Digital + Writing + Research:
An Interview with Heidi McKee and Dànielle DeVoss

Douglas Eyman

With the publication of Digital Writing Research, edited by Heidi McKee and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss this fall, writing studies finally has a text that addresses questions of method and methodology for research that examines the production and use of digital texts. The timing of this publication is fortuitous as well, since it synchronizes nicely with the focus of this special issue of Computers and Composition Online — and while there has not been enough time to commision a review (it's quite an extensive collection, as you can see from the table of contents, reproduced below), I did have the pleasure of posing a series of questions about the text (and about research methods for digital writing more generally) of Heidi and Dànielle.

What prompted you to develop an edited collection that focuses on methods and methodologies for digital writing research?

Dànielle: This is one of my favorite moments of all time. It was the summer of 2003, and Heidi and I were up at the Computers in Writing-Intensive Classrooms (CIWIC) workshop at Michigan Tech, where we’d presented and we’d met to put the final touches on the Computers and Composition special double 20th-anniversary issues we co-edited (20.4 and 21.1). Cindy and Dickie Selfe invited those of us who presented at CIWIC up to their camp for the weekend. As we were driving up, talking non-stop, finishing each other’s sentences, Heidi looked over at me—and if you know Heidi, you know the sparkly eyed, utterly engaged look she gets when she’s fired up—and she said “Dànielle. Let’s be the next Cindy and Gail. Let’s continue to collaborate and work as editors together.” And from there, she started outlining this idea she had for a book that would attend to the lack of methods, methodologies, and ethical approaches for researching in digital environments and for studying digital writing practices.

Heidi: I’m not quite sure I was “sparkly-eyed” — more like delirious from the many long hours of work (anyone who has ever tried keeping up with Dànielle knows the challenge of such an undertaking), but also feeling so charged and high from being involved in such a kick-ass field filled with scholars so generous and supportive and smart. And I was eager to dive into this next project, one that had been burning at me for several years as I worked on several of my own person-based, digital writing research studies. Now, four years later, I still feel that as a great charge and am so grateful to my co-editor and to all the contributors of Digital Writing Research who helped take a late-night idea and make it real.

Dànielle and Heidi: We felt, and still passionately feel, that our field doesn’t discuss enough the current state of writing research in regard to digital environments—and we would argue that, today, all writing is digital; almost all writing is computer-mediated. We have Pat Sullivan and Jim Porter’s stellar book (Openining Spaces: Writing Technologies and Critical Research Practices, 1997). And we have pieces here and there. We have research reports by folks reporting on work they did in digital environments. But what we felt the field is lacking—and we suspect many humanities-related and many other fields are likewise lacking—is a direct conversation about how research is different in digital realms. We were interested not in more research reports, which are critical and helpful in moving the field along, but, rather, we were interested in exploring the ways in which practices change shape in digital spaces and the ways in which we need to adapt, adopt, revise, and develop methodologies and ethical approaches for research in and on digital writing, writers, and contexts.

The response we received to our initial call was overwhelming, and, as you can see by the heft of Digital Writing Research (over 400 pages—see table of contents below), we aimed to include as much discussion of as many issues as we could, from interfacing with institutional review boards, to ethical approaches for representing and interacting with online participants, from analytical frames for analyzing web spaces and software to approaches for capturing the processes of composing, to discussions of graduate research education. This is an exciting time to address these issues because of the increased emphasis upon research in the broader field of writing studies and because of the infusion of digital writing technologies into all aspects of our academic, professional, and personal lives. That there is much to research and many venues for research is an understatement to say the least. It is our hope that Digital Writing Research will help spur discussion and guide both experienced and new researchers as they explore the many questions we have yet to ask and seek to answer.

"What distinguishes this collection is that its contributors are not merely reporting on the results of their research projects—although most do that, and that’s important and helpful in its own right—but they are also focusing on methodology itself: raising important methodological, epistemological, and ethical questions about the nature of digital writing research, and offering us theories for understanding it and practical strategies for doing it. " — Jim Porter, Foreword

Many disciplines and fields, from political science to history to scientometrics, are currently grappling with questions of digital research methods and methodologies...where do you see computers and writing as a field fitting into or mapping onto the larger push toward understanding digital writing and research practices. In other words, what do you see us bringing to the conversation (if we conceptualize it as an interdisciplinary undertaking)?

Dànielle & Heidi: We think there is great potential for computers and writing scholars to engage in larger conversations about digital research. As Jim Porter writes in the forward to Digital Writing Research, we too would like to see a broader push by computers and writing scholars to engage with other fields because we fear that if we don’t become a stronger, louder voice on the national and international landscape, we might get stuck as a subfield whose members consistently speak to one another rather than to those beyond our community. It is our hope that our collection, which will be featured in a display at the Association of Internet Researchers Conference, will help to expand the conversation, bringing our perspectives and approaches to scholars working in other fields.

As for what we as a field bring to the conversation, we have a lot to offer. All fields rely on rhetoric; an issue is that many researchers don’t realize they do, or, worse, "rhetoric" is seen only from a thin and negative perspective. All fields represent their work in writing and multiple media. All fields have discussion groups, web sites, forums, and myriad other spaces worthy of study. We offer tools, methods, methodologies, as well as ethical approaches, that could potentially run tandem in interesting ways with work being done in sociology, psychology, political science, economics, gaming studies, telecommunications, communications, information architecture and many more.

"Digital technologies and the people who use those technologies have changed the processes, products, and contexts for writing and the teaching of writing in dramatic ways—and, at this current cultural, historical, and intellectual moment, it is imperative that our research approaches, our methodologies, and our ethical understandings for researching adequately and appropriately address these changes in communication technologies." McKee and DeVoss, Introduction

What trajectories do you see for the field in terms of further development and research questions?

Dànielle & Heidi:First, we’d like to start with a call for action, or perhaps it’s a reminder: Don’t forget the past. No matter what the research approach and site for study, we hope that all computers and writing researchers will attend thoughtfully, carefully, and critically to our field’s history and practice. Research that omits consideration of our prior approaches doesn’t help us move forward as a field. Research that ignores the ways in which we’ve already addressed, adopted, and adapted technologies serves often to re-invent the wheel, or, to use another clichê, same look, different day.

What seems to happen, especially at conferences, is the latest technological buzzword surfaces and dominates. Word processing. Online conferencing. MOOs. Visual rhetoric. New media. Open source software. Blogs. Wikis. Social networking. Audio. Video, Virtual worlds. And folks jump on that particular bandwagon. Then that technology gets "old" and something new comes along. But the lasting work is the work that doesn’t harness itself to a fleeting technology. The lasting work is the work that links across various iterations of technologies to get at the big-picture, key items we’ve been addressing as a field: Issues of access and equity. Issues of power. Issues of language. Issues of composing. Issues of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual identity. Issues of pedagogy. How does, for example, communication in Second Life relate to earlier work on communication in MOOs and chats? What findings from those studies of earlier cultures of techno-usage should be considered when studying the latest, "newest" technology?

Second, we think the field is going to become increasingly interdisciplinary, especially as writing becomes increasingly networked and multimodal. As shown in a number of recent special issues of Computers and Composition (see, especially, the special issue on Sound in/as Composition Space, 23.3), as scholars, researchers, teachers, and writers we will need to draw upon approaches in other fields (e.g., art, music, sociology, telecommunications) in order to build the richest and most robust approaches for studying and understanding digital writing in its myriad of uses and contexts.

Are traditional research methods sufficient to capture the complexity when studying writing/writing scenarios? What happens when we add technology to the mix? Are traditional methods (or our understanding and/or application of them) enough, or do we need new ones?
—Rebecca Rickly

In the introduction, one of the recurring themes is that "there are still many questions to be asked about researching in and with digital technologies" — what do you consider some of the most important unasked (or perhaps asked, but not yet answered) questions?

Dànielle: What is digital composing? How does digital composing "happen?" How can we create windows that will allow us to see deeply into and understand digital composing practices? In what ways is digital composing always a practice of convergence, remix, and mashing?

In asking these questions, I’m thinking about something I asked students to do earlier this fall. I wanted to try to capture—at least in a very skinny, initial way—a window into digital composing practices. I asked a handful of undergraduate and graduate students to grab a screen capture. Not a fabricated one. Not a constructed one. A capture of their screen right then, as they were working and writing, and to send it to me. The captures I got were fascinating. All were rich and layered, hybrid and converged. All of the writers had multiple windows open, and were working across applications. Some chose to narrate their capture with a description of what they were doing when they received my request, and their explanations were incredibly complicated.

Each screen-capture asked me to wonder: Do we really understand how composing happens in a space where multiple applications, myriad windows, and many tabs are open? Do we really understanding how composing is taking place across applications? Do we have a good lens for understanding composing within and across virtual spaces like Second Life? Social networking environments like Facebook? And, frankly, do we really have a thick understanding of how composing happens in Microsoft Word—on a daily basis, and at points of change (e.g., with the new version of Word)?

I don’t think we do. And I think there is incredibly rich work to be done in this regard.

Heidi: I am more and more fascinated, puzzled, and perplexed by ethical issues and research with digital writing technologies, and I think questions of ethics should be central to our field’s discussion of research—not only discussion we have among ourselves, but discussions we have with scholars from other fields as well.

For the past 18 months, Jim Porter and I have been interviewing digital writing researchers and Internet researchers from around the globe—having interviewed more than 40 people from 15 different countries. We’ve asked people to discuss their research—studies of suicidal discourse in blogs, anime online communities, the use of digital technologies in proposal writing, gamers’ literacy practices, texting in developing countries—and to discuss the ethical issues they’ve faced and ways they’ve worked through (or tried to work through) these issues. In all of these conversations, I am continually amazed by the ethical complexity of digital research. Questions such as "am I studying persons or texts?" If persons, is informed consent needed? And, if consent is needed, from whom should it be obtained and how? What constitutes community consent, say, in a virtual world? What constitutes a private space in networked environments? With whom do my responsibilities lie—my research community, the administrators of a site (be it online or f2f), or the persons I am studying (or whose texts I am studying)? How should I represent myself in online communities? These are questions raised and asked by others, including many contributors to Digital Writing Research, but the answers to these questions are far from definitive, and it is my hope that all researchers will attend to and share with others the ethical dilemmas they’ve faced—both during the processes of research and in the publication of research.

"... multimedia writing brings to the research setting images, sound, and streaming video, forcing those researching and writing in this medium to also consider how all of these elements can be integrated into text, and how such integration alters meaning and transmits knowledge. Writing researchers have become increasingly interested in studying multimedia texts and writers authoring in multimedia contexts; however, the relative novelty of the field and the nature of multimedia present a challenge to previously developed research methods. "
— Janice McIntyre-Strasburg

Where do we learn and where do we teach digital writing methods?

Dànielle & Heidi: Our field has increasingly turned more attention to the teaching of digital writing methods—both research methods and composing methods. For the research methods, we review a great deal of sources in our introduction and contributors to Digital Writing Research also provide a wide range of frameworks and approaches for conducting such research.

As for the teaching of digital writing—again, we are fortunate with an ever-increasing field of scholarship. Computers and Composition has been leading the way since 1983; Kairos just celebrated its 10th-anniversary; Computers and Composition Online is now in its fifth year; and journals such as Pedagogy, JAC, College English, and College Composition and Communication (to name but a few) are publishing more and more pieces that consider various aspects of digital writing. Along with journal articles, there are many fine books published in the last decade or so that address teaching approaches. If we were to list them, it’d take pages and pages, but we might mention, just as one example, Writing New Media (2004), by Anne Wysocki, Johndan Johnson-Eilola, Cindy Selfe, and Geoff Sirc. More than any other teaching-with-technology collection, this book compellingly brings together theory and practice, offering scaffolding, field-specific and field-bridging discussions with assignments, assignment sequences, and a range of rubrics and response approaches.

So, ultimately, we learn digital writing methods from each other—from local colleagues in our courses and programs, from colleagues nationally and internationally, through attendance at such conferences as the Conference on College Composition and Communication, Computers & Writing, Writing Program Administrators, etc. And we learn from and with students—as we and they dive in and actually produce digital texts. Whether studying approaches for research or approaches for composing, we feel it crucial to toggle (to use Lanham’s phrase) between analysis and production. We’re doing students and ourselves a disservice when we offer technology theory courses absent of room to explore, practice, and actually produce with the digital tools we’re analyzing and critiquing.

Dànielle Nicole DeVoss is an associate professor and Director of the Professional Writing Program at Michigan State University. Her research interests include computer/technological literacies; feminist interpretations of and interventions in computer technologies; philosophy of technology/technoscience; professional writing; technical communication; gender/identity play in online spaces; online representation and embodiment; and issues of rhetoric in disciplines such as nursing and medicine. DeVoss’ work has most recently appeared in Computers and Composition; Journal of Business and Technical Communication; Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture; Moving a Mountain: Transforming the Role of Contingent Faculty in Composition Studies and Higher Education (2001); and Writing Center Research: Extending the Conversation (2001). DeVoss recently co-edited a collection on behavioral interventions in cancer care: Evidence-based Cancer Care and Prevention (2003).

Heidi McKee is an assistant professor of English at Miami University (Oxford, Ohio). Her work has appeared in College Composition and Communication, Computers and Composition, Computers and Composition Online, and Pedagogy. With Dànielle Nicole DeVoss, she co-edited the 20th-anniversary issues of Computers and Composition (20.4 & 21.1). Her work in progress includes a co-researched and co-authored study with James Porter on the ethics of digital writing research.

Digital Writing Research: Technologies, Methodologies, and Ethical Issues
Editors: Heidi A. McKee and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss



Section 1: Researching Digital Communities: Review, Triangulation, and Ethical Research Reports

  1. Will Banks and Michelle Eble, “Digital Spaces, Online Environments, and Human Participant Research: Interfacing with Institutional Review Boards”
  2. Kevin De Pew, “Through the Eyes of Researchers, Rhetors, and Audiences: Triangulating Data from the Digital Writing Situation”
  3. Michelle Sidler, “Playing Scavenger and Gazer with Scientific Discourse: Opportunities and Ethics for Online Research”

Section 2: Researching Global Citizens and Transnational Institutions

  1. Fil Sapienza, “Ethos and Research Positionality in Studies of Virtual Communities”
  2. Iswari Pandey, “Researching (with) the Postnational ‘Other’: Ethics, Methodologies, and Qualitative Studies of Digital Literacy”
  3. Beatrice Smith, “Researching Hybrid Literacies: Methodological Explorations of ‘Ethnography’ and the Practices of the Cybertariat”

Section 3: Researching the Activity of Writing: Time-use Diaries, Mobile Technologies, and Video Screen Capture

  1. William Hart-Davidson, “Studying the Mediated Action of Composing with Time-use Diaries”
  2. Joanne Addison, “Mobile Technologies and a Phenomenology of Literacy”
  3. Cheryl Geisler and Shaun Slattery, “Capturing the Activity of Digital Writing: Using, Analyzing, and Supplementing Video Screen Capture”

Section 4: Researching Digital Texts and Multimodal Spaces

  1. Stuart Blythe, “Coding Digital Texts and Multimedia”
  2. Susan Hilligoss and Sean Williams, “Composition Meets Visual Communication: New Research Questions”
  3. Julia Romberger, “An Ecofeminist Methodology: Studying the Ecological Dimensions of the Digital Environment”
  4. Amy Kimme Hea, “Riding the Wave: Articulating a Critical Methodology for Web Research Practices”
  5. Janice McIntire-Strasburg, “Multimedia Research: Difficult Questions with Indefinite Answers”

Section 5: Researching the Research Process and Research Reports

  1. Kris Blair and Christine Tulley, “Whose Research Is It, Anyway? The Challenge of Deploying Feminist Methodology in Technological Spaces”
  2. Josh Burnett, Sally Chandler, and Jackie Lopez, “A Report from the Digital Contact Zone: Collaborative Research and the Hybridizing of Cultural Mindsets”
  3. Lori Hawkes, “Impact of Invasive Web Technologies on Digital Research”
  4. Colleen Reilly and Doug Eyman, “Multifaceted Methods for Multimodal Texts: Alternate Approaches to Citation Analysis for Electronic Sources”
  5. Rebecca Rickly, “Messy Contexts: Research as a Rhetorical Situation”