Category Archives: Grad Grrl

Introducing “Writing/Fighting to Survive: The Rhetorical Strategies of Trauma Bloggers”

As I reconstruct my dissertation–rewriting, revising, conducting a new research study–I’ve been considering many of the questions that reappear in my personal research journal. Since my research isn’t just my research, I can’t really make my research reflections fully public. Some of the things that I reflected on were concerns for specific participants (I include this here because I am conducting a new research study to complete my dissertation and have an entirely different set of research participants) or feelings that were at the time too personal to share with my blogging audience. I’m beginning to test out these boundaries now for several reasons. First, blogging is good for me. Seriously, it’s like vitamin C (and not the sunshine and vitamin C that I joke about being in clove cigarettes) and warm chamomile tea followed by a slug of peppermint oil to wake up your brain. As Father Ong (That’s Walter J. Ong, S.J. to all of you non-Purdue, non-rhet/comp geeks like me) so aptly put it “the writer’s audience is always a fiction.” So, while writing in my research journal, I am writing to a fictional audience just as you, my dear blog reader, are a fiction in your own way, writing in my blog makes the audience less fictional. Sure, I imagine you when I write and until I hit the “post” button that’s all you are–imagined readers. But the great thing about blogging is that in the moment that my post changes status from “draft” to “published,” you emerge from the ether along with my pixelated thoughts and voila–real readers who write back. And this brings me to…

Here’s a piece of my dissertation introduction for your edification. Feedback is appreciated.

When I wrote my master’s thesis, I began with a story of my own pain, relating it to the purpose and context of my subject matter. I did this because stories matter. They are how we construct ourselves within the world, how we determine self worth, how we deal with the vicissitudes of living, and most importantly for me, they provide insight into our motivations. Just as motive is important to understanding our life decisions in a broader context, it is important for the scholar in understanding what she chooses to research, to the writer in understanding what she chooses to write about and how. My research deals explicitly with these motivations that compel the trauma blogger to write about their experiences. It seems only fitting that I do the same.

I was first diagnosed with primary PTSD and chronic depression at the age of nineteen. These two diagnoses did not define me but rather put into words what I was experiencing. After a lifetime of painful medical conditions and procedures as well as emotional and physical abuse, my psyche was damaged, so much so that I feared it might never heal. Luckily, I was fortunate enough to meet an amazing therapist who guided me in understanding and working through the traumas that had so disrupted my ability to live fully in this world. In addition, I had a caring psychiatrist who carefully worked with me to find a drug regimen to balance out the neurochemical problems that contributed to my disorders. Many people with PTSD and depression are not as lucky as I have been and/or need to supplement the professional help by engaging in therapeutic techniques that they develop in response to who they are. The people discussed in my research have chosen writing as the vehicle for their therapy, more specifically they have chosen blogging.

Like the bloggers that I discuss, I needed to develop my own techniques for dealing with my trauma. Unsurprisingly these techniques were rooted in my previous experiences of dealing with problems. First, I researched; I read everything I could find on PTSD. I read clinical studies, psychological theories, research into the causes and effects of PTSD, narratives, and literary theory. I became consumed with learning about trauma, convinced that if I could only understand it, I could defeat it. Since then I have written about and researched trauma extensively; I have posed theories about trauma and language; I have analyzed works of literary fiction and nonfiction; and after I became a blogger, I began studying the writing of trauma bloggers. My academic and scholarly nature lead me to deal with my trauma in concert with my professional development. However, throughout all of this I discovered that what helped most was not the research and reading but the writing about it. Like these trauma bloggers, writing became my therapeutic outlet. Yet my writing did not fall into the traditional rubric of therapeutic writing; it was and is primarily academic in nature and doesn’t fall into the genre of therapeutic journalling. In spite of this, I have found it to be more rewarding than writing about the specific experiences and perhaps more importantly, it feels safer. Those feelings of safety are often what allow victims to write about feelings and experiences that they cannot speak of.

My own experience inspired the questions that I explore here. What has motivated these bloggers to write? More specifically, why did they choose blogging rather than private journals? Why have they chosen personal blogs as opposed to the support forums that are plentiful? And when they sit down to write a blog entry, why do they do it? What experiences motivate them to take the time to sit and write and publish their thoughts? And I don’t mean the traumas that are the origin of their PTSD; I mean the experiences that directly precede the act of writing the entry. How do they respond to the experience in content and form? Do they write about the experience, the emotions that the experience engenders, or do they externalize like me and write about what they learn through the media and reading? I want to know what the writing means to them and if it helps. I want to know the answers to all of these questions, but to answer them I need to start at the beginning—the motivation.

As Kenneth Burke has noted “motives are shorthand terms for situations” (p. 30, Permanence & Change). In making this claim, he is explaining that motives are more complex than we usually perceive them to be. Motives are situations that we recognize through a pattern of stimuli and response that have occurred with enough frequency that we have generated a word for them. For example, my motivation in writing this is what I would describe as a desire to help myself and others. My “desire to help” is actually my response to a situation in which I see a pattern. Specifically, there are people who are hurting and who deserve to have their voices heard; I want to have my voice heard; I want to do my part in helping these people; and I am best equipped to help through my training as a rhetorician and scholar. So, there is a situation that involves both stimulus and response that I have translated into the words “a desire to help.” The motivations of the bloggers that I am discussing are no less complicated. Understanding the situational context of their writing helps me to understand what interactions constitute their defined motives which then helps me understand their writing. To clarify, the writing in this context is the response, and I am trying to identify the stimuli and understand the response and by making connections between stimuli and response understand motive.

So, the reader may have a question here: why do motives matter? An excellent question deserving of an explanation. I refer back to Burke to answer this. In examining motive I am actually looking at three linked concepts: orientation, motivation, and communication. Trauma victims’ orientation has been disrupted by their response to trauma. It’s really not dissimilar to being lost. The structures or landmarks that you use to determine your position are no longer there; you are disoriented and to find your way you must find those structures. “Orientation is a bundle of judgments as to how things were, how they are, and how they may be.” (14) Orientation is a means of understanding the world, when it is lost or disrupted, so is the individual sense of self and well being. Motivation is directly related to one’s orientation. The stimuli and response to a given situation (and the naming of it) are understood through prior experience. For the traumatized their orientation, influenced by trauma, results in response to stimuli that can be harmful in a multitude of ways. Because their response doesn’t always make sense in the way that we might normally understand it, they can’t attribute a word for it. They can’t give the situation a name. Thus, they cannot communicate their experience and that is what makes traumatic experiences traumatic—the disabling effect that they have on our ability to communicate. Communication is how we make connections to others. Ultimately these three concepts are circular. Communication helps us to reestablish orientation. Being able to communicate the trauma and experiences returns the ability to situate that bundle of judgments that is our orientation. Since my argument here is that writing allows us to process information differently and in some ways more effectively than other forms of communication, I need to understand the motive for writing as opposed to talking and the efficacy of blogging as the means of communicating these experiences. I also am trying to determine how blogging may move the blogger toward more stable orientation.

who/what am I now?

So, I’m having a bit of an existential crisis. I was inspired to write this post after reading Liana Silva‘s “How Do You Define an Academic?” on the Inside Higher Ed University of Venus blog. For me, the big question is: what am I now that I’m not teaching and no longer have a campus to go to? Technically, I’m still a Purdue PhD student since I haven’t completed my dissertation and am registering for research hours, but I’m now living in South Carolina. I’m working on my dissertation and various journal articles that I hope to publish. I write and read daily. I’m still conducting research. But I don’t have any F2F interaction with other academics in my field, and I earn my living by doing various freelance work. For the first time in almost a decade, I don’t have students to teach, classes to attend, or an office on a college campus. I’m adrift. My sense of identity has been linked to academia for so long that I feel unmoored in my new non-role. At least I feel like it’s a non-role. As an instructor and then professor, I always knew the answer to the inevitable question: what do you do? Since I make my money as a freelance writer/editor/consultant, I suppose that’s the socially acceptable answer. But it doesn’t feel like me. If I identify myself as a teacher, I have no answer to the inevitable: where do you teach. Identifying myself as a writer leads to the “so what have you published” question.

Can I be an academic if I’m no longer firmly rooted in academia?

following my own advice

I haven’t had much time to blog lately because of all of my dissertation work. For a while I found that the blogging was helping my writing process, but then I got a little freaked out about the possibility that the blogging was taking me away from my work. Of course I’ve been feeling guilty about not blogging. Part of that is because I want to be true to my readers (though they may be few) and another part of the guilt is that I actually enjoy blogging. Then there’s the fact that I study bloggers. Perhaps the most important reason is that I continually encourage my students to write informally as a way to prepare themselves for formal writing. I require students to write low-stakes, informal reading responses and post them to their class blogs as a means of practicing. Writing is one of those activities that improves only through much practice, an opinion that I continually emphasize to my students. Yet I have been failing to follow my own advice, a practice that I often complain about when others do so. If you’re going to preach it, you should practice it. While I’ve been writing drafts of blog posts, I haven’t been completing or publishing them, a practice that would cost my students grade points. So, I vow to spend time (at least weekly) writing (and completing) posts for my blog. If nothing else, I’ll post about my dissertation. Perhaps that will alleviate the guilt I feel on both ends.

women reading: an animoto

An animoto that I created for my digital rhetoric design studio class:

reasons for blogging

I feel the need to remind myself why I blog (or, at least, why I should blog).  I’m feeling a little listy, so I’m going to do this in bullet point format.

why I blog

“The instant publication encourages spontaneous writing rather than carefully thought out arguments.  Being allowed to write spontaneously releases us of the expectation that our writing must be perfect and polished” (266).

and

“In our blogs, we allow ourselves to write half-thought, naked ideas and show them to others rather than saving them for fully fleshed out carefully thought through papers” (267)

At the same time, unlike notes written exclusively to oneself, blog entries require us to think through our ideas and more fully form them making it more likely that they will reach fruition in the future.

  • Another aspect of blogging that is important to me as an academic is that it breaks the mold of the “ivory tower” publication process.  In a blog you write for a larger audience and thus, your writing is more accessible and available to the world rather than just a select group of individuals.
  • Along the same lines, writing in a blog allows for collaboration in a number of ways.  Not only does it provide a place for you to share your research with colleagues, the comment function allows them to respond to your work.
  • Blogs are allowed to be more personally oriented; they are, in fact, expected to be.  Thus, blogging academic work implicitly argues for the importance of personal experience as evidence.  At the very least, personal experience can share the same space as academic work.
  • A particularly important reason for my blogging is that I consider myself to be a digital ethnographer.  I am researching blogs and, significantly, arguing for their value and importance.  Blogging reinforces my argument that blogs have value beyond narcissism and linking.
  • Blogging makes me feel connected to the world.

So, there you are–a partial list of my reasons for blogging.

Rhetorical Strategies of Trauma Bloggers and What Counts as Evidence

As I struggle to find the sample set (representative trauma blogs) for my dissertation, I have been able to separate the bloggers into three categories based on their rhetorical strategies for dealing with trauma. One set of trauma bloggers discuss the intimate details of their traumas, clearly focusing on the internal struggles of PTSD.  The other set of bloggers seem to externalize their trauma by focusing on the political aspects of post traumatic stress disorder without revealing a large amount of personal information. There is a third set of bloggers that I situate between the other two.  These bloggers have situated themselves as therapeutic experts in the sense that they provide a healing plan based on their own process of healing.  Most of them are careful to note that they are not trained professionals and that their advice should not be taken in lieu of seeking professional help.  Still, their strategy is an interesting one because it positions them as expert, helper, and survivor/victim.  To some extent these are the most complex.  They implicitly argue for the value of personal experience by positioning themselves as a form of expert.  This, of course, is not unusual in the blogosphere.  Bloggers typically position themselves as authorities based on their experience.  This is necessary to establish an ethos with their audience.  Productivity blogs are particularly focused on this, because, like trauma bloggers, they are presenting a kind of self-help regimine based on the strategies that have worked for them.

The rhetorical strategies of these bloggers raise interesting questions regarding standards of evidence.  In academia, personal experience, while not entirely eschewed, is not valued as highly as other forms of research.  Experience is not considered rigorous in the ways that quantitative and other forms of qualitative data are.  Thus, while situating one’s research within a personal context is acceptable, using personal experience as theory or evidence is not.  Rather than increasing one’s ethos, the academic who focuses on personal experience will most likely have their research regarded as spurious at best.  I realize that we are talking about very different genres with distinctly different audiences and that these are not necessarily comprable.  However, I’m interested in exploring this further.  Given that there are many academic blogs that contain a mixture of experience and theoretical discussion, might there be an opportunity for a hybridization of scholarly genres?  Could this provide inroads into increasing the valuation of experiential evidence?

Surviving my dissertation

After my original dissertation idea was determined to be unfeasible (by myself and my dissertation chair), I found myself struggling to find a topic that still fit the spirit of my work.  Ideally, I would use the dissertation to create a theoretical base for my future study into narrative and trauma.  This, however, is much easier said than done.  The truth is that I don’t know how to write a theory without the use of real world applications.  I imagine this has something to do with the way that I value theory as praxis and vice-versa, and, while I am by no means rejecting that belief, it’s making this dissertation thing kind of difficult.  So, I’m trying to determine how, given the resources readily available to me, I can make a significant contribution to the field of trauma studies. (It’s times like these that make me think that I should have gone into psychology.) Here’s what I’m getting so far:

Thought #1: In the struggle to use writing as a way of healing, trauma survivors use unique rhetorical strategies for approaching their trauma.  My sample set would be blogs, discussion forums, and memoirs, which I would examine using a combination of Burkean theories of identification and feminist content analysis.  Using Jeanne Perrault’s idea of feminist autography, I would loosely categorize my samples as such, perhaps even going so far as to include theory within the scope of my research into autography.  Perreault defines autography as “a writing whose effect is to bring into being a ‘self’ that the writer names ‘I,’ but whose parameters and boundaries resist the nomadic” (2)*  While Perreault examines exclusively female-authored texts that have been published in print, I will be exploring mostly self-published blogs.  Also, my focus will be on how the writing brings into being a self that has been formed in response to and in spite of trauma.  I would also be looking into the Burkeian concepts of identification and consubstantiality as strategies for repairing the rift between self and other that is characteristic of trauma.

Thought#2: Focus on traumatic autography as a way of fighting back.  Writing as a way of healing seems too optimistic, as though writing can make the trauma all better, which I do not think is true.  Titles tend to help me focus, so I’d tentatively title this: “Writing/Fighting to Stay Alive: Rhetorical Strategies for Survival” or “Writing/Fighting to Survive: A Rhetorical Theory of Trauma”

Thought#3: [The most ambitious of these and the most difficult to put into concrete terms.]

My dissertation will serve as a basis for future research into memory, trauma, and narration.  By first establishing a methodology based on a synthesis of feminist, psychological, and narrative theory,  I will lay the groundwork for future study of the significance of language in identity formation and the effects of trauma on that process.  For the purposes of this dissertation, I will be taking a small sampling of writing by those who have experienced traumas.  These samples include: single-authored blogs, discussion forums, and memoir.

I want to create a theoretical basis for the argument that trauma is inherently a linguistic issue and that the loss of language is more than a symptom of the trauma; it is the trauma itself.

Okay.  Here’s a start.  Any feedback is appreciated.

*Perreault, Jeanne.  Writing Selves: Contemporary Feminist Autography. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1995.