Picturing Writing with Visual Research Methods

Picturing Writing with Visual Research Methods

In Academic Writing as a Social Practice, Linda Brodkey (1987) argued that composition studies needed a new cultural conception of composing, one that reimagined the tired trope of the alienated and anguished writer who writes alone. In a chapter titled “Picturing Writing,” Brodkey relies heavily on visual metaphors; she passionately argued that we need new pictures of writers and composing practices in their rich, socially situated complexity. She asked readers to re-see writing, to consider alternative viewpoints, and in the process, to break away from popular perceptions of composing, particularly because such perceptions obviate new, different, or even challenging perspectives about writing (58).

More recently, Jody Shipka (2011) draws on Brodkey to suggest that one charge of contemporary composition research is to foreground and make more visible the circulatory processes of composing and textual distribution (38). In response to these and similar exigencies, I compose with photography as one way in which to see writing anew—a method for re-seeing the complexity of composing processes by literally and systematically picturing writers and writing.

As a qualitative researcher focused on the activities, objects, and environments of composing, I conduct ethnographies and case studies of writers in everyday life—from academe and industry to religious practice and social gaming. In these studies, I use traditional fieldwork methods such as semi-structured interviews, participant observation, and artifact collection and analysis. In my early fieldwork, I often used photography and videography as well, mainly as means of augmenting observational fieldnotes and capturing informal talk, gestures, and spatial and material arrangements.

A few years ago, however, I realized that my use of visual fieldwork methods, while beneficial, was also somewhat facile in its execution. I learned that over the last four decades, social scientists have explored the nuances of visual methods in studies of social life (see, for example, Pink, 2007; Spencer, 2011; and Pinney, 2011), of which writing is, of course, an inescapable mediator. The subfields of visual anthropology and visual sociology have enriched my understanding and use of visual methods in fieldwork. These approaches have developed in parallel to our own field’s explorations of visual rhetorics, resulting in complementary empirical perspectives on visuality and visibility.

Writing in the world: a tiny geocache container and scroll for logging visits.

More recently, therefore, I have adapted approaches from visual anthropology and visual sociology to the study of writers and their composing practices and environments. Doing so has resulted in many trials and errors, but the struggle has been rewarding: I have learned to use visual methods to explore, analyze, and present the rich materiality of everyday composing practices, and in the process, to formulate new pictures of writers and writing that may be generative for participants and composition researchers alike. More important, by using visual methods in field studies I have been able to create new forms of material engagement with participants about the role of composing in their learning, work, and play.

While critics such as Susan Sontag (1977) have suggested that photography results in the distancing of photographic subjects from photographers, I have found opposite to be true: Visual methods of fieldwork result in qualitatively different forms of intersubjective understanding between researchers and participants. Composing with photography throughout fieldwork can help researchers of writing move beyond mere tautological illustration; by using visual methods, researchers may document and engage simultaneously.

More important, participants may see their own composing environments, tools, and practices in new ways, from different perspectives. A technique known as photo-elicitation uses fieldwork photographs as pivots for better understanding participant practice. For example, by photographically demonstrating a writer’s well-maintained mise en place, the researcher may help make the familiar strange for a participant, and through discussion, develop new insights about their composing practices.

In a similar way, visual methods may result in presentations of experience that are more hyaline and evocative than traditional forms of reporting. Qualitative data is notoriously dense, and for readers, the mass of fieldwork supporting ethnographies and case studies is often opaque. In addition, traditional methods of collection and representation are necessarily sequential; observational fieldnotes, for example, may miss crucial details of actual practice—movements, tools, arrangements, or cross-talk that may meaningfully mediate composing.

A software studio’s whiteboard is a collaborative space for composing and ideation.

Photographs offer simultaneous renderings of practice, what Flusser (2002) terms surfaces rather than lines. A traditional ethnographer detailing the complex, collaborative work pictured above must transform the simultaneously visible surface of a software studio’s whiteboard into a linear representation of activity. A visual ethnographer, however, can present that visible surface in its full complexity; when coupled with an analytic narrative that details punctuated development, a more hyaline rendering of complex composing practices emerges.

Qualitative research is characteristically ideographic; indeed, visual methods foreground the situated materiality of composing practices. This is a key strength of visual methods as I practice them in studies of writers and writing: the ability to document and collaboratively explore particular systemic contexts and the ways in which artifact assemblages participate in composing processes.

However, in developing new pictures of writers and writing, visual methods have the potential to be nomothetic in the aggregate. Because visual methods may be more hyaline—presenting richer data than traditional methods alone—they carry the potential for fruitful cross-case comparisons of composing practices. Imagine, for a moment, systematically composed and collected photographs of 20,000 first year writers’ typical composing environments and the resulting wealth of both particular (ideographic) and tendential (nomothetic) pictures of writing that might emerge from careful analysis.

Visual methods in empirical studies of writing carry the potential to further develop and realize Brodkey’s argument for re-seeing our object of study, and more important, the people who write. Barthes (1981) argued that “the camera can be an instrument of deep meaning, connecting the scene to the viewer and the viewer to existence” (131). With visual methods, writing researchers can reframe cultural conceptions of where, how, why, and with whom people write in their everyday lives.


Reciprocal Portraiture

Reciprocal Portraiture

My ten year-old will be eleven next month. Recently, she’s shown interest in my cameras. She’s always been an active photographer—with a Nintendo DS, an iPod touch, and an old Coolpix when we’ve traveled. But lately, she’s been interested in the big guns—my D7000 and Minolta X–700.

We were out in the backyard last weekend, airing out one of our tents in preparation for some spring camping. Late in the day, she asked if she could use my Nikon to shoot some of the flowers and other things that she found interesting.

Before she got started, I gave her some quick tips about framing and depth of field with the Nikon and 50mm lens. And we took a shot of each other to get started and check our work. Reciprocal portraiture.

I liked the results so much that I think I’d like to do this more often. Here’s Abbey, shot by me. And me, shot by Abbey.


Gonzo Academicus

Gonzo Academicus

Justine Bateman—actress, entrepreneur, mother of two, and media consultant—enrolled as an undergraduate at UCLA in the fall of 2012, at the age of 46.

She maintains a Tumblr about the ups and downs of her experience called Get a College Life, and she has inspired many others who have enrolled in college at “nontraditional” ages. The blog is continually engaging, and I love when she posts the hand written cheat sheets created by her and her peers.

About a month ago, she posted about one of the most bewildering aspects of navigating a typical undergraduate curriculum: general education requirements. I vividly recall my confusion at the need to map compulsory subject areas to the many course options available when I was an undergrad at Oregon. And one of the compulsory general education courses over which students typically have little choice is first-year writing.

Bateman’s argument makes sense. She wrote:

“Also, just found out that I have to take these ridiculous GEs I was trying to get out of. I petitioned to substitute these very topic-similar upper division classes I’d already taken for these basic, lower division classes and they refused. I really don’t see the academic logic. If I’ve taken the more advanced versions of the classes they want me to take and I received A’s in those classes, doesn’t that give weight to the argument to use them as replacements?”

Many schools will substitute courses, but many schools also have a general education credit hour requirement that must be fulfilled in order to graduate (and the logics are often rooted in accreditation and administrative concerns). More important, where it might not matter if one took Anthropology 212 instead of Sociology 103 in order to check off the “social sciences” box of the general ed. curriculum, there’s typically little leeway when it comes to the writing requirement.

After a couple weeks, Bateman once again expressed her frustration with general ed, and with the writing requirement in particular:

“Already set for next quarter. Italian, Business Law, and Computer Organization (CS33 - Machine Language). (And a required english composition class they’re forcing me to take. Really?)”

I admit, I had three nearly simultaneous reactions when I read this post: (a) a defensive response rooted in my own attachment to writing as a worthwhile academic pursuit; (b) a sympathetic response rooted in my own desire to navigate both undergraduate and graduate curricula as quickly as possible while minimizing time and effort spent on subjects for which I had no investment; and (c) a thought experiment response rooted in a desire to push back against (a) and (b): what if taking the class improved one’s writing, regardless of their circumstances?

I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot in the last six months or so. Like many of my peers in academe, I’ve always been “good at” writing. But then again, I mostly write for academic audiences, and academic writing is regularly critiqued for being obtuse, jargon-filled, overly hedged, and generally esoteric.

Picture a continuum where, on one end is the argumentative acumen of a gifted third grader and on the other is Susan Sontag and John McPhee (or whomever you’d like to substitute for these masterful non-fiction writers). If I’m being honest, my prose is much, much closer to the gifted third grader than it is Sontag and McPhee.

The reality is that I still have so much to learn about writing, and about being a better writer. And I get paid to study writing. As I thought more about Bateman’s predicament within the context of my own ability as a writer, I started to think about my own need to continually learn and improve.

A few months ago I re-read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and realized that I’d gotten into lots of bad habits. I also read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say (a common FYC text). I learned much from all three books, but my overriding realization was that I still have a long way to go as a writer.

Let me put this another way: I am a writing professor, but I bet I’d learn quite a lot about writing if I enrolled in a first-year writing course with an open and earnest comportment to learn and improve.

Revisiting core concepts and diligently practicing my chops would surely contribute to my learning. But I’d argue that some of the most innovative teaching in our field occurs in the first year course, where bright graduate students and non-tenured faculty are continually reimagining what the course can and should do. As professors, we often learn from our graduate students in the seminars we lead; I bet we’d learn much from them as our teachers, too.

So I started to think about a kind of gonzo academicism (for lack of better term). What if we know-it-all types (the finger is squarely pointed at myself) took an FYC course?

Better yet, what if 10 writing professors at various stages in their careers and at various kinds of institutions enrolled in FYC courses for one semester at their schools and then contributed to a group blog about their experiences?

I can’t imagine that this would be a bad thing for our understanding of pedagogy and curricula in our respective institutions. And I’m willing to bet that our prose would improve. Wouldn’t we learn to be better writers, and to sympathize with our students and FYC instructors? How could we not?

A writing professor taking a first year writing course may well be different than an anthropology professor taking Anthro 101. I see this as a strength of our field. We can always improve our writing. We can learn from people along the continuum. We never stop learning how to write.

(Bateman, meanwhile, seems to be liking her writing instructor so far.)


How Not To Do Professional Writing

How Not To Do Professional Writing

Last month, I terminated my cellular phone service. It was something I’d eagerly anticipated for over a year, and I’ll post about being cell-phone-less eventually.

In this post, though, I want to explore Sprint’s reaction to my cancellation. I expected—and encountered—the usual run-around when I called in to cancel service; Sprint has lagged behind AT&T and Verizon for years, and they’re desperate to retain customers. The representative explained all the ways that I could stay with Sprint, and she was very nice and professional in doing so.

But the baffling written responses that I received after canceling serve as the exigence for this post. I’d been a Sprint customer, believe it or not, since 1999. Over nearly 15 years, I’d given more than $20,000 to Sprint; this is astounding to me in so many ways, but again, that’s the stuff of another post…

A couple of days after canceling, I received the following email, from dan@sprint.com (Dan Hesse is the CEO of Sprint; this did not escape my attention):

Dear Customer,

We’re sorry you’ve stopped your service with Sprint. Your business is very important to us, and we’d like to understand why we were not able to keep you as a Sprint customer. We’d like to hear from you. Please reply to my office at dan@sprint.com and let us know the most convenient way for a member of my team to contact you. Thank you for being a Sprint customer.

Dan Hesse CEO Sprint

So far so good, I’d say. Sure, it’s a form email, but it’s succinct, clear, and tactful, it’s from the head of the company, and it personally invites a response. I bit.

Hi Dan, The decision was simple, and twofold:

  • First, I no longer use my phone as a “phone”—and haven’t for at least 2 or 3 years—and I am on wifi 98% of my day. (I live less than two miles from my office. The only time I’m not on wifi is during my 10 minute commute by bike or feet.) Messaging apps, email, etc. means I’m still connected, for free.
  • Second, we paid around $185/mo for several years. That’s an insane amount of money to me. My son (now a sophomore in college) is on his own, and my wife’s phone we simply moved to Virgin (which you own!) for a very reasonable $32/mo.

All told, we now save $120/mo on cellular service (by removing my phone entirely, by moving my son off our plan and onto his own; my daughter was already on Virgin).

As you well know, the world of cellular is in for sea change over the next 5–10 years. As wifi becomes more ubiquitous, as broadband speeds improve, and as creative inventions around internet telephony become more usable and stable, I imagine many more will drop cell phones as they recently have dropped land lines.


Brian McNely

I admit to getting a little preachy there at the end. And I’m not delusional; I realized that the chances of my email actually reaching the CEO were slim to none, but at the same time, I took the email from dan@sprint.com at face value. If customers have no hope of ever reaching Dan, then the communication strategy is disingenuous and misleading.

Then things got weird.

Here’s the response I received, not from Dan:

Dear Brian,

Thank you for your contact via Dan@Sprint.com. We appreciate you taking the time out of your day to provide feedback as to why you have chosen to terminate your cellular service with Sprint. We sincerely apologize for any inconveniences you may have experienced with pricing .

Your feedback is a great source of information which can be utilized to positively impact service improvements, customer interaction and satisfaction, so that you may consider welcoming Sprint back as your cellular service provider of choice in the near future. It is our goal to ensure complete satisfaction and resolution for each of our valued Sprint customers. Your overall experience with Sprint is very important and your feedback is greatly appreciated. If we can provide assistance of any nature, please do not hesitate to reply directly to this email and a member of my team will contact you.

Thank you again for contacting Sprint.


So here’s where the professional writing strategy and execution both break down. I won’t go through all the problems here, but will instead focus on two:

  • First, there’s so much boilerplate corporate-speak here that my soul died a little after reading it.
  • Second, the space between the word “pricing” in the first paragraph and the period to end that sentence was in the original. So what? Well, it’s a clear, sad indication of rote cut and paste. That’s no way to do professional writing if you want to change hearts and minds.

The big problem, however, is the disingenuousness of the approach. As a customer, I’m invited to give my feedback, and to do so by appealing directly to the company’s lead decision-maker. I take the time to give my feedback, and the response is soulless gibberish.

Here’s the kicker, though. Three days after this exchange I received another boilerplate email, with the subject “Your lost or stolen Sprint Phone” (no idea why “lost” and “stolen” aren’t capitalized, but “phone” is…). I have two theories about this email: either (a) it’s automatically generated for folks who shutdown service in the midst of a billing cycle, or (b) it’s another sneaky attempt to get me to change my mind.

Either way, this is not how to do professional writing. And being a huge company is not a valid excuse.


Shanghai Street Food

Shanghai Street Food

During the summer, when I told people that I was going to (or recently returned from) Shanghai, I was often immediately asked about food, and sometimes specifically about street food.

If you know much about me, then you know that I’m a food utilitarian. I eat for calories. I simply don’t care much about food beyond sustenance. This does not mean that I don’t enjoy food; I do. I enjoy the things I eat every day so much that I eat almost the same things, every day. But I am no foodie.

I will try almost anything, and Shanghai presented many opportunities for new culinary experiences. About the only thing I had that was challenging was stinky tofu during breakfast. Served cold, this everyday snack actually smelled fine to me—and was quite wonderful when it hit my tastebuds. On it’s way down my esophagus, however, it exploded in a kind of fermented, spicy, heartburny miasma. Despite that, I’d probably try it again…

As it turned out, just outside the West Gate of the Baoshan campus of Shanghai University, about a 1.5 mile walk from where I stayed and taught, is Jufengyuan Road, and area that Shanghaiist calls one of Shanghai’s street food meccas. I came to know this area well, visiting daily.

As the Shanghaiist post notes,

The actual Jufengyuan strip isn’t even the main attraction with its fruit wagons, skewer carts, etc. The real deal begins at the alleyway just right of the bridge connecting Shanghai Uni’s west entrance to Jufengyuan Lu - identifiable by the covered picnic tables, shrouds of steam, and scraping of woks. Here, you’ll find fried noodles and rice galore, shawarma, skewers, Chinese breakfast crepes aka jianbing , fried chicken, and our favorite, big Xinjiang skewers with ribs, chicken legs, and other animal parts spitted on medieval-looking metal swords.

This area is amazing. The smells, the open flames, the masses of people moving about carrying xialongbao and sizzling chicken and steaming soups—it’s essentially what I envisioned when conjuring the phrase “Shanghai street food,” and it was incredible that I was within walking distance for two weeks. And while I came to appreciate one stall’s very spicy noodles, I was much more interested in simply being there than in sampling all of the food on offer—the street food scene along Jufengyuan Lu was atmospheric, enveloping, all-encompassing.

At this point, I want to write a few words about my experiences with street photography in Shanghai before I share some photos of the street food scene…

I never felt unsafe during my brief time in Shanghai, even though I stumbled into areas of the city where tourists and laowai are rarely seen. However, there were a couple encounters that I’d describe as “dicey,” and each involved my use of a camera at the time.

I’m fairly conspicuous as a street photographer; I love to shoot in low light and at night, and I’m a stickler for sharpness and legibility. This means that I typically stand out—with a big Manfrotto tripod, a Nikon D7000, a wireless shutter release, and a tendency to shoot low angle, wide frame shots. In other words, people can easily see what I’m doing, and in the process, they may become curious, shy, amused, etc.

This shot, for example, was taken in front of about 25 scooter taxis and their drivers—to the left of frame, and behind the camera—all facing me as I set up, and all watching me with interest. This was photography in front of an audience, and after I made a couple of acceptable shots, I moved along the crowd, showing everyone the resulting images. It was both odd and fun.

But I take few “candid” or furtive street shots. If you see close-up, legible images of people in my street photographs, there’s a very, very strong chance that I asked for permission before shooting. So, in touristy areas like The Bund, nobody cared about my photographic activities. But in a locals area like Jufengyuan Lu, as an obvious laowai with a camera and tripod, I stuck out.

On several occasions in Shanghai, therefore, my conspicuousness was potentially positive or negative (for me, and others). Folks often would set up behind me—squatting down or leaning over my shoulder—as I framed a shot on my tripod, essentially trying to see what I was photographing. When I noticed this, I’d show people my shot, so they could see my results. Then we’d exchange thumbs up or down signs, smiles, shrugs, or frowns depending on what people thought of a given photo.

But on a couple of occasions, people were visibly upset by something I’d done with my camera. The diciest situation occurred just after I’d shot this photo, one of my favorites from the trip:

To the left of the frame, Jufengyuan Road moves out into the distance—a pedestrian, bike, and scooter thoroughfare with major chains (Wal-Mart, KFC), local shops, banks, apartments, etc. Just to the right of the frame is the entrance to the street food mecca.

For me, this fruit stand is visually lovely. I’d purchased cantaloupe skewers here on a couple occasions, and at night, it makes a fantastic photographic subject.

I shot this in the street, about 20–30 feet away from the stand. My tripod was low, the camera perhaps 30 inches above the ground. The woman working the stand moved in and out of frame as I was setting up the shot, and my intention was simply to capture her movement—a blur in the long exposure. In other words, I was shooting the scene—the well-lit stand, the movement of people nearby, the colorful fruit—rather than a portrait.

A man—probably in his 40s or so, shirtless (it was hot and humid), and a bit bigger in stature than I—set up behind me as I framed the shot, clearly skeptical and uneasy. After shooting it, I turned to him, gesturing back toward the camera, indicating as best as I could that I wanted him to look.

Finally, I picked up my camera and held the shot up for him to see. He was pissed. I’m not at all sure why, but he started screaming at me there in the street. He’s yelling in Chinese, I’m offering in English to delete the image, and no one nearby was able to mediate. Finally, he gave me a dismissive wave and I headed off down the street, quickly, hearing a few farewell yells, without taking another shot.

I feel bad, as I clearly did something to cause offense. But I also couldn’t tell if this was the kind of man who often yells at people on Jufengyuan Road. Because of this ambivalence, I kept the photo.

The rest of the photos were shot in the alley, with permission. I returned another night to shoot these, but I was still skittish; I ended up shooting far less here than I would have liked.

This photo is the poorest of the bunch, but it gives a sense of the stalls in the alley. From this view, I am about 2/3 of the way down the alley, so we’re seeing only the final few stalls along the vanishing point. To the right of frame are tables and many, many patrons enjoying their food.

At this stall, a family—a grandmother, son, daughter (or daughter-in-law), and grandchild—were very accommodating, and they really liked the shot after I showed it to them. The huge wok and open flame caught my eye, but I’m really pleased with the little details here—the shovel in the bottom left, the dividing paneling, the electrical sockets and peeling paint. A perfect environment for street food!

This image is intentionally dark; to the left of frame, a line stretched easily twenty people deep. The single bulb illuminating the workspace caught my eye.

Finally, a couple of the few food close-ups I shot, before and after.


Three Ontological Provocations

Three Ontological Provocations

I was invited to give an Ignite presentation at SIGDOC 2013.

This was my first try at giving a presentation in this format, and I must say, it's much more enjoyable than the typical academic talk.

All of the photos here are from my ongoing fieldwork exploring the geocaching community. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this talk!


Shanghai Graffiti

Shanghai Graffiti

I have a few more posts from my summer teaching in Shanghai on the horizon, including today’s on graffiti and stencil art.

I spent much of my time on the Baoshan campus of Shanghai University; I learned quickly, thanks to some impressive heat and humidity, that there were areas of campus that remain shaded throughout the day. For example, many of the main instructional buildings had bicycle garages at the ground floor, like this one:

The walk to my classroom was about a mile or so, and I covered most of it by moving through the bicycle garages of a row of instructional buildings. And since I spent a fair amount of time there, I noticed some interesting stencil graffiti, which I couldn’t help but photograph.

Overall, however, there were few examples of graffiti that I saw during my two weeks in Shanghai. It's a big city, though, and I saw only a fraction of it!




This is the trailer for the film Visitors (from the folks behind Koyaanisqatsi).

I appreciate photography and videography of human emotion, particularly the many wonderful expressions and iterations of joy and happiness and ecstasy. Sadness and anger and outrage may be compelling, too.

But I have relished frowns for as long as I can remember. The frown is rich with potential—a frown needn’t be disapproving, austere, or frightful. Indeed, frowns are perhaps, above all, thoughtful.

The frowns in this trailer are all the more fascinating because they lack any context. All we have are rhetorics of display that work in multiple directions simultaneously—as viewers, we try to understand the meanings behind bunched eyebrows and tilted heads, but those we view seem to be starting at us (or something), working out the the same kinds of calculuses.


Everyday Details

Everyday Details

While I was in Shanghai, I spent half a day in and around Jing’an Temple, a key site of contemporary Han Buddhism in China.

This is a fascinating place for many reasons, but what I found most interesting were the everyday details—from the feel of architectural materials and their accompanying visual flourishes to the smell of incense and the sounds of visitors lobbing yuan coins into the central metal tower.

If you regularly read this blog, then you’re possibly aware of my ongoing multisensory ethnography of Eucharistic Adoration practices. Perhaps out of researcherly habit, I found myself zeroing in on Buddhist analogues while I was at Jing’an Temple, taking many photos of the seemingly small, often fleeting and sensory everyday details that help make a sacred space sacred.

What we often overlook, though, are the details that make everyday spaces what they are. We can extrapolate from these exemplary spaces, I think, and look at quotidian spaces in new ways.


Shanghai Selfies

Shanghai Selfies

Folks in cultural studies and related fields have been banging this drum for years: we are immersed in images. We have been, sure, but awareness of ambient photography has recently gone mainstream in a big way.

I’m actually glad that I’m not studying a phenomenon like selfies right now; I’m mildly surprised by the amount of work that's already been done.

I’m a reluctant photographic subject. In point of fact, I despise pictures of myself. But sometimes they’re necessary, sometimes being in a photo is polite and tactful, and sometimes they can simply mark a happening or event.

I spent two weeks in Shanghai last month, teaching a short professional communication course at Shanghai University. I’ll have more to say about this experience in subsequent posts; for now, I’ll just say this: I loved Shanghai, I loved my students, and I can’t wait to go back.

On a few occasions during my time in Shanghai I felt compelled to photographically document my experience, mainly for my family, by using this tried and true equation: human + location = experiential documentation.

I realize that these aren’t selfies, per se, but they’re as close as I’m likely to get. [1]

  1. Photo 1: a door at Jing’An Temple; Photo 2: a little tea garden and spicy peanuts (I was the only laowai there); Photo 3: Yuyuan Garden footpaths, sensibly designed to soothe and massage bare feet.  ↩