Networks as Critical Texts


Cover. Visualization of Algarotti’s World from the Mapping the Republic of Letters project at Stanford University. (Source)

My initial thoughts about networks are that they are complex and inaccessible, but they have the potential to revolutionize reading, writing, thinking and learning practices as we used to know. But from my various visits with individuals who are theorizing and trying to deploy networks in their own research, teaching, and learning, I am come to recognize networks not just as a tool but a rhetorical strategy that could empower its user in unprecedented ways. Combined with data analytics, networks offer some powerful methodologies for gaining insights (predictions) and intelligence (current knowledge). For humanists, questions remain: How should and might we harness such power? What are the potentials and perils of authorizing networks to connect, extract, transfer, and exchange information? How might we master these capabilities to offer our world something of value? Instinctively, these questions lead me to thinking about the rhetorics of networks, and the relationships between language and logics since the expression of networks is engendered by the two. Before I explore further, I would like to include here a brief preface to network studies, a broader field in which lives the majority of the theoretical frameworks and traditions I am going to employ in my study.

Network Studies

Over the past decade, network studies has emerged to be an increasingly prominent academic discipline thanks to prevailing and advancing technologies. Both theory and method, network studies thrives on available means for visualization to model relationships between entities. Social network analysis, a process that involves investigating social structures through the use of network and graph theories, has particularly enjoyed greater uptake across disciplinary landscapes. Within rhetoric and writing studies, wherein activity theory and actor-network theory (Latour, 2005; Spinuzzi, 2010) are drawn quite heavily upon (more so in technical and professional communication), social network analysis provides writing researchers relevant frameworks that add dimensions to their scholarship. An example of project born of social network analysis within writing studies would be the “Writing Studies Tree” project (see With this project, along with other budding initiatives in the our field, networks are beginning to gain recognition as valuable and productive methods for accomplishing the goals of composition and its instruction. With an eye toward the critical functions of networks, I provide in this essay a snapshot of networks pertaining to the interests of composition studies––networks as texts. To do so, I review arguments from several critical scholars and take a shot at offering some implications for composition pedagogy as networks become more and more preeminent in our field. Before entering that conversation, I provide in the next section a brief overview of connectivism as a network and learning theory.

From Social to Network to Critical Perspectives

As most compositionists and writing instructors are aware, social theory has long influenced how teaching and learning are done in the classroom. For instance, Albert Bandura’s (1977) social learning theory informs educationalists about how students learn through modeling and reciprocal processes. Social constructivist theorists, later update Bandura’s theory with social construction of meaning in collaborative learning and interactive knowledge construction (Vygotsky, 1962, 1978; Duffy & Jonassen, 1992). As social theory frameworks typically focus on the individual’s experience in group settings, a networked perspective encompasses more and different relations, looking at the diversity of social relationships people maintain and the diversity of relationships that make up communities and other forms of social networked structures. Such perspective calls forth the consideration of the idea of social capital, which according to Pierre Bourdieu (1986), is “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance or recognition” (p. 248). In the technological age, the notion of social capital has been adapted into the digital-social realm, denoting the use of technologies to expand, enhance, and accelerate an individual’s social network. Situated within this paradigm is the birth of connectivism.

Connectivism is the theoretical framework developed by George Siemens and Stephen Downes as a means to reconceptualize knowledge in light of new technologies and environments for learning. According to Siemens (2006) and Downes (2011), “Connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks.” Connectivism harnesses the affordances of network structures to set up connections between people, information resources, organizations, and other entities that add values to one’s learning interests. Siemens (2008) points out that “the capacity to know is more critical than what is actually known.” And it is this “critical capacity” of networks that has intrigued many scholars to look into the effects of digital connection systems on pedagogy. In “Occupying the Digital: Critical Pedagogy and New Media,” Pete Rorabaugh (2012) calls teachers to pay attention to digital learning spaces and treats them as “a site of moral agency” since there could be models of interaction that impede learning. In an interview with a Middlebury fellow, Downes (2012) defends the consistency of digitally-infused curriculum to a critical pedagogy approach. He writes, “[Our objective] is about actually empowering people to develop and create their own learning, their own education … We (those of us working in MOOCs) have also been clear about the influences of people like Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire” (Downes, 2012).

Now (there and back again), considering networks under the light of critical theory, I envision a space for discussions of how learning is changing in the 21st century––If students live in a culture that digitizes and educates them through a screen, they require an education that empowers them in that sphere, teaches them that language, and offers new opportunities of human connectivity. It is this motivation that inspires the following sections in this essay. I look to some early literature that critiques the coming of a technological turn in composition studies and writing instruction as a way to demonstrate its parallelism with the emergence of networks. That means I need to take us back in time for about 30 years where our journey began.

Critical Understanding of Technology

In the summer of 1987, the English Coalition Conference took place at Wye Plantation in Maryland. The purpose of the three-week-long conference was to attempt a consensus about English education and its goals for the coming decades and to find solutions to lingering problems, including the changing student population and institutional environments. As reported in Richard Lloyd-Jones and Andrea Lunsford’s edition of the conference report, one of the main discussions was the modern model of literacy and its crucial role in affording the notion of ever higher (or deeper) levels of understanding––understandings that are often preceded by the adjective critical. The English Coalition has revealed a persistence of an attachment to the belief that overriding goal of literacy is to afford students the power coming from a critical understanding of their world:

The information explosion makes learning how to read and write absolutely vital for living, because without these abilities students will not be able to assimilate, evaluate, and control the immense amount of knowledge and the great number of messages which are produced every day. The development of new media similarly requires of citizens an enhanced ability to use different ways of reading and writing. (English Coalition, 1989, p. 86)

Underscoring the belief that the English Coalition Conference has asserted is a heightened sensitivity to emergent information technology as means of discovery and the critical exploration of that experience. As proven through the number of work published in the recent years under computers and writing that critically examine machine learning, and the dedication of our field to the rhetorics of technology, the English Coalition’s ideal of critical understanding has been imperative to technology and literacy scholarship way beyond the conference.

Amid the proliferation of computers in writing instruction, critical literacy scholar Myron Tuman (1992) edited one of the landmark collections in computer-assisted pedagogy to discuss the promises and perils of reading and writing with computers. In the preface to his book, Tuman contends that “technology is one of the prime aspects of culture that literacy must overcome” (1992, p. 4). In critiquing the debates of the 1980s where computers were often ignored or treated as obstacles, Tuman observes,

No one was inclined to see a word processor as a transitional step either to a radical new way of conceiving text or with the ready integration of graphics, to a radical new way of organizing knowledge itself. It was instead more likely portrayed as a turbocharged typewriter, which enables individuals to writer more (or at least faster) and perhaps to undertake more revisions. (Tuman, 1992, p. 5)

Tuman seeks to postulate a relationship between literacy and technology that posits computers within the possibility for extending literacy by enhancing accessibility, comprehensibility, and critical thinking. His notion is shared by Jay Bolter, who in his early writing, “Literature in the Electronic Writing Space,” demonstrates not just how interactivity of digital composition extends certain essential aspects of print literacy, but also rationality, authorship, and the embodiment of meaning in digital texts. Following this line of thought, I introduce in the next section the need to pay attention to networks as an emerging form of “texts” due to its complexity and increasingly preeminent status in writing studies amid the digital information age. More importantly, I seek to draw attention to the inventional possibilities that networks afford writing practices.

Networks as Critical Texts

I would like to begin by using maps as a parallel illustration for the rhetoricality of networks. Maps can be rhetorical devices through the portrayal given to various land masses (Boynton, 2013). All good maps have a central point. Where this central point falls gives the viewer an idea as to what is the most important part or parts of the world. In Cynthia Selfe and Richard Selfe’s (1994) “Politics of the Interface,” maps were used as a critical metaphor for identifying central points versus peripheries, dominant cultures versus borderland representations, interests versus reality, etc. Selfe and Selfe have also used maps to demonstrate how values are made implicit and explicit through complex landscapes (computer interfaces) that are often political and ideological.

Like maps, networks are a rhetorical way of portraying information. Such portrayal reshapes the scope of literacy as we know it considering how the immense retrieval powers of computers and connections are subtly and decisively changing the status of the standard text––static and unified. Even the previous most groundbreaking technological shifts in writing practices––word processing and desktop publishing––have yet to achieve such level of exploiting of the power of technology to transform what we know as texts. In Bolter’s critique, word processing and desktop publishing applications have only used the computer to prepare texts that will eventually be translated back into the older medium of ink on paper. Networks, on the contrary, uses the computer and connections as media in their own right––both for the creation and for the reading of meanings. Networks are free of the primary constraint of the page, the linearity of reading, and the units of text such as size and arrangement.

Network’s capacity to create fluid textual structures and present them interactively to the reader constitutes a new space of literacy unlike those of the previous print spaces. Consider the following example in Figure 1, a project based at Stanford University called Mapping the Republic of Letters (Respublica literaria). According to its creators, the project aims to enrich the understanding of the intellectual networks of major and minor figures in the republic of letters, the international world of learning that spanned the centuries roughly from 1400 to 1800. By creating visual images based on large digitized data sets, the network reveals the hidden structures and conditions that nourished the growth of the republic of letters in the early modern era and the causes of its transformation in the nineteenth century.


Figure 1. Learning about the Republic of Letters via (a) print versus (b) on-screen texts versus (c) a mapped social network (

In comparison, conventional reading or viewing of the Republic of Letters, either in print or on screen, would not appropriate the kind of engagement that is make possible by a networked text interface. A network text is organized as a web of interrelated textual elements: the author creates the elements and defines their relations and hands the structure to the reader. This changes directly––in very practical ways––the role of the author and the materiality of the text. Effective reading of the network can only be done in the form it is presented in and not any physical medium, because only the programmed form of “texts” can handle the links between the elements and help the reader navigate within the networked story.

What networks afford is continuity between texts, hypertexts, and contexts. The embedded interactive mechanism for information presentation and storytelling calls for emergent language use and presentational practices, for current methods rely heavily on our long experience with print. Above all, networks challenge the sense that writing is complete, isolated, and independent. Network texts on a given subject form a connection of facts or information, insights, and arguments. They encourage the reader to think of all texts as occupying the same compositional space but permitting multiple ways of reading and that each perspective offers a different entry point to the subject.

Yet, even maps that are perfectly accurate have distortion (Boynton, 2013). So do networks. Thus, technical and ethical issues involved in designing networked texts need more than just trivial attention. Too often we overlook the power of designed texts to reshape the representation of our physical world. In an older piece, “The Electronic Panopticon: Censorship, Control, and Indoctrination in a Post-Typographic Culture,” Eugene Provenzo (1992) argues that while computer-based reading and writing has the power of liberating us from the constraints and tyranny of the author and the text, it is fraught with danger. Take for instance again the visualization of the Republic of Letters. While digitization and network visualization give us new ways of apprehending information, visualization in fact is not the goal; the goal is to use new tools and develop new ways of reading and composing. Caroline Winterer, in her report of the digitization of the Republic of Letters, admits that network visualization “cannot and should not replace the traditional work of the humanist” (2012, p. 599). In her words, “We cannot just digitize and visualize data; we still need to read texts” (p. 599; emphasis mine). Such reading of texts calls for for active human agentive involvement as well as intervention, and I concur with Winterer’s defense.


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