Authorships, Infrastructures, and the Digital Publishing Lab

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Phil Bratta, Malea Powell, and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss

Authorial Roles & Digital Technologies


The ghosts of authors past continue to haunt us today—those (white) writing men alone at their desks with a glass of bourbon, those (white) writing women in a room of their own with a lamp flickering, both solitary at and in their craft. We’ve known for at least three decades how these romantic images are unrealistic, exclusionary, outmoded, and dead.


More recently, perhaps, we’ve come to a richer notion of author. Author at computer: working across networks, collaborating across time and space, accessing analog and digital resources; author as more than just a mainstream, homogenous (white) construction. However, we argue that the affordances of a model for digital writing that doesn’t only take its cues from the assumptions of print explodes these notions even further. Traditionally, the author’s roles have included researcher, writer, and editor. In digital spaces, however, and while working on born-digital projects, an author’s roles include writer, researcher, and editor, of course, but also graphic and document designer, user-experience theorist, coder, programmer, marketer, usability specialist, experience architect, tester, and other roles. Problematic in this context is that, too often, these roles — and the complex, constellated work that happens as the author performs these roles — are relatively invisible. Scholars including Cheryl Ball, and Cindy Selfe and Gail Hawisher, especially in their work with/through Computers and Composition Digital Press (CCDP), have made robust arguments and provided useful philosophical and institutional tools for faculty to better make visible the work—and time and resources—involved in digital production. They contributed, for instance, to an entire special issue of Composition Studies (2014, volume 42, number 1) focused on the future of (digital) scholarship.

However, a second wave of action is required, especially as initiatives like the University of Michigan’s collaboration with the Sweetland Writing Center and the Digital Rhetoric Collaborative gain traction and grow. This second wave of action requires, we argue, more strategic, aligned, institutional, and national action related to surfacing issues of digital publishing.

Infrastructures of Writing


A key issue related to digital publishing relates to infrastructures of composing. In the past, most writers could get by with a typewriter and access to a library. Later, to a word-processor. Further on, to a computer and digital databases, which primarily presented print publications in more readily accessible formats. The new demands of authorship, especially of diverse and inclusive born-digital and digitally rich productions, require new infrastructures.

computer-keys-by-markus-peInfrastructure is complex, contextual stuff, and always-already historically and institutionally framed—or, at the very least, prefaced. Douglas Eyman and Cheryl Ball (2014) argued that the infrastructure for digital composing related to their work serving as editors for Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, include:

  • the scholarly (whether a disciplinary field allows/values webtexts),
  • the social (how a field or journal behaves when implementing those values within the publishing process), and
  • the technical (whether and how systems support the perpetuity of scholarly and social infrastructures). (114)

In an earlier piece, Susan Leigh Star and Karen Ruhleder (1996) anchor infrastructure by its:

  • embeddedness,
  • transparency,
  • reach or scope,
  • being learned as part of membership,
  • links with conventions of practice,
  • embodiment of standards,
  • being built on an installed base, and
  • becoming visible upon breakdown. (113)

What happens, then, if we merge and apply these frameworks, putting them into conversation with frameworks being developed by scholars in cultural rhetorics whose work often is seen as outside of the traditional spaces where digital and multimedia scholars—like Star and Ruhleder, and Eyman and Ball—frequently locate their work? Perhaps the frame can help us render more visible:

  • the scholarly and disciplinary contexts of valuing (or not) digital writing and webtexts, and the attention paid to the multiple, constellating, and visible and invisible labor processes around such work, including the kinds of scholars most likely to be left out of those traditional contexts—scholars of color, for instance, mixing forms of composing not accessible in print with more print-based practices
  • the institutional norms of meaning-making, linked, of course, to the contexts above but also spanning the particular culture(s) of specific places and spaces, especially those that haven’t created the capacity necessary for fully engaging with non-Western knowledge systems and the ways in which those knowledges can be represented in digital spaces
  • the technical and network approaches that set, shape, and maintain standards, and the ways in which we navigate these, and the barriers to access created therein (both in terms of production, engagement, and circulation)

The MSU Digital Publishing Lab (DPL)

The authorial contexts and the frameworks above contribute to the philosophy shaping the Michigan State University Digital Publishing Lab (DPL), housed in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures. The DPL is a newly developed research center focused on culturally engaged digital publishing, particularly attenuated to practices that foreground diversity, inclusion, mentoring, and leadership development.

In our early stages, DPL scholars and graduate and undergraduate students will conduct research on how digital publishing can happen in the humanities, particularly among underrepresented folks, exploring what kinds of models, orientations, and practices scholarly collectives (such as the Cultural Rhetorics Consortium) need to make space for mentorship, collaboration, and scholarship, along with what kinds of technical skills, knowledge, and resources those faculty and students involved with the DPL also need.

Models for Inclusive Digital Spaces

In 2007, Diane Harley, Sarah Earl-Novell, Jennifer Arter, Shannon Lawrence, and C. Judson King concluded that publishing practices are so deeply embedded in academic value systems that efforts to move individual faculty to accept new forms such as born-digital formats were “destined to failure in the short-term.” These scholars went on to recommend that the route to success was “to (1) examine the needs of scholarly researchers for both final and in-progress communications, and (2) determine how those needs are likely to influence future scenarios in a range of disciplinary areas.” Although their recommendations were robust, their project, funded by the Mellon Foundation, has not to date produced or inspired any follow-up studies that take this suggested path. Giovanni De Grandis and Yrsa Neuman (2014) also raised the problem that “academic communities interested in digital publishing do not have adequate tools to help them in choosing a publishing model that suits their needs.” Further, because “academic communities” are diverse and expansive, there can be no one-size-fits-all digital publishing model.

The DPL strives to create a space to change the conversation about culturally-engaged digital scholarly publishing; discuss best practices, models, and pilots for producing diverse digital environments among humanities scholars; and build both research and curriculum around our shared experiences as innovators. To accomplish these tasks, we explore how deliberately inclusive digital spaces can radically transform the current scholarly publishing climate in the humanities not just in terms of what we publish or how we publish, but paying attention to why we publish.

We publish to share our work, and to grow and circulate collective knowledge. But every act of publishing is also an act of extending a hand to a colleague—present or future—to enter our conversations and bring their contributions to the whole. We write to connect, and to form relationships with other scholars. The DPL aspires to take those connections and relationships seriously, and to infuse them throughout the systems that support the platforms—actually coding and designing it, showcasing review as a mentoring practice, making invisible labor of editorial work visible as a collective practice, creating diverse and inclusive spaces for scholars to enter the conversation, modelling best practices for accessibility to those spaces, and studying the activities that will create, operate, and sustain culturally relevant digital scholarship as well.

The DPL is not intended to be an isolated lab; rather, it will be multi-institutional and interdisciplinary. Currently, we are partnering with Margaret Price at Ohio State University and Jennifer Bay at Purdue University on a Humanities Without Walls grant. All three schools have graduate programs directly engaged in the practice of digital media production and scholarship. The collaboration with these schools brings forth a wealth of experience and intellectual power to bear on one of the most critical questions in humanities practices: sustainable, robust, culturally-anchored scholarship beyond print.

Whereas most efforts to transform scholarly publishing concentrate on the presentation layer—how scholarly works are viewed, distributed, and used in scholarly communities—one focus of the DPL is instead on the all-but-invisible (yet vital) work of mentorship that nurtures the collegial sharing of knowledge. Such an approach takes inspiration from another radically transformative Digital Humanities initiative—the Mukurtu Project—to work on the deep structures (user roles and permissions, object metadata and visibility, review workflow) that allow scholarly communities and, especially, the diverse and/or junior members of these communities, to develop and thrive.

Approaches from Cultural Rhetorics

Mukurtu is “a grassroots project aiming to empower communities to manage, share, and exchange their digital heritage in culturally relevant and ethically-minded ways” (“Welcome”). It is a value-centered design project that puts both theories and ethical stances that originate in humanities scholarship at the center of digital development projects. Mukurtu initially struggled to modify existing content management systems to suit the unique and diverse needs of indigenous tribal communities. In Mukurtu, the tribes must be the ones to set the conditions by which objects are represented and shared. They cannot merely inherit a set of values that—however progressive in the world of Western intellectual property—threaten the survival of their cultural traditions by allowing others to (mis)appropriate and (mis)represent their meaning. The right to intellectual sovereignty is core to both Mukurtu and DPL projects in this way.

But the DPL will also take a cultural rhetorics approach to decolonizing scholarly publishing practices and models, particularly in relation to the digital. The field of cultural rhetorics is anchored in the belief that all cultures are rhetorical and all rhetorics are cultural. This belief forms a set of constellating methodologies, theories, and practices that draws attention to the intricate ways meaning emerges in human practices (Powell et al., 2014). Scholarship in this field often doesn’t fit within the boundaries of most traditional scholarly publishing spaces.

In the same ways that cultural rhetorics scholars engage in constellating practices that re-orient linear knowledge-making into a multitude of possible web-like relations, the DPL strives to practice cultural rhetorics with its pilot project: constellations: a cultural rhetorics publishing space. Constellations aims to develop a webbed model of relationship-making with multiple, flexible outcomes. It attempts to re-orient our understanding of what it means to do scholarship in the (digital) humanities by acknowledging and making visible the contributions to knowledge-making that all that behind-the-scenes labor makes possible.


In sum, for the humanities to be both culturally engaged and digitally relevant in a changing climate of publishing, we must be attentive to the historical tapestries of authorship and making; to its infrastructural contexts; to collaborative efforts and support; to cultural values; to visible and invisible labor practices; to intellectual property principles; and to economic, political, cultural, and environmental changes as they impact both global and local communities. As such, we name five key principles or action points around which the DPL operates:

  1. Work with libraries and digital humanities specialists to ensure research databases are sustained effectively and efficiently for digital publications (see Lynch, 2010). We must (continue to) collaborate within and across institutions, opening conversations that facilitate the required support, technologies, and infrastructures for sustainable digital endeavors.
  2. Recognize and represent authoring practices, across media, modes, methods, and more. Acknowledge and honor the cultural values of individuals and collectives, in the ways in which meaning is made, is distributed, and is valued across time, space, and place.
  3. Identify the various labor practices required for producing digital scholarship. Doing so will continue to show and illuminate how the great amount of intellectual and embodied labor factors into scholarly work in a digital age (Ball & Eyman, 2015).
  4. Attend to access as a core humanistic concern. Unsurprisingly, Open Access (OA) has offered affordances for wider circulation and public presence (see De Grandis & Neuman, 2014).  We must keep an eye toward the ever-changing values and interests of scholarly activity, particularly in considering culture, power, and changes.
  5. Keep our fingers on the pulse of the global economies and ecologies. This landscape, undoubtedly, will (continue to) change rapidly and drastically. As Michael Jon Jensen (2010) contends, “As we think about the future of scholarly publishing in the digital arena, we also need to acknowledge—even try to mentally predict—the likely ecosystems within which we’ll be innovating: not just the metaphoric ecosystems of scholarly communications within a culture awash in technological wizardry, but the world’s real-life economy, within a real-life biological ecosystem.”

We know this is just a beginning, an opening attempt to create new pathways and new conversations. Our work in the DPL is linked to two other efforts. The first is internally oriented and is MSU’s College of Arts & Letters new Critical Diversity in a Digital Age initiative, which is committed to centering diverse and inclusive digital scholarship as the key to excellence in humanities scholarship in the 21st century. The second is more public facing, and is an invitation to join the DPL in summer 2018 for an Institute on Scholarly Publishing in Digital Environments.

Works Cited

Ball, Cheryl, and Douglas Eyman. “Editorial Workflows for Multimedia-Rich Scholarship.” The Journal of Electronic Publishing, vol. 18, no. 4, Fall 2015, n.p.–editorial-workflows-for-multimedia-rich-scholarship?rgn=main;view=fulltext;q1=labor. Accessed 5 November 2016

De Grandis, Giovanni, and Yrsa Neuman. “Measuring Openness and Evaluating Digital Academic Publishing Models: Not Quite the Same Business.” The Journal of Electronic Publishing, vol. 17, no. 3, Summer 2014, n.p.–measuring-openness-and-evaluating-digital-academic?rgn=main;view=fulltext. Accessed 1 November 2016.

Eyman, Douglas, and Cheryl E. Ball. “Composing for Digital Publication: Rhetoric, Design, Code.” Composition Studies, vol. 42, no. 1, 2014, pp. 114–117.

Harley, Diane, Sarah Earl-Novell, Jennifer Arter, Shannon Lawrence, and C. Judson King. “The Influence of Academic Values on Scholarly Publication and Communication Practices.” The Journal of Electronic Publishing, vol. 10, no. 2, Spring 2007, n.p.;rgn=main. Accessed 1 September 2016.

Jensen, Michael Jon. “University Presses in the Ecosystem of 2020.” The Journal of Electronic Publishing, vol. 13, no. 2, Fall 2010, n.p.–university-presses-in-the-ecosystem-of-2020?rgn=main;view=fulltext. Accessed 29 October 2016.

Lynch, Clifford. “Imagining a University Press System to Support Scholarship in the Digital Age.” The Journal of Electronic Publishing, vol. 13, no. 2, Fall 2010, n.p.–imagining-a-university-press-system-to-support-scholarship?rgn=main;view=fulltext#top. Accessed 1 November 2016.

Powell, Malea, Daisy Levy, Andrea Riley-Mukavetz, Marilee Brooks-Gillies, Maria Novotny, and Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson. “Our Story Begins Here: Constellating Cultural Rhetorics Practices.” Enculturation, vol. 18, October 2014, n.p. Accessed 29 October 2016.

Star, Susan Leigh, and Karen Ruhleder. “Steps toward an Ecology Infrastructure: Design and Access for Large Information Spaces. Information Systems Research, vol. 7, no. 1, 1996, pp. 11-34.

“Welcome.” Mukurtu 2.0. Web. Accessed 8 September. 2016.




About Author(s)

Phil is a Ph.D candidate at Michigan State University in the Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures department. His current interests are in rhetorics of activism, visual rhetorics, embodiment, rhetorical ecologies, digital writing, and pedagogy. Check out more about his work on

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for your contribution. I was especially struck by the comment that “[i]n digital spaces, however, and while working on born-digital projects, an author’s roles include writer, researcher, and editor, of course, but also graphic and document designer, user-experience theorist, coder, programmer, marketer, usability specialist, experience architect, tester, and other roles.” The work in digital publishing that our field(s) are doing is certainly asking us to reconsider the notions of traditional authorship. I think many (undergraduate) composition programs are lagging behind here, though, holding onto the idea of pen-on-paper (or fingers-to-keyboard) approach of the individual author, the physical (turned in) text, etc. I hope projects like that DPL will continue to expand to more institutions and will continue to affect the ways view “composition.”

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