A Genre Analysis Workshop for Faculty Writing Digital Monographs

Contributor: Gwendolynne Reid and Sarah McKee
Affiliation: Oxford College of Emory University;  Emory University
Email: gwendolynne.reid at emory.edu, sarah.mckee2 at emory.edu
Released: 14 December 2021
Published: Issue 26.2 (Spring 2022)


Readers of Kairos, first published in 1996 (Kairos, 2014), are well aware that scholars have been experimenting with digital publication of academic work since the beginning of the Web (Ball, 2016). Brian Trench (2008), in fact, reminds us that “electronic mail, file transfer protocol, telnet, Gopher and the World Wide Web were all developed and applied first in research communities” (p. 185). The Internet was made for and by scholarship and later extended to other uses and contexts. When set against this five decade history of digital scholarship,1 impatience at the halting movement toward widespread born-digital scholarly publications (e.g. Eyman & Ball, 2015; Stone, 1998) is understandable. Yet when set against the much longer history of scholarly journals—a history we can date to 1665 with the first issues of the Journal des Sçavans and the Philosophical Transactions (Brown, 1972)—the halting progress of the last several decades of innovation in academic publishing appears downright rapid. We are clearly in a period of accelerated genre change in scholarly communication.

While much of our discipline’s attention has been rightly focused on helping students navigate communication in new media environments, we also have valuable expertise in helping our colleagues in other disciplines navigate genre change in their own writing. Our long history of supporting faculty with writing pedagogy in their own fields—the WAC movement—in fact provides a useful toolkit for working with faculty in other disciplines on writing-related questions outside pedagogy and curriculum. The “Statement of WAC Principles and Practices” (2014) provides as a grounding concept that “writing is highly situated and tied to a field’s discourse and ways of knowing,” with instruction on writing in disciplines “most effectively guided by those with expertise in that discipline” (p. 1). In enacting this principle, WAC leaders are accustomed to sharing research and concepts from rhetoric and composition while respecting colleagues’ expertise as experienced writers in their own disciplines. Because much expert genre knowledge can be tacit, a large focus for WAC leaders can actually be helping faculty colleagues access their own genre knowledge to see what is usually invisible about their own writing.

This Praxis Wiki shares a faculty workshop with such a goal given at Emory University’s Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry as part of its Digital Publishing in the Humanities (DPH) initiative, supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. This Mellon grant, one of dozens designed to encourage innovation in humanities publishing, supports digital monograph publication by Emory faculty in the humanities through a university-funded model of publication (Elliott, 2015). While some digital monographs planned as part of the DPH grant remediate print-based monographs closely (e.g., open access enhanced e-books), others are more thoroughly digital and multimodal, making use of affordances like interactivity and nonlinearity. All, however, must be accepted for publication by a peer-reviewed academic press and therefore must be recognizable as monographs. With these high stakes, the workshop described below was conceived by Sarah, lead staff for the grant, as an inventional workshop designed to help digital monograph authors make intentional choices about their genre innovation. To meet this goal, Gwendolynne, a rhetoric and composition specialist at Emory, designed the workshop to provide threshold concepts in rhetorical genre studies (RGS) and multimodality and to guide participants in genre analysis designed to help participants access tacit knowledge on the monograph genre in their fields.

Our webtext begins with context on the grant structuring authors' writing experiences and then describes the three parts of the half-day workshop: (1) key concepts from genre theory and analysis of print monographs in faculty members’ disciplines; (2) key concepts relevant to digital, multimodal composing and analysis of published digital monographs; and (3) authors’ application of their analysis to planning their own projects. For readers of Kairos, we believe the following description of our workshop offers two main contributions: firstly, a heuristic for genre analysis that can easily be adapted for both print-based and digital texts and a variety of users (in our case, faculty, but students could also benefit); and secondly, a workshop that can serve as a model for those seeking to draw on their expertise in rhetoric and composition to build relationships with colleagues across disciplines. While we already have models for relationship-building in WAC, we believe that there is value in building relationships around scholarship and writing in addition to pedagogy and that experts in rhetoric and composition have expertise that can help colleagues navigate genre change in their fields and disciplines.

Context: A Genre-Based Grant

In 2014, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation launched a new initiative “focused on helping to develop new capacity in the monograph-publishing ecosystem” (Maxwell, 2017). That same year, with a planning grant from Mellon, a small group of Emory University faculty began a conversation about the state of humanistic scholarship, and in particular, how the genre of historically greatest import to it—the monograph—might evolve within the digital environment. The group’s findings are described in the report “The Future of the Monograph in the Digital Era” (Elliott, 2015), which serves in turn as the foundation for the current Digital Publishing in the Humanities (DPH) initiative at Emory, a five-year experiment (2016–2021) to support faculty authors engaged in digital monograph publishing.

The DPH initiative encourages authors to explore “new means of scholarly production and publication” (Elliott, 2015) in the digital environment, and it supports three potential pathways for developing digital monographs. While these pathways, described in more detail below, offer significant flexibility, each work supported by the grant must satisfy three key conditions. First, the work should be recognizable as a monograph, defined by Elliott (2015) as “a peer-reviewed, detailed written work on a single specialized subject, whose presentation of evidence, argument, and conclusions do not fit within the constraints of an academic journal publication.” Following from this definition, the monograph should undergo rigorous peer review and be accepted for publication by an academic press, regardless of its form. And finally, any monograph supported by the grant must be published as open access, meaning that all readers may access it online for free, without an institutional subscription. The combined invitation to explore new forms of publication along with the stipulation that it be recognizable as a monograph amounts, in RGS terms, to an invited act of genre innovation, something Christine Tardy (2016) notes “is not an inherent quality but rather is a value assigned by others” (p. 131). Experiments like these must be “perceived as effective and successful by the text’s intended audience or community of practice” in order to be deemed innovative (p. 9), a reality built into the grant’s conditions.

The first pathway to developing a digital monograph, and the most straightforward, offers a subsidy, directly to a university press, that supports the open access publication of a traditional monograph. The open access version replicates the content and form of its print edition and is typically disseminated as a PDF or an EPUB file. But as authors are increasingly eager to include such digital assets as audio and video clips, interactive maps, or data visualizations alongside their written arguments, a second pathway leads to the development of an enhanced digital monograph, which integrates text with digital components. Here again, a print edition of the book is typically available as well (sans the digital enhancements), and the essential form and structure of the monograph remains unchanged.

The third pathway toward an interactive digital monograph raises fundamental questions of what humanities scholarship might look like in digital environments. For authors committed to pushing the boundaries of the printed book, creating born-digital and interactive monographs not only allows them to showcase digital artifacts but also provides an opportunity to build a complex argument through design. Such works seek to embrace, as Eyman and Ball (2015) describe it, an “enactment of digital rhetoric,” perhaps inviting multiple conclusions and active participation from readers. But how far can such a work deviate in form from the traditional book and still be recognized as a substantial contribution to its field? Will its scholarly argument still be legible to readers? And how will publishers respond to works that require significant deviation from their established editorial and production workflows?            

Answers to these questions are complicated and dependent on multiple contingencies. Authors often discover that composing a digital publication requires learning new technical skills and/or collaborating with others. For some, digital humanities methodologies alter the research process, and even the research question, in ways that invite new publication strategies. For others, accustomed to writing and interpreting linear text, the options for assembling digital material into a compelling argument feels overwhelming. Thinking about design in general, for many humanities scholars, can be unfamiliar terrain. Moreover, just as the printed monograph is not a static genre, nor entirely consistent across disciplines, digital monographs also resist monolithic expression. As a result, authors of digital monographs find themselves pioneering new forms of scholarship without guidance from established models, or from trusted mentors and colleagues, as they deviate from their field’s “frequently traveled path” (Schryer, 1993, p. 207). Indeed, those trusted mentors might be quite skeptical about the wisdom of the digital approach, given that most humanities faculty and administrators continue to rely upon printed monographs as the safest route to advancement.

This workshop, then, was developed as an early intervention for authors whose work lends itself to digital expression. Using an RGS framework, we asked participants to consider the essential attributes of monographs within their own disciplines, and how they might include or adapt those attributes within their digital projects, framing this explicitly as an act of genre innovation. Finally, and crucially, the workshop fostered a community of humanist authors that shared a spirit of experimentation and certain structural and logistical challenges, even as their disciplines and individual project needs varied widely.

Part I: Introducing Rhetorical Genre Theory

To give attendees a shared vocabulary and support their meta-knowledge about genre, the workshop began by introducing threshold concepts in RGS, drawing explicitly on the relevant genre literature. Attendees then applied these concepts through a genre analysis of several print monographs they had brought with them, serving to elicit tacit knowledge about the monograph genre in their field.

As a warm-up, the workshop began with a playful genre exercise using the meme genre. Beginning with a few prototypical memes academics might recognize (Figure 1), the workshop started with oral analysis of the genre, an exercise that initially seemed simple and elicited form-based rules about images and overlaid text. Once these were elicited, we presented an example that follows these rules but is clearly not a meme—a Dalai Lama inspirational poster—to push participants beyond formal rules to also consider dimensions such as substance and situation in defining the genre. It became necessary to clarify, for example, that memes can be used to reinforce commonalities among those who share both the meme’s visual reference and the common experience referred to through its text (e.g., the experience of grading). The generally snarky stance of most memes can work to further create unity with those who share the experiences and stance, while creating separation from those who don’t. In the workshop, a meme on the “comprehensive monograph” (Figure 1), a genre common in botany that differs substantially from monographs in many humanities disciplines, was used to further illustrate how memes can be used to invoke a certain audience and reinforce shared experiences within that community, while distancing those not part of the community. This particular meme also served to call into question whether “monograph” could usefully be thought of as a single genre across disciplines or if it might vary. This playful analysis served to illustrate how formal analysis is insufficient for genre analysis and the important role of purpose and audience in defining genres.

Workshop slide with two familiar writing and grading memes: (1) an image of Willy Wonka with the text 'Writing is hard? Who knew?' overlaid; and (2) an image from Game of Thrones with the text 'A day may come when I finish grading papers, but it is not this day' overlaid.  Workshop slide with two unfamiliar monograph memes: (1) an image of Inigo Montoya with the text 'Monograph. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means' overlaid; and (2) a composite image of a man and woman in increasing agony from an unknown film with the words 'When you're really into a comprehensive monograph: read the next species! next one, next one! That's the last one! [screaming] overlaid.  Workshop slide with inspirational poster of the Dalai Lama with his serene face on a black background with a quote overlaid: 'In the practice of tolerance, one's enemy is the best teacher.'
Fig. 1: Workshop slides using memes to reflect on relationships between form, substance, and situation when describing genres. Initial slide (left) presents two memes familiar to many teachers; second slide (middle) presents less familiar memes that also served to challenge simple descriptions of monographs as a genre; third slide (right) presents an image that seems to follow the formal features of the meme genre, but is not a meme. See "Writing is Hard"; "A Day May Come"; "You Keep Using That Word"; "Comprehensive Monograph"; and "One's Enemy."  


From this light-hearted applied introduction to genre, the workshop moved into theory, introducing participants to Lloyd Bitzer’s (1968) observation that “comparable situations” prompt “comparable responses,” over time resulting in traditions that constrain rhetors’ possible responses (p. 13). We then moved from there to Carolyn Miller’s (1984) definition of genres, ultimately examining eleven threshold concepts in RGS:

  1. Genres are not reducible to form or rules.
  2. Genres are recurring responses.
  3. Genres are social actions.
  4. Genres help do our rhetorical thinking.
  5. Genres have co-constitutive relationships with context.
  6. Genres are a form of social reproduction.
  7. Genres mediate the individual and social.
  8. Genres are dynamic.
  9. Genre change comes from many places.
  10. Genres belong to communities.
  11. Genres relate to other genres and to material culture.

The last four concepts were meant to provide a transition from broad thinking about genres as social knowledge into thinking about participants’ digital authorship in the context of genre change, including the notions that genre change comes from many places (Miller, 2017), such as changes in related activities, tools, and practices (Swarts, 2006), and that communities—not rhetors—ultimately decide on the success and influence of a given genre performance (Schryer, 1993).

These concepts provided helpful meta-knowledge about genre for the centerpiece of the workshop: genre analysis of monographs in each author’s discipline or target field.  Because monographs are so long, authors had previewed these ahead of time and brought physical copies. In the spirit of co-learning, Gwendolynne brought three recent monographs on genre as well and conducted her own analysis while participants conducted theirs. To make the analysis manageable and multidimensional, we used Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s (1978) three dimensions of genre—substance, situation, and style—as an analytical heuristic (Figure 2), with style standing in for form more generally.

Workshop slide introducing style, substance, and situation as integral dimensions of genre
Fig. 2: Gwendolynne’s slide based on Campbell & Jamieson's (1978) constellation metaphor for genre.


For each of their sample monographs, participants took notes on patterns they noticed related to these three terms, with style further divided into structural-global, language-local, and referencing-intertextuality patterns (Table 1). Participants were provided with a list of possible questions to ask for each of the dimensions of analysis in case examining these dimensions were truly new to them QA: Handout Needs Linked!(see handout). In Gwendolynne’s analysis, for example, she noted under substance that monographs in her sample tended to include the rhetorical move or common topic of “pedagogical implications” in their conclusions, something not necessarily true of monographs in other fields.

Image shows an example table for a heuristic for a genre analysis of a print-based monograph.

After analyzing these three dimensions, attendees reflected on the “big picture” patterns they noticed, particularly the rhetorical action the monograph seemed to play in their field and which features of the genre seemed most critical to that action.

We closed this section of the workshop by sharing findings in small groups. This conversation was quite generative as most participants were advanced scholars in their fields and expert users of the genre. This conversation across fields prompted participants to make explicit otherwise tacit genre knowledge in order to explain patterns and conventions to outsiders, a phenomenon Catherine Schryer (2003) has noted of groups with varying levels of experience with a genre (p. 71)


Part II: Introducing Mode and Media

The second part of the workshop shifted from analyzing the more stabilized print-based monographs in attendees’ fields to considering authors’ possibilities for genre innovation using digital media. This part of the workshop began by introducing authors to key concepts related to multimodal and digital writing—mode, medium, and affordance—as well as to Kress’s (2005) notion of gains and losses to provide them with tools for thinking about their planned remediation as a form of genre innovation. For these concepts, Gwendolynne provided simple definitions and examples to help participants quickly distinguish between concepts that are interrelated and can be difficult to distinguish:

  • Mode - Cultural semiotic resources for making meaning (Kress, 2010; New London Group, 1996), e.g., linguistic, aural, visual, gestural, spatial.
  • Medium - Cultural technologies of dissemination (Kress, 2010), e.g., books, journals, film, blogs, videos, slides.
  • Genre - Typified rhetorical action based in situation (Miller, 1984), e.g., experimental report, literary criticism, reply.
  • Affordance - Potentials and limitations for use, representation, etc. offered by elements of our environment, including modes and media (originally from psychologist James Gibson, 1977), e.g., interactivity, archivability, annotation.

To think about multimodality and distinguish it from digitality, we looked at a page from David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s (1999) monograph, Remediation, noting the visuality of the page and its text in addition to its linguistic meaning-making (Figure 3) and the fact that print monographs are also multimodal. Bolter and Grusin also provided a useful artifact for thinking about the affordances of media. Specifically, Bolter and Grusin’s choice to remediate a digital convention in a print text (hyperlinking) draws attention to medium and encouraged participants to be more precise and reflexive about the affordances they associated with media.

A page from Bolter and Grusin's book, Remediation
Fig. 3: A page from Bolter and Grusin's (1999) Remediation.

To continue building on this theoretical toolbox and exploring the possibilities presented by digital monographs, attendees next collaboratively brainstormed some affordances of digital media (Figure 4). These included commonly cited affordances, such as nonlinearity, multimodality, and interactivity (some of the affordances that had attracted authors to digital monographs in the first place), but also some of the more problematic affordances of networked digital media such as surveillance, tracking, and filter bubbles. Not listed on our brainstorming slide, but a subject of conversation, were concerns over changed accessibility with digital texts, including concerns about digital divides.

Workshop slide with the affordances attendees brainstormed for digital media
Fig. 4: Slide of brainstormed digital affordances.


To close this segment of the workshop, we analyzed six sample monographs from three different academic presses: Stanford University Press, Computers and Composition Digital Press, and Publishing Without Walls. As part of their homework, attendees had been asked to identify digital monographs in their fields in addition to print-based monographs and to preview these similarly to how they had previewed print-based monographs. None of our attendees, however, were able to identify digital monographs in their fields and so we provided the six examples for analysis (Figure 5). Because participants were so interested in the multimodal, nonlinear affordances of digital media, we deliberately omitted linear e-books including those that are “enhanced.” Our chosen samples were from different disciplines and presses and were born-digital, meaning they could not be reproduced in print without substantially affecting their meaning (Eyman & Ball, 2015, p. 65).

Screenshop of Bauch's digital monograph Screenshop of Liebhaber's digital monograph Screenshop of Rambsy's digital monograph Screenshop of Lebow's digital monograph  Screenshop of Hidalgo's digital monograph Screenshop of Comer, Harker, & McCorkle's digital monograph


Fig. 5: Six recent digital monographs for analysis. Top row: Enchanting the Desert (Bauch, 2016); When Melodies Gather (Liebhaber, 2018); The JayZ Mixtape (Rambsy, 2018). Bottom row: Filming Revolution (Lebow, 2018); ~~Cámara retórica (Hidalgo, 2017);  The Archive as Classroom (Comer, Harker, & McCorkle, 2019).


For analysis of the digital monographs, participants took notes on their reading experiences using the same heuristic as for print-based monographs, but adding two categories under style (Campbell and Jamieson use “style” to stand for form): multimodality and digital affordances (see handout). Participants therefore continued to pay attention to substance/argument, structure, language, referencing/intertextuality, and situation, but also paid attention to how the monograph made use of modes and of digital affordances in making its argument.

One limitation of participants not bringing their own digital monographs, however, was that authors had to skim the monographs and had trouble engaging deeply with their arguments, focusing instead on user experience. For future workshops, we would more vigorously encourage attendees to select digital monographs from their fields ahead of time, but this in part seemed to be a product of the historical moment and the limited number of such born-digital monographs. Notably, while participants were excited about the possibilities digital media offered them as  authors (a reason they were participating in the workshop), when asked to read and analyze born-digital monographs, they became more critical, asking questions about why certain monographs needed to be digital and pushing against monographs that required extensive pre-instruction to navigate. Participants appreciated Comer, Harker, and McCorkle’s (2019) The Archive as Classroom on the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives because they immediately recognized it as a book and were easily able to grasp how to read it. For other digital monographs, however, they often pushed against the additional labor required of readers when deviating from the well-trodden path of the monograph genre, even when that deviation was what attracted them to innovate as authors themselves.

Part III: Application

The final segment of the workshop was briefer than the two analytical sections, serving to encourage attendees to make a concrete connection back to their own monographs and to create a bridge from this early inventional work to further grant-sponsored workshops and activities. One of the concepts participants abstracted from their analysis of digital monographs in the previous segment was that there needed to be a clear connection between the digital affordances used and an author’s argument. When this connection was not clear or seemed gratuitous, readers lost patience in the work necessary to make meaning outside the well-traveled paths of the monograph genre (paths that enabled efficient skimming, for example). In the last half hour of the workshop, then, we asked participants to articulate the crux of their argument in a sentence or two (Figure 6). They were then encouraged to think creatively about the possibilities for their digital monograph by listing all the affordances they could think of for helping make their argument digitally and jotting down how they might be used in their monograph. Having just engaged with several examples helped participants list a number of possibilities. That same experience, however, also facilitated the next step, which asked participants to think more critically about which of these affordances and options were most fitting. To use Eyman and Ball’s (2015) terminology, which of these could help them enact their argument through design rather than design choices coming across as superfluous to the argument? At this point, we also asked them to consider which choices were feasible and what they could do to help make their work recognizable to readers as participating in the monograph genre.

Workshop slide with final reflective prompts
Fig. 6: Prompts for reflecting on authors’ own digital monograph projects.


For each of these prompts, participants then took a moment to annotate their answers from a genre perspective, a move intended to help them be deliberate in their innovation:

  • My argument - Is it fitting for the monograph genre in my field? Am I pushing boundaries in some way?
  • Digital possibilities - How are these a continuation of the print genre? How do these change/push the genre?
  • Making it fitting, feasible, and recognizable - What are the implications of these affordances from a genre perspective—style, substance, & situation? Gains and losses? Consider readers:  preservation, discoverability, disciplinary contributions, related activities/systems, etc.

This final activity gave participants a takeaway to help guide their ongoing inventional work and to encourage creative and critical approaches to design innovation. Notably, while some participants came away re-energized to pursue a born-digital, interactive monograph (pathway three), the exercise led others to realize that an enhanced monograph (pathway two) fit their communicative goals more closely. We see this as a positive outcome of the workshop and one of its chief benefits for colleagues in other fields—the workshop gave participants a space and toolkit for assessing their own goals and options in community with others and for continuing their inventional process with greater intentionality.

Parting Thoughts

While all genres include a degree of flexibility in tension with stability (Devitt, 2004), sometimes authors depart further from the variations available to them within a genre, elevating their choices to the level of innovation (Tardy, 2016). The workshop we describe purposefully situated authors as engaging in genre innovation, something that is perhaps more common in academic writing than generally assumed (Thaiss & Zawacki, 2006), but that is not without its risks. DPH-supported authors, for example, were encouraged to experiment but still needed their projects to achieve recognizability as monographs (Giltrow & Stein, 2009)—not as digital humanities projects, digital archives, or scholarly webtexts—by academic press editors, reviewers, and, ultimately, disciplinary readers. Our hope was to support authors in their innovation, while also helping them critically assess their options to avoid disappointing outcomes or unnecessary investments of time and labor in writing and design options that ultimately did not advance their arguments. Our approach was to provide attendees with an RGS-based theoretical toolkit for accessing their own tacit knowledge about writing in their fields and for being reflexive about their choice to (attempt to) become leaders of monograph genre change.

Participants’ eager conversations about genre, media, and mode, and about each other’s monograph projects suggest that there may be more space than we generally assume for those in rhetoric, composition, and writing studies to help colleagues in other disciplines navigate genre and medial change in their own writing. While the rich WAC literature offers many models of faculty workshops around pedagogy and even some focusing on attendees’ own disciplinary writing, we hope this webtext will offer readers a model that synthesizes genre theory with digital rhetoric and multimodality in order to expand the possibilities for collaboration with colleagues across our campuses. While colleagues across disciplines may be aware of our contributions to issues related to student writing and to certain forms of academic writing, many are less familiar with our expertise in digital rhetoric and how this might be applied to their own digital writing. We hope this workshop provides a starting point for collaborating with colleagues beyond the usual exigences presented by student writing to also include the exigences presented by faculty authors’ own disciplinary genre innovation related to digital media.

1 The first connection between two computers took place in 1969.



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