Rhizcomics and the Future of Scholarly Forms


Last week, the University of Michigan Press / Gayle Morris Sweetland Digital Rhetoric Collaborative launched the open access version of a new book by Jason Helms: Rhizcomics: Rhetoric, Technology, and New Media Composition. The work (as shown above) takes full advantage of its born-digital composition, making use of images, animation, video, and annotation, and it defies a straightforward linear reading by including a range of asides and diversions (as well as a few intentionally intertwined chapters and arguments.)

In his discussion of the process behind the book, Helms explains how his concept has evolved from the argument that started his original dissertation process: “scholarship about comics should occur in comics format.” By extension, it seems only appropriate that as Helms has engaged with some of the fundamental questions about the shape of born-digital scholarship by exploring the form here. Helms frames his discussion with continual nods to the metatextual argument embodied in the piece itself. For instance, the “Paradigm Shift” chapter begins:

Things are changing. Our visual environment is becoming more and more rich. The digital revolution, the advent of visual literacy, cool media, it is called by many names. Sometimes it is a technological renaissance, other times a paradigm shift. Scholarship itself is changing. And during these changes, there is a danger of us embracing easy narratives of progress or decline.

Throughout, Helms makes a compelling case for scholars to explore what he terms “Rhizcom(ic)position,” which “writes from the middle: between words and images, visual and verbal, author and reader, material and idea, concrete and abstract, real and virtual”–a concept perhaps easier to explore, or drift through, than to easily summarize. We’ve discussed the challenges and possibilities presented by born-digital scholarly forms previously here at ProfHacker:

But despite all this interest (which of course goes back many, many, years, with the born digital journal Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy recently passing its 20th anniversary!) born-digital scholarship is still the exception, not the norm. I highly recommend Jason Helms’ work to those interested in seeing where this slow path to change in academia and our conventions of scholarship might be leading.

Have you read Helms’ work? If so, what are your thoughts? Alternately, what are your favorite readings about — or examples of — born-digital scholarly forms?

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