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A Net-working Community: WIDE and the Rhetoric and Writing Graduate Program at Michigan State University

A Net-working Community: WIDE and the Rhetoric and Writing Graduate Program at Michigan State University

In keeping with this issue's theme of social networking/social software, our profile of MSU's Rhetoric and Writing Graduate program addresses the role of networks as critical infrastructure for the development and sustainability of program components. The profile examines four primary networks: institutional networks, social networks for research, for teaching, and social networking beyond academe.

The Rhetoric and Writing program at Michigan State University accepted its first cohort of graduate students in the fall of 2003, enjoying a steady growth rate of about six PhD students and 6-8 MA students each year; the program currently hosts 43 graduate students and is served by a cadre of 19 core faculty members. In 2004, Co-Directors Jeff Grabill and Jim Porter established a research center for the investigation of writing in digital environments (the WIDE center); this center joined the other institutional units engaged by the Rhetoric and Writing graduate program (R&W)—the MSU Writing Center and the department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures (WRAC), which oversees the first-year composition courses and houses the undergraduate professional writing program. The distributed resources and opportunities of these separate units form an institutional network that both serves and is served by the R&W graduate students.

The Institutional Network: 4 Locations for Writing Research and Pedagogy

The Rhetoric and Writing Graduate Program

The mission of the R&W graduate program is to prepare students to be culturally and technologically engaged thinkers, writers, researchers, teachers, and citizens. To meet this goal, the program works to provide a humane educational experience informed by rigorous intellectual and ethical practices. Because the program emphasizes rhetoric not only as theoretical engagement but also as productive action, it sees many sites of practice as appropriate for “doing rhetoric”: communities, classrooms, workplaces, cultures, and texts (print, digital, and non-alphabetic). Students in the program are encouraged to envision their work as taking place at the intersections of scholarship, teaching, and service within a range of linguistically and culturally diverse contexts (

The PhD in Rhetoric & Writing prepares students to study writing as situated practice and to research, develop, and administer a variety of academic, workplace, civic, government, nonprofit, publishing, and digital writing projects. There are officially five areas of specialization for PhD students, but as each new cohort has arrived, the boundaries between these areas have been continually eroded as students sought to merge interests in multiple areas. The five designated areas are:

  • Community Literacies
  • Critical Studies in Literacy and Pedagogy
  • Cultural Rhetorics
  • Digital Rhetoric and Professional Writing
  • Nonfiction Writing

The WIDE Center

The WIDE Research Center investigates how digital technologies—such as the networked personal computer, the Internet and World Wide Web, and computer-based classrooms and workplaces—change the processes, products, and contexts for writing, particularly in organizational and collaborative composing contexts. Because the WIDE center is institutionally separate from the graduate program, WIDE’s contribution to graduate education has taken some time to develop. Today, though, a great many graduate students have the opportunity to work on various projects that examine writing practices and products. The WIDE center is currently engaged in explorations of

Digital Literacy Infrastructure
Making/designing tools to help people write/work
Writing as Knowledge Work
Understanding the role of writing in the digital information economy
Outreach Computing
Designing digital spaces to help community organizations and to promote citizenship
International/Global Composing
Understanding digital composing and designing writing tools to support composing, across/between cultures and countries

The Writing Center

Established primarily to provide writing workshop support to students and assistance to faculty interested in using writing to engage students in active learning and thereby in improving the quality and range of their students' literacy, the Writing Center conceives its task broadly. Mindful that literacy is learned through use across contexts and over a lifetime, in addition to working to improve the quality and range of literacy in MSU, the Center has reached out to involve itself in the teaching and uses of literacy in both the communities and schools that send students to MSU and the communities and workplaces that students enter when they leave MSU (

One of the initiatives of the writing center that works well with the R&W graduate program's emphasis on digital and cultural rhetorics is a continuing shift from print-only writing to multimodal and multimedia writing: writing center consultants are trained to help writers both with traditional writing tasks and new digital writing tasks such as developing interactive works with Flash or designing web-based portfolios.

The Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures

As well as teaching MSU's first year writing courses (here called “Tier I” courses), the WRAC department offers bachelors degrees in American Studies and Professional Writing. The Professional Writing degree is most closely integrated with the R&W program and with WIDE; the American Studies degree is administered separately and does not provide teaching assistantships for R&W graduate students.

Tier I writing courses are designed to improve students’ ability to read carefully and critically; to collect, analyze, and share information; and to develop arguments and present ideas to others in clear, effective, and persuasive prose in a variety of genres. The professional writing major prepares students for careers in professional editing and publishing, technical writing, information development, and web authoring ( It also prepares students for graduate work in rhetoric, writing, technical writing, the teaching of writing, and the study of culture. R&W graduate students teach introductory courses in the professional writing major (such as Introduction to Professional Writing and Introduction to Web Authoring), but a number of the undergraduate PW majors also work on WIDE projects, and several of the graduate courses are cross-listed with the PW undergraduate major.

Social Networking and Research

In addition to working within the institutional network formed by the four major writing units outlined above, students also create formal and informal research networks whose work is carried out in face-to-face meetings and online. These research networks develop through the social networking that students do outside of class and typically engage shared scholarly interests. Additionally, we utilize the networks that our peers convince us will be good for us. Friendster users have been known to persuade Facebook and MySpace users to join Friendster and vice versa, based on both peer pressure as well as reasoning about what each service can provide users that the others cannot. Some of us are more prolific than others in engagement with these social networks, but in general, many of us "friend" outside of our academic circles; thus, the overlapping of these discourse communities can shape the extent to which and ways in which we interact with these social networks. This is also true when our students find us in such spaces. So in one space, we are networking with our friends, family, students, colleagues, scholarly and personal acquaintances.

The use of social networks within our programs is also tied kairotically to other social networking events: it is common after our distinguished speaker series events, graduate student recruitment week, literacy colloquy, professional conferences, and other occasions for the activity on Facebook to increase. For example, after our most recent recruitment week for potential graduate students, those of us using Facebook gained several new friends due to the level of interaction we had in our f2f social networks that week. Further, two of the authors and another graduate student decided to take a little "down time" right before dinner one night at the Texas Tech Computers & Writing conference before dinner to sit in our air conditioned hotel room and "friend" new colleagues we met at the Graduate Research Network organized by Janice Walker. Later at the conference, we were actually thanked by several established scholars for friending them.

Other social networks have developed among those with common research interests. For example, some writing groups have independently developed within both faculty and graduate student circles. Others have been inspired by common coursework and research, as well as a motivated organizer and mentor. Danielle DeVoss initiated a discussion among students in her WRA 415: Digital Rhetoric, offered at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Upon meeting, we agreed that a research collective, interested in digital rhetoric theory, practice, and pedagogy, would be beneficial to us as researchers, practitioners, scholars, and teachers of digital rhetoric. Thus, the start of, which has generated dozens of major conference presentations and several journal articles.

Another social networking site used by some members of our scholarly community is LibraryThing. This site allows members to easily catalog their personal libraries and browse the libraries of other users. The site allows members to connect with people with similar libraries or interests, and groups (like “Composition and Rhetoric”) can be created to bring together readers with similar interests. Unlike sites like Facebook and MySpace, LibraryThing does not allow users to add other people as friends. Instead, it allows users to create watch lists of other users’ libraries. In addition, a list is generated on users’ profiles of other users with similar libraries. Such social networking allows for relationships to be built based on specific scholarly and literary interests.

Social Networking and Teaching

Many of us not only engage in social networking practices among peers and colleagues, but we engage our students in it too—from the use of blogs, wikis, and ANGEL courseware. Sue Webb and Dundee Lackey, both graduate students, also model it for their students via a collaborative teaching project between their two tier one writing classes WRA 110, Writing: Science & Technology, and WRA 115, Writing: Law & Justice in U.S. Consequently, this hybrid class facilitates discussions at the interstices of drug, alcohol, law, science, and technology. Such discussions take place on a shared ANGEL site, separate ANGEL sites, a wiki, via e-mail, and at a combined class meeting with a distinguished speaker—among other places. One of their weekly class activities asks 4 or 5 students to facilitate the ANGEL site discussion board, where students from both classes are expected to engage in discussions about course content and their research projects. The classes also maintain a wiki that houses their collaborative, community annotated bibliography, where students read a book of their choice related to the course and subsequently add their own annotation to the list. Students will eventually also add annotations for the 15 sources they are using for their final course projects. Further, the teachers and students have used to tag 200+ sites related to drugs, alcohol, and the law—or the science and technologies of drugs and alcohol. Pedagogy that negotiates such a variety of social networks has the potential to inspire our students to engage with new venues for social networking outside of the classroom.

Social Networking Beyond Academe

Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes, “We are made for community, for togetherness, for family, to exist in a delicate network of interdependence” (196). Social networking is not only important in order to develop professional contacts, it is also used to help develop friendships between faculty and graduate students in contexts outside of the institution. The maintenance of these relationships is central to building an atmosphere of mutual respect and care within and outside of the discipline.

A number of graduate students, as well as faculty, are on MySpace, for example. While Facebook as an online space is mostly situated inside academic communities, the use of MySpace indicates that the relationships formed between people are seen as important to the nurturing of social and emotional lives outside of academia. The use of non-academic sites such as MySpace helps to break the academic/non-academic binary. Human relationships are central to creating intellectually healthy, responsible, and accountable communities both inside and outside of the ivory tower. As we all know, academia can be a physically, emotionally, and psychologically demanding (and at times taxing) place. MySpace allows members to post public comments on one another’s profile without that posting being immediately broadcast to other user’s within a social network, as occurs on the university-rooted Facebook. My Space’s interface also allows blogs, an additional tool for keeping colleagues, friends, and family abreast of one’s public thoughts and news. Among our students and faculty, interaction on MySpace tends to point towards friendships being built outside of the institution. Inside jokes and plans for socializing tend to take up the majority of exchange between students on MySpace, though it is also used as a space to provide encouragement through particularly stressful moments (exams, completion of major projects, etc). However, social life outside of academic settings remains central to social health within the program.

Research & Design of Social Networking Tools

Recently, two major WIDE-sponsored projects have begun to delve more deeply into the technological and rhetorical dimensions of social networking. Both have resulted in prototype web services that incorporate social networking functions. Grassroots is a mapping application built for communities. Based on the GoogleMaps API, Grassroots allows community members to make and share “asset maps” that depict their communities in ways that help community members accomplish goals related to community development. Guests can try out the map-making features of Grassroots on the public beta version at Soon, the ability to tag maps and aggregate mapped assets by tag, friend affiliations, and other affinity categories will be added to the public site.

The second WIDE project is called the Literacy Resource Exchange (LRE). Available to guests at, it was built with support from a Carnegie Foundation grant project designed to support the creation and dissemination of teacher knowledge standards. The LRE provides support for collegial sharing of teaching resources with the ability to make explicit links between specific resources—syllabi, assignments, rubrics, etc.—and various kinds of standards documents. This allows users to track how teaching resources reflect teacher knowledge in a way that meshes with the day-to-day work of teaching. The LRE is a demonstration project. WIDE’s current plans for developing the LRE include publishing an API that would allow users to share resources from their own on-line repositories, and import their own standards frameworks for linking.

And an Invitation...

As the aforementioned examples demonstrate, professional, scholarly, pedagogical and personal networks are no doubt important to our program. Many of our students and faculty use social networking sites not for professional connections alone, but also to develop and sustain academically-rooted networks outside institutional contexts. Thus, this profile of our Program and our social networking communities also serves as an open invitation to join the conversation and our communities, as the future of our social networks depends on contributions to them from both inside and outside our Program, university, discipline, and academe.


Tutu, Desmond. No Future without Forgiveness. New York: Doubleday, 1999.

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