/object as essence and representation, saying that the wired and offline lives of students are not equivalent to a show and a backstage reality, but are rather intertwined in their communal practices.

I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony, as I read Leon and Pigg’s article about “Graduate Students Professionalizing in Digital Time/Space.” In it they point out the way students are using their computers as tools to multi-task in research and professional networking–this, as I click back and forth between three PDF readings, my University email, Danah Boyd’s blog, and this WordPress draft. Do I, as Leon and Pigg found in other graduate students, feel guilty for my hours of virtual exploration? Well, I did, especially when I first experienced sitting down to do one task and three hours later found that I had about 50, but not finished the first I set out to do–but I think that a couple years of experience have relieved me of that anxiety. I now know that it is indeed more productive, at times, to allow yourself t be led on. At other times, pressure will provoke you to stay focused, so that you can, for example, finish a blog post due for class in a few hours ^_^. For another interesting perspective on this topic, see Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From Video, located in my “Animation Communication” blog post.

In “Your Views Showed True Ignorance: (Mis)Communication in an Interracial Online Discussion Forum,” Heidi McKee investigated a discussion which took place in blackboard regarding affirmative action and multiculturalism. Her methods included receiving permission from some of the students to quote their posts (82 out of 185), as well as personal interviews with the five major participants in the conversation. She asked the students how they would like to be represented in her article, explaining how she would describe herself: as a white middle-class woman who attended a predominantly white school. I think this was a great example of how ethnographers can share representational power with their subjects. I also felt that this was an interesting take on the “ethnography” as a genre–and felt that it did fall into a subcategory of the genre’s parameters. Perhaps the most excellent aspect of her paper is that it was hypothesis generating rather than hypothesis testing. She asked the students open ended questions, and her conclusions after the interviews were different than her hypothesis going into the study. She concludes that discursive writing practices can appear differently to different cultural and racial subjects, and what may appear tame to one group, may actually be very damaging to another.

In “Digital Hidden Transcripts: Exploring Student Resistance in Blogs,” Warren Mark explores a 15 year old student’s discursive resistance toward his teacher, exemplified in online writing. What may be unexpected about this study, is that Marc (the subject) is a student as the Fly High College, a school for boys in Singapore, where the author taught English for four years. I wish that there had been more discussion about the racial, linguistic, national, and economic implications of this interesting fact. Otherwise, Mark did an excellent job of incorporating the student’s own writing and voices into his work.

Stanford Study, Compositionism, and Ethics and Representation

If only every research project every conducted would publish their results in the organized and open format that Stanford has with their famous Stanford Study of Writing, which can be found here. All their methodological materials are available, for those who might wish to reproduce the study, and their background, methods, and research question are summarized in short, two-paragraph sections: Brilliant. Imagine what the field of (college) writing/composition would be if every major institution conducted the same study, maintained the same database–the knowledge accumulated would be fantastic. Here’s a cheers to rigorous, longitudinal methods of research.

An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education provides a nice overview of the study’s reception as of 2009. In it, Josh Keller reference Katherine Blake Yancy, “a professor of English at Florida State University and a former president of the National Council of Teachers of English, [who] calls the current period ‘the age of composition’ because, she says, new technologies are driving a greater number of people to compose with words and other media than ever before.”  This is view is echoed by Bruno Latour in his article, “An Attempt at Writing a ‘Compositionist Manifesto'”, based on speech given at the  reception of the Kulturpreis presented by the University of Munich on February 9th, 2010. He argues that Compositionism may be an apt successor to the PostModern movement. Compositionism, he says,

“…underlines that things have to be put together (Latin componere) while retaining their heterogeneity. Also, it is connected with composure; it has a clear root in art, painting, music, theater, dance, and thus is associated with choreography and scenography; it is not too far from “compromise” and “compromising”  retaining with it a certain diplomatic and prudential flavor. Speaking of flavor, it carries with it the pungent but ecologically correct smell of “compost”, itself due to the active “de-composition” of many invisible agents…Above all, a composition can fail and thus retain what is most important in the notion of  constructivism (a label which I could have used as well, had it not been already taken by art history). It thus draws attention away from the irrelevant difference between what is constructed and what is not constructed, toward the crucial difference between what is  well or  badly constructed,  well or  badly composed. What is to be composed may, at any point, be decomposed.” (3)

Perhaps, if we can conduct more studies such as Stanford’s, which continue to investigate the multifaceted dynamics of writing, theories of composition might be generated which could in tern be applied to other disciplines’ generation and arrangement of knowledge, the way that Bruno Latour, and new media theorists’ have.

Although published in 1996, Ethics and Representation in Qualitative Studies of Literacy offers an excellent array of discussion on the classic qualitative methods issues, from seminal voices such as Patricia A. Sullivan and Lucille Parkinson McCarthy. Perhaps one of the most applicable chapters for my own future research was Blakeslee, Cole and Conefrey’s piece on negotiating subjective perspectives within ethnographic research (chapter 8), particularly when studying a community whose epistemological assumptions are foundationally different than the researcher’s. They used Blakeslee’s own experience researching physicists as a case study, particularly considering authority, scientific epistemology and how a text can be negotiated to ethically reflect the perspective of both the subject and the theories of the critic/observer. Like Sullivan (and Porter), the authors of this chapter acknowledge the fact that ethnographers can be neither fully authoritative, nor fully objective in analyzing their observations, but must acknowledge their subjective perspective and rely on others to produce an ethical, textual representation. My own study of the medical community will draw from these concepts.

Brooke and Latourean Inscription in Ethnographic Methods

Robert Brook’s chapter in Voices and Visions, entitled “Ethnographic Practice as a Means of Invention, Seeking a Rhetorical Paradigm for Ethnographic Writing” has no doubt been my favorite reading in methods of research thus far. As always, I find that Latour’s philosophy clearly elucidates the practice and process of research, especially as it relates to texts. Brooke uses Latour’s concept of inscription to describe three key moments in his composition process where the observation and articulation of his subjects was crucially shaped by his rhetorical needs and goals.

1) In his observation notebook, Brooke found that his comments about and vision of the classroom he observed were selective, based on a set of categories (heuristic topoi) which he was predisposed to conceive of, based on his field, past readings, and conversations with his teacher-subject.  In other words, his inventive process, by which he explored particular ways of understanding his subject, shaped how he observed and specifically, what he wrote down in his journal.

2) His daily notes, written after each observation, revealed Brooke’s attempts at meaning-making through writing, by more clearly organizing his observations into patterns, interpreting behaviors, making predictions, and labeling phenomena based on theoretical topoi.

3) A year later, Brooke’s composition of a CCC article from his data, involved negotiating meaning out of a tension between his own memory of an event, his data, and a very specific audience, while simultaneously trying to locate himself within the discipline to which he is speaking. These tensions actively shaped the articulation of his observations, his theoretical basis, and his argument.

I so appreciate the emphasis Brooke places on the difficulty these negotiations create for the author, who is attempting to condense, refine and sharpen meaning from such a vast body of observations, experiences, and thoughts. This is especially so, notes Brooke, for the ethnographer trying to speak to two separate audiences: an academic discourse community, and the community who was observed.

This last section of the article reminded me very much of two other texts: Dian Davis’s introduction to Inessential Solidarity, in which she meditates on the impossibility of scholarly conventions in the face of discussing metaphysical ethics, and Annemarie Mol’s book, The Body Multiple, in which she splits her text into two, simultaneous, parallel sections in an effort to address adequately both her ethnographic observations (placed on the top half) and the literature of theory and methodology (placed on the bottom). Such an extreme bifurcation of composition is the perfect example of the incredible tearing that the tensions Brooke describes can lead to within the writer’s mind–and I think Mol’s solution is a very creative and effectual one.

Another aspect of Brooke’s work which helped me, as an aspiring researcher, was the “behind the scenes” look that “Ethnographic Practice as a Means of Invention” gave, after having read “Underlife and Writing Instruction.” Although most ethnographies lay out their methods, I still feel there is a lot of process which is left like “the man behind the curtain” which the reader can only guess at (unless you’re Brooke, who like Toto goes and tears the curtain down!). Brooke’s three moments of inscription gave me a much clearer idea of what my own process of observation and composition might look like, on a practical level, while conducting a study. Additionally, his literature review in the beginning of the chapter is the most simply and clearly graphed picture of the field I’ve read yet.

Nutritional Rhetoric: First Discoveries

Well, I suppose every grad student has this moment: the moment when they realize that someone has already written their hoped-for dissertation. I would like to have a moment of silence in honor of a hope deferred……..

On the positive side, the work of Jessica J. Mudry looks truly fantastic, and I am so glad that someone has done the intense work of answering many of my questions in regard to nutritional rhetoric and public policy. To be honest–and less mellow-dramatic–Dr. Mudry has not actually written my intended dissertation, which would focus on the medical aspect of nutritional rhetoric. Her book Measured Meals: Nutrition in America actually focuses on the history of the FDA’s construction of nutritional guidance based on methods of quantification (conta qualification…?) of things like calories, kinds of foods, etc. I can tell you, this book is on my way to house as we speak…or, as I write, I should say.

Searching for a biography of Dr. Mudry, I found several very interesting communities. The first is a group of scholars who hosted a conference entitled Domestic Foodscapes: Toward Mindful Eating? held March of 2008 in Montreal, cosponsored by Cornell and Concordia Universities, with panels on topics such as cooking practices, food technology and knowledge transmission, and the history of the kitchen. On her panel, titled “Representations of Food” Jessica Mudry presented a paper called “Mmmmm, high in omega-3s, just like mom used to make:  Scientizing our foods and the changing experience of the family dinner.” (All abstracts from the conference are available on the Domestic Foodscapes web page).

I found the second community while searching Social Science Full Text for articles by Dr. Mudry; she has published two in Food Culture and Society (one regarding the culture of alcohol and medicine). I will have to find and brows the journal; I’m not sure its particular focus or disciplinary affiliations as of yet.

According to the Domestic Foodscapes web page, Jessica Mudry has a very diverse academic background, proving the interdisciplinarity of scholars who, by one name or another, study the rhetoric of science. She has a BS in Organic Chemistry from McGill, a Masters in Science Communications form Imperial College, UK, and a PhD in Communications for U of Pittsburg. Her published book seems to be an extention of her dissertation on “a history of American nutrition communication by examining US Department of Agriculture food guides” (Domestic Foodscapes).  “Jessica has worked in children’s television production at the BBC, and Canada’s Discovery Channel. Dr. Mudry’s research addresses how and why we quantify food, and she continues to write about this in venues such as: Food, Culture and Society, and Social Epistemology. ”

Jessica is currently an assistant professor of technical communication, and society and technology in the General Studies Unit at Concordia University, and her present research regards the history of calorimity and human nutrition laboratories in Germany and America.  This makes me wonder how friendly she is (metaphorically, or literally) with Bruno Latour.