Interview with Carolyn R. Miller

© Carolyn R. Miller and and Figure/Ground
Dr. Miller was interviewed by Mridula A Mascarenhas. July 23th, 2012.

Carolyn R. Miller is SAS Institute Distinguished Professor of Rhetoric and Technical Communication at North Carolina State University, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in rhetoric and technical communication for the Department of English and the interdisciplinary doctoral program in Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media, of which she was founding director. She is a past president of the Rhetoric Society of America, past editor of its journal, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, and was named a Fellow of the Society in 2010. She has also held offices in the ASHR, ARST, ATTW, CCCC, and MLA. Her research interests are in digital rhetoric, genre studies, rhetorical theory, and rhetoric of science and technology. Her publications are a series of attempts to figure out the conceptual vocabulary of rhetoric: invention, kairos, community, ethos, pathos, genre. She has lectured and taught in North America, Norway, Denmark, Italy, South Korea, and Brazil. She is currently working on Genre Across Borders, a web project to provide scholarly networking for genre researchers across disciplines and around the world.

One of your areas of scholarship is digital rhetoric. How would you define the scope and focus of that area, what drew/maintains your interest in this area, and what would you identify as your key contribution to this area of research? What are some other pieces of scholarship that you believe a student interested in digital rhetoric should be familiar with?

I’d characterize the field of “digital rhetoric” at this stage as a hypothesis—or maybe a hope. The scope and focus are very much “under construction,” so to speak. In some respects the work going on under this label is engaged in a genuine effort of rethinking and reconstruction of the rhetorical tradition, which itself was profoundly and complexly affected by earlier transformations of communication media: from oral to written, from manuscript to print. The media transformations we are now experiencing provide an exciting opportunity to see both the tradition and our current practices anew. Some interesting work has been done, for example, in rethinking the canon of delivery, which had languished in the age of print but now has become newly visible to us (I’m thinking here of work by Jim Porter and Ben McCorkle, for starters).

But the road to a digital rhetoric is not a direct or obvious one, in part because of the historical accidents that produced the current academic configurations of rhetoric: it exists in different forms (in the U.S.) in Departments of English and Departments of Communication; and in some institutions (the U.S. Ivy League, for example) and some national traditions it barely exists at all. Rhetoric has never had a clear intellectual shape, being in the classical tradition connected in one direction with politics, in another with ethics, in others with poetics and dialectic, and playing shifting roles in educational regimes. So all these historical instabilities continue to vex our work as we attempt to use rhetoric to comprehend digital media and reinterpret rhetoric in light of these new media. The scope and focus of digital rhetoric, I’d say, are very much in question.

I got into digital rhetoric myself through my interest in rhetorical genre: the new media seemed to make the question of genre newly intriguing. I noticed a lively vernacular interest in genres, which suggested a need to classify and stabilize an increasingly volatile and abundant information environment. Genre theorists had already characterized genres as “sites of contention between stability and change” (Berkenkotter & Huckin 1995, 6), and the potentialities of the new media made it seem important to understand both the forces of stability and the processes of change better than we do. So I’ve been thinking about this for about the past 10 years and have published a couple of pieces about how genre theory helps illuminate blogging (with co-author Dawn Shepherd) and am working on ways to understand genre change historically.

Another angle on digital rhetoric that I’ve taken is through the rhetorical concept of ethos, our understanding of the force of character, which is related to the question of agency. Should we understand the attributions that constitute ethos differently in digitally mediated exchanges than we do those in face-to-face interactions or those mediated by writing or print? How do we learn to make such attributions and to moderate and qualify and manipulate them? How do we earn and abuse the trust of others? What are the limits to the attributions we are willing to make—for example, when an agent may not be human? These are also questions that I would place within the scope of digital rhetoric.

As to the question what scholarship students interested in digital rhetoric should be familiar with, this is a question I’ve struggled over with doctoral students who want to develop reading lists in this area. I’m going to refrain from recommending specific works here because, as I indicated above, I just don’t think we’re ready to define the field this way. Some people work from the premise that rhetoric needs to change before it can comprehend the new media, so they would begin a list not with work in rhetoric but with newer work in digital media theory. My own approach is fairly conservative: that is, I think it’s necessary to understand rhetoric as a field with a history before one can take up the question of digital rhetoric, so I’d begin from a solid list in classical and contemporary rhetoric.

What topics do you predict will command the most research attention in the field of digital rhetoric in the next five years?

As I indicated above, I think a lot of work is needed before we understand just what it is that digital rhetoric can be, or what we need it to be, and this is the issue that will command research attention, both directly and indirectly. There’s lots of work to be done as we come to grips with the rhetorical dimensions of new media platforms and affordances and the new uses that people find for them and the ways that rhetorical thinking and rhetorical perspectives on communication can illuminate new practices and potentialities. Rhetoricians do, I think, need to understand the technologies themselves more intimately than many of us do: we need to engage with the practices we are trying to theorize and critique, to teach and to improve. Some, for example, may need to learn software programming. But by the same token, some should study Latin or Greek—in other words, as a field we should not abandon history. Will rhetoric find itself newly relevant and reinvigorated by its engagement with the digital world or will it once again go into hiding as anachronistic snatches of arcana? That, it seems, is the central question, and it can’t get answered by one or two studies or even several lines of inquiry. It’s a long-term project.

What do you see as the digital future for academic publication?

I don’t know that I have any special insight to offer here. We all know that modes of dissemination are changing rapidly for both commercial work and academic work. I have several file drawers full of photocopied articles that I almost never open; now it’s all in PDF form on my hard drive. Instead of making a trip to the library to have a look at a book, I find it on Google Scholar. We’re all in favor of open-access scholarship in principle but what economic model will make it work remains to be seen. I do think it’s important for senior faculty to keep themselves informed about new modes of scholarly production so that they can make well-informed and fair tenure decisions and so that they can advise graduate students about appropriate ways to publish.

What are some current challenges to teaching undergraduate and graduate classes in a digital age and how do you address them? Specifically, how has teaching writing changed in a digital age?

One of the challenges is simply keeping up. Technology changes so fast that acquiring it, learning it, maintaining it, and using it well can absorb a great deal of time, time that one might otherwise spend in keeping up with the scholarship and working on one’s own research, not to mention devoting that time to students directly. This challenge is exacerbated because students have access to so much technology that keeping up with them is difficult. It may be convenient to think of students as “digital natives,” but that doesn’t mean they don’t have anything to learn about technology from an older generation—about effective use, critical appraisal, historical analogues, alternative approaches, etc.

I don’t have much to contribute specifically regarding the teaching of writing, as I’ve done much less of that in the past 10 years than I did earlier in my career, except as work with graduate students is always focused on their writing, that is, their identities and capacities as scholar-researchers, and I don’t see this work as particularly technology dependent.

You spearheaded the development of the PhD program in Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media which relies on a collaboration between the English and Communication departments at your university. What were some of the most significant challenges in organizing this collaboration? Would you advocate for similar collaborations between English and Communication departments at other universities?

We had many challenges in developing the CRDM program, some of them very local and some of them recognizable to anyone in higher education. The least of our challenges was intellectual, I’m glad to say. Scholarship in both Communication and English was at the time converging on the new media and our premise was that we had lots to gain from cooperation and synthesis; rhetorical studies were central to this approach since they have strong histories in both departments. We also had good support in this approach from university administration. The strongest challenges came in implementing the program and making the ideas about interdisciplinarity and interdepartmental administration actually work. In spite of the lip service that academic institutions give to interdisciplinarity, they are organized by departments: money, positions, communication channels, information systems, staff support, etc., are all departmentalized, so it’s difficult to create a new entity that must cut across all those established practices. Other challenges have come from new faculty who were not present when the program’s carefully balanced compromises were crafted and thus don’t understand why things are done in certain ways and why the program isn’t more like traditional programs in their own areas. And still other challenges are due to the fact that this is the first and only humanities-related doctoral program at NC State, an institution in which graduate education presumes the grant-funded model of the sciences and engineering.

In principle, I would advocate collaborations between English and Communication elsewhere, and they do in fact exist at many institutions and in several different forms. I advocate collaboration in part because of my interest in the continued development of rhetorical studies, which has been a house divided into two departments for the past century. The new media, which bring speaking and writing together with visual modes of communication, make this departmentalization increasingly anachronistic. The best scholarship in rhetoric cuts across this historical accident of departmentalization, and strong and innovative teaching programs should cross these lines, as well. Obviously different forms of collaboration will be appropriate for different institutions, where these two departments will have their own histories, capacities, and goals.

How has the role of the university professor changed over the course of your career?

Changes like this are hard to see, because there are so many simultaneous variables: one’s own age and maturity, one’s rank, seniority, and familiarity with one’s institution, etc. All these change at the same time that the role of the university professor may or may not be changing. What I can offer are observations like these: I used to have time for lunch with colleagues on a regular basis: now, I have to plan days or weeks in advance for lunch with one specific person. When I was younger, I spent enormous amounts of time outside of class grading undergraduate papers (I taught multiple sections of technical writing each semester), whereas now I spend that time reading the papers of just a few graduate students and reviewing the scholarship I have assigned them to read; I also have many more professional service activities such as external tenure reviews, manuscript reviews, and university committee work. Do these observations say more about me, or about my particular institution, or about the role of a professor?

My father was a university professor (in chemistry), who retired at about the time I entered the tenure track. He always said that he felt privileged to have spent his life being paid to do what he enjoyed, and I have to agree with him. The role of a university professor hasn’t changed in that regard.

But I suspect the role is likely to change more dramatically in the next 20 years than it has in the past 20. The tenure system is under challenge, the university is becoming more corporatized, higher education does not receive the support from state governments that it formerly did, and online and technology-mediated teaching will come to play a much greater role than it has. The new technologies, the increased demands for efficiency and accountability, the changing economics of higher education all suggest that those who are assistant professors today will have different career trajectories than I did.

In a 2009 Washington Post article, Francis Fukuyama argued that academic tenure is proving costly both financially and intellectually for universities. According to Fukuyama, junior professors seeking tenure are fearful of taking intellectual risks and write primarily to satisfy peers within narrow sub-disciplines. What is your perspective on academic tenure?

The tenure system is a complex issue, and neither Fukuyama nor I can do it justice in a short space. It’s not just tenure that makes junior faculty reluctant to take intellectual risks, it’s the very structure of disciplines, with the necessity of peer review and editorial judgment. Thomas Kuhn showed that scientific disciplines are conservative, but he also suggested that it’s junior scientists who are most likely to produce breakthroughs. What he called “the essential tension” between tradition and innovation, what Popper characterized as the process of conjecture and refutation—these processes mean that knowledge building and conceptual advancement are not free-for-alls. And these processes require us to address small communities, or “narrow subdisciplines,” in order to make meaningful contributions. So I’d resist some of Fukuyama’s arguments, including his objection to “jargon.” All scholars use jargon, but nobody objects when biostatisticians or plant pathologists or astrophysicists do it. For historians, philosophers, media scholars, and rhetoricians, too, jargon crystallizes shared conceptual achievements. We may object to those achievements, and challenge them, but not simply on the grounds that they are “jargon.”

To get back to the issue of academic tenure, I think the financial conditions in higher education are more threatening to tenure than the intellectual ones, and I certainly don’t know how these will be or should be resolved.

What does a public scholar mean to you? Do you see your work impacting specific communities? If so, in what ways?

I’ve never thought of myself as a public scholar. I think it takes a special kind of person to play this role, one with maturity, very broad learning, and historical perspective. And I certainly don’t think every scholar should be or should try to be a public scholar. Like most academics, I’ve focused on trying to address a fairly specific intellectual community, and I’ve found this to be quite challenging and time-consuming enough. The community I’ve engaged hasn’t always been the same one: I started out thinking of my field as technical communication, but now I identify myself as a rhetorician; these communities overlap somewhat but they do have different scopes.

In another sense, though, we are all public scholars, and should be, in that our students represent an important public. That public is probably the most important mode of influence most academics have, and we should hope that they leave our courses with some respect for our work and with the capacity to use at least some of what they learned in thinking about the world as they encounter it.

What/who has influenced you the most in your career?

For suppleness of thinking and rhetorical erudition, the late Michael Leff; for shrewdness and eloquence, my dissertation director Michael Halloran. There’s a third Michael, too, the late Hemingway scholar Michael Reynolds, who served quite informally and probably unsuspectingly as a mentor to me within my department; he showed me that one did not have to go along in order to get along and that stubbornness and determination can pay off. Reading Kenneth Burke and Wayne Booth in a first-semester graduate course helped me understand that what I wanted to do was rhetoric. A conversation with Charles Bazerman at a conference very early in my career showed me that someone was intrigued by my ideas about genre and that they had application beyond what I had anticipated. There are many other influences, of course, but these are some that stand out. I’m a bit chagrinned to see that none of the influences I’ve named are women!

What advice would you offer graduate students/new faculty for their research and teaching careers?

Remember that scholarship is a conversation, it’s dialogical. This means you need to listen as well as to talk and that your “talk” needs to account for what others have said even as you contradict, supersede, or extend what’s been said before. What has been really rewarding to me—and I was lucky in this early on—has been having an audience for what I publish (well, much of it, not all!). But as rewarding as it is to have one’s ideas taken up, as this happens, you lose control of them and you cease to own them. This takes some getting used to.

One other bit of advice is to realize that the trajectory of one’s career is influenced both by one’s own interests, plans, and determination and by circumstances and opportunities beyond one’s control. My own trajectory has been more influenced by the latter: I did things that seemed interesting at the time, seized opportunities that presented themselves without much thought for the long term, and generally have been quite fortunate rather than strategic.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carolin R. Miller
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Dowdall, J. (2012). “Interview with Carolyn R. Miller,” Figure/Ground. June 28th.
<  >

Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at

Print Friendly, PDF & Email