Notes: Derek Mueller, “Grasping Rhetoric and Composition by Its Long Tail: What Graphs Can Tell Us about the Field’s Changing Shape”

Mueller, Derek. (2012). Grasping rhetoric and composition by its long tail: What graphs can tell us about the field’s changing shape. College Composition and Communication, 64(1), 195-223.


Mueller graphs the history of the field of composition studies from 1987-2011 to show the changing distribution of citations within the field. Mueller’s research utilizes methods of distant reading to show the tensions and relationships implicit in these citations.

Keywords: citations, composition, disciplinarity, disciplinary history, distant reading, keywords, quantitative methods, rhetoric, visual rhetoric, writing studies


Moretti, Franco. (2005). Graphs, maps, trees: Abstract models for a literary history. London: Verso.

Phillips, Donna Burns, Ruth Greenberg, and Sharon Gibson. (1993). College composition and communication: Chronicling a discipline’s genesis. College Composition and Communication, 44(4), 443–65.


“So while quantitative studies of authors cited in a well-known journal may offer a reasonable indication of the “common knowledge” of the field, this approach must not appear to produce a definitive roster of influences on the discipline. Compilations drawn from lists of citations might prompt us to wonder about the kinds of knowledge formal references demand of a reader, and a wide variety of contextualizing techniques within the articles themselves are sure to help familiarize readers with those voices brought into the piece—whatever the motive.” (p. 206).

“Thus, we can use distant reading methods to understand with more granularity factors affecting citation distribution… Separating subsets of the citation data would allow us to search for patterns according to many different criteria, exploring, for instance, the frequency of citation made to work by scholars within the first five or ten years of their careers, to work by alums of specific graduate programs, or by scholars whose research focuses on a specialized area. The methodology is considerably more dynamic and robust than this necessarily limited introduction of it can feature” (p. 214).

“Even self-described generalists, in those moments when they are again reminded of the Sisyphean demands of the field’s ongoing quality, inevitably experience (if indirectly, by felt sense) the lengthening of the long tail as a burdensome certainty: the unyielding march of time coupled with the burgeoning material resources piling up in the disciplinary commons. In economics, the long tail is sometimes called the heavy tail. The tail is, in this sense, paradoxical: an abundant, weighty expanse consisting of a highly uneven mix of sources, from the new to the forgotten to the idiosyncratic” (p. 214).

“Disciplinary terrain is constantly shifting, perhaps at what appears to be a faster rate than in many fields due to the adaptive, dappled spirit of much of the work in rhetoric and composition studies. Depending largely on one’s vantage point—that is, on whether one looks at the head or the tail of a citation frequency distribution—the field can appear to be highly focused, with a recognizable set of shared, dedicated principles and motives, or, it can appear as a loose amalgamation of pocketed clusters and enclaves, each holding fast to a relatively unique set of interests while neglecting (mindfully or not) any concept of disciplinarity in general.20 The full spectrum of citation data brings to light how both vantage points—generalist and specialist—are simultaneously implicated” (p. 218).


In what ways might this kind of distant readings be able to make explicit the tacit expectations of the field’s discourse? Can this be a self-reflective tool for those within the field to combat the idea of a monolithic entity of composition studies? Might a cartography of a field emerge? If nodes were given relational weights, would textures of the field emerge that might also give means of showing sub-disciplines, interdisciplinary frames, and other means of entering into composition studies?

What distant readings and graphing can be done to show the relationships between networks of scholarship or “scholarly corpora” and scholarly lineages? Might the emerging patterns ask questions of ownership, schools of thought, and the sort of (re)production of a discipline’s values, in that the act of tracing might allow to make visible a kind of pedigree of pedagogy and publication, which might too easily be used as the means of invitation into the conversations?

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