The Blogora: The Rhetoric Society of America


Interview with Jentery Sayers

Submitted by John W. Pell on July 23, 2013 - 3:31pm

Of late much has been made of MOOCs and other delivery methods of online writing instruction. And, while there are a number of research studies underway, which will hopefully shed light on the pedagogical benefits of MOOCs (as opposed to only reporting on their financial and logistical efficacy), I wanted provide readers of the RSA Blogora a look into the work of a colleague also working in the digital humanities, but working as one focused on the rich and rigorous work of composing/making/creating with New Media.

The following interview with Jentery Sayers provides insight into how writing (or, perhaps in Jentery’s words, making) in digital environments can occur within the spaces typically reserved for traditional versions of composing. In fact, I would suggest that Jentery’s remarks hint at a possible future where the best pedagogical theories and practices of Rhetoric and Composition scaffold these new composing practices.

Jentery is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Victoria, BC. Jentery is both an accomplished scholar and teacher, spending much of his summer traveling North America teaching workshops on practical, thoughtful applications of technology in the classroom. Jentery has a number of publications on issues related to comparative media and digital humanities. Please visit his website for more information (

Tell us a little about the Maker Lab at UVic and how this project is informing pedagogy, particularly as it pertains to digital humanities.

The Maker Lab in the Humanities at the University of Victoria ( is part humanities lab, part collaborative makerspace. Most of our research unfolds at the intersections of material culture studies, critical making, and multimodal scholarly communication, with a mandate to explore mixed reality, physical computing, desktop manufacturing, and residual media. We opened our doors in September 2012, and next year (2013-14) our team will consist of twelve graduate students, one undergraduate, and two faculty members. Where teaching and learning are concerned, the Lab offers students opportunities to actively research the cultural and technical overlaps of technologies through project development and problem-based frameworks—frameworks you may not always find in humanities classrooms and syllabi. Put this way, pedagogy in the Maker Lab underscores the need for more education in the tangible applications and public embeddedness of humanities research, where digital humanities and media studies methods encourage everyone involved to examine technologies as physical objects that either make arguments or at least influence our lived social realities.

So when you walk into the Lab, you might stumble upon bins full of breadboards, a box of "disappointments" (i.e., failed 3D prints), a "Hello World" workshop ( on visual programming, or a group of people huddled around some microcontrollers. We do a lot of prototyping and trial-and-error experimentation, and we rely heavily on video and photography. We advertise our events for students and curious learners, and soon we will be holding some hackathons. Borrowing from digital writing studies (including practitioners such as Cheryl Ball and Virginia Kuhn), we emphasize the significance of iterative development, process narratives, and self-reflexive composition.

I don't think you can accomplish this kind of collaborative, embodied work without the appropriate spaces and climates. A video ( recently made by students in the Maker Lab and further discussed at should give people a more concrete sense of what I'm trying to say here: even though technologies are often our objects of inquiry in the Maker Lab, culture—how learning and expression in a mixed reality happen, for whom, by whom, and to what effects—still comes first. In this sense (and to borrow for a moment from Matthew Fuller), the Lab is very much anchored in "how this becomes that," in matters of transduction that necessarily involve subjects, objects, and settings.

While the term is ubiquitous, the definition of "digital humanities" is continuing to emerge. How would you define "digital Humanities”?

I usually define digital humanities both purposefully and broadly as the blend of technical competencies with critical approaches to areas like rhetoric, writing, language, history, literature, media, politics, culture, theory, and social justice. As a graduate student, I started attending the annual Computers and Writing Conference and was struck by how many people were designing texts, writing code, producing video, and constructing platforms as forms of scholarship. After my first Computers and Writing Conference, I was hooked, and my interests there proliferated through my participation in other communities, like HASTAC, the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture, Implementing New Knowledge Environments, and Kairos: Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy. To be sure, the investments, archives, and knowledge practices of these communities certainly differ, but I (at least) file them all under "digital humanities." And perhaps more importantly, the topics and concerns shared across them spark some exciting research trajectories: collaborative authoring and curation, tinkering and tacit learning in humanities classrooms, the shifting materiality of scholarly monographs and journals, the production and visualization of culture as data, the design and assembly of critical objects, and how social justice initiatives at once mobilize and shape technologies.

Taken collectively, digital humanities are a humanities about making things, where "making" combines knowing and doing (without privileging either). They are also a humanities where the digital and physical—the online and offline, virtual and actual, qualitative and quantitative, distant and close—routinely converge in people's everyday lives. Recently, for a project called "The Metaphor and Materiality of Layers," Dan Anderson and I have been exploring how to best understand the roles that rhetoric and composition play in these convergences. That project has a few dimensions, including some great videos Dan's been making:

Finally, what do you think is the future of the Humanities within the Academy? What excites you about this possible future? What gives you cause for concern?

If I speculate about the humanities based on the undergraduate and graduate research I regularly encounter at the University of Victoria, then the future is bright! In both the classroom and the Maker Lab, I'm consistently impressed by the projects students make, the media they create, the writing they compose, and how they transfer learning across contexts. Because of this student work, I think there's plenty of room and demand for the humanities, even in an age of austerity. There must be. And maybe it's our job as humanities faculty to better communicate—to non-academic audiences in particular—the growing need for our disciplines. Here, I'm inspired by groups like HASTAC, #TransformDH, #DHPoco, 4Humanities, GO::DH, and the Digital Rhetoric Collaborative, all of whom are putting humanities work out there, in the open, to engage people with, through, and about compelling cultural, social, and political issues. These groups are all about process, too.

In the Maker Lab, Nina Belojevic, Jon Johnson, Katie Tanigawa, and I are collaborating on a similar initiative, in a local capacity. It’s called "Building Public Humanities" ( ). In partnership with Miriam Bartha (U. of Washington), Lynne Siemens (U. of Victoria), and the Electronic Textual Cultures Lab (U. of Victoria), we are holding a series of student workshops about doing digital humanities publicly, with a particular investment in community-based research. This interprofessional workshop series reflects a cause for concern, namely that—comparable to concepts like "network" and “open”—the very notion of "public" is simply becoming an affordance or function built into our cloud-based apps and our online profiles. That is, "public" risks becoming less and less a way of knowing or collaborating, and instead something more and more about the default settings of our devices. Here, I'm thinking of recent work by Geert Lovink, who, in Networks Without a Cause, writes: "These days the social is a feature."

I don't mean to be too negative or skeptical about social media here. Rather, I want to translate these concerns into critical thinking and making about technologies, to better integrate socially-minded, culturally-aware processes into the production of data and hybrid projects. A digital public humanities should not simply be about access to content, even though open access (e.g., to scholarly communications) is very important. It should also be about equitably involving invested community members and rendering the protocols for contribution, revision, and use both transparent and flexible. Now we are repeatedly hearing about what happens to education at scale, and I think conversations about access, community involvement, protocols, and infrastructure should be central to those developments. After all, the workflows and procedural logics of education are not somehow inherent to the technologies we use. They are not somehow fixed or frozen inside things. They are the stuff of cultural and social relations that deeply influence whether technologies are, or at least appear, persuasive. And the need for procedural literacy—to not only open opaque boxes but also (re)write the platforms and processes through which they function—is why making matters right now.

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