Clouds, graphs, and maps: Distant reading and disciplinary imagination

Derek N. Mueller, Syracuse University


Clouds, Graphs, and Maps: Distant Reading and Disciplinary Imagination examines recent efforts by scholars in rhetoric and composition to account for patterns and trends indicative of the discipline's maturation. Many of these "discipliniographic" appraisals resort, on the one hand, to anecdotal, experience-based accounts or, on the other hand, to methods too laborious to reproduce. Within this project, however, I identify and apply new methods that expand our means of apprehending patterns latent in the growing mass of disciplinary materials. Influenced by the work of Franco Moretti, this dissertation theorizes and also carries out variations of a methodology he calls "distant reading," which seeks to mine and aggregate data from large collections of texts to then build experimental models for engaging with non-obvious relationships. After establishing the exigency of this work for the field of rhetoric and composition and after establishing a conceptual groundwork for these methods, this dissertation presents three types of models--tag clouds, graphs, and maps--designed as a means to examine scholarship published in College Composition and Communication from 1987 to 2006. I contend that these models deepen and also complicate existing accounts of the discipline. By shedding light on large-scale patterns, the models also implicitly promote what I describe as a network sense of the field, which is crucial both for introducing newcomers to the shifting terrain of disciplinary knowledge and for sustaining a generalist's wherewithal in the midst of a growing archive of increasingly specialized scholarship. As a consequence of distant reading methods, network sense makes it possible for compositionists both to specialize in their work and also to keep abreast of developments in the field at the periphery of their narrow areas of teaching and research.