CFP: Composition as Big Data

Computational analysis of big data has changed the way information is processed. Corporations analyze patterns in what people buy, how far they run, where they spend their time; they quantify habits to create more effective advertisements and cross-promotions. In academe, humanities scholars are using computational analysis to identify patterns in literary texts, historical documents, image archives, and sound, all of which has added to the body of knowledge in humanities theory and methodology. Meanwhile, many institutions and writing programs are adopting learning management systems that may digitally archive hundreds – if not thousands or tens of thousands – of student compositions from across levels and disciplines. What is our responsibility, and what is the potential, in harnessing big-data methods as composition researchers, teachers, and administrators?

Composition and rhetoric scholars have begun to adopt corpus-based computational analysis both to better understand the field as a whole – through the rhetoric of job postings (Lauer), professional journals (Mueller; Almjeld et al), and dissertation records (Miller; Gatta) – and to research student compositions, the teaching of which is the primary job of most composition and rhetoric scholars. Through data-driven studies of student entrance exams (Aull), citation practices (Jamieson and Moore Howard), revision practices (Moxley), and acknowledgment of counterarguments (Lancaster), scholars have found patterns that distinguish student writing from published academic writing, suggesting areas to target for instruction.

This edited collection will model and reflect on the research made possible by high-capacity data storage and computation, either alone or in conjunction with close reading and evaluation in context. Authors are invited to submit abstracts for chapters that focus on the rhetoric, methods, and findings of recent large-scale data studies of writing. We are especially interested in contributions that include replicable practices and/or detailed descriptions of method, with an eye toward graduate-level research, teaching, or administrative applications in the intersecting fields of digital humanities, linguistics, and composition.

The following list of topics and questions is not exhaustive, but suggestive, illustrating the range of issues to be taken up:

  • Data Capture and the Captivation of Data
    • When we say “big data” in composition what do we mean? What datasets are available, promising, or already producing insight?
    • What new questions do these datasets allow us to ask or answer? What are their limitations?
    • How has data gathered from large corpora of (student) writing changed the scholarship and practice of composition / rhetoric? How might such data do so in the future?
  • Responsible Research
    • Who is responsible for creating or curating datasets in composition? How might the answers change at different scales?
    • What are the ethical responsibilities of anyone storing, retrieving, or analyzing composition data – perhaps especially where students and their writing are concerned?
    • How, should researchers negotiate issues of consent and representation when recording or reporting on data? How is this affected by the scale or scope of the data?
  • Discourse and Discovery
    • How can computational tools aid in the qualitative coding of (student) writing? How do these practices relate to traditional coding methods?
    • What data-supported models of writing practices emerge from the study of digital corpora?
    • What does or can big data show about the nature of expertise and learning in the context of composing?
  • Pedagogical Practices
    • How can the field of composition / rhetoric use data to positively impact pedagogical or andragogical practices? For example, how can data-supported studies improve composition instruction in higher education?
    • What is the relationship between distant and close reading in regard to assessing student writing? Can and/or should distant reading practices be applied to assessment at the undergraduate level, and in what ways?
    • What role can analysis of big data play for student researchers in composition / rhetoric?
  • Supporting a Data-Supported Future
    • What standards or best practices are emerging for data archiving, aggregation, and interoperability?
    • How might those new to big-data approaches most usefully manage issues of scope or  documentation?
    • How can we best support new researchers, teachers, or administrators in developing comfort with big-data approaches and insights? What does a successful program of big-data training look like?

Abstracts of approximately 350 words should provide, in as much detail as possible, the focus and argument(s) for the proposed chapter. Abstracts and brief bios are due 1 August 2017 via Google Forms at Questions can be directed to Amanda Licastro ( or Ben Miller ( with the subject line “Composition as Big Data.”

The Editors

Amanda Licastro is an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric at Stevenson University in Maryland. Amanda’s fields of research include digital humanities, composition and rhetoric, textual studies, and interactive technology and pedagogy. Recent publications include a “The Problem of Multimodality: What Data-Driven Research Can Tell Us About Online Writing Practices” in Communication Design Quarterly, a co-authored chapter on “Collaboration” in Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities: Concepts, Models, and Experiments, a webtext in the 20th anniversary edition of Kairos, “The Roots of an Academic Genealogy: Composing the Writing Studies Tree” with Ben Miller and Jill Belli, and her dissertation “Excavating ePortfolios: What Student-Driven Data Reveals about Multimodal Composition and Instruction,” which won the Calder Award for Digital Humanities. Amanda is on the Editorial Collective of The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, and is the co-founder of The Writing Studies Tree. You can follow Amanda on Twitter @amandalicastro.


Benjamin Miller is an Assistant Professor of Composition at the University of Pittsburgh, focusing on digital research and pedagogy. He is the lead developer of the Writing Studies Tree, a crowdsourced, open-access database of academic genealogies in Composition/Rhetoric and related fields, tracing connections among scholars and institutions along lines of mentorship, education, collaboration, and employment; he has written about the WST, with Amanda Licastro and Jill Belli, in Kairos 20.2 (2016). He is also the author of “Mapping the Methods of Composition/Rhetoric Dissertations: A ‘Landscape Plotted and Pieced,’ an article drawing on big data and data visualization techniques, published in CCC in 2014. A founding editor of the open access Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, Ben continues to be an active member of its editorial collective. He received a CCCC Chairs’ Memorial Scholarship in 2012, and a CCCC Emergent Research/er Award in 2017 for Distant Readings of Disciplinarity: Knowing and Doing in Composition/Rhetoric Dissertations. He has taught writing at Pitt, at Hunter College, CUNY, and at Columbia University. You can find Ben on Twitter at @benmiller314.

Teaching Empathy Through Virtual Reality


In Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep the U.N. secretary proclaims, “[m]ankind needs more empathy” (1968). The poignancy of Dick’s novel is its accurate expression of the social challenge of diminishing human empathy. The author offers empathy as the defining characteristic of humanity. As is often the case, science fiction foreshadows our future: longitudinal studies show decreasing rates of empathy in college students over the last three decades. If we believe that empathy is indeed a vital quality, then humanists are uniquely qualified to address this decline: extensive research suggests that empathy can be taught, specifically by reading fiction. Furthermore, preliminary trials indicate that virtual reality (VR) effectively evokes feelings of empathy in viewers. In both cases, the medium can provide the audience with access to situations outside of their everyday experience, offering a perspective into the lives of people unfamiliar to the reader/viewer. Take, for example, the work of documentary filmmaker Chris Milk that immerses the viewer in war torn villages in order to impact immigration policy (see “How virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine,” 2016) or the content of the New York Times VR application which addresses a wide variety of social justice issues from all over the world. However, as critics such at Janet Murray rightfully argue, the impact of VR is dependent on the execution, which is still in development stages: “[t]he technical adventurism and grubby glamour of working in emerging technologies can make it hard to figure out what is good or bad from what is just new” (“Not a Film and Not an Empathy Machine,” 2016). As the digital humanities has encountered with other emerging technologies – most notably data visualization techniques – these new forms need to be critiqued as they evolve (Drucker, 2012). Inviting students and educators to collaborate with industry professionals in the process of consuming, critiquing, and creating open access VR content creates the opportunity to design thoughtful immersive experiences that may address the decline in empathy in college age students. This presentation will explicate a study-in-progress devised to measure the pedagogical impact of VR content in combination with design thinking assignments used to combat desensitization and evoke empathy across the disciplines.

This research is supported with a case study of students in a series of linked courses at a small liberal arts college in Baltimore, MD. Students were exposed to VR content intended to increase their feelings of empathy for people who represent the “Other” in various ways, such as gender, race, ethnicity, and social class. This study was created through a cross-campus collaboration between faculty from the humanities, social sciences, and school of design alongside the theater director and librarians. Using empathy as the central question, each course integrated VR content and related readings into the curriculum. In each case, VR provided access to experiences not possible within the classroom space, for example an immersion into a refugee camp, a simulation of the human brain, and a documentary depicting gender bias across cultural contexts. The VR was scaffolded into each course in discipline-specific ways. For instance, the literature courses focused on readings that depict representations of virtual bodies in tandem with theory on posthumanism, particularly the work of Katherine Hayles and Donna Haraway. At the same time, the theater program produced The Nether by Jennifer Haley, which raises questions about the laws governing virtual spaces through depictions of pederasty and the murder of young children. Simultaneously, courses in psychology and human services integrated VR to discuss the impact of immersive content on social justice reform, and nursing courses looked at the application of VR for patient care and education. To varying degrees, this work was supplemented with readings on feminism, race theory, and disability studies in order to support discussions of “othering” with students. After analyzing the VR content in conjunction with the course materials, students were  asked to design a VR experience intended to evoke empathy in the context of a discipline-specific audience. Additionally, members of a local VR company contributed as guest speakers and offered internships for interested students. Surveys were distributed at the beginning and end of the semester which prompted students to define, discuss, and debate empathy. At the end of each course students were interviewed to identify which methods of engagement increased their empathy toward people (in some cases characters) they felt were unlike themselves in significant ways.

As a part of this submission the syllabi and assignments will be shared. Ideally, the speaker will bring a VR headset and gaming laptop so participants can experience and consider how this emerging technology can evoke empathy by providing access to geographical, cultural, political, and biological content unfamiliar to the viewer. The goal is to receive audience feedback on the first stage of this study in order to improve and refine the methods before executing the plan on a larger scale. This study is IRB approved and student consent will be obtained for any student work that is presented.

Thinking and Writing Through New Media

Here is the syllabus for a new course I will be teaching at the NYU Gallatin school this Fall. The course is a first year writing seminar I designed called “Thinking and Writing Through New Media.” The goal is for students to critically examine the past, present, and future of writing technologies as a lens to understanding their own writing process and the impact of new media on the way we think. The three major writing projects were inspired by Sondra Perl’s “Digital Literacy Narratives,” Miriam Posner’s “Device Narratives,” and Kari Kraus’s “Design Fiction.” I will post these assignment sheets throughout the semester, but will explain the concepts to anyone who is interested now. Your feedback is most welcome.

Here is the site URL: