Inventing Network Composition

See my Dissertation Prospectus or my Research Statement.

Inventing Network Composition: Mobilizing Rhetorical Invention and Social Media for Digital Pedagogy is a dissertation and book project that asks a central research question of How do student composers invent within networked social media environments. This project includes chapters that contribute to theoretical understandings of how rhetorical invention occurs in social media spaces, as well as a qualitative study that offers readers a series of “best practices” for using social media in their composition pedagogies to nurture digital literacy, rhetorical invention, distributed expertise, and the formation of learning ecologies. Inventing Network Composition begins with something near and dear to me: digital writing.

Digital writing helps us to build our lives, our personal relationships, our communities, even our identities. It even helps us to build our sense of how the world works, helping us to envision our place within it. Everywhere we go, digital writing goes with us. We write actively, passively, tacitly, creatively, infrastructurally, socially, and mundanely. Digital writing, whether it’s sending an email, responding to a Facebook comment, speaking to a natural language processing device, or leaving a simple record in computer code, is a process of world building, of relationship mediation, and of social action. In other words, digital writing is more important than ever. Pedagogy and education should reflect this.

Network composition is a mode of invention that composers engage in social media environments that is intensely social, that is structured by a digital interface, that is interactive and participatory, and that incorporates linguistic, visual, sonic, and other multimodal communication forms. In relation to network composition, network composition pedagogy rethinks the discipline of composition as well as the practice of composition instruction through logics organic to internet networks. Composers within digital networks assess concatenations of exigencies, texts, avenues for response, algorithms, bots, visual and procedural interfaces, and the constant presence of other composers writing and sharing alongside them in a networked environment. Network composition pedagogy, in my framing, draws from disciplines of rhetoric and composition, digital media for learning, and communication to posit strategies for productive pedagogical implementation of social media technologies in college courses. By focusing on specific manifestations of network composition’s many forms, including composition in social media environments, composition in networked educational settings, and in networks that composition and rhetorical invention have always been participants in, this dissertation works to codify formal definitions of network composition and explores its implications for rhetorical invention in the 21st century.

Video: How I use the social media platform Slack for my Network Composition pedagogy.

The exigence:

Inventing Network Composition responds to five primary exigencies in the discipline of rhetoric and composition.

●  Kathleen Blake Yancey’s (2009) call for pedagogies and models of composing that fully engage affordances of networked technologies and practices of social media.

●  Douglas Walls and Stephanie Vie’s (2017) call to integrate social media into higher education.

●  Stephanie Vie’s (2015) call for social media pedagogy development.

●  Michael J. Faris’ (2017) call for empirical studies on student social media usage.

●  Damien Smith Pfister’s (2014) call to more deeply consider invention in online environments.

I view these “exigencies” in the field as occurring along five distinct lines that this dissertation situates itself in relation to: Yancey’s (2009) call at the broad, disciplinary level, Walls and Vie’s (2017) call at the “subtopic of social media in composition level,” Vie’s (2015) approach at the pedagogical level, Faris’ (2017) call at the methodological level, and finally Smith Pfister’s (2014) call at the theoretical level.

Research Questions:

  1. How do student composers invent within networked social media environments?

Additionally, this dissertation responds to the following secondary research questions:

2. How can network composition pedagogy initiatives in First Year Composition courses cultivate the formation of learning ecologies, rhetorical invention, digital literacy, and distributed expertise?

3. What can data collected in this study tell us about potential ‘best practices’ for network composition pedagogies?

Contributions & Goals:

Contribution One: A Unique Pedagogical Approach

First, Inventing Network Composition offers an approach to pedagogy that situates composition directly and robustly within internet networks. Most existing research in rhetoric and composition pedagogies that engages networked social media does so as one component of a larger course, pedagogy, or approach to learning. Inventing Network Composition goes beyond this and situates the whole of the course and the whole of the pedagogy within digital networks. The dissertation goes all in on putting composition into a network, approaching internet networks not as an emerging pedagogical strategy or assignment for tangential use in the composition discipline, but as an integral, fundamental mode for training writers in 21st century environments. The discipline of rhetoric and composition currently lacks a monograph that firmly and directly positions social media and composition pedagogy in relationship to one another, and Inventing Network Composition helps fill that gap. The unique pedagogical approach is principally outlined here in Ch. I, but is expanded upon in all of the dissertation’s other chapters.

Contribution Two: Rhetorical Invention in Networked Social Media Environments

Second, Inventing Network Composition expands on work detailing rhetorical invention in networked social media environments. This dissertation details what I call network-emergent invention, which is an understanding of rhetorical invention in networked digital environments that foregrounds the role of the network in invention, rather than simply importing print or oral modes of invention into networked practices. Invention in networked environments is significantly different than invention in other modes, and is oftentimes characterized by collaboration, community, social interaction, circulation, intertextuality, and digital interfaces (Richter, 2021; Pigg, 2014a; Smith Pfister, 2014; Arroyo, 2013; Carlson, 2019; Tomlinson, 2013). I use the term network-emergent invention to signal the shared production of rhetorical creations that emerge from interactions in networked social environments composed of multiple humans responding to one another. Importantly, though, network-emergent invention also considers the roles that platforms, interfaces, algorithms, technological affordances, internet genres, infrastructures, and social interaction play in emergent inventive acts. Network-emergent invention thinks of creation and formation of texts, ideas, forums, comments, videos, retweets, and feeds as being formed in the emergence of a concatenating series of events gathered together within a shared environment. Importantly, a particular inventive act is never entirely controlled by one, single actor, human or nonhuman, but is always a shared interaction, a co-participation and co-constitution that emerges from a network. Network-emergent invention is formally defined and then explored in Chapter II of this dissertation, and its influence can be felt throughout the rest of this text, where its practice is explored, refined, and expanded upon.

Contribution Three: Transdisciplinary Studies of Social Media and Digital Writing

Third, Inventing Network Composition draws prominently on work in disciplines of digital media for learning (DML) and communication, offering a transdisciplinary approach to networking composition that will be of use not only in rhetoric and composition courses, but also across the curriculum. There are currently no monographs in rhetoric and composition that directly and wholeheartedly connect social media technologies to the teaching of rhetoric and writing. This dissertation looks toward that gap and provides a robust series of strategies composition instructors and other stakeholders can use to fully network their classrooms in effective, ethical, and equitable ways. The dissertation’s transdisciplinary nature and focus contribute to the “best practices” for network composition pedagogical initiatives that it offers, which are found in Chapter IV and Chapter V.

Contribution Four: Qualitative Case Study

Fourth, Inventing Network Composition offers a compelling series of research questions. These research questions inspired a qualitative case study that collected data concerning social media use in two First Year Composition classrooms during the Fall 2021 semester. In particular, the dissertation offers data, analysis, and discussion based upon interviews with students, analysis of written Slack posts, and analysis of student reflective journals. This qualitative case study and the data it collects contributes to the larger scholarly discussion that is occurring around social media use in composition classrooms (Walls and Vie, 2017; Day, McClure, and Palmquist, 2010; Vie, 2015; Shepherd, 2018; Vie, 2017). Engaging a qualitative case study method to develop network composition as a “substantive-level theory,” this dissertation then spends its closing three chapters exploring implications for how we understand as well as teach composition in digital environments (Creswell and Poth 2018, 88). For more on qualitative case studies and grounded theory approaches to inquiry, or on this dissertation’s particular qualitative case study, see Chapter III of this dissertation on Methods. Additionally, study results and suggested “best practices” can be found in Chapter IV and Chapter V.

Contribution Five: Best Practices for the Teaching of Network Composition

Lastly, Inventing Network Composition offers an analysis and set of guiding principles to address challenges entailed in using networked tools in pedagogical environments. Suggestions for “best practices” for the teaching of network composition, and for the use of social media tools in composition courses, are offered in Chapter IV and Chapter V of this dissertation. Additionally, the dissertation’s final chapter explores implications of network composition pedagogies, including challenges for instructors and implications for Writing Program Administrators in Chapter VI. This closing section of the dissertation is split into four sections— accessibility, aggression, data, and privacy/surveillance— that practitioners of network composition should account for to address issues of access, equitability, and justice. This section of the dissertation then details a possible pedagogical assignment that practitioners can use to address these issues preemptively with students in networked communities: the collaborative production of “Rules” documents to encourage particular forms of behavior and to discourage or forbid others.

The Pedagogy:

To practice network composition as an initiative in the college classroom, I use the software platform Slack in First Year Composition and technical and professional communication courses. Comprising a substantial grade for the courses, the network composition pedagogical initiative is framed as a major “participation” grade for the course, but also as a learning opportunity to both explore and enact the vital role that digital networks play within contemporary composition and communication. This network composition pedagogy inspired the qualitative case study that this dissertation chronicles and offers one model for how social media tools can be of benefit in college composition classrooms. This pedagogy, which the qualitative case study is built on, asks students to compose in a digital Slack network as part of a First Year Composition course, exercising a multitude of critical digital literacies and modes of social learning along the way.

Slack is a social networking platform that mimics many of the features of traditional social media interfaces. In many ways, Slack looks, feels, and performs in a manner similar to a Facebook or Twitter feed (see Fig. 1.1). It has important differences, however, which include allowing users to create enclosed, invite-only groups called “workspaces” and “channels” for their communities. Slack allows users to build social networks that have immense utility within educational settings, and has proven quite popular with teachers and educators across the educational landscape. For instance, a 2018 article in Inside Higher Ed titled “4 Reasons Slack Will Change How You Teach” argues for the platform’s potential to facilitate student connections, to diversify participation and contribution abilities, to facilitate dialogue in online and hybrid classrooms, and finally to allow easier communication between faculty and students (Kole de Peralto and Robey, 2018). Slack claims that at least 3,000 different educational institutions use the platform in one way or another (Slack, “Distance Learning Thrives in Slack”). Slack is relatively reliable and responsive to educator needs and makes a wholesale, platform-wide effort to create a space that is as accessible to as many bodies as is possible (Slack is screen-reader compatible, for instance). It maintains desktop and mobile applications, which allow it sizable utility in educational settings that stray from conventional in-person instruction. It is also entirely free, though it does include paid options for larger organizations such as companies or entire academic departments.

Image is of Jacob Richter's "Modes of Participation" that he uses in his network composition pedagogy. The  "Modes of Participation" attempt to mimic common social media practices, but to use them for education. Examples include #Teach, #Share, and #Make.
Using social media does not make a pedagogy a network composition pedagogy. Rather, social media writing practices and behaviors, such as the “Modes of Participation” listed here, showcase how network composition pedagogy is practiced and enacted.

Chapter-By-Chapter Overview: In its efforts to establish network composition in theory, practice, and pedagogy, this dissertation is divided into six interlocking chapters.

The first chapter of this dissertation proposes formal definitions for network composition in pedagogical settings. Chapter I introduces this dissertation’s general focus on digital writing in social media environments, defines its key terms, introduces its pedagogy and its qualitative research study, and reviews pertinent literature that will be drawn on throughout the remainder of the dissertation.

Inventing Network Composition’s second chapter extends existing research in rhetorical theory relating to the evolution of rhetorical invention, to participatory composition, and to models of distributed invention. Rhetorical invention has long been a foregrounded consideration of historical rhetoricians, with Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian all weighing in heavily and influentially on how ideas come into being and are created, and how this is best taught to students or to the general public. Contemporary work in rhetorical theory has detailed more recent developments in rhetorical invention (Lauer, 2004; Crowley, 1985; LeFevre, 1987; Syverson, 1999). Invention changes in networked environments, however. A fully developed theory of rhetorical invention in networked social media spaces is still largely contested (Smith Pfister, 2014; Eyman, 2015; Arroyo, 2013; Pigg, 2014a; Carlson, 2019; Richter, 2021; Sheridan, Ridolfo, and Michel, 2012). With this in mind, a theory of network composition remains incomplete without a theory of network-emergent invention. Network-emergent invention understands social media texts to emerge from a network of actants that include, and fundamentally rely upon, varied intra-actions resulting from the material convergence of writers, interfaces, hardware, software, code, infrastructures, social dynamics, genres, and platforms, all of which contribute to an inventive emergence. This dissertation’s second chapter attempts to build upon existing models of invention and digital invention, foregrounding internet networks and social media ecologies, interfaces, audiences, infrastructures, practices, and considerations along the way. Network-emergent invention refers to the highly hybridized, ongoing, intertextual, distributed, and most importantly emergent nature of internet rhetorical ecologies that frequently characterize invention in network composition environments. Importantly, network-emergent invention does not locate invention as the sole realm of a single actor or rhetor, but rather as the ongoing, resulting collaboration and co-participation of an array of constellating actants, all of whom contribute to an ongoing inventive process.

            In its third chapter, this dissertation outlines the methodologies, data collection methods, data analysis process, and overall qualitative case study approach of a research study that I have competed as a major part of this dissertation in two First Year Composition courses during the Fall semester of 2021. This IRB-approved research study is embedded within a network composition pedagogical initiative in two First Year Composition course at Clemson University. Using the closed-system social networking platform Slack, the two First Year composition courses engaged in a semester-long initiative to compose, share, and participate in the constructed online community. Posting roughly once a week in the learning community environment, and then responding to peers and instructors through comments, tags, links, shares, hashtags, and other common affordances of social media, these students engage in a network composition initiative that leverages networked technologies to further learning outcomes related to rhetoric, composition, and writing. This study is built around three pillars of data collection: interview data obtained from students, textual analysis of Slack posts and conversations, and analysis of student reflective journals documenting their experiences with the network composition pedagogical initiative. Within these data solicitation methods, four target research topics are identified and probed: the cultivation of learning ecologies, rhetorical invention, digital literacy, and distributed expertise. This chapter represents the dissertation’s Methods chapter, and focuses on the methodologies and knowledge-generating principles utilized by the qualitative research study, with its results and implications for rhetoric and composition pedagogies discussed in more depth in the succeeding chapters.

This dissertation’s fourth and fifth chapters explore results, lessons, “best practices,” and opportunities for further research suggested by the qualitative study outlined in Chapter III. Emergent codes, themes, and conceptual categories are presented, with accompanying interpretation and analysis. Positioning the results of the qualitative case study firmly in rhetoric and composition pedagogy, curricula, and Writing Program Administration, these two chapters propose formal learning outcomes network composition initiatives in rhetoric classrooms are capable of furthering and extending. The fourth and fifth chapters examine network composition in light of the knowledge that is generated by the research study, and hones in on some potential “best practices” that the resulting grounded theory generated by the study provides to instructors. Of particular note in these chapters are how network composition initiatives might further the four particular learning outcomes of interest: developing capacities for rhetorical invention, learning ecology formation, digital literacy development, and distributed expertise among students.

Following the two “Results” chapters, this dissertation’s final chapter examines challenges to network composition and to network composition pedagogies in rhetoric and composition.Specifically, this chapter focuses on four particular issues of concern related to network composition initiatives within First Year Composition and other courses in higher education. This closing chapter of the dissertation is split into four sections—Accessibility, Aggression, Data, and Privacy/Surveillance—that practitioners of network composition should account for to address issues of access, equitability, and justice. Instructors using social media tools in their classrooms as well as WPAs will be interested in considering issues of online aggression in networked environments (Reyman and Sparby, 2020; Massanari, 2015; Sparby, 2017; Clinnin and Manthey, 2019; Kelley and Weaver, 2020) and content moderation strategies online (Roberts, 2019; Gillespie, 2018; Frith, 2014; London et al., 2020), both of which may provide helpful illustrations of challenges network composition initiatives might face. Additionally, network composition initiatives face challenges related to privacy (Beck and Hutchinson Campos, 2020) and data collection (Couldry and Mejias, 2019; Reyman, 2013), both of which will need to be navigated by instructors and WPAs using social media in college courses. When interacting with internet media and digital interfaces, we must always remember the human behind the screen, and recall that the gap between virtuality and embodiment is frequently far murkier than we like to imagine (Frith, 2020). The final part of this chapter examines and probes a document collaboratively (and anonymously) constructed by students and myself for our classroom network composition initiative that I call a “Statement of Community Goals and Values” document.

Why Bother with Network Composition & Network Composition Pedagogies?

So why bother with network composition, in theory and in practice, in the study of rhetoric and writing? Network composition initiatives represent an opportunity for composition and writing instruction to adapt to the environments, the practices, the habits, and the social situations that characterize many of the important writing situations occurring in contemporary networked life. But in a more proactive and forward-looking sense, network composition pedagogies can help students to think more critically, creatively, and expansively about how they create writing and compositions in social media environments, as well as in academic environments, too.

How we write online is wholly connected to how we learn there as well, and connecting writing, invention, and learning to social media practices is an important goal for rhetoric scholars to pursue. A rhetorical education for the 21st century benefits from consideration of how writers, students, and publics invent in social media environments, and the capacity to invent online is of paramount importance to students as the literacies needed to participate in public life become more and more digital

See my dissertation prospectus or the forthcoming published dissertation (Spring 2022).