Faculty Research Spotlight

Professors Megan McIntyre and Nick Van Kley recently attended conferences to share their research.

The two scholars appeared together on a roundtable focused on digital research methods at the annual Computers and Writing Conference held at St. John Fischer College in Rochester, New York. The roundtable offered an examination of how research methods and ethical considerations are evolving in response to the ever-changing spaces and practices of digital media. The conversation included presentations on various forms of social media including Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest as well as other digital artifacts such as Wikipedia articles, websites, message boards, user profiles, and various forms of metadata.

Professor McIntyre shared aspects of her work on the social media platform Twitter, explaining her methodology for collecting and coding tweets. Although the study of social media lends itself to quantitative methods, McIntyre makes a strong argument for a qualitative approach. She writes that a qualitative approach “provides thick description and important insight sometimes obscured or missed by big data approaches.” However, McIntyre acknowledges that moving beyond the anonymity of aggregated data raises ethical concerns, as the qualitative approach she favors involves working with individual people and their social media profiles. For example, given that the individuals involved did not expressly agree to participate in research, are there privacy concerns that must be considered? Or are tweets examples of public speech that are subject to fair use? Further, should a researcher release the screen name or identifying details of a particular user? Important questions such as these intersect powerfully with McIntyre’s particular research focus on social activism designed to raise awareness of gender-based violence. “The ethical question, about how to treat profiles,” she writes, “leads to a second, perhaps more pressing question for researchers—like myself—most interested in social media activism and the problem of harassment: how do we balance these concerns about ethical treatment of human subjects, the public nature of social media profiles, and specific analysis and critique.”

For his part, Van Kley made several proposals for the use of datamining in the analysis of writing center session surveys. His presentation offered solutions to a common problem faced by writing center administrators: making sense of the vast collections of information that students and tutors produce during writing center sessions.  As Van Kley explains, the session survey data that writing centers collect is of such an "overwhelming scale" that it often frustrates interpretation and traditional forms of textual analysis. To help make sense of this vast and diverse information, Van Kley proposes using a datamining program called AntConc to perform concordancing and textual analysis of writing center surveys. One intriguing use of this analysis, Van Kley argues, is the way it can assist with the ongoing development of tutors in the writing center context. As he explains, these "text-mining tools allow us to see tutors constructing autonoetic narratives in session records on a daily basis." These "narratives of the self over time might explain current abilities by relating past experience or predict future behavior by explaining current emotions.” They "are a key part of [the] reflective learning" that is critical for the development of writing center professionals.

McIntyre also contributed two presentations at the Rhetoric Society of America conference, held in Atlanta, Georgia this year. Taking part in a roundtable that addressed the cynicism that often pervades rhetorical practice and analysis, McIntyre offered a discussion of the #yesallwomen movement—a Twitter-based, social media campaign that seeks to raise awareness of misogyny and violence against women. In her presentation, McIntyre offered this social movement "as an example of how embodied rhetorical practice—which centers the bodily experiences of the rhetor as part of rhetorical acts—impacts conversation about gendered harassment." She argues that, "by calling attention to personal, visceral experiences of street harassment and other gender-based attacks, the participants in this hashtag [campaign] humanize the conversation about such harassment." The most significant outcome from this campaign is how the “sheer volume of personal, specific, detailed examples pushes the conversation from questions of fact (Did it happen? Is this a real problem?), definition (What exactly happened?), and quality (Was it really that bad?) to one of policy (What can/should we do about it?).”

Professor McIntyre also presented a paper on a panel that applied the work of sociologist Bruno Latour to the field of rhetoric. McIntyre’s paper applied Latour’s actor-network theory, which examines how human and nonhuman actors come together to form networks, to examine questions of ethics and responsibility in the use of social media platforms. In particular, McIntyre examined the affecting and tragic story of Sunil Tripathi—a missing Brown University student who was misidentified on Twitter and Reddit as one of the perpetrators of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Based on these false accusations, she relates, "social media users spammed a Facebook page set up in the hopes of finding the missing man; users also released the contact information of Tripathi's already distraught family." McIntyre's central concern in this analysis is one of justice: "If we acknowledge that there are both human and technological members of the network that created such anguish, how do we go about holding the members of the network responsible for horrors like those visited upon the already grieving Tripathi family?" Inspired by Latour's concern for both human and nonhuman “actants,” McIntyre argues that in the case of Trapathi, "it is possible to hold both human participants (the creator of the forum; Twitter users who confirmed and spread accusations) responsible through hard-hitting interviews and litigation and nonhuman participants (in particular, the forum itself) responsible via redesign."