Monday, June 27, 2011

Writing :: Losing by Expanding

Spinuzzi, C. (2011). Losing by Expanding: Corralling the Runaway Object. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 25(4).

Okay, this is the first in my ongoing series on writing publications.  The cite and link above are to the OnlineFirst version of the article, both of which will likely change as the article gets closer to publication. But for now, there they are. If you or your institution have a subscription, please do click through and take a look at it.

Done? Okay, let's talk about how I put this thing together. This was a comparatively pain-free publication, but that's partially because I've figured out how to avoid the pain points.

The Gist
As the abstract says, this article critically examines the notion of the object in third-generation activity theory (3GAT), particularly how that notion - the linchpin of an activity theory analysis - has expanded theoretically and methodologically over the last 30 years. For those of you who are not terribly interested in activity theory, this may not seem too riveting. But for those of us who are, it's a critical question. If the object is not being used consistently, then we really don't have a consistent unit of analysis, and it becomes very difficult to perform strong analyses.

3GAT, by the way, refers to the work that follows Yrjo Engestrom's articulation of activity theory. "First-generation activity theory" is the work of Vygotsky and his followers, focusing on social cognition and mediation in individuals; "second-generation activity theory" is the next stage, in which Vygotsky's followers such as Leont'ev and Luria expanded activity theory to apply to larger social groups. Engestrom developed third-generation activity theory (in part) to account for systemic contradictions and to provide a more systematic understanding of how multiple activities operated. Engestrom is the one who articulated these generations; it's worth noting that some activity theorists don't buy the notion of generations at all. But 3GAT is the version that has really caught on in writing studies, so that's what I focused on in this paper.

The Genesis
I first started having concerns about the 3GAT articulation of the object when writing Network. In particular, I began to wonder how to identify a common object when people from different activities tended to see very different things. For instance, Annemarie Mol's excellent book The Body Multiple does a nice job of showing the phenomenon of multiplicity: different specialists look at the same phenomenon and see very different things, not even agreeing on the bounds of the phenomenon. As I got deeper into the activity theory literature, I began to realize that 3GAT had also tried to deal with this issue in terms of polycontextuality and boundary crossing in activity networks (points where two or more activities intersected). In such cases, the object tended to expand and become more abstract in order to encompass broader aspects of the phenomenon.

This tendency really became clear as Network was in press, because that's when Engestrom published From Teams to Knots. Here, Engestrom tried to deal with polycontextuality and border crossing by postulating mychorrhizae and by further expanding the object. Whereas in his earlier work, Engestrom focused on very concrete objects, here he named enormous objects such as global warming!

This point nagged at me. Also nagging at me was the fact that I sometimes had a lot of difficulty explaining the object to my undergraduate students. And my reading suggested that polycontextuality and boundary crossing were increasing due to the rise of knowledge work, in which teams of specialists from different backgrounds had to come together to work on the same object (whatever it was).

So the question of the object was in the back of my mind, but I planned to get to it sometime in the future. What put it on the front burner was a set of disappointing blind reviews for another article I had submitted for review. Late in that article, I had mentioned in a throwaway line that the object was facing a crisis. The editor suggested that at some point I write an article on the subject. So I did.

The Composition
I decided to set very specific boundaries for the paper. The activity theory literature is vast, so I decided to focus on 3GAT (which, as I said, is the version most used in writing studies). 3GAT originated with Engestrom, who still closely follows the literature and sometimes steps in to head off variations, so I made his work the backbone of the piece. Engestrom's work itself is vast - I swear he must publish something every week - so I focused on his books and other well-cited publications. All of this helped make the project manageable.

Although my reviews on this blog helped me to sort through the major movements of Engestrom's work, I also went back and closely reread large chunks of his work as well as related articles and commentaries. Much of this had to do with testing and refining my emerging hypothesis: that the object had expanded over time, causing a methodological issue.

I had to juggle an enormous number of sources, though, and I felt completely overwhelmed. So one day I sat at my kitchen table with a large roll of manila paper and some sharpies, and shortly I had drawn something that looked like the top half of Figure 4. I labeled each movement with some of the cites that demonstrated it. Then I looked at my other cites and realized that more was going on. A while later, I drew the bottom half of Figure 4.

At this point, I remember feeling incredible relief as well as a sense of disturbance. Could it be that easy? Once that figure had been drawn, I was able to outline and rough out the rest of the article in a hurry.
Side note: Like most of my academic work these days, the paper was drafted entirely in Google Docs, with tables in Google Spreadsheets, figures in Google Draw, and citations in Mendeley. That way, I didn't have to worry about what computer I was using or whether I had backed up recently. My Google Docs, Spreadsheet, and Draw account is backed up daily by SpanningSync, while copies of my citations reside on my Mendeley Desktop.
At this point, I sent the draft to someone whose judgement I trust. (Every academic should have a few trusted, friendly readers to whom they can send half-baked manuscripts.)

My reader liked the direction, but suggested that I work on framing the article more for writing studies. That's not what I wanted to hear, because I hate framing. But he was right.

The Framing and Implications
Honestly, I have a consistent problem with framing my studies for writing journals. For instance, the article I published in last year's Written Communication originally didn't focus on writing at all. Ridiculous, right? But I had reasoned that these workers communicated constantly, primarily through writing, so what else do you want? The reviewers were right, though, and once I put my mind to it, I was able to clarify the framing for that paper.

For "Losing by Expanding," I worried that things would be tougher. For me, the question of the object was intrinsically interesting, and the hook was that we use activity theory in writing studies. But my reader pointed out that that wasn't enough and suggested that I discuss some recent writing studies articles that used AT. Brilliant suggestion, and with the later guidance of the journal editor, I was able to use these studies to connect each transformation of the object back to writing studies.

Initially, I thought very seriously about undertaking a meta-analysis of all recent AT-based work in writing studies. But that would have taken much longer, and frankly, it didn't sound very interesting to me. (Although if you're looking for a dissertation topic...) In the end, I gambled that listing and briefly analyzing a handful of recent papers would give me enough traction, and fortunately, the gamble paid off.

The Implications was difficult too, but I had been thinking recently of a publication that Mark Zachry, Bill Hart-Davidson, and I had written a few years ago. Rather than reinventing the wheel, I took this previous concept and refined it to provide a set of countermovements that would produce a focused, qualified 3GAT object. If you look carefully at this section, you might also see the Toulmin influence.

The Style
Honestly, I had a lot of fun writing this paper, and part of the fun was in adding allusions and puns that a very small number of activity theorists would get, and even fewer would find funny. The most obvious one was the title, "Losing by Expanding," which is a reference to Engestrom's Learning by Expanding. (I picked this one out early.) Other references to titles of major AT works are scattered throughout the manuscript, and I had to rescue a few from mangling during the copyediting process.

I wrote the article in a breezy, bloggish style. Part of that style was ramped back in revision (the editor, whose judgment I trust absolutely, made some specific suggestions that restricted the style but improved the manuscript quality). More of the style had to fall due to the journal's style restrictions: for instance, the contractions disappeared, and some of the rhythm and emphasis in the sentences conflicted with the journal's preference for active voice and putting citations at the first mention.

The Revision Process
In the Acknowledgements, I thank "two anonymous reviewers for providing what is perhaps the most substantive feedback I have received on a manuscript." True. If you're reading this, I meant it. The reviewers were excellent: both read the article critically and offered suggestions that strengthened the piece, but both also managed to be encouraging and to discuss how the piece might impact the field.
A side note: reviewers really are gatekeepers, and they are generally invested in having you do your best work. Sometimes they say harsh things - I've gotten quite a few of these sorts of reviews. Never take it personally. Think of the reviews as a set of restrictions that guide you as you refine the piece for publication. Remember that these reviewers represent the actual readers, and if they don't buy your argument, it's likely that the broader set of readers won't either. 
Anyway, the reviewers generously provided further texts for me to read and incorporate, which I did in a timely manner. The editor also made several expert suggestions that improved the argument considerably. Relatively speaking, the revision process was pain-free - a rarity.

The Results
You may have gotten the sense that I become improbably excited about scholarship. That sense is correct. In this case, I am really very excited about this particular argument - partly because I think it could have an impact, but partly because I just like the structure and symmetry of the piece. I'm glad it's out there, and not just because of the puns.

But that's my perspective. See what you think, and feel free to tell me in the comments.


Bill said...

Apart from the focus on the movement of the Object in 3GAT - a fantastic argument on that front, btw - this article presents an outstanding synthesis of work in AT/Writing Studies. It will be tremendously helpful for those seeking to position their own studies in this set of conversations. I can imagine assigning it in a research methods course as well as a theory course (especially in PW/TC).

Clay Spinuzzi said...

Aw thanks, Bill. Glad you found it useful.