About Carolyn Rae Miller, Ph.D.: Carolyn Rae Miller graduated from Penn State University with a BA and MA in English in 1968 and spent several years after that as an editorial assistant in small publishing houses and in government contract organizations. That led to non-tenure-track teaching in composition and technical writing at NC State University and then to doctoral work in Communication and Rhetoric at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, because at that time, in 1976, it was the only program that promised preparation relevant to her teaching interests.
Dr. Miller’s early research focused on technical writing and rhetoric of science, and later moved to rhetorical theory more generally, and what became known as the field of rhetorical genre studies and digital rhetoric. Her teaching changed over the years in similar directions, with her last 10 years as the SAS Institute Distinguished Professor focused on doctoral teaching in digital rhetoric and genre studies.
As Director and Founder of the Center for Communication in Science, Technology, and Management, she worked with faculty in the departments of English and Communication to apply for external grants, bringing in over $1 million worth of federal grants over a period of eight years. The Center was also a locus for collaboration between faculty in English and faculty in Communication.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You have researched and published extensively on topics such as technical and scientific communication, digital communication and new media environments, rhetorical genre studies, and rhetorical pedagogy. May we have more information on your research in these areas? What have been the applications of this research in academic and professional settings?
[Dr. Miller] I was very fortunate that my early publications, based in my doctoral work, found receptive audiences. “A Humanistic Rational for Technical Writing” (1979) has been widely cited over the years because it came along at a time when technical writing was struggling with its identity and position within departments of English, where it was denigrated as a “skills” course that belonged in a vocational school. My argument that it had humanistic value was grounded in rhetorical theory and I tried to portray it as an important locus of applied rhetoric.
Similarly, “Genre as Social Action” (1984), which has for some time been the most-cited article ever published in the Quarterly Journal of Speech, developed from my dissertation, which explored Environmental Impact Statements as a rhetorical genre and tried to explain the widespread dissatisfaction with these federally mandated documents. My theory of genre, which was first taken up by applied linguists and then by the field of technical and professional communication, argued that a rhetorical approach to genre should focus not on form or content but on recurrent rhetorical action. This article has influenced the teaching of technical writing, composition, and English for international students. It has also, to my surprise, been used by scholars in law, anthropology, religion, and sociology, and around the world in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Norway, and South Korea, among others. Frankly, after so many years, there is much about that article that is outdated, as others have built on it, refined it, and extended it, and many recent citations, I believe, are by people who haven’t read it recently but just feel they are expected to cite it.
[MastersinCommunications.com] During your time at North Carolina State University, you have established several key graduate degree programs, including the Ph.D. in Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media and the M.S. in Technical Communication. You also taught the first graduate courses for the M.A. in Rhetoric and Composition. How does your research inform the courses you design and teach?
[Dr. Miller] I spent quite a lot of my career at NC State developing new courses and programs, as you note. This was because I wanted to be able to teach the things I was interested in and trained to investigate and to work with students who had similar interests. The Department of English there was a very traditional one, focused on the study of literary art, so I had to create new programs to attract the students and justify the courses. In addition, as a land-grant university focused on science and technology, NC State was the right kind of institution for courses and programs with a more applied focus than the existing MA in English.
Of course, I couldn’t do this by myself: also necessary was a department head willing to hire additional faculty to teach the range of courses required in a new master’s program such as the M.A. option in Rhetoric and Composition or the M.S. in Technical Communication. These programs prepare students to analyze and address a variety of rhetorical situations in the contemporary world, to appreciate variation and flexibility in needs and strategies, to research appropriate modes of delivery and new production technologies, and to be sensitive to multiple and sometimes conflicting conventions and expectations that are represented in rhetorical genres and linguistic registers.
The doctoral program in Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media was created in collaboration with faculty members in the NC State Department of Communication and now involves faculty from both departments and recruits students with backgrounds in both areas. Working across departmental lines was fundamental to the design of the program, which aims to create synergy between the different perspectives as applied to common interests in the effects of new media on the teaching and research of many rhetorical and communication phenomena.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we have more information on your most recent research focusing on genres of action and interaction in digital and interactive media?
[Dr. Miller] I got interested in genre studies again around 2000 when I was invited to contribute to a new collection about what was then the very new phenomenon of blogging. Since I didn’t know a lot about blogs myself, I worked with one of my master’s students who was internet-savvy to explore the rhetorical qualities of blogging. Blogs were intriguing because, we found, they “can be both public and intensely personal in possibly contradictory ways. They are addressed to everyone and at the same time to no one. They seem to serve no immediate practical purpose, yet increasing numbers of both writers and readers are devoting increasing amounts of time to them.”
We thought that a genre analysis could help explain these peculiar rhetorical qualities. Of course, by the time we published that article, it was out of date, because the internet changes so fast, and blogging very quickly became not a single genre but multiple genres (and have now pretty much been superseded by other social media like Facebook). Other researchers have explored the influence of digital media on scientific communication, both the ways that scientists communicate with each other and the ways that they interact with the public. In teaching a graduate seminar on “Emerging Genres” several times, I learned so much from my students about new genres that I couldn’t possibly have discovered or understood on my own: fan fiction, shreds videos, webinars, selfies, the multiple genres of videogames and the arguments about how to best classify them, and on and on.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your book Landmark Essays on Rhetorical Genre Studies, which you co-published with Dr. Amy J. Devitt, provides a chronological and thematic overview of the field of rhetorical genre studies. What were some principal findings that you and Dr. Devitt made during your work on this text?
[Dr. Miller] This book is a collection of essential readings in the field of rhetorical genre studies, intended for use in advanced courses. Amy and I selected 15 articles (we wanted to include many more but we had page limits), arranged them into thematic groups, and provided introductory and historical background on the themes and the articles. We didn’t so much discover anything new in doing this work but rather were able to combine our experience to offer perspective on the field as it has developed over the past 30 or so years. We put these readings into context with each other, much as we would do if teaching a course, so the work reflects our combined knowledge about the field.
I would also like to mention another book I recently edited with my former doctoral student Ashley R. Kelly (now Ashley R. Mehlenbacher), Emerging Genres in New Media Environments. This book collects 14 essays from a 2013 symposium sponsored by our doctoral program, with my introductory essay on “Where Do Genres Come From?” and Ashley’s closing observations. This collection of new research explores the complex interaction of genre and media, as well as the ways that genres change over time and the ways they incorporate values. Examples include visual genres such as the 19th-century cartes de viste (photo calling cards), illness video-blogs, Twitter and YouTube reactions to a Russian meteor, educational videogames, and Amazon.com user reviews.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You have earned numerous accolades for your commitment to teaching and mentorship, and served as the Director of the undergraduate program in Professional Writing at NC State University for several years. What have you found to be especially rewarding about teaching? Do you feel your experiences teaching have also impacted your own scholarship?
[Dr. Miller] My teaching experiences have interacted with my scholarship in different ways at different times in my 42-year career at NC State. Early on, I was trying to think my way toward more rhetorical approaches to the teaching of writing, and I tried to focus my teaching on presenting students with various rhetorical situations that they should learn to address. This works especially well with technical writing students, who are preparing to address workplace situations in professional ways.
As Director of the undergraduate program in Professional Writing (which included our courses for non-majors in engineering, business, and scientific writing), I initiated a research project based on a successful classroom assignment I had been using for several years. We asked each student to interview a person who had a job that they would like to have in about five years. The interviews were structured around the kinds of work-related writing (and speaking) that the employed professional engaged in, how important it was, and how it related to their performance reviews. Students invariably discovered that good writing was essential and that professional engineers, businesspeople, and scientists spent a good deal of time doing it.
They also learned about the different professional genres that they might expect to be using in the workplace and the changing expectations about communication technologies. We extended this assignment to the entire Professional Writing Program (some 30–40 sections per semester) and developed a questionnaire that we could get statistically significant data from. And we repeated this exercise about every 5–7 years, publishing internal reports analyzing and interpreting the data so that we could inform our curriculum and syllabi with up-to-date information about the changing needs, practices, and technologies in the workplace.
Later, when much more of my teaching was in graduate courses, I focused on helping my students learn the ways of the academy and, of course, master the knowledge of a field or topic area. I have already mentioned the ways in which students helped me learn about new media genres, and I fed all this back into successive iterations of my courses. At the same time, I continued to maintain that there is much that is essential to learn from classical rhetoric, even as we may challenge some of its assumptions and concepts.
What is rewarding about teaching? Well, of course there’s the thrill when a student suddenly “gets” a concept or perspective that dramatically reorganizes how they have been thinking about ordinary communication practices (e.g., when someone understands that the same concept, genre, that organizes formal approaches to literature can also organize their own experiences of interacting with wildly diverse phenomena on the internet). And there’s also the satisfaction of watching a student go far beyond your own understanding or capabilities in creative application of theory to a problem or a new cultural event.
[MastersinCommunications.com] As a scholar of technical communication, scientific writing, digital media, and genre studies, how do you feel these fields have evolved over the past two decades, and where do you see them going in the future? What role do you believe communication technology advancements will play in reshaping genre studies, scientific and technical communication, and rhetorical traditions across media forms?
[Dr. Miller] All of these fields have changed, of course; if they didn’t, they would fade into obsolescence. Technical communication is barely recognizable from the field I first started in, and now requires knowledge of work practices and technologies that I have no experience with. In fact, as technical communication became more and more specialized, my own interests moved away, toward rhetorical theory and genre theory, so I have not contributed to this field in some years except for some retrospectives and overviews of genres in technical communication.
Scientific writing has also been dramatically changed as scientific journal publication has moved away from print and incorporated interactive affordances of new media. I’ve spoken above about some of the changes I’ve seen in genre studies, and to these I would add an increasing interest in how genres incorporate values and ideologies, in how they are resisted and violated, and in how they may be deliberately designed to accomplish new social actions. Approaches to digital media and rhetorical theory have turned more and more to materialist and post-humanist approaches that conflict with the social-constructionist and phenomenological approaches that I have preferred. Since I retired from teaching several years ago and am no longer in direct contact with current students, I am wrapping up my research career, no longer keeping up with new trends in research, and not planning any major new research projects.
[MastersinCommunications.com] In addition to your work as a scholar and Distinguished Professor, you have also served on the governing boards of numerous academic and professional organizations, including the American Society for the History of Rhetoric, the Association of Teachers in Technical Writing, the Conference on College Composition and Communication, and the MLA Division on the History and Theory of Rhetoric and Composition. Why is it important for scholars to engage in associations external to their university or research institution?
[Dr. Miller] Early in my career, it was really important to me to be involved with professional societies, especially because I had no or few colleagues in my field at NC State. So my closest colleagues were those I met at conferences and through work for professional organizations, and my understanding of my field was formed by those relationships. Also, since change at universities can seem glacially slow, work for professional organizations is one way to see faster results for your effort. When I was starting out, I met older scholars who helped me, mentored me, and inspired me, and now that I’m older I try to pay it forward by working through professional organizations to help and mentor graduate students and junior faculty. I should also mention that I found it productive to be involved in multiple professional organizations (including the NCA, though I was never active in its committee structure) because my work has always crossed disciplinary boundaries.
Thank you, Dr. Carolyn Rae Miller, for your fascinating interview on genre studies, digital communication research, and technical communication scholarship! It was a privilege learning about your career in these fields of study and instruction.
Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.