Research Statement

narrative and persuasion in digital media

Research Aims

supporting effective communication

As a rhetoric scholar and creative writer, my interests focus on the use of narratives to persuade audiences. Studies of narrative as a rhetorical mode in the Western tradition date back to classical Greece. Aristotle suggested the canon of invention included developing narratives, what we might label as anecdotes or creative illustrations, depending on the veracity of the narrative. The works of scholars including Wayne C. Booth, Kenneth Burke, Walther Fisher, Gerald Hauser, Robert Rowland, and Richard Walsh explore narrative as persuasive technique. This community of scholars lacks diversity, unfortunately, though they do bring other cultures and experiences into their analyses. Narrative styles vary by culture and community, so diverse scholarship expands our appreciation for narrative and literary techniques.

Building on the existing scholarship on narrative within textual works, from business writing to novels, I seek to apply the rhetoric of narrative to screen, stage, and digital media. Though some suggest digital works represent an evolution of books and stage plays, I prefer to explore digital and transmedia works in terms of differences from the past. Word processing exceeds pencils and typewriters, changing more than the process of writing. Likewise, digital media promise to be more than the analog technologies they supersede. Narratives composed, edited, and distributed digitally represent new potentials, which scholars should analyze. My academic scholarship involves two distinct lines of inquiry:

  1. What is effective storytelling via digital media, from a rhetorical perspective?
  2. How does technology influence the creation and delivery of stories to audiences?

My research purposes include:

  • Identifying characteristics of effective narrative forms within various genres;
  • Employing narrative as a persuasive device, particularly on stage and screen;
  • Teaching narrative composition and production skills to empower self-advocacy;
  • Adopting narrative and literary techniques to explain scientific and technical concepts to general audiences; and
  • Exploring the history of narrative composition, production, and distribution technologies.

Effective Storytelling

As a scholar drawing on the traditions of classical rhetoric, I search for the shared characteristics of works that persuaded their intended audiences, particularly within digital media. The Rhetoric of Fiction by Wayne C. Booth inspired me to pursue these questions. Later, I discovered The Rhetoric of Economics by Deirdre McCloskey, a text exploring the power of literary techniques in academic writing and public policy debates. Booth and McCloskey surveyed traditional text publications. I wish to extend their theories to explore online writings, podcasts, and video streams. My search for effective narrative patterns combines qualitative and quantitative research methods. What I discover through analyses of creative works could help other writers seeking social change.

Because I primarily write stage plays and screenplays, the rhetoric of stage and screen offers a natural specialty for my research interests. In these arts, definitions of success change based on the desired outcome of the creative team. Success might mean reaching the largest possible audience. Success might mean impressing award committees. Research should determine the patterns associated with the desired result for a creative work. The question I find most compelling: does a work intended to promote social change achieve that result?

Could the application of research findings reduce stage and screen productions to models? When you strictly adhere to statistical models, new works resemble past works. Quantitative analyses alone, without testing new options, lead to bland predictability. Qualitative analyses also lead to models in rhetoric. Yet, rhetorical scholars understand moment of evolutionary and revolutionary change exist. That’s the art of rhetoric, informed by modern research methods.

Transmedia Creative Scholarship

Transmedia productions offer one potential resistance against predictable sameness in the cinema and theatrical arts. Transmedia narratives mix live performances, video, social media, and other art forms to disrupt familiar audience experiences. A commitment to stage, screen, and new media compels me to explore the potentials of transmedia works, which I would do as an artist regardless of my academic career. As a playwright and screenwriter, I seek to study transmedia works through an artist-scholar process, documenting my writing processes and the final artistic exhibition results. Unlike traditional scholarship in rhetoric, artist-scholars must adhere to both juried exhibition requirements and institutional review board standards.

Artists naturally engage in critical self-reflection, seeking ways to improve the persuasive effectiveness of their works. Studying the artistic communities in which I participate suggests the methods of ethnography, while the analyses of completed works extends the traditions of rhetoric. This synthesis of methodologies enables me to continue scholarship without sacrificing my artistic pursuits.

My artistic works explore issues of socioeconomic marginalization, leading me to collaborations with artists from traditionally marginalized communities. Incorporating the perspectives of these artists into my scholarly works offers them an opportunity to address academic audiences. As a researcher and artist, I cannot speak to the experiences of other individuals, nor for communities to which I do not belong. Instead, I use my privilege to introduce other voices—and then step aside. This approach honors the ideals of scholars including Paulo Freire.

Technology and Narrative Rhetoric

To study the rhetoric of digital media, theories and methods must adapt to the ways in which these technologies alter composition and distribution of narratives. Digital media, including those used in transmedia works, promote fragmentary narratives. Blog posts lead to threaded discussions. Microblogging platforms such as Twitter and Tumblr encourage others to “reblog” and “retweet” pieces of conversations. Snappy comments and sardonic humor receive attention. Insults and “trolling” become parts of the conversations.

Communications and rhetoric scholars studied online communities, chat rooms, and blogging relatively early compared to other disciplines. Our literatures feature studies of MySpace, Friendster, and SecondLife, all spaces that quickly lost relevance. For this reason, we should study general concepts and digital media more holistically, avoiding studies of unstable and ephemeral platforms.

Studies and theories of digital and “new media” rhetoric represent minor adaptations to existing methods and assumptions about the nature of rhetoric. Should we revise rhetorical theories and models to better represent the digital media? Online conversations include words, images, emoji symbols, animations, audio clips, and short videos. Do our models adequately reflect this diversity of signs and symbols? Can we update rhetoric, communications, and semiotics to reflect these media realities?

Technology elevates the skilled hobbyist and persistent social media user to celebrity status. Does this alter civic discourse and rhetoric? The YouTube videos of a young person might reach a wider audience than a cable news debate program. Narrative memes on Facebook and Twitter reach millions of people, compared to the thousands of people watching C-SPAN or MSNBC. Rhetoricians need to consider these realities of scale.

Anyone with a computer can…. Fill in the blank. The moderately-skilled computer user can publish a book, create a website, record a video, compose a song, and create a feature-length film. Digital technologies complicate how we differentiate between “professionals” and “hobbyists” because the barriers to creation and distribution are comparatively minimal. Distribution channels, income, and prestige separate the hobbyist from the professional, but those metrics might be losing their importance.

Maybe democratization of technology leads to a new and exciting period of social justice and integration. Or technology might enable more self-sorting and virtual tribalism. Rhetoricians need to explore these potentials through research if we want to remain relevant as scholars and public intellectuals.

Previous Research Projects

Philosophers and economists seem particularly challenged when attempting to explain their theories, models, and conclusions. Despite shaping societies, influencing political leaders and the general public, thinkers in these two overlapping disciplines often do speak their own languages. Reading Martin Heidegger requires a lexicon, the philosopher having crafted terms for concepts scholars still struggle to define. Only economists craft equally impenetrable works, especially the congressional statements delivered by Chairs of the Federal Reserve.

Rhetoric of Economics

As a rhetorician, I explore the rhetoric of economics and policy. The first challenge I explain to my students involves defining “economics” to people outside the discipline. Economics is not limited to financial questions. My colleagues research everything from climate data collection to voting methodologies. People correctly assume that economists study how people exchange ideas, services, and goods. Yet the research and analysis methods of economics apply to any questions of scarcity, allocation, efficiency, and efficacy. Today’s economists not only seek the most efficient solution to a problem, but also how people actually solve problem in practice. We all know that when efficiency meets human nature… psychology wins. Welcome to behavioral economics and questions of how to encourage informed decision making. Therein, we find rhetoric at the core of modern economics scholarship.

Philosophy and economics are inseparable. The early great economists were social philosophers. The quantitative movement gained prominence during the 1950s and 60s. Rational consumers, an artificial construct, became the basis for much research. Fields such as economic history emerged, promising to analyze history using quantitative economic models. The role of traditional moral philosophy within economics faded, with economics striving for “scientific” methods. By the 1990s, psychology had supplanted philosophy within many university programs.

I advocate for economists rediscovering classical rhetoric and philosophical traditions, alongside the quantitative models and rigourous testing of theories that have advanced economics scholarship. Expanding how we educate economists, we will improve their ability to communicate important ideas to the wider public. Good ideas have no value if we cannot “market” the ideas beyond our academic communities.

What rhetorical theories could be employed to promote the special knowledge of economists? Why are some schools of economic thought better at promoting their values and theories than others? We imagine that logical arguments, supported by data, should be the most persuasive in policy debates. Yet, data seldom prevail. Anecdotes too often trump data. How can rhetoricians help economists present the best arguments in the most effective manner?

Rhetoric of Self-Advocacy

Previously, my research projects involved collaborative composition, new media, and issues of self-advocacy. Past research questions explored the rhetorical strategies employed within self-advocacy communities in online settings. These online communities demonstrably affected my life, offering insights, advice, and guidance to me as a participant. However, while they were helpful, I developed an awareness of the excesses and insular natures of these support communities. I studied these spaces in relation to established rhetorical scholarship, while striving to extend the understanding of multi-modal composition among marginalized communities.

Even now, my research includes elements of auto-ethnography because I am often a member of the spaces I study. As an individual living with minor physical and neurological challenges, I recognize a social-epistemic approach shapes my scholarship and teaching. The ideals of James Berlin and Paulo Freire influence my research. My intention is to improve the effectiveness of self-advocacy for the benefit of others and myself. Embracing the concept of the public intellectual with a responsibility to foster change, I am an advocate.

Scholarship on the rhetorics of disabilities and marginalized communities forms a foundation for much of my research. Writing, especially with the aid of technology, has empowered me as a self-advocate. Like the individuals I have met while researching autism and self-expression, language cognition can be problematic for me, especially figurative language and idioms. Due to language processing obstacles, collaborative composition presents unique challenges for individuals with autism. Yet, the necessary negotiations required by collaboration are essential within advocacy movements. My research aims to improve the composition education of students with either special needs or language challenges, enabling them to engage and participate within the greater academic and political communities.

Embodied Rhetorics: Disability in Language and Culture (2001), edited by James Wilson and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson, convinced me that there might be a language and culture of autism advocacy. In 2007, the publication of Mark Osteen’s Autism and Representation became the first scholarly collection to focus on a rhetoric of autism. My research should contribute to this body of literature.

I view rhetoric and composition broadly, recognizing that all works feature persuasive elements and that composition extends beyond pages of text. It has been stated that rhetoricians study all human interactions and compositionists see everything as text. Self-advocacy communities employ myriad genres to express their concerns: textual memoir, demonstrative video, audio interviews, academic articles, and various intertextual forms common to Web logs (blogs). Exploration of online advocacy requires multimodal rhetorical analyses. For example, poetry by individuals with autism has been studied separately by classical rhetorician Kristina Chew and writing scholar Ilona Roth.

Many of the online expressions of self-advocacy eschew traditional academic argument. Instead, these compositions include memoirs, poetry, and works of fiction. The works are rhetorical, meant to inform and shape public discussions about autism and other disabilities. Not only do these works embody the “Rhetoric of Fiction” as broadly analyzed by Wayne C. Booth, but they also parallel street theatre and other creative expressions of activism. The collaborative compositions found within online communities should provide a rich source for rhetorical analysis and research.

Rhetoric of Science

Autism and disability self-advocacy communities also reflect the rhetorical nature of science. Most of these communities directly quote academic journals, mass media articles, and celebrity statements. Differences in language usage and intention contribute to vitriolic conflict. Peer-reviewed articles express findings in probability, in the cautious statistical language of quantitative sciences. Mass media articles report findings as certainties. The tension between media, science, and advocacy lexicons is on display within online communities.

To appreciate the rhetoric of science, I have taken courses from Alan Gross and Art Walzer. Scholars including Judy Segal (Health and the Rhetoric of Medicine, 2005) and Celeste Michelle Condit (The Meanings of the Gene, 1999) influence my analyses of the rhetorical situations online and why scientific discourse so often leads to confusion instead of understanding within advocacy communities. The debates surrounding autism etiology are not grounded in science, so much as they are in distrust of past scientific conduct. Advocates adopting militant language results in a widening distance between researchers and those affected by autism. The heated rhetoric, often ad hominem attacks and conspiratorial accusations, is disappointing and, simultaneously, academically intriguing.

Visual Rhetoric

Self-advocates and scientists employ visual elements within their rhetorical strategies. Analyzing graphs and charts often reveals a mix of intentional and unintentional manipulation, resulting in audiences misinterpreting data. Designer Tim Harrower and scholar Edward Tufte address issues of misrepresentation and intentional obfuscation of data. Also influencing my visual analyses are Gross, Charles Kostelnick, Gunther Kress, Anne Frances Wysocki, and Lester Faigley. Determining why self-advocates and scientists present data in particular formats will, ideally, lead to clearer communication between these communities.

I have performed quantitative analyses of design choices within online communities, striving to identify trends. Once identified, I offer hypothetical explanations for the dominance of particular choices. Separating design choices unique to self-advocacy communities from broader design trends demands constant attention to various media. For examples, some designs reflect the software used or the availability of templates and are not carefully considered. The designs are significant, but I want to determine what is unique within online self-advocacy communities.

Collaborative Goals

While the works of various composition scholars inspired my interest in collaborative communities and digital media, my research depends on scholars, theorists, and researchers in a variety of fields. The cross-disciplinary approach to analyzing online spaces and advocacy creates opportunities for collaborative projects, as I work with individuals from various academic backgrounds. Research projects have lead to collaborating with students and faculty colleagues from various departments.

Just as I draw from multiple disciplines, my goal is to produce research that touches numerous fields. While I specialize in analyzing self-advocacy, the multiple forms of that advocacy dictate that I constantly explore new territories. I seek the unanticipated connections between disciplines, not knowing what I might discover next.

If It Involves Words…

I am curious about how we develop writing skills, how we employ those skills, and how writing has shaped society in general. The written word has allowed humans to communicate skills, share information, and archive histories. Words also allow us to express emotions and beliefs.

We recognize that all writing can be “rhetorical” in nature. Fictional works, such as Shakespeare’s Richard III, shape our views of society and history. Teaching students the power of words is important to maintaining democratic ideals.