About Quinn Warnick

I'm an assistant professor of digital rhetoric in the Department of English at Virginia Tech. I study trust, reputation, and identity in online communities, and I teach classes in professional writing, new media, and digital humanities.

What’s Next?

Nine years after The West Wing went off the air, I still find myself thinking about it a lot. I guess that’s the mark of a good TV show. One of my favorite recurring lines is Jed Bartlet’s “What’s next?” I love that a single question can ask so many different things — is Bartlet curious? hopeful? ambitious? or just tired of a conversation and ready to move on?

For the past year or so, I’ve been considering what’s next for me. I’ve been at Virginia Tech three and a half years, and before that I spent two years at St. Edward’s University. I’ve been lucky to work with wonderful colleagues and impressive students at both institutions. In a world where getting a tenure-track position in the humanities is often compared to winning the lottery, I hit the jackpot twice.

And yet, something wasn’t clicking. I was thriving in the classroom, having a blast working on digital humanities projects, and getting invited to guest lecture on digital pedagogy at other universities. But publishing single-authored research articles and monographs? Uh… not so much. I’ll save the story of my crippling writer’s block and imposter syndrome for another blog post (just kidding — you’ll probably have to buy me a burger if you want to hear that one), but suffice it to say that the divide between what I loved to do and what I needed to do to earn tenure seemed to be growing wider with each passing year.

What to do, then? Leave Virginia Tech for a smaller school with a greater focus on teaching? Search for tech-centric positions in industry or government? Become a full-time freelance web developer? Take up knitting and open an Etsy shop? My very patient wife talked through all of these options (and oh so many more) with me dozens of times, and we kept our fingers crossed that the right opportunity would present itself.

And it did. I’m thrilled to announce that today was my first day as the Director of Academic Innovation and User Experience for TLOS (Technology-enhanced Learning and Online Strategies), Virginia Tech’s learning technologies group. When I arrived at VT in 2012, I felt an immediate connection with many of the faculty and staff who conducted the “Faculty Development Institute” courses I completed during my orientation, and I’ve had the good fortune to partner with TLOS on several grants and DH initiatives. I’ve seen how powerful TLOS can be in building a culture of technological innovation on campus, and I’m excited to be joining that effort.

In my new role, I’ll be partnering with faculty across campus to ask “What’s next?” in educational technology and then develop sandbox and pilot projects that will help us answer that question together. I’ll also be working to improve the experience for faculty, students, and other stakeholders who interact with TLOS. (A new website, social media accounts, and some nontraditional storytelling experiments are all coming soon!) For the past decade, much of my research and teaching has focused on online communities and digital pedagogy, and I’m excited to be in a role where I can extend that work to the larger Virginia Tech community.

So what’s next? It feels great to have a new answer for that question, and it feels even better to know that I’ll get to keep asking it every day.

Experimenting with Tapestry in My Writing and Digital Media Class

About a year ago, I stumbled across Robin Sloan’s beautiful iPhone experiment called “Fish“. If you haven’t read (viewed? experienced?) Fish before, you should do so right now. Go ahead — I’ll wait. (I recommend reading it on your phone, but if you’re in a hurry, you can read it in your browser, too.)

Pretty great, isn’t it?

Sloan called this new thing a “tap essay” and described “Fish” as a “manifesto about the difference between liking something on the internet and loving something on the internet.” As someone who spends a lot of time online, both for work and for play, Sloan’s essay hit me right in the gut. I subscribe to way too many RSS feeds, there’s rarely a moment when I have fewer than 15 tabs open in my browser, and I won’t even mention the endless streams of new information that flow through my Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook feeds. “Fish” reminded me that sometimes I might be better off revisiting a favorite story, poem, song, or website than trying to keep up with the influx of new material every day.

Perhaps appropriately, “Fish” became, for me, the very thing that Sloan articulated so perfectly in his essay. I returned to it over and over, then started handing my phone to friends and forcing them tap through it while I watched (sorry, everyone!). Eventually I started thinking about how I could incorporate this type of essay into the classes I teach. Last fall I started a new job at Virginia Tech, where I was asked to develop a course called “Writing and Digital Media.” This new course is part of our Professional Writing track in the English Department, and one of my goals for the class is to help my students expand their definitions of “writing,” so we spend a lot of time working with images, video, and audio. In similar courses I’ve taught in the past, my students have created short documentary films, podcasts, instructional comics, and PechaKucha-style presentations, so the idea of incorporating a tap essay into the class wasn’t too much of a stretch. There was just one little problem: my students aren’t programmers and neither am I. Given enough time, I was pretty sure I could figure out how to build a tap-essay app like Sloan did, but I knew there just wasn’t enough time in the semester to have my students develop standalone iPhone apps from scratch.

Lucky for us, a company in New York called Betaworks created a platform called Tapestry that allows users to create their own tap essays in a browser window, then share those essays online and through the Tapestry mobile app. The minute I heard about Tapestry, I knew I had to find a way to use it in my spring class. I made some adjustments to the schedule, and about a month ago my students started working on their very own “tap essays.” Watching my students develop their essays has been so much fun. On its face, the Tapestry platform is remarkably unsophisticated. But its simplicity belies its narrative and rhetorical power. Because the tap essay format is so constrained, my students have had to carefully consider every word, every image, and every transition in their essays. In short, Tapestry has helped my students think more precisely about what it is they want to say and the various ways in which they might say it.

As we started the project, I contacted Tapestry to let them know what we were doing, and they generously offered advice for writing and designing better tap essays, as well as some essential technical support. They even set up a Google Hangout with my class so we could ask questions about the app and give feedback on our experience using it this semester.

Yesterday my students clicked “Publish” on their essays, and they are now having a friendly competition to see who can share and promote their essays to the widest possible audience. Regardless of how far their essays spread on social media, the tap essay assignment will definitely make another appearance in my class this fall. The folks at Tapestry tell me they have some big plans for the future of the platform, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

Computers and Writing 2013 Workshop: WordPress as LMS

I’ll be running a workshop with Tim Lockridge at this year’s Computers and Writing conference, and since the conference program hasn’t been released yet, I thought it might be helpful to post the workshop description here.

Tim and I are planning a practical, interactive session on Thursday morning (June 6) that should be useful to anyone who is interested in using WordPress in their classes. If you have any questions about the workshop before you register for the conference, just let me know.

WordPress as LMS: A Beginner’s Guide to Creating Custom Course Websites

Learning management systems (LMSes) such as Blackboard, Moodle, and Sakai have become a ubiquitous component of higher education. These systems may streamline some typical classroom functions, but they are not designed with composition pedagogies in mind, and in many cases may actually constrain the potential of digital writing curricula. For example, institutional LMSes mimic popular writing technologies such as blogs, wikis, and status updates in a space that downplays the importance of networks, interfaces, and the circulation of texts.

For years, scholars in the Computers & Writing community have attempted to solve these problems by building custom LMSes using open-source content management platforms such as WordPress, Drupal, and MediaWiki. This half-day workshop is intended for instructors who have considered such options but may not know exactly how to get started. By the end of the workshop, participants will have hands-on experience with WordPress, a free, popular alternative to traditional LMSes; a collection of resources for managing a WordPress-powered LMS; and a conceptual blueprint for building a bespoke LMS to support their own classes.

At minimum, the workshop will cover the following topics:

  • Registering a domain name and selecting a hosting company
  • Understanding the difference between commercial and self-hosted versions of WordPress
  • Installing and configuring WordPress
  • Customizing the appearance of class websites with free themes
  • Using plugins to extend WordPress’s standard functions
  • Setting up a multisite WordPress installation to allow for unique websites for each class
  • Adjusting privacy settings to protect students’ personal data
  • Integrating social media streams (e.g., Twitter, Delicious) into class websites
  • Minimizing expenses for web hosting and support
  • Working with university IT personnel to develop policies and support systems for the development of WordPress systems using existing resources

In addition, we will provide ample time for workshop participants to experiment with WordPress, ask questions about their individual circumstances, and share ideas with one another.

Familiarity with WordPress is helpful, but not required. We encourage all participants to bring their own laptops and electronic copies of course materials for one of the classes they regularly teach.

So Many Memexes! (Or is it Memexi?)

A couple of weeks ago, after we read Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think,” I asked everyone to draw a diagram of their personal memex. I was intentionally vague with my instructions because I wanted to see how people would apply the ideas in Bush’s 1945 article to their personal information workflows in 2013. I handed out dry erase markers, pointed everyone to the massive whiteboard walls in the Innovation Space classroom, and crossed my fingers.

As you can see from the images below, my students didn’t disappoint. Several of the drawings were similar (the laptop at the center of the diagram became a recurring theme), but I was fascinated by the variety of elements in the diagrams, and even more intrigued by the students who took a completely different approach to the task than I did. Our diagrams sparked a great conversation about how we collect, store, and share information, and we’ll revisit these themes again and again in the coming weeks. I can’t wait to see if (and how) our diagrams look different at the end of the semester.

Starting Over. Again.

I built my first website, an online version of my university’s literary journal, in 1999. Actually, I convinced my much smarter roommate to build it for me, then I duplicated his template, copied and pasted each story or poem from QuarkXPress into NotePad, and added a few basic HTML tags. And boom — we were live on the web.

I was instantly hooked. Even though I had no programming skills and very little training in graphic design, I decided to start an online literary magazine after I graduated. I was working on Capitol Hill, and The White Shoe Irregular was an attempt to keep my creative juices flowing. A couple of friends helped me get the site up and running (thanks, Josh and Weston!), and within a few months, we were publishing a new piece of fiction, poetry, or satire almost every day.

The White Shoe Irregular, version 1

When Movable Type came out, my life got much easier. I no longer had to spend two hours every night marking up the next day’s piece and renaming files via FTP. And thanks to our shiny new content management system, the site’s design became much more sophisticated. (Translation: I added a sidebar.)

The White Shoe Irregular, version 2

The site got featured on a few “cool page of the day” websites and even won “Best Content/E-zine Website” at the 2001 South by Southwest Web Awards. (I had no idea what SXSW was, so I didn’t bother to show up for the awards ceremony. My life might be very different today if I had made the trip to Austin.)

Around mid-2003, my enthusiasm for the site began to wane (one can only imitate McSweeney’s for so long), and rather than let the site live up to its name, I decided to shut it down. I am happy to note that the site has never gone offline — the entire archive is still available.

The White Shoe Irregular, version 3

Almost immediately, I began working on a new site called Gnoyle. (Yeah, I know, terrible name. It’s a long story.) But deciding exactly what the site should be and do and look like took a little longer than anticipated. I think the “Coming Soon” page was the only thing on the site for the better part of a year.


Eventually, I decided not to decide, and Gnoyle became the place I published anything and everything that was on my mind — short fiction, book and movie reviews, interesting quotes, and bizarre overheard conversations. I even made a bold departure from my black-and-white color scheme.


Gnoyle lived on to see a few more iterations…


But grad school was right around the corner, and I soon found myself with another stagnant site on my hands. This time, I took down the site and gave up the domain name. In the intervening nine years, no one has claimed gnoyle.com — a sure sign that I could have chosen a better name for the site.

At Iowa State, I created more electronic portfolios than I care to remember. The process was always arduous, but each site that I created taught me a little more about web design and little more about what I wanted my online presence to look like.

Quinn Warnick's Personal Site, 2007

At some point (2006? 2007?), I decided I needed to own a professional domain name, so I went with the obvious choice and registered quinnwarnick.com. (Thanks, ancestors, for having a unique last name! Thanks, Mom and Dad, for giving me a unique first name!) Of course, registering a domain name and creating a site are two very different things, so I was back to a “Coming Soon” page.

Quinn Warnick's Electronic Portfolio, 2006

When that got too embarrassing, I added a splash of color and a few links to spruce things up.

Quinn Warnick's Personal Site, 2008

In 2009, I scrapped the rooster and went completely professional (i.e., boring) for my academic job search. I added teaching and research statements, teaching evaluations, an HTML version of my c.v., and a fancy contact form. For the first time in five years, I was almost practicing what I preached to my web design students.

Quinn Warnick's Personal Site, 2010

And, sadly, that’s how the site has looked for the past three years. Other than minor updates to reflect job changes or the new courses I was teaching each semester, quinnwarnick.com has been ridiculously stagnant.

So. It’s time for something new. I’m not quite sure what that something will be, but I hope it involves more regular updates, some reflection on remnants from my digital past (like these screenshots of old sites), and better integration of the many scattered pieces of my digital present. I’m asking the graduate students in my Digital Self class to develop (or redevelop) an online presence this semester, so it only seems fair that I should play along, too.

To get started, I’ve stripped down the site to a default theme and moved a few things around. The final version of the site (if such a thing can be said to exist) will be taking shape over the next few months, and I’ve decided to keep the site live as I work on it, so things might look a messy for a bit. With any luck, the mess won’t last for another four or five years.

Hypertext Video: Are We There Yet?

Thanks to a conference trip that occupied most of last week, I have fallen hopelessly behind on my blogging commitment. I wish I had the time to revisit Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg’s “Personal Dynamic Media” (prophecy fulfilled — I carry my iPad almost everywhere!) and Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message” (I once spent an entire session of a graduate seminar discussing the distinctions between “message” and “massage”), but I’ve decided to cut my losses and jump ahead to this week’s reading: “Will There Be Condominiums in Data Space?”, by Bill Viola.

I was intrigued by Viola’s discussion about “interactive video discs” and the potential for what sounds like the video equivalent of hypertext, which struck me as remarkably advanced for a 30-year-old article. Even in 1982, Viola suggests that the technology needed to realize his vision was in place; the problem lay with the users of the technology:

“After all these years, video is finally getting ‘intelligence,’ the eye is being reattached to the brain. As with everything else, however, we will find that the limitations emerging lie more with the abilities and imaginations of the producers and users, rather than in the tools themselves.” (p. 467)

Whether or not we had the tools to accomplish what Viola describes as “branching,” “visual footnoting,” and variable playback speed in 1982 (p. 468), we certainly have them today. The question remains, though, whether we have the imagination to embrace a new style of video. There is some evidence that nonlinear/hypertextual/etc. video is catching on; see, for instance, Kutiman’s ThruYOU remixes.

For that matter, see almost any video on YouTube, which has made video-within-video ads and embedded links to other videos standard practice in the past five years. YouTube’s innovations, of course, are primarily profit driven, but the fact remains that audiences are much more accustomed to fragmented, nonlinear viewing experiences than they were in 1982. And even without YouTube, shows like VH-1′s Pop-Up Video have trained us to expect visual interruptions and narrative detours while watching television.

The one place where this type of storytelling hasn’t taken root is full-length feature films, which are prefaced by endless advertisements and previews (and even cluttered with product placement), but still exist primarily as cohesive, linear stories. Sure, some movies are told nonlinearly (e.g., Christopher Nolan’s excellent Memento and Inception), but they are still arranged by the filmmaker, not the viewer. Some DVDs offer viewers the chance to rearrange portions of the movie or view alternate endings, but we tend to think of these as “bonus features,” not integral aspects of the movie-watching experience.

A truly hypertextual movie might not work in a traditional theater (which lucky audience member gets to control the arrangement of the film?), but one could certainly work online. Perhaps something like this exists already — I need to do a little more searching — but I suspect we’re still waiting for Viola’s perfect video to be created.

Software Engelbart Could Love

Douglas Engelbart’s plans for the future, as outlined in Augmenting Human Intellect, are incredibly ambitious, but as I read this selection I couldn’t stop my mind from returning to something much more mundane: my ongoing quest for the perfect software program.

I don’t rely on anything as complex as Engelbart’s “hand-operated, edge-notched card system” (p. 99), but I’d like to think that my attempts to organize my research notes, academic articles, to-do lists, etc., follow in his footsteps. Here’s Engelbart explaining the motivation behind his DIY system:

“If my mental processes were more powerful, I could dispense with the cards, and hold all of the card-sized concept structures in my memory, where also would be held the categorization linkages that evolved as I worked (with my feet up on the artifacts and my eyes closed). As it is, and as it probably always will be no matter how we develop or train our mental capabilities, I want to work in problem areas where the number and interrelationship complexity of the individual factors involved are too much for me to hold and manipulate within my mind.” (p. 100, emphasis mine)

Do I flatter myself by comparing my intellectual endeavors to Engelbart’s? Definitely. But don’t most of us feel like the problems we are trying to solve are often beyond the reach of our mental capabilities? (And if they aren’t, then what’s the point?) And for those of us who are digital packrats, each passing year produces more stuff we need to sort, tag, and archive. All of which is to say that I spend an inordinate amount of time looking for the perfect tool(s) to augment my human intellect.

An abbreviated list of the programs I have tested in the past few years, in no particular order:

That list doesn’t include academic reference managers like EndNote, Zotero, and Mendeley, and I won’t even mention the endless stream of iPhone and iPad apps I’ve tried. These days, I’m fond of Dropbox (for keeping files in sync on several devices), nvALT (for jotting down quick notes), Pinboard (for collecting and sharing bookmarks), and Papers (for storing academic articles). After watching my wife use Evernote for a year, I’m about to give it a try, too.

Here’s the worst part: None of these applications does exactly what I want, which means that (like Engelbart) I end up devoting a lot of time to building and maintaining my personal human augmentation system and not enough time to using the system.

Perhaps what I really need is a good set of edge-notched cards.

Ted Nelson, Xanadu, and Why Rhetoric Matters

Last week I learned that it is much harder to lead a reading discussion with faculty members than it is to lead one with undergraduate students. Everyone had smart things to say about Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib / Dream Machines, but I struggled to keep the discussion lively and on topic. (Gardner makes it look so easy!)

Even more frustrating was my failure to articulate my negative reaction to Nelson’s piece. During our discussion, I think I came across as dismissive or even hostile toward Nelson, but that wasn’t my intention. After thinking about it for a week, I’ve come to the conclusion that Nelson’s writing rubs me the wrong way because he packages amazing ideas in antagonistic prose. Yes, Nelson is a visionary, and we owe him a great debt for kickstarting the development of hypertext and the internet. But he’s also a bit of a bully, unwilling to compromise or acknowledge the contributions of others. He positions himself against the “computer priesthood,” the experts who “generally enjoy putting people down,” (p. 304), but he fails to see how his own combative approach alienates those who might have been his allies.

Consider just a few (admittedly decontextualized) examples:

  • “Any nitwit can understand computers, and many do” (p. 303).
  • I am ‘publishing’ this book myself, in this first draft form, to test its viability, to see how mad the computer people get…” (p. 303).
  • “Engineers and ‘human factors’ people speak as though there were some kind of scientific or determinate way to design control systems. Piffle” (p. 322).
  • “Be prepared for every possible form of aggressive defensiveness from programmers, especially, ‘Why would you want that?’ The correct answer is BECAUSE, damnit!’ (p. 326).

I recognize that Nelson designed Computer Lib / Dream Machines to be a manifesto, and I’m not suggesting that all writers should permanently adopt a conciliatory stance, but I do think Nelson’s lone-genius-in-the-wilderness approach directly affected his ability to turn his vision into reality. I wonder how the history of hypertext might have been different if Nelson had been willing to compromise and collaborate. It took Nelson 38 years—years!—of working on Project Xanadu to release an unfinished product. And even after 47 years of development, XanaduSpace exists as an abandoned Windows-only application.

It’s a shame that Nelson is known primarily as “the guy who coined the word hypertext” when his dreams for the future were so grand. In addition to showing us what could have been (and what still might be coming), Computer Lib / Dream Machines stands as a reminder that it’s not enough to be a genius — you have to play nicely with others, too.

Talking the Machine Back into the Bottle

The consensus during last week’s seminar discussion seemed to be that J.C.R. Licklider’s “Man–Computer Symbiosis” was a much better read than Norbert Wiener’s “Men, Machines, and the World About.” Although I agree that Licklider is the better writer, it’s Weiner’s piece that has been stuck in my head all week. I can’t stop thinking about genies and idols and impending punishments.

I know very little about Wiener’s life story, but I trust Gardner and Matt, who both reported that Wiener was not a man of religious faith. For a nonbeliever, Wiener sure had a knack for weaving religious language into his writing. Take this passage, near the end of the article:

We shall have to realize that while we may make the machines our gods and sacrifice men to machines, we do not have to do so. If we do so, we deserve the punishment of idolators. It is going to be a difficult time. If we can live through it and keep our heads, and if we are not annihilated by war itself and our other problems, there is a great chance of turning the machine to human advantage, but the machine itself has no particular favor for humanity. (p. 72)

Gods! Sacrifices! Idolators! Not to mention Wiener’s earlier reference to our gadgets as “the brass calf” (which, as William pointed out, probably should have been “golden calf”). Perhaps Wiener was simply using these Biblical allusions as throwaway rhetorical devices, but there seems to be something deeper going on here. Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s introduction to this piece highlights Wiener’s commitment to social justice and his refusal to accept military funding to support his research, factors that characterize Wiener as a deeply ethical, if not religious, scientist. Wiener had witnessed first-hand the devastating power of science and technology; he knew that scientists could become “arbiter[s] of life and death” (p. 66). Is it any surprise, then, that his message to the New York Academy of Medicine and Science feels like an Old Testament warning?

My interactions with technology, of course, are laughably pedestrian compared to what Wiener had seen. But as I think about my relationship to my gadgets (the iPhone that is never far from my hand! the sleek laptop on which I type these words!), I realize how lopsided these relationships can be. Wiener’s prediction (prophecy?) won’t stop ringing in my ears: “[T]he machine itself has no particular favor for humanity…. Gentlemen, when we get into trouble with the machine, we cannot talk the machine back into the bottle” (p. 72).

I Want a Memex in My Office

I can’t remember exactly how I first encountered Vannevar Bush’s 1945 article “As We May Think,” but I know I started using it in my teaching in 2007, when I got lucky enough to take over “Computers in the Study of English,” the introductory technology course for English majors at Iowa State University. Bush’s vision of the future struck me (and still strikes me) as uncannily prescient, and I was positive my students would share my enthusiasm for the piece.

They didn’t.

Where I saw obvious connections between Bush’s memex and today’s internet, my students just saw a big, clunky desk. The image of Bush’s “camera hound of the future” with his walnut-sized camera on his forehead called to my mind the ever smaller cell-phone cameras of today (and also, oddly, Jewish tefillin, but that’s another story), but my students just pointed out how silly Bush was for thinking people would actually strap cameras to their heads. (Never mind the cell phones that rarely left their hands.) Maybe I didn’t push them hard enough, or maybe I didn’t spend enough time in class discussing the essay (I’ve taught it several times since, and I think I’ve gotten better at it), but I remember feeling disappointed that “As We May Think” didn’t click for my students the way it clicked for me.

Reading the article again for last week’s seminar meeting, I was reminded why I like it so much, but I also realized why some of my students don’t like it. First, Bush’s writing is highly situated within context of World War II, and if you haven’t studied the Manhattan Project or aren’t fascinated by role scientists played in the war, Bush’s ethos and his motivations for writing may be hard to discern. Second, parts of the article are remarkably detailed, and if your idea of a good time doesn’t involve pondering the fundamental differences between analog and digital technologies, Bush’s description of microphotography or his explanation of how “trails” work in the memex could easily put you to sleep.

I plan to keep teaching “As We May Think,” and I’m confident that our seminar discussion last week will help me convince a few more students that Bush’s article is the fountainhead of contemporary internet studies. Yes, Bush gets many of the details wrong (all that microfilm!), but he gets so much right. Here’s a man writing in 1945 who essentially envisioned personal computers, the internet, web browsers, Wikipedia, and a dozen other technologies we take for granted today. A man who witnessed (and helped) science “throw masses of people against one another with cruel weapons” yet hasn’t lost hope for those people to “find objectives worthy of their best.” Who needs a new iPhone? I want a memex in my office.