We were around before the digital was digital…
In the mid-1980s, a group of English graduate students at The University of Texas at Austin drilled holes in the wall in the basement of the Undergraduate Library, now the Flawn Academic Center. Running cable through those holes, they connected twelve computers and formed a network that allowed for synchronous communication. This network became a classroom, and thus the Computer Research Lab (CRL) was born.
Please allow me a moment of full disclosure: I was a graduate student instructor teaching and proctoring in the lab in the 1990s, when the CRL added a W and became the Computer Writing and Research Lab. Before that I had used Daedalus, an integrated and collaborative writing environment created in the early days of the CRL, when I taught technical writing in Engineering. These experiences not only informed my teaching practices, classroom management, and my understanding of different modes of participation, but they also encouraged me to reflect in new ways about rhetoric and communication as well as technology itself. How does technology change how we consume and present information? How does it affect how we communicate?
The intersection of technology, writing, and pedagogy has always been the mission of the Digital Writing and Research Lab (DWRL), as it has been named since 2010. Thirty years after that first drill bit into the wall, I talked with Diane Davis, professor and chair of Rhetoric and Writing and former director of the Digital Writing & Research Lab; Casey Boyle, the current director of the DWRL, and William Burdette, coordinator of the DWRL, about the lab’s past, present, and future.
Ghosts in the Machine
Since its inception, the DWRL has launched a range of influential and award-winning scholars’ research projects, and publications. And these successes remain to grow and seed innovation in the DWRL today. Several of these “seeds” have been former directors. Under John Slatin (1985-1994), for example, the lab focused on accessibility well before their peer institutions did. Because Dr. Slatin used of adaptive software like JAWS (Job Access with Speech), practical experimentation and research were an essential part of the lab’s daily operations. Today, research continues, and accessibility studies are built into the curriculum. As Burdette, who has had the pleasure of studying and/or working with every director in the DWRL’s history points out, it’s unique that the founding director provided the inspiration to do this work and “several generations later that work reverberates through the lab over and over.”
Additionally, Peg Syverson (1994-2004) was interested in ecocriticism, and during her directorship was on the cutting edge of revising assessment paradigms to take an ecological look at technologies and pedagogies and how students learn in the lived environment. As this subject area has grown and become increasingly relevant in a variety of contexts, Syverson’s work has again taken center stage and even influences the current lab’s structure.
As Burdette points out, the lab has been fortunate to have so many people, not only directors but also individual instructors and graduate student staffers, who were ahead of the curve. For example, in 2013 a group called Machinic Invention experimented with 3D printing, microcontrollers, and Arduinos. At the time, others in the lab were actively wondering what this technology had to do with writing, much less pedagogy, and where the lab was heading in those areas. Now, five years later, the lab is reinvesting in many of those technologies because they are becoming more accessible, affordable, and mainstream. As Burdette explains, a 3D printer is now considered another form of publishing; a comparison made visible by the proximity of the two machines in the lab. The 3D printer is “really opening up the possibilities of what we think of when we think of writing. It’s not just words on a page; we actually write objects into existence. And that’s really a very rhetorical thing.” Taking this further, Boyle describes another rhetorical use for a 3D printer in creating infographics and visualizations that can better represent to a broader audience complicated concepts and data sets. Thus, once something cutting edge such as 3D printing becomes more integrated into our lives, that’s when it can be used as a foundation “to really build stuff.” That integration moment, or trailing edge, as Boyle calls it, “allows us to enact those imaginations into something substantial.”
Play to Learn
Another area where the cutting edge has been put to practical, pedagogical use is gaming. As Davis describes, the early gaming groups in the DWRL started with “a bunch of consoles a bunch of games,” and a mandate to figure out what about them was pedagogically and rhetorically significant. Through this directed play, the lab created its own multi-platform video game, “Rhetorical Peaks” that taught rhetorical principals. “Rhetorical Peaks” in turn informed a more recent Twine game about rhetorical methods that is now part of the undergraduate curriculum. As Burdette adds, this was an instance where “early research that was rolled out in a very limited way–a couple of classes here and there–sort of weaved back into the curriculum.”
But it didn’t end there. As Davis explains, one group called Video/Games explored the ways that digital video can work with video games to enhance rhetoric and writing pedagogy and scholarship, and another, the Immersive Environments (IE) group, built an alternate reality game called “Crossing Battle Lines” for teaching rhetoric, research, and digital literacy skills to undergraduates. The game was incorporated into undergraduate courses in 2011-2012 and the team wrote up their findings from this experience in the journal Kairos. “Crossing Battle Lines” also won the Kairos award for Best Webtext in 2014.
The lab is currently growing another cohort of gaming specialists who are focused on undergraduate education. One of their initiatives, which grew out of a very popular summer class that Boyle taught called “Writing About Video Games,” is a monthly event called “Game On!” A graduate assistant director and an intern curate the games for each event and develop a critical rhetorical framework that they use to introduce the games and then frame discussion during and after game play.
Education is Job One
One of the seeds that Davis has nurtured in her time as director is graduate student professional development. The graduate students who developed the projects mentioned previously all went on to get jobs and in some cases, create labs similar to the DWRL, showing the valuable professional development inherent in the research, experimentation, and teaching that happens in the lab. Even for graduate students who are just teaching in the lab, but whose concentrations are not DLL (Digital Literacies and Literatures) but instead Victorian Literature or the like, Davis explains, the development of digital skills potentially gives them a layer of experience and expertise over other job candidates. It also establishes them as innovators who can lead positive change wherever they end up working. An example of the value of digital training for scholars who are not on the DLL track is “The ReVise Project” by Amy Vidor and Caroline Barta, which won the The John Slatin Prize for Mastery of Electronic Media in Education. The project uses DWRL resources to “remix” revision, teaching students in their 309K classes (“Rhetoric of Women in Dystopia” and “Rhetoric of the iPhone”) to rework textual course content into digital presentations ultimately demonstrating how medium, genre, perspective, and audience can alter argument.
The Future Builds on the Past
As Davis, Boyle, and Burdette emphasize, the work graduate students do in the digital rhetorics track feeds significantly into the undergraduate major. The track allows a space for graduate students to both research and teach, and to explore possibilities to enhance the digital training of undergraduates in their classes. One significant development to formalize this connection that will happen over the next few years is the BA to MA program. According to Davis, it will be a five-year program for digital writing in which students can take one additional year of graduate courses that will develop around digital writing, giving students skills and techniques to activate their liberal arts major in a digital world.
Additionally, summer 2018 will see the first session of the Digital Field Methods Institute (DFMI), online July 2-6 and in Austin July 9-13. The DFMI will be an annual event guiding researchers as they cultivate techniques for responsible, accessible, sustainable, and inventive research projects that work with and through digital media. Each year’s institute will focus on a different modality; this years’ focus is on sonic research techniques and technologies.
The DFMI will feature speakers such as Marina Peterson, associate professor of anthropology at UT; Alex Keller, an audio artist, sound designer, curator and teacher based in Austin; and Byron Hawk, associate professor of English at the University of South Carolina. It will also offer new and established researchers opportunities to network and to gain invaluable practice collecting, analyzing, and organizing digital data for publication.
The DFMI is the ideal way of building the future on the strengths of the past, according to Boyle. Not only does it build on work that Burdette has done on sonic technology over the past decade or more, specifically with accessibility and podcasting, as well classes on rhetoric, writing, and sound that both Boyle and Burdette have taught, but it will also allow the lab to focus its activities throughout the year, and to think about its resources and direct them towards an endpoint. Most interestingly, as Boyle states, it represents a centering of pedagogy at the heart of research: “it allows us to bring in our courses and see how those inform what we might later share at this institute.”