My research spans the 19th century to the present, and my methodologies generally treat both technologies and media as physical objects embedded in cultural conditions. For this reason, I repeatedly attempt to bridge technical questions with critical theory, especially as it relates to media production and practice. Although my background and training are in English studies, my work is not limited to the representations of technologies in fiction. It also explores how technologies (both new and old) influence the authoring, transmission, and storage of information, as well as how media are shaped by narratives and material conditions that change over time and across geographies.
With this overview in mind, my research draws from—and contributes to—the following fields:
My writing and research stress how materially distinct media intersect and contribute to the normalization of human attention. Media studies interests me because of the comparative approaches it affords across multiple forms and modalities, including comparisons across digital and analog media, electronic and print texts, and the book, audio, and film. Many media studies practitioners also tend to stress the production of new media as a form of scholarly communication. This emphasis on production, in tandem with a blend of media theory and history, is frequently exhibited in my work. For instance, “Geolocating Compositional Strategies at the Virtual University” (co-authored with Curtis Hisayasu) meshes electronic text, mobile devices, and networked media such as digital maps, video, and audio to enact an argument about the material, context-specific correspondences between online and offline practices. (This enactment is further studied in my essay, “Novel Cartographies, New Correspondences,” published in Writing and the Digital Generation). In so doing, the Kairos article relies heavily on the work of Fredric Jameson, Helen Ligget, Manuel Castells, and Geoffrey Sirc. It is also important to note that the article is designed to be read non-sequentially. That is, both theoretically and technically speaking, it would not execute in print.
Given my investments in media practice, my research and publications emerge from traditions in computers and composition. Although I have been studying technologies for some time now, this particular interest began when I started teaching in the University of Washington’s Expository Writing Program, under the direction of Anis Bawarshi and Kimberlee Gillis-Bridges. In computer-integrated classrooms, I learned that asking students to write about technologies and media differed drastically from asking them to actually compose with those technologies and media. As I developed my pedagogical strategies both in the classroom and out, I began constructing prompts, modules, and syllabi through which students could consistently switch media and genres (e.g., blog entries, video, audio podcasts, letters, and academic essays) and then assess the shifting persuasiveness of their arguments, gather and share their work through e-portfolios, and revise their compositions over the course of a quarter. Here, I was especially inspired by the work of Cheryl Ball, Cynthia Selfe, Dan Anderson, and Douglas Eyman. And watching student e-portfolios unfold during the years influenced me to compose my own scholarly media and to submit it to journals and collections. One of the most recent examples of such work is my essay, “Tinker-Centric Pedagogy in Literature and Language Classrooms,” which appears in Collaborative Approaches to the Digital in English Studies. That essay integrates video and techniques for technology-focused learning into an argument for kinaesthetic, “off-screen” engagements with media in the humanities. Put pithily, the essay is steeped in making.
While both media studies and computers and composition could easily be filed under the “big tent” of digital humanities, my own research makes a distinction between the fields, if only to discretely mark the differences between the methodologies I am using and the archives upon which I am drawing. Whereas both media studies and computers and composition have allowed me to stress the combination of critical theory with practice through the production of media, research in the digital humanities has brought other aspects of the process to my attention, namely questions about metadata, storage, graphical expression, distant reading, and modeling. Fortunately, I have been able to unpack these questions in the classroom, during—for example—a digital humanities course I taught in 2009. The course was the first of its kind at the University of Washington, and after it I initiated a collaborative writing project with J. James Bono, Curtis Hisayasu, and Matthew W. Wilson, titled “Standards in the Making: Composing with Metadata in Mind.” Currently over 110 print pages in length, the multimodal essay we ultimately composed is forthcoming in The New Work of Composing. “Standards in the Making” is my first publication to specifically address inquiry in digital humanities, taking seriously the role of metadata—as an ambivalent social practice that accommodates and restricts certain interpretations—in the future of composition studies. My contributions to the essay were influenced by the work of Susan Brown, Franco Moretti, Geoffrey Bowker, and Susan Leigh Star. This work has shaped my ongoing engagements with digital humanities research and teaching at the University of Victoria. Here, consider my intro to digital humanities course from Fall 2011.
By combining media studies, computers and composition, and the digital humanities, my dissertation, How Text Lost Its Source: Magnetic Recording Cultures, was a cultural history of magnetic recording from 1878 to the present. Although I am admittedly intrigued by 21st century technologies, I find that balancing that intrigue with history (especially a materialist history) enables enriched, hands-on engagements with new media, often motivated by skepticism toward technological determinism (i.e., technologies single-handedly cause change) and instrumentalism (i.e., technologies are value-neutral). Given its central role in personal computing since the 1980s, magnetic recording is no doubt a curious object of inquiry for historical research. Currently, there are numerous technical histories of magnetic recording available; however, no in-depth cultural history exists. Building upon the work of Wendy Chun, Matthew Kirschenbaum, Andrew Ross, Jonathan Sterne, Lisa Gitelman, and Katherine Hayles, How Text Lost Its Source provides that history, balancing the technical with the cultural, to examine the legacies today’s electronic texts have in both rhetorics of ephemerality and the reproduction of sound. Looking at the telegraphone, magnetic wire and tape, and the personal computer, the dissertation—now a book project—argues that the “default settings” of technologies are crucial, ever-changing categories for better understanding their physical specificities, the cultural development of technical expertise, the normalization of interaction, the economization of human attention, and the representation of media (electronic text and magnetic audio included) as ostensibly immaterial phenomena. In the project, I use traditions in media studies to interpret novels, poems, audio recordings, plays, electronic literature, and advertisements, all toward highlighting their cultural embeddedness and historical contingencies. Scholarship from the digital humanities figures prominently in the technical questions I raise—questions, for example, about how storage media (like magnetic tape and the hard drive) are standardized. Finally, practices often affiliated with computers and composition allowed me to design the dissertation as a hybrid project (i.e., part print, part digital), with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Vectors journal team of Tara McPherson, Steve Anderson, Craig Dietrich, and Erik Loyer. As the project proceeds toward a multimodal book, I hope to conduct more archival work on the technologies featured in the dissertation. Such work would only add to the materialist impulses of my research thus far.
From my undergraduate education forward, a bulk of my training has been in the period of Anglo-American modernism. I continue that work today, through teaching (e.g., “Modernism Now”), large-scale collaboration (e.g., The Modernist Versions Project), and an interest in how literature and popular culture functioned during the mechanical age of reproduction. Quite obviously, the turn from the 19th to the 20th century marks a moment of tremendous technocultural changes (including the pubic display of the telegraphone), and my research is often anchored in how fiction played a role in those changes. Here, the work of Walter Benjamin, Sara Danius, Juan A. Suárez, and Emily Ann Thompson has been extremely influential, especially for thinking through how culture is more than merely a response to technological innovation or scientific progress. As authors such as Virginia Woolf, Ralph Ellison, T.S. Eliot, James Baldwin, and John Dos Passos demonstrate, culture routinely feeds back into such development in ways that make any neat distinction between what’s technological and what’s cultural slippery at best. More importantly, the exchanges across technocultural domains and communities of practice (e.g., the writings of engineers and novelists) leave their material traces in the stuff people leave behind. My research asks how those traces might serve as departure points for exploring the ways in which human attention to media changes across space and time, how various social groups share the same informational needs, and how both perception and use are simultaneously shaped by culture and objects.
(All images on the left are drawn from my portfolio. More details on my research and publications there.)