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.


Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bolter, J. (1992) Literature in the electronic writing space. In Myron Tuman (Ed.), Literacy online: The promise (and peril) of reading and writing with computers. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education. New York, NY: Greenwood.

Boynton, M. (2013). The rhetoric of maps. Retrieved from  

Downes, S. (2011). Week 1: What Is Connectivism? Connectivism and Connective Knowledge 2011. Retrieved from

Downes, S. (2012). The Rise of MOOCs. Retrieved from

Duffy & Jonassen, (1992). Constructivism and the technology of instruction: A conversation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

English Coalition (1989). Conference report: Democracy through language. Eds. Richard Lloyd-Jones and Andrea Lunsford. Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Landow, G. (1992). Hypertext, metatext, and the electronic canon. In Myron Tuman (Ed.), Literacy online: The promise (and peril) of reading and writing with computers. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Provenzo, E. (1992). The electronic panopticon: Censorship, control, and indoctrination in a post-typograpic culture. In Myron Tuman (Ed.), Literacy online: The promise (and peril) of reading and writing with computers. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Rorabaugh, P. (2012). Occupying the digital: Critical pedagogy and new media. Hybrid Pedagogy. Retrieved from

Selfe, C., & Selfe, R. (1994). Politics of the interface: Power and its exercise in electronic contact zones. College Composition and Communication, 45(4), 480-504.

Siemens, G. (2006). Knowing knowledge. Retrieved from

Siemens. G. (2008). About: Description of connectivism. Connectivism: A learning theory for today’s learner, website. Retrieved from

Spinuzzi, C. (2010). Secret sauce and snake oil: Writing monthly reports in a highly contingent environment. Written Communication, 27(4), 363–409.

Tuman, M. (1992). Literacy online: The promise (and peril) of reading and writing with computers. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Ulmer, G. (1992). Grammatology (in the stacks) of hypermedia, a simulation. In Myron Tuman (Ed.), Literacy online: The promise (and peril) of reading and writing with computers. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1962). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Winterer, C. (2012). Where is America in the Republic of Letters? Modern Intellectural History, 9(3), 597-623.

What is Love: The 3Cs to Lasting Relationships


It’s the morning post Valentine’s Day at U.S. central time, and the town is still rather sleepy. Regarded as the second most celebrated quasi-holiday after New Year’s Day, Valentine’s Day has its way into plugging the heartstrings of many people – young and mature alike. It would be no surprise if many couples wake up today to a new commitment in their relationships. (In fact, many choose to propose on V-day to make remembering their anniversary easy.)

Humor aside, many people have different opinions on love and relationship. As a universal virtue, the notion of love is recently amplified by western cultures by associating it to romanticism and archetypal representations. TED-Ed has a great video on the historical development of marriage and it gives us a peek into the past on how relationships are perceived by our ancestors.

Whether or not you believe in marriage, the definitions of love and relationships vary from culture to culture, from people to people. What is love? What makes relationships work? What are the core elements that keep relationships going? Here are my takes:

Relationship is construction

Mainstream cultures have taught us that love could happen at first sight and that being in a relationship means constantly feeling “in love.” The moment that warm and fuzzy feeling inside us fades, we begin to feel detached and lost. A feeling-driven relationship makes us feel good; however, what makes most relationships work is trust and mutual attractions. For all of us who have been in a romantic relationship, we know that biological drive doesn’t drive our passion too far in a relationship. Bodily desire may bring us together, but it is the work we put into relationships that will keep things going. So, keep building, keep working in your relationship.

Relationship is communication

Communication is key in any relationship. Love is more than just a few touches and smiles and eye contact. Love languages come in many forms. Some people enjoy physical contact (cuddles, pets, hugs, etc.) while some appreciate verbal acknowledgment. Whatever it is, people in relationships need to get connected. Communication is key to many successful relationships as people are collectivist creatures. Stay open with the people you love and don’t discourage difficult conversations. Always try to put yourself into their shoes to understand where the people you love are coming from. Just remember, you can only benefit from communication if you appreciate them. The moment you turn your listening ears off, communication stops and negligence embarks.

Relationship is commitment

In the first point I mentioned work. Relationship means putting oneself into a committed context. Yet, commitment doesn’t mean all-time happiness. When you are committed into a relationship, you are opening possibilities for discouragement or disappointment. The fact is, we cannot avoid those aspects of an imperfect humanity. Since people have flaws, we are bound to making mistakes or what could be seen as wrong in our lovers’ eyes. Hence, staying committed in a relationship means being accepting and understanding. Staying committed also means that you train your mind to not give in to temptations and undesired confrontations. Know that it is normal for human to be allured by lust or temporal excitement, but we should make a conscious decision when faced with situations that are trying our commitment.

Dr. John Adams and Dr. Constance Avery-Clark of Coral Springs, Florida, say that there is “not just one right type of relationship.” There are multiple styles that associate with happiness and longevity. There is also no measurement for a good relationship.

Just remember that neither our momentous senses nor “feelings” are the best indication for a good relationship. From a constructivist perspective, I contend that we give life into love and relationship by making meanings out of what’s happening around us. So, buying a bouquet of roses for your lovers may mean “love,” but what it really is, is simply an act of giving.

The above are merely me two cents for those who are working out a relationship. Determine for yourself what works best and what doesn’t. At the end of the day, Dr. Phil is not going to sleep in between you and your lover to help solve your issues.

This article originally appeared in the University Chronicle on Feb. 3, 2013.
Image by Marcus Meisler

50 Things to Consider before You Date (or Marry) a Designer


Inspired by Yupie Love and A Bourbon for Silvia. Here’s my version of what you should consider before deciding whether or not to date (or marry) a graphic designer:

  1. They are probably not very rich.
  2. There are millions of them out there, and they hate each other.
  3. They cannot dine in a restaurant without critiquing the menu design.
  4. They collect posters, menus, albums, and even brochures from the hospital.
  5. They always look tired, because they work all the time.
  6. They spend all their money buying Apple products.
  7. They steal road signs.
  8. They read vogue and comics.
  9. They won’t go out with you if you pair a pink top with yellow skirt.
  10. They replace regular water with beer.
  11. They worship Mad Men.
  12. If you go to a movie together, you’ll be the last to leave because they want to read the full list of credits.
  13. You’ll probably not want to make them a birthday card, or holiday card, or I-wish-I-know-how-to-please-you card.
  14. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. And Starbucks only.
  15. They snark at mediocre logos they find around town or online.
  16. They would buy weird sh*t just because they like the packaging.
  17. They would wake up in the middle of the night and go straight to their computer because, “an idea just came up.”
  18. They do judge a book by its cover.
  19. You can’t redecorate the house without consulting them first.
  20. They might own more shoes than you.
  21. They speak brand names that mean nothing to you.
  22. They will rant to you how much they disliked Windows 8.
  23. They tell you the CMYK and RGB of a color you should wear when you ask for an opinion on your dress.
  24. They steal paint chips from hardware stores.
  25. They want to be the next 30 under 30, and 40 under 40.
  26. A Lion means something totally different to them.
  27. They like musicals and alternative genres of performance, which you may find creepy.
  28. They have no problem living on ramen noodles while working under a tight deadline.
  29. All of their deadlines were yesterday.
  30. Despite their passion for colors, their favorite work/casual outfit is usually a white t-shirt with jeans.
  31. They will constantly show you their latest project at the dinner table.
  32. They love museums.
  33. They love libraries, but only those with insane architectural design.
  34. They constantly talk about how much they would love to live in New York.
  35. Don’t ask them about those lens-less glasses. You won’t find a satisfying answer.
  36. The furniture they pick are probably not very practical/functional.
  37. They give others deadline, though they can hardly meet one themselves.
  38. They take photos of strangers. They take photos with strangers.
  39. They are Steve Jobs groupies, strong-willed macvocates.
  40. They buy McDonalds Happy Meal because they liked the Minion toys.
  41. They get all mad when you tell them Arial and Helvetica are basically the same typeface.
  42. They doodle on napkins while waiting to be served at a restaurant.
  43. They seems to always ask for a “true” black.
  44. You’ll hear Christmas tunes in June because they are working on a holiday billboard.
  45. They never work well with printing services because “they can never get it right.”
  46. They make artwork out of recyclable things like vinyls and toilet paper rolls.
  47. They ask for your opinion, but never really follow them.
  48. You can never tell if that magazine on the coffee table was an original or a mockup.
  49. They can look at one image/photo for a long, long time, and not say a word.
  50. Above all, they are really nice (sometimes), sensitive people.

What would you add to the list? Are you currently dating a designer? What has been your experience?

The Ethics of Social Networking and Virtual Relationships


I had an interesting enlightenment last week about digitally mediated friendships, or in a proper term: virtual friendships. We do it, we feel weird about it at times, but we don’t really acknowledge the awkwardness in converting virtual friends to physically “pokable” people.

A long-time friend of mine, let’s call him, Jim, caught me unguarded, recently, on Facebook when he sent me a “hey there” out of the blue. Jim and I met during our first year in college. We became Facebook friends after taking a class together and had never really talked face-to-face after we both became busier with school.

Yet, Facebook made it possible for us to receive updates (via feeds) about each other’s lives, in general. So, I knew when Jim went to a Lady Gaga concert, attended his sister’s wedding, and had gotten a highlight in his hair. Likewise, Jim probably noticed some of the events and activities I made public on the social networks. I was slightly out of my wits when I saw that chat message from Jim last week. Nonetheless, I remained cool and we chatted online for the next two days. The friendlier side of me then decided to invite Jim out for coffee. That was how things began to feel a little odd.

The regular “Hello, how are you? So great to see you,” introduction went okay. But when I asked Jim how the Gaga concert went, he gave me a cold stare. There and then I realized that I had broken some sort of a digital friendship code of ethics. Maybe, just maybe, thou shall not talk about your friends’ activities on social media if you haven’t contributed to the conversations, online or offline, prior to face-to-face meetings. Meaning, I shouldn’t have asked about the Gaga concert since I was not a part of that conversation before I met with Jim; I was merely a “stalker” by Internet terms.

The rest of our coffee date was spent with an elephant in the room. From this incident, I have also gained some other insights about maintaining virtual friendships:

Online friendships are disembodied reality.

Virtual relationships don’t mean they are unreal; people have different expectations for communicating and sharing online. As various devices allow us to connect with others on multiple levels, the depth and meaningfulness of virtual friendships vary from one relationship to another. As such, we must be sensitive to the digital distance between our friends and us when deciding the point of entry for our conversations.

Online sociality prefers honesty.

Truthfulness is desired when it comes to the ethical dimension of social networks. Even though online users get great autonomy in playing with the notions of identity without much risk, newer technologies are demanding users to be more responsible of their identities and acts. Never fake another person’s identity. Humble brags are acceptable, but don’t overdo it.

Treat thy online friends like thyself.

It is possible that we sometimes overlook modesty when engaging with others online. A rule of thumb is to not say anything to an online person that you won’t otherwise say to him or her face-to-face. It may be fun to tease someone over the Internet, but one should be reminded that unintended online bullying is just as bad as intended bullying. The golden rule also applies here online, too: treat others how you’d like to be treated.

Virtual friendships are a common social phenomenon these days. It’s a social skill the newer generation needs to master. To avoid being that socially awkward person online – and later, face-to-face – remember the mentioned etiquette for your own good.

This editorial is published at University Chronicle on September 8, 2013.
Image courtesy of