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Reassembling writing technologies: Historical and situated studies of rhetorical activity

, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, United States

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign . Awarded


Writers have responded to new media technologies of writing and communicating by refashioning existing literate practices for computers and developing new computing practices. Combining historical research on hypertextual, collaborative writing environments from the 1960s with situated studies of current writers adopting software to support memory and invention, my dissertation examines the reflexive processes through which material technologies, literate practices, and literate ideologies are shaped. Prompted by the rapid proliferation of computer technologies and their disruption of existing practices, many writing researchers have focused on the materiality of writing; however, a comprehensive framework that links materiality, ideologies, and practices has remained elusive. In this dissertation, I argue that a combination of theories of mediated activity and actor-network theory offers a productive way to understand, and intervene in, emergent uses of writing technologies.

This dissertation begins with the early history of personal computers for writing. Although Douglas Engelbart's NLS computer from the late 1960s has influenced modern hardware and software design in some ways, its writing software was less well received. Comparing Engelbart's ideas about writing with composition research, especially early writing process theory, I argue that writing research has much to gain from engaging with complex models of digital writing that foreground embodied rhetorical work, such as the one developed alongside the NLS.

Later chapters present the results of several years' worth of interviews with writers regarding their use of new writing software. Like the users of Engelbart's NLS, they describe frustration with complex interfaces and disruptions to their writing practices. This dissertation uses moments of disruption to examine the processes through which new forms of writing emerge and technologies are altered or abandoned. A key goal of this dissertation is to provide thick descriptions of how writers' goals are realized, frustrated, and reshaped through their engagement with technologies. By creating a clearer picture of the history and modern deployment of the artifacts, practices, and ideologies available to writers, my dissertation proposes a more strategic, rhetorical view of computing that may aid writers, teachers, and designers as they navigate the interface between digital technologies and the demands of rhetorical situations.


Van Ittersum, D. Reassembling writing technologies: Historical and situated studies of rhetorical activity. Ph.D. thesis, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Retrieved March 4, 2021 from .

This record was imported from ProQuest on October 23, 2013. [Original Record]

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