By Danielle DeVasto
In the spring of 2019, fourteen undergraduate students from across UWM enrolled in my course on Information Design. We spent the semester together exploring the theories, practices, and technologies involved in the ways we convey information. Amidst a stream of literal blizzards, we grappled with the vortex of data that we live in – a vortex in which we work to extract pertinent information from a swift current of text and visuals while also facing the challenges of getting our own messages to people dealing with information overload.
In response to this information overload, one of my goals was to think with my students about the roles that visuals can play in shaping our experiences and relationships with information and each other. I wanted us to explore the wide range of choices that make up visual compositions, choices that are shaped by and have consequences on audiences. Visuals, for example, can be designed to facilitate efficiency or transparency, an understandable reaction to the problem of information overload. But they might also be designed to encourage us to act or relate in other ways – like slowing down or looking thoughtfully.
Students were challenged to engage these themes through one of their major course projects – developing a static infographic. Infographics are visual displays of information that combine data visualizations, illustrations, text, and images together into a format to tell stories. These stories are often complex, but infographics have the particular potential to make that complexity clear and engaging. Infographics take advantage of the power of visual rhetoric and tap into our brains’ inclination towards the visual. Research shows that we pay more attention to images than text. We understand them better, remember them longer, and are more likely to believe texts that incorporate them. In other words, infographics, like visuals more broadly, do not simply display or show information; they are rhetorical and “perform persuasive work” (Wysocki 124).
We began with many questions and much uncertainty. What stories might we tell? To what ends? And where would that data come from? Given the constraints of the course, I thought we might best serve and be served by staying local. And so, we had the privilege of partnering with the good people of the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee (EMKE) to produce infographics that visually interpreted qualitative, quantitative, and spatial data relating to the past, present, and future of the greater Milwaukee area. As an encyclopedia, the EMKE is information rich and text-heavy; as a digital humanities project, it’s public-facing. The situation seemed prime for “infographic-ing.” In consultation with editors, students’ infographics were considered for publication on EMKE’s social media channels as a way of piquing interest and connecting audiences to encyclopedia entries.
While staying rooted in Milwaukee, students used the EMKE entries as launching points to develop their stories. As they dug into the encyclopedia, I asked students to think about:
As we discovered, the entries are already set up to tell stories. In some cases, students could rely on the entry content to visualize the story already present. But in many cases, students collected and transformed additional local data with the support of data and GIS specialists from the UWM Libraries. From these efforts, we learned a lot about the rise and fall of the Milwaukee ice and flour industries, tailgating, custard, Hmong migration, water, the Filipino-Milwaukee community, energy, waste management, and Milwaukee tourism. In the process and from reading their final deliverables, I saw my students’ changed relationships with the people and places (past and present) of Milwaukee.
We also learned that finding data is hard work. Transforming it into visual stories is even harder. And while it was all harder than maybe any of us anticipated, I hope that the experience of designing (and not just analyzing) has helped them see that visual strategies have real effects, effects that can help shape how we see information, ourselves, our city, and our relationships.
I am grateful to this group of students, Krista Grensavitch and the EMKE staff, Kristin Briney, and Stephen Appel for taking risks and getting messy with Milwaukee and with me.
Danielle DeVasto is an assistant professor in the Department of Writing at Grand Valley State University. Her research takes seriously the pressing need for effective, ethical interaction between experts and non-experts, especially in the contexts of natural hazards and science-policy decision making. She studies questions such as how hazard maps shape user agency, how public-science interactions in lower stakes environments (like planetariums) can support those in higher stakes settings, and how visuals can be designed to meaningfully communicate with patient populations in cross-cultural contexts. She teaches courses that focus on how writing and rhetoric can help shape more livable worlds.
by Danielle Koepke
I’m scrolling through Instagram and it hits me - this is how our generation will be remembered. These seemingly fleeting posts are how many people share the stories that matter in their daily lives. Those Instagram posts could be viewed as artifacts. Decades from now, there will be kids in some sort of school, learning some sort of history. Will social media posts be included? Who will decide what artifacts will become markers of this generations’ history?
What counts as an artifact?
I’m in a seminar this semester titled “The History of Rhetoric and Writing Studies.” So far, we’ve considered how impossible it is to write an accurate history. How can a researcher truly understand not only the events that mark a time period, but also how a person would be feeling as they lived their day-to-day lives during that time period? Every history written is just someone else’s account of a past event, but none are the end-all-be-all by themselves. A feminist lens on the historiography of rhetoric strives to expand what counts as history, and what counts as an artifact of history.
Julie Cruikshank writes about historical artifacts and narratives in her article “Oral History, Narrative Strategies, and Native American Historiography: Perspectives from the Yukon Territory, Canada.” Her research involves long term relational building with two women who over time tell their community histories to Cruikshank through oral narratives and songs. They re-purposed cultural stories with a powerful rhetorical dexterity that was contextually driven. One woman, Sidney, uses the same story four different times over the course of a span of many years, in four different specific ways, for four specific purposes, directed at four different audiences (16).
The narratives these women tell are historical artifacts. They are not recited from a book or recorded anywhere. These women show how “the act of storytelling provides ways of making historical changes understandable” (Cruikshank 5). Later on, these artifacts are discounted merely as beliefs when used in the Supreme Court in the case of Delgamuukw v. British Columbia, reinforcing the idea that “what academics (historians, anthropologists, judges) write is ‘history’ and that local practices are ‘data’ for those official histories” (23). Views such as this are harmful to the valuable local histories that are represented in community practices.
How do we view our own local and day-to-day cultural practices? Would we view our social media creations as just possible ‘data’ for ‘official’ accounts of our own history? Or would we view them as something more valuable?
This leads me back to social media, where I’ve been following Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC)and Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg), who have recently met in person! I scroll through tweets on Twitter and tap through through stories on Instagram, and what these women share impacts me. I screenshot one of their posts and share it with my own followers on Instagram.
Like the women Cruikshank learns from, if I share a story in four different ways through four social media platforms, am I also using narrative to achieve different purposes, for different audiences, in different contexts? I would say, yes. As time passes, we re-purpose stories in order to help make meaning in new situations within our local (and online) communities.
The narratives of these women anchored their credibility in their community’s cultural histories, and they use those historical artifacts as a way to be rhetorical within those communities. We just might be doing similar things today, in other spaces. In our day-to-day lives, we create artifacts that reflect ourselves, our values, and our cultures. Certainly, not all Instagram posts carry the cultural and historiographical value Cruikshank is discussing. However, it’s worth considering what counts as a historial artifact and whose stories matter.
by Chloe Smith
This semester, I am teaching two sections of English 102: College Writing and Research with a unique opportunity for community engagement. We are collaborating with a local organization called Learn Deep Milwaukee.
Learn Deep is focused on building a community-wide resource for career exploration for high school students in the area, and providing students the skills they’ll need for a rapidly changing workforce. According to Learn Deep’s website, to achieve this goal, “teachers and schools will need to adopt new methodologies that allow students to work in teams to explore real problems and how to get better at doing so.”
This partnership was a natural fit considering English 102’s emphasis on community-based research. The final project of the course asks students to research a topic or issue related to Milwaukee and produce an information product that could be useful to community members.
To gain more insight on issues facing communities in and around Milwaukee, the students in these 2 sections will be interviewing various professionals from the healthcare field who are associated with Learn Deep. Once the interviews are finished, we will transcribe them and code them to find topics for further research.
To prepare for these interviews, we have focused a lot on oral histories with an emphasis on ways in which they allow the person being interviewed to spend time reflecting on personal experiences and telling stories in their own conversational format. This focus will not only give students a greater chance to gain honest perspectives on issues facing the healthcare field in Milwaukee, but also allow them to foster a deeper connection with their interviewees.
Before choosing their interviewees, students spent time researching and discussing healthcare topics that interested them—with the results ranging from topics like the effects of racism on public health to hospital initiatives to the effects of vaping.
Based on their interests, students chose their interviewees from a list of professionals who volunteered to be interviewed for the project. Students have since been hard at work setting up interviews and drafting questions. We’ll spend the first week of October workshopping questions, practicing interviews, and even working with Pete Reynolds of Learn Deep and Joan Ward of Employ Milwaukee’s Center for Health Care Careers to receive feedback on interview questions and advice on coding the interviews once they’re finished.
I’ll admit that I came into these classes feeling rather nervous. Of course, I was over the moon at the opportunity of leading students through community-engaged research, but I wasn’t sure if they would share my excitement. Luckily, my worry was unfounded.
I’m blown away by how engaged these students have been, and how willing they are to work through a research process that, for most of them, is entirely new. They’re approaching these interviews—and the prospect of the research that will come after—with enthusiasm and creativity.
The interviews will take place during the week of October 7th. To keep up with how they went, the research they inspire, and some student reflections on the process, check back later on in the semester.
By Claire Edwards
PhD Student in Public Rhetorics & Community Engagement
UWM’s English department welcomed a batch of new Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) to the fold last month. As one of this year’s five GTA mentors for English 102, I played a role in the planning and organizing of the orientation festivities. This was a big deal for me as I am still grappling with the fact that my own first year of the PhD is already behind me. I couldn’t have imagined a year ago that I would be one of this year’s mentors, getting a whole new group ready to teach English 102.
This all got me thinking. Grad school is a weird experience as so many, including our new GTAs, will find themselves enacting the roles of both student and teacher. This is a dichotomy all GTAs must simply come to terms with, one way or another. In some ways - and I stress, only some - it is the best job: you are actively learning while capitalizing on expertise. It is a fun apprenticeship of sorts. And, you can appropriate your favorite pedagogical tricks from your own professors. In retrospect, I hope that our orientation process was able to convey that teaching is rewarding and a way of more deeply engaging with your own learning.
Our group this year represents a range of experiences both in terms of prior teaching experience and primary academic disciplines. The mentors and our director, Shevaun Watson, considered these variations as we determined mentor groups. Each group was then assigned to a mentor and will meet for weekly check-ins and will act as a trouble-shooting support group for all-things pedagogy. As mentors, we will also informally observe our mentees in their classrooms once this semester to provide suggestions and encouragement.
TAing was my own first foray into college teaching during my MA program ten years ago. I am ashamed to admit now that I never really sought out the pedagogical advice of the mentor assigned to my cohort of eight GTAs. His felt like more of an honorary position, and I was never quite sure what I could or could not ask him about. Because of that experience, it is now important to me to be available for my own mentees and to continue to encourage them to come to me for guidance and support with any aspect of teaching that proves challenging.
One of the main reasons I have the goal of guiding my mentees this year is that I myself ended up learning so much from my mentor last year. When I came to UWM’s English PhD program in 2018 with several years of college-level teaching under my belt, I assumed I would not need a mentor. But, I quickly realized that because of the hands-off nature of my MA GTA experience and the largely isolated work of adjunct teaching, I never had the opportunity to really interrogate my teaching style. My own mentor, Jenni Moody, taught me a lot about things I had not valued enough in the past: quiet space in the classroom and introversion as a strength, being two huge ones. She also ended up inadvertently teaching me about how to be a supportive and encouraging mentor.
There is a lot we want our new GTAs to go into the year thinking about, not the least of which is the concept of persona. I’ve always thought of teaching as requiring a sort of persona. While I still believe that, my perspective on what the persona can be has changed. I previously saw a persona as inherently different from a person’s “true” self and behaviors, and I was comfortable with this because it provided a sort of barrier between myself and that scary classroom in front of me. After encountering, and continuing to encounter, such varied teaching styles and approaches, I see that the persona I choose to effect can actually be me - introverted, a little weird, sometimes quiet, not at the center.
I hope all of our 2019-2020 ENG102 GTAs will find a persona and a classroom temperament that is just right for them and that allows them to make the most impact on their students, focus on what they value most, and feel comfortable in their dual roles of student and teacher during this weird grad school experience.
The other members of this year’s English 102 Mentor team include ENG102 coordinator Jenni Moody, Julie Kaiser, Joni Hayward Marcum, and Beth Vigoren. The director of composition is Shevaun Watson.
By Rachel Bloom-Pojar
This is the second part of two posts about our new faculty members with the Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement program at UWM: Dr. Derek Handley and Dr. Maria Novotny. You can read Part 1 here.
What experience do you have with community-engaged teaching?
Maria: I have taught many professional writing and technical classes, which naturally lend themselves to community-engaged projects. For example, in my "Digital Rhetoric in Health and Medicine" course at UWO, students worked with the Women’s Center and Student Center on campus to create a series of multimedia, advocacy toolkits to support educating their college peers on the importance of data privacy. We reflected on the learning that occurred through these projects and shared our community-engaged projects on the Sweetland Digital Rhetoric Collaborative’s blog. Also, in my "Grant Writing Foundations" course, my students worked with five Oshkosh community non-profits organizations. While students gained experience researching and writing grant documents, this collaborative partnership also revealed the importance of reciprocity. As the course concluded, students remarked on the interpersonal and rhetorical negotiations they had to make in order to successfully partner with the organization.
Derek: My first year writing courses are focused on place and community. What I mean by that, is that the course focuses on issues directly affecting the local place where the students live. I have students conduct research not only in academic spaces such as the library, but also out in the community. They have to talk with people, organizations, and businesses to get a greater understanding of the various stakeholders' perspectives. For instance, when I taught in Western Pennsylvania, I developed a course around the environmental issue of Marcellus Shale fracking. Many of my students were directly connected to that industry through friends and family.
What do you envision for the future of our Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement program?
Derek: I think it is important for us to develop a program that has a viable option for careers outside of academia. The academic job market is tight and there are other careers in which students should consider. To facilitate this idea, I think we should seek relationships with outside organizations and businesses and educate them on how students in our program can contribute to the goals of that organization. Perhaps we could set up summer internships for our students. The Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows program serves as a perfect example of what some of our students should consider applying for after they complete their degree. The program places recent PhDs in government organizations and non-profit sectors for up two years.
Maria: I am very excited to work on the Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement program. My dissertation drew from my community-engaged work with the ART of Infertility. Engaged in that work, I recall moments of feeling overwhelmed not just by the doing of a dissertation but by the natural messiness of navigating and learning what it means to do community work. I hope to draw on these experiences, as well as the experiences of current graduate students, to think about how the program can be structurally organized and designed to offer mentorship and institutional support. I see my book project with John Gagnon as one scholarly trajectory that assists with this, but I’m also eager to think through the types of experiences and training we offer to our students via our curriculum. It’s an exciting program, and I think will resonate with folks across the field!
What is a graduate course you look forward to teaching?
Maria: I’m really looking forward to teaching Cultural Rhetorics in the spring. I’ve taught this for undergraduate students, but I’m eager to teach approaches to a cultural rhetorics methodology to graduate students. I am hopeful that students will also take interest, as I see cultural rhetorics offering methods useful for individuals who want to do ethical and reciprocal community work. Plus, I’m hoping that I can invite a couple of scholars who do cultural rhetorics work to join our class for some Q&A sessions.
Derek: I look forward to developing and teaching a topics course entitled African American Rhetoric and the Black Freedom Movement. The course is intended as an informed introduction to African American rhetoric, which is defined as the “communicative practices, and persuasive strategies rooted in freedom struggles by people of African ancestry in America” (Jackson and Richardson). The readings and discussions will familiarize students with various contemporary theorists whose ideas broaden contemporary conceptualization of African American Rhetoric. By the end of the course, students will have a richer understanding of how rhetoric is a tool of social change encompassing a variety of written, visual and verbal communication strategies. Readings in particular will include major thinkers like Cornel West, Keith Gilyard, Molefi Asante, and Geneva Smitherman.
What's something you like to do in your free time?
Derek: Exploring Wisconsin. My family and I are still new to the Midwest so we’re looking forward to taking some day-trips to go hiking, kayaking, and canoeing, especially when the leaves start to change colors. Also, we just adopted a 5 year-old Labrador Retriever named Obi, so we want to get him out of the city and get some strenuous exercise.
Maria: I’m a Wisconsin girl at heart. Raised here, in the summer I am an avid musky fisherwoman. I caught a 41 inch one this summer with my dad. In the spring, I help a family friend on their maple syrup farm. Taking walks in the woods, listening to storms roll through, and establishing a connection to the land has helped me stay grounded when the stress of academia can seem intense.
Thanks to Derek and Maria for their time and interest in contributing to Writing & Rhetoric MKE. I’m looking forward to building community with you in our program and around Milwaukee! -RBP
By Rachel Bloom-Pojar
Fall 2019 marks the official launch of our program in Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement at UWM. My colleagues and I are also excited to welcome two new faculty members to our program: Dr. Derek Handley and Dr. Maria Novotny. To help everyone get to know them better, I asked Derek and Maria a series of questions about their experience and vision for the new program. In this post, we’ll learn a bit about Derek and Maria’s background with research and part 2 will focus on their teaching and goals for the future of the program.
What is your experience with community-engaged research?
Maria: I draw on my work with the ART of Infertility to inform my community-engaged scholarship. As a resource organization, I host multimodal art workshops for reproductive loss patients to depict their experiences with grief and the reproductive healthcare industry. Once patient pieces are created, I invite patient-participants to narrate their infertility experiences through their artwork. Today, the organization has over 200 pieces of narrative art, of which, I incorporate into art exhibitions around the U.S. I understand these exhibits as evidence of how art rhetorically translates technical, scientific, and medical experiences into accessible experiences for non-experts to grasp and ignite community-engaged action. My purpose is to act as an ally to remove the embedded cultural stigma of receiving an infertility diagnosis and create resources that educate healthcare providers, and the public at-large, on the sociocultural challenges faced by the reproductive loss community.
Derek: My research focuses on African American community rhetorical histories which means I have to do research in the archives and in the local neighborhoods. I conduct interviews with community members, walk the locations where historical events took place, and attend community events. I also like to take students on walking tours of these historic neighborhoods.
What are you currently working on?
Derek: I am currently working on my book project, “The Places We Knew So Well Are No More:” A Rhetorical History of Urban Renewal and the Black Freedom Movement. In particular, I’m focusing on the Milwaukee section of the book where rhetorical education played a significant role in helping residents understand the complexities of urban renewal. In addition, I’m working on a conference paper (National Communications Association) about St. Paul, Minnesota, which will also be featured in my book. My paper explores how race is implicated in the contested spaces and places of urban renewal policies. But more importantly, it will examine the rhetorical actions taken by residents in St. Paul in an effort to save their community from the wrecking balls of eminent domain during the 1950s and 60s.
Maria: I’m currently co-editing special issues for The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics on “Curation: A Multimodal Practice for Socially-Engaged Action”, Computers and Composition on “Rhetorics of Data: Collection, Consent, & Critical Digital Literacies”, and Reflections on “Rhetorics of Reproductive Justice in Public and Civic Contexts”. While on the surface those themes may appear distinct, the calls emphasize scholarly contributions that consider how curation may act as a response for social action.
Related, I’m working on a co-authored book project with Dr. John Gagnon (University of Hawaii-Manoa). We published “Research as Care: A Shared Ownership Approach to Rhetorical Research in Trauma Communities,” which offers a cultural rhetorical framework for collaborating with trauma participants for rhetorical research. Our book project tentatively titled, Care as a Practice: Reorienting Research in Rhetoric and Writing Studies, offers a cultural rhetorics infused methodological framework to inform the design and ethical enactment of community-engaged research projects. Our manuscript expands on and explains the idea of care as a research practice, demonstrates the efficacy of a care-centered research paradigm, and delivers concrete models for how to enact care methodologically.
By Claire Edwards & Madison Williams
What is rhetoric?
It’s a question anyone in our field has been faced with, be it by students, parents, or friends. It is the subject we have advanced degrees in, the term we spend hours discussing, the concept some of us spend our lives studying; so why is this question so hard to answer? Many of us have our go-to definitions prepared to answer this question, usually short and sweet, that seem to sum up the concept well enough. Rhetoric is “the study of effective argument, persuasion, and messaging” or “the art of successfully conveying a message for a specific audience within a specific context”. Duh. While this sort of answer might suffice in the moment, we know rhetoric is more than just a persuasive argument. But, how can we possibly encompass all that rhetoric means to us in a few short words?
The root of the difficulty defining rhetoric is complicated, much like the word itself. Rhetoric has often been associated with Aristotle, politicians, and a history of institutionalized oppression but has transformed and expanded, particularly in recent years, to embrace various new perspectives. The field has moved beyond traditional views of rhetoric in academia, to appear differently depending on context, resulting in this lack of a field-wide consensus as to its definition. The uncertainty surrounding how to define rhetoric has been continuously perplexing and, especially considering the word is featured in the title of this blog, it is a vexation we’ve frequently encountered. Thus, as dutiful rhetoricians and members of this editorial board, we thought we’d give it the old college try and attempt to adequately define rhetoric (at least for the purpose of this blog).
The definition of rhetoric has evolved over time, from its earliest explanation as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” by Aristotle, to its interpretation as "the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols" by Burke, to the description as “the art, practice, and study of human communication” by Lunsford, and everything in between. In Becoming Rhetorical, Jodie Nicotra writes that “Rhetoric… refers to the wide array of communicative devices humans have at their disposal to create effects on each other” and “While it was originally developed to help people make persuasive speeches, rhetoric is still studied for its supreme practicality and adaptability” (“Introduction” 2018).
Some of these definitions might initially seem straightforward and simple enough. However, defining rhetoric becomes more complicated when one considers that intentional or not, anything with a decision made about it is rhetorical; the decision itself makes it rhetorical, and if there is thought behind it, it’s in the realm of rhetoric (Watson). For example, a protest poster decrying the negative effects of a zoning bill is certainly rhetorical. But, the following things are also rhetorical: the placement of a homeless shelter adjacent to luxury condos, the design of that shelter, the community outreach efforts to gain funds for the shelter, and the ongoing discourse surrounding the shelter and its efficacy.
These examples illustrate just how difficult rhetoric can be to define and that it means potentially very different things in different contexts. It has evolved over time in not only its definition but also its scope and application. While some might define rhetoric as the study of effective argument, persuasion, and messaging, our program and the current larger study of rhetoric asks us to return to the drawing board as the field has broadened to include matters not easily classified as argumentative or persuasive (or even intentional). What is clear though, is that rhetoric is bigger than just something we study in our program; it surrounds us in our daily lives.
So, what is rhetoric to us?
For our purposes in this blog, we see rhetoric as a way to examine and communicate about the various power dynamics inherent to our city. We will use rhetoric to better understand communication across contexts, as something that exists in and, perhaps more significantly, outside of the academy. Rhetoric has power; it helps us to understand power dynamics, our roles in the world, and how we might interact with and respond to the environment around us. In these attempts, we hope to support the practice and study of rhetoric as vital activities that offer insights into the languages and communities of our city.
Danielle: I’ve lived in the greater Milwaukee area since I was young. I graduated from Marquette University in 2013 with a degree in Writing Intensive English. For my Rhetoric and Composition MA project, I rhetorically analyzed how Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez utilizes Instagram in order to build community with her followers. I hope to do more research about the ways in which people make rhetorical choices in digital spaces. As a mom of two energetic daughters, I don’t have much “spare time,” but I love drinking coffee and finding pockets of time to read.
Chloe: I’ve lived in the Midwest my whole life. As a first generation college student, I got my bachelor’s degree in English from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in 2017. I finished my masters in Rhetoric and Composition at UWM this past spring. My MA project focused on the history of “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” and supporting teachers in furthering linguistic equality in their classrooms. In my free time, I enjoy cross stitching, listening to true crime podcasts, and supporting the Chicago Cubs.
As two students about to begin working toward their PhDs in UWM’s brand new Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement program, we see this blog as an opportunity to spotlight important work, events, and people in our community. While Milwaukee is known for its beer and cheese, we hope to explore more deeply what is happening in and around this city, and how people are engaging with rhetoric.
We’ve both been with the blog since the beginning, in Rachel Bloom-Pojar’s Latinx Rhetorics course in Spring 2019. We’ve seen the blog in all of its uses: as a tool to recap class discussions and readings, as a highlight of community events, and as a way to connect with other academics over the woes and triumphs of qualitative research. As contributors to this blog, we’ve written pieces that connected to theories and practices in the field of Rhetoric and Composition, and we’ve workshopped with our peers to create content that both a local and extended audience would be interested in reading.
Slowly but surely, we’ve seen the connections between our program and the community being built with this blog, and we’re looking forward to keeping that momentum. Writing for the blog was sometimes challenging as part of our class assignments, as it could be difficult to write good content within the confines of the guidelines. We hope that going forward, this blog can be not only a source of information but also a conversation starter with both our local community as well as with our larger academic community.
Both UWM and the Milwaukee community as a whole has an exciting year ahead: here on campus, the English department will be officially launching our new PhD program: Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement. Through this program, students will be challenged on their notions of rhetoric and stretched to engage with the diverse communities that surround UWM. We hope to utilize this blog as a platform to highlight other writers on campus and off. People are doing rhetoric in Milwaukee in a myriad of ways and we want to celebrate and share it!
It's going to be a big year for rhetoric and writing in Milwaukee. Next March, the city will be host to the 2020 CCCC Annual Convention; in July, the 2020 Democratic National Convention. We look forward to being a place of learning, connection, and community for those in the city, those visiting, and those keeping tabs from afar.
We hope to continue adding intriguing rhetorical writing to this blog, and welcome submissions from fellow writers who are engaging with community events, organizations, individuals, or anything else that highlights writing and rhetoric in our city.
By Rachel Bloom-Pojar
“Wherever we end up in May is exactly where we should be at that point.”
These are the words I repeated to the graduate students in my research methods class throughout the spring 2019 semester. We set out in January to design, implement, and conduct a preliminary analysis of a qualitative research project on the linguistic resources of students at UW-Milwaukee (UWM). We took an asset-approach to exploring what innovative ways UWM students write and speak in their daily lives. The course included assigned readings about research methods and methodologies about qualitative research in communication and rhetorical studies. They learned about collaboration, developing research questions, ethical considerations, and more. If you want to read more about how the course was set up, you can read about that here.
So, now that the month of May has come and gone, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on what happened throughout our research process. There is so much I could say about the amazing things that this class wrote, worked through, analyzed, and developed in our time together. Since much of my course design was centered on “learning by doing,” I thought I’d reflect on a few major takeaways that we could only learn by doing.
1) Qualitative research is messy
I said this a number of times, but the experiences the team had this semester confirmed that qualitative research is messy, nonlinear, and spectacularly human in all of its challenges and triumphs. Although I made several revisions to the course schedule and we didn’t have as much time to discuss readings as I would have liked, the group still moved across the stages of project design, IRB proposal and acceptance, data collection, and preliminary analysis at an impressive pace. That may have been helped, in part, by the ways that I facilitated the process. I placed limits on how long we would spend with any one activity, synthesized ideas for moving more quickly toward consensus, and encouraged specific ways of dividing up tasks.
It didn’t feel like an impressive pace to most of the team members, though. Many shared anxieties in their field notes and comments after class about how long everything was taking, how "unstructured" the process was, and how they didn’t think we would ever get to the data collection stage. As much as I wanted to ease their discomfort, I knew this was a natural part of qualitative research and the unpredictability that comes with collaborative work. Through navigating this process, the researchers had to figure out how to handle ambiguity, change, and the nuances of qualitative research.
2) You have to rely on other people for qualitative research
Whether you are conducting interviews, focus groups, surveys, or another form of data collection in qualitative research, the data are not just data...they are words, thoughts, experiences, and contributions from people. From working with research participants to co-researchers to IRB reviewers and more, the process of qualitative research is never a solo act. Traditionally, graduate courses in English studies are structured in similar ways that emphasize collective learning through discussion and peer review, but ultimately place the highest value (through grades) on individual performances and products. So, students become accustomed to that structure and way of evaluating how “well” they are doing in class. That structure does not reflect qualitative research nor does it emphasize the ways we need to rely on others to “do well” with community-engaged work.
At the start of the course, I quoted a phrase from a community group that Professor Steven Alvarez writes about in Brokering Tareas: “Muchos manos hacen ligero el trabajo. Many hands make light work.” That was our motto for the semester--to work together so that it would make the work lighter. And it did. With engagement from all team members, we were able to accomplish a lot more than any individual could have in the same amount of time. The group conducted and transcribed 14 interviews and 10 artifact descriptions with corresponding artifacts that were created by participants in our collaborative composing workshop. That is a great start for any qualitative study.
3) Qualitative research will challenge your notions of objectivity and the “truth”
At its heart, the reason why qualitative research challenges notions of objectivity and the “truth” are not, as many assume, because it is “less rigorous” than quantitative research. Conducting rigorous qualitative research takes hard work, care, and patience as you navigate the messiness of working with people, interpreting their words and experiences, and constantly checking your own biases and assumptions in the process. Coming to terms with how our perspectives, biases, and interpretations impact research--any kind of research--is something I hoped the students would take away from this course. Once we start to challenge notions of a single “truth” that we’re searching for, and instead we welcome and wade through the complexity of literacy, rhetoric, and communication...well, that’s where we might discover innovative approaches to advancing knowledge, theory, and practice together.
I am so grateful to this group of students for trusting me and trusting the process of this class. Reading their final reports, field notes, and evaluations confirmed that they learned a lot about themselves, qualitative research, and collaboration. While I took a huge risk designing the course this way, I’m glad that I did. It wasn’t always easy, comfortable, or fun, but we all (myself included) learned a lot along the way.
I want to end by sharing some recommended readings since the team requested it. These are only a few suggestions, and I welcome others in the comments below or on Twitter with the hashtag #writingmke. Stay tuned for more information about new developments at Writing & Rhetoric MKE this summer, and as always, thanks for reading!
The books we read this semester included:
Writing Studies Research in Practice edited by Lee Nickoson & Mary P. Sheridan
Methodologies for the Rhetoric of Health & Medicine edited by Lisa Meloncon & J. Blake Scott
Field Rhetoric: Ethnography, Ecology, and Engagement in Places of Persuasion edited by Candice Rai & Caroline Gottschalk Druschke
Qualitative Communication Research Methods (3rd ed) by Thomas R. Lindlof & Bryan C. Taylor
Other books the research team and other readers might be interested in include:
Rhetorica in Motion: Feminist Rhetoric Methods and Methodologies edited by Eileen E. Schell & K.J. Rawson
Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with Youth and Communities edited by Django Paris & Maisha T. Winn
Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches by John W. Creswell & Cheryl N. Poth
Lots of great books available online at WAC Clearinghouse: https://wac.colostate.edu/books/
On the 15th week, we started our class with reading the different interview transcriptions that were printed out previously for us to read. This was the first time we looked at the transcribed data and began our initial identifying themes and coding data. At first, we took about first 40-50 minutes of in-class time to read the transcripts. We were reading and also taking notes while marking up places in the transcripts that give rise to intriguing ideas that can eventually lead up to a theme or something. In other words, we were potentially looking for themes in the data for coding and categorizations.
After we read the transcripts, we were paired with the person next to us to share our findings if you will. Most of us had not been able to get beyond the first two transcripts we laid out hands on. From the transcripts we read, we all marked interesting information that were indicative of participants’ communication style, preference and methods. For example, my group-mate and I discussed the theme of “switch”, more like “rhetorical switch” that happens for interview participants in academic and non-academic setting in terms of communication styles. By “style”, I mean the stylistic choices that they make in terms of diction. For example, we both noticed that the participants choose to use simpler words in communicating with their inner-circle people such as friends and family. However, when it comes to communicating with outer-circle people, such as colleagues they tend to use more formal English. Switching of stylistic choice is then a conscious rhetorical decision they make depending on the places and spaces of communication.
Image 1: our reading notes on the board.
The rhetorical switch also happens on a conceptual level too as we both pointed out. For example, one of the participants mentioned he can talk about Foucault with his professional colleagues but not with family members. Other groups also shared their observations with the class. For example, one group mentioned the theme of self-monitoring that is part of language practices especially for the people with multilingual background. Another group mentioned the point about language-based persona—something our participants indicated to. Both these resonated with my personal languaging experiences being one with multilingual background. Other trends that we discussed were “self-perceptions” of language users and also labeling identity. Another trend in the data was “authenticity” of communication depending on people our participants interact with. For example, with inner circle people like family the communication tend to be more authentic whereas, with outer circle people, it may lack authenticity in some contexts. A few examples that we examined reminded me of Geisler's point on “context-appropriate vernacular or code”. To determine the integrity of interpretation, “Not all language data need to be analyzed as language. There are times when we need only concern ourselves with what language says rather than what it does.” (240).
After the discussion part, we all wrote some keywords that came up through our discussion. It was followed by class discussion of the trends we are noticing in our accumulated data. After that we took break for few minutes. When we came back, we went back to reading more transcripts to find out trends in the data. We looked the three main research questions to see how our current findings align with those questions for our project. At this stage we talked about coding and categorization of data—both of which are significant parts of research process. We also talked about data triangulation. Rachel, our professor made a nice visualization of data triangle on the white board:
Image 2: Visualization of Data Triangulation
She pointed out that we need to think about these three sources of data that we have in order to triangulate our findings. We all agreed that this is just the beginning of “data-surfing”—we did not use this exact term in particular. But I think that’s where we are at the moment. We also briefly discussed our to-dos for next week—writing rough analysis of the data. In next couple of weeks, one letter out of English alphabet is going to be important for our research methods class—"S”—with a lot of surfing (also scanning), sifting (of data) and solidifying our findings.