Review of Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative

Body Work, memoirist Melissa Febos’s newest craft essay collection, dismantles several of the prevailing ideas around both writing and teaching personal writing. The book’s particular interest is memoir, and Febos clarifies in her Author’s Note at the beginning of the book that this is neither manifesto nor manual, nor is it “a craft book in the traditional sense.” In fact, in this review, I argue that it’s not really a craft book at all; I came to it hoping to find pedagogical inspiration, but without exercises, tools, frameworks, or prompts, I instead found permission to take my own autobiographical writing more seriously, and further justification to encourage my students to do the same. Indeed, I would not assign this entire book to a class of undergraduate writers, though I plan to assign the first essay, “In Praise of Navel-Gazing,” to help beginning writers think through the place of memoir in an academic setting. But it did legitimize the genre, which often feels like it needs defending in institutional contexts, and makes a case for the vitality and unique potential of asking students and others to write their personal narratives. 

Febos’s own positionality as writer of this text is explicit. Readers who are familiar with Febos’s first three books, Whip Smart, Abandon Me, and Girlhood, will see Body Work as an expansion of her work as a queer, feminist writer and teacher and a former sex worker with substance use disorder. By borrowing from fields including philosophy, ethics, feminist theory, religion, and disability studies and applying much of her research to her lived experiences, she makes the case that writing is “integrated into the fundamental movements” of her life, “political, corporeal, spiritual, psychological, and social.” 

I came to Body Work as a feminist teacher of writing and rhetoric who has published a memoir as well as an extensive body of creative nonfiction. Over a decade of teaching memoir to university students has led me to a series of questions about best practices to teach writing and collaborating when it centers trauma, questions which I brought to my reading of Body Work. I often wonder, how do instructors encourage students to write about difficult personal experiences? How do instructors create an environment that fosters safety and vulnerability in personal writing? What ethical issues might arise? How do we evaluate these stories? 

I’d argue the collective trauma of the recent past– the pandemic, various prejudices, the mental health crisis, and the myriad ways in which late-stage capitalism have made post-college prospects more uncertain–are major motivations for students to continually fill creative writing classes across college campuses. My writing students have turned increasingly to processing their most painful experiences through writing. This ability to collapse material with interpretation and perspective, and to act as both researcher and subject, allowed students a proximity to their own writing and research that made for more emotional, engaged writing. In 2021, Jackson and McKinney published a new edited collection on authoethnography in writing studies which discusses the use of autoethnography in the writing classroom as both a research method and a legitimate way of knowing. When students learn to write as autoethnographers, which is to say, “as both subject and researcher” of their own work, “they both produce and analyze the data, thus closing the gap in interpretation between a subject’s and researcher’s perspective” (Jackson and McKinney, 7-8). Authothenography is recently emerging as a methodology of feminist rhetorical research, as can be seen in Peitho’s pages: Sarah Keeton’s “Tracing the Past to (Re)imagine the Future: A Black Queer Pedagogy of Becoming” and Tracee Howell’s “Manifesto of a Mid-Life White Feminist Or, An Apologia for Embodied Feminism.”  

In Body Work, Febos zeroes in on the question of why we have this urge to write our personal narratives at particularly challenging times, and how our own stories can help us heal. 

The most significant aspect of Febos’s craft book is her focus on whose stories are silenced, and how various hegemonic forces contribute to this silencing. The strongest chapter, also her opening, “In Praise of Navel-Gazing,” focuses on the ways in which victims of trauma and storytellers and writers from marginalized backgrounds are particularly harmed by the dismissal of memoir. Febos cites Dian Million’s article “Felt Theory: An Indigenous Feminist Approach to Affect and History,” in particular Million’s “case for remembering and understanding the impact of Canadian First Nation women’s first-person and experiential narrative on white, mostly male mainstream scholarship.” That felt experience, Febos points out, is “a collaboration between colonization, racism, and sexism, which all understand the political power of rich stories and their threat to existing colonial social structures.” In other words, by resisting the stories of lived and felt experience, culturally and institutionally, and minimizing that particular form of meaning-making, we are participants in resisting justice. 

Febos herself initially resisted memoir, reluctant to write her own story of sex work (the subject of her first memoir, Whip Smart). She braids her own decision to write her personal narrative with an examination of her wholesale dismissal of the genre to explore her own initial decision to censor herself, and who would have benefitted from that erasure. In Sarah Minor’s Creative Nonfiction essay “The Braided Essay as Social Justice Action,” Minor asserts the braided form of this style of writing allows choices to soften their rigid and often binary ideas. “Metaphor helps challenge the stultified pathways of our neural networks and test the elasticity of thought. Two ideas. One time. The brain resists new ways of thinking, but resistance is an important political tool.” Febos’s dedication to the braided form of essay writing allows her to connect herself to the rest of the world through her research and makes a case for personal narrative to resist the idea of “navel gazing.” 

Febos draws our attention to sex writing in Chapter 2, “Mind Fuck,” by giving an example of an exercise she uses to get her students to think about how they write sex, and then lists her “unrules” for writing sex scenes. “In the world of your writing, no sex is a punchline unless you make it one,” she writes. “There is no marginal erotic unless you sideline it” (67). Her call to action, to rethink the rules we have learned about our own sexuality and proclivities, asks readers to think not only about their writing about their sex lives, but about their sex lives themselves, to rewrite various scripts we have inherited about what pleasure might look like. This essay is the closest to a traditional craft essay in Body Work, since Febos details not only why we should write better, more authentic sex, but also how we might do this. 

Febos dedicates Chapter 3, “Big Shitty Party: Six Parables of Writing About Other People” to one of my students’ favorite topics: how to write about others in our personal narratives. Febos says this is the most common question people ask her, too, and her response, “that there are no living people in [her] work, only characters” is a process of “radical reduction.” She decides to use her own experiences writing and publishing to demonstrate how others might develop “their own moral compass around the issue” (81). While she reaches a thesis I disagree with—that the “radical reduction” of other people in her work makes them characters rather than real people (after all, there may still be real people who live with consequences of being written about in memoir)—I’m persuaded by her argument that “cruelty rarely makes for good writing” (84), and that the memoirist’s necessary focus on self is an ethical positioning. 

In Chapter 4, Febos is most successful at using other writers to build her own argument—something she excels at in her other books—rewriting a line from Robert Gibbs’s On Ethics to craft her thesis: “Writing is learning go know yourself again, to find your own agency in the actions you have committed” (132). She calls on thinkers from Jewish philosopher Maimonides and poet Natasha Trethaway to anti-racism activist Resmaa Menakem, to situate writing as a sacred and spiritual act, full of possibilities for confession, healing, and transformation. By the time the writing finds an audience, “the writer’s relationship to the past is irrevocably changed. The writer is changed” (139). The act of writing, as Febos experiences the process, has the power to change the life of the writer. 

David Mura published A Stranger’s Journey in 2018, a series of linked essays arguing for more deliberate and critical awareness in the complex issues surrounding racist habits of thought and craft in memoir writing as well as racist literary representations, much like Febos argues here for readers and writers of memoir to break some of their conditioned responses to memoir. Febos asserts there is room for stories that readers might want to read, and that writers want to write, and writers must rewrite the scripts around the importance and power of personal narrative on both an individual and societal level. I hope this review shows how researching why personal narrative benefits students, rather than how to teach it, can enrich conversations in the field, and bring creative nonfiction into center ring. The book’s ideas have certainly validated my own ideas of personal narrative’s primacy in many of my classes, making it just as important for my pedagogy as my own scholarship and life. 

Works Cited

Febos, Melissa. Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative. Penguin Random House, 2022. 

Howell, Tracee L. “Manifesto of a Mid-Life White Feminist Or, An Apologia for Embodied Feminism.” Peitho: Journal of the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition, vol. 23, no 4, 2021, 

Jackson, Rebecca and Jackie Grutsch McKinney. “Introduction.” Self+Culture+Writing: Autoethnography for/as Writing Studies. University Press of Colorado, 2021, pp. 7-8. 

Keeton, Sarah. “Tracing the Past to (Re)imagine the Future: A Black Queer Pedagogy of Becoming.” Peitho: Journal of the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition, vol. 24, no 4, 2022, 

Million, Dian. “Felt Theory: An Indigenous Feminist Approach to Affect and History.” Wicazo Sa Review 24, no. 2 (Fall 2009): 53-76. 

Sikorski, Grace. “Antiracist Approaches to Reading, Writing, and Teaching Fiction and Memoir.” Journal of Creative Writing Studies, 2018. 

Walker, Nicole. “The Braided Essay as Social Justice Action.” Creative Nonfiction, no. 64, 2017, pp. 6–12. JSTOR, 

Review of Ethics and Representation in Feminist Rhetorical Inquiry

Which rhetorics – if any – are collective? What documents count as evidence worthy of an archival collection? How do feminist archivists or rhetors speak for women rhetors without violating their narratives? These questions are considered in Ethics and Representation in Feminist Rhetorical Inquiry, edited by Amy E. Dayton and Jennie L. Vaughn. This collection considers feminist archival research and its representation of (selective) histories and rhetorics by drawing on previous scholarship, studying ignored rhetors, and questioning access issues. While examining previous scholarship, authors consider ways to ethically and compassionately advance methodologies in current research. This collection thus encourages future research on forgotten or unknown women rhetors by utilizing established feminist rhetorical methodologies, offering personal research experiences for analysis and reflexivity, and demonstrating practical approaches to address or answer questions of ethics and (re)presentation.  

As feminist and archival researchers, many of the authors draw on Jacqueline Jones Royster’s and Gesa E. Kirsch’s theoretical frameworks and make their impact specific to their research. Authors share theoretical frameworks and common methodologies, such as Royster and Kirsch’s four key terms (critical imagination, strategic contemplation, social circulation, globalization) and Krista Ratcliffe’s rhetorical listening. Because these frameworks are shared, each author answers specific questions via the ethics, representation, and interpretation that arise when researching historical subjects.  

Since Kirsch and Royster challenged scholars to ask new and different questions of multidimensional voices situated across geography, time, and space, they advised researchers “rescue, recover, and reinscribe” women’s rhetorical work. This collection extensively used the three “R’s” to reveal micro and macro histories: those of Native American women, Black women, activists, psychiatric patients, translators, and garment workers. 

The collection’s twelve chapters include historical subjects unable to speak for themselves or historical subjects who disrupt neat categorization. Chapters in the collection are grouped by prevalent chapter themes (such as emotion, issues of access, and silenced archives). Most chapters invoke foundational terms in feminist and archival research, such as the idea of “archival listening” and memory work. This collection also introduces new terms such as rhetorical violence, or the harm done to narratives by a researcher’s scrutiny, interpretation, or translation.  

Dayton and Vaughn assemble chapters with similar themes, though many have multiple themes and could be grouped differently by readers. Because of this, Chapters 1 and 2 are grouped together as they question the relationships between writers and subjects. In Chapter 1, Reva E. Sias studies Black schoolgirls who were denied a voice. Sias views her research through an Afrafeminist ideological perspective. As she explains, “[Afrafeminism] offers a more nuanced and shared space for African American women as the subjects of study” (24). Afrafeminist theorists can then remember the diverse lives of unknown African American schoolchildren and ethically re-story their lives and voices. In Chapter 2, Sara Hillin details her challenges representing African American aviators. Hillin “eavesdrops” on narratives by female aviators. Although Hillin studied aviatrixes like Bessie Coleman and Willa Beatrice Brown, she had to carefully consider whether to similarly study Amelia Earhart, since Earhart is the focal point of women’s achievements in early aviation. Hillin suggests researchers “overhear” their personal research and representation biases.  

In chapter 3, Elizabeth Lowry focuses on displays of emotion, particularly anger, in women rhetors’ writing. Since women have traditionally been expected to downplay anger, Lowry suggests scholars implement an openness to explore and validate this emotion. This chapter assesses narratives by Indigenous women such as Lucy Thompson and Zitkala-Sa and how their narratives channeled “appropriate” anger. She writes, “Recognizing and respecting a writer’s anger means joining in her indignation, agreeing that she has been wronged, and acknowledging that she is exhibiting an entirely rational response to her situation” (68). For these women rhetors, anger is a way to build bridges. Lowry proposes that their anger is instructive as well as inviting.  

Hillin and Lowry both connect their projects to “archival listening,” a term created by Jessica Enoch and Elizabeth Ellis Miller in chapter 4 to reflect rhetorical listening as it relates to archives. Enoch and Miller build their framing around Krista Ratcliffe’s Rhetorical Listening; therefore, archival listening is a way to listen to details within an archive, especially when those details are complex or negative. They write, “Archival listening means reflecting critically on the disappointment we may feel in the archive, opening ourselves up to what we see as a rhetor’s flaws and failures, and thinking carefully about our historiographic responsibilities and our subject’s rhetorical performances” (72). Enoch and Miller ask how to best ethically represent historical subjects that (might) disappoint more contemporary or progressive researchers due to the subject’s complicated or discriminatory politics. Enoch and Miller’s research revealed their historical subjects’ troubling characteristics. For example, Miller’s research on Sarah Patton Boyle revealed that Boyle, while a white liberal advocating for Black rights, occasionally displayed racist and sexist attitudes. The authors note: “Ultimately, archival listening positions us to take into account our subjects’ flawed humanity, to explore the systems of power that invited and cultivated their rhetorics, [and] to acknowledge the complexity of a rhetor’s life” (86).  

Chapters 5 and 6 explore access and ownership by exploring texts of incarcerated girls and hospital patients, respectively. In these chapters, Laura Rogers, Tobi Jacobi, and Caitlin Burns consider who can or should tell a subject’s story and how to tell that story with justice and compassion. Jacobi and Rogers map the personal documents of a troubled fourteen-year-old girl named Lila. Within this chapter, the two reference Patrick Berry’s concept of the contextual now: or, how researchers layer present ideologies and concepts over historical events. In Chapter 6, Burns explains that since archivists and owners of the Bryce Hospital collection have limited outside access to records, they may have inadvertently erased the histories of patients at the psychiatric facility. Burns agrees many of these marginalized, vulnerable populations should be protected, but also demonstrates how this protection is an act of silencing. As she writes, “the impact of these actions in this specific situation results in the silencing of the voices that are being protected” (113). In the case of mental institutions, narratives written by hospital superintendents or doctors are the accessible materials, and limiting access erases patients’ narratives completely. Both chapters consider who gets to decide when or how to tell a story and which voices may be subconsciously (or consciously) erased in the process. 

Chapters 7 and 8 suggest ethnographic approaches to archival research. Some historical subjects have living descendants that may form relationships with archivists or researchers. In Chapter 7, Vaughn explores the relationships she formed with living relatives of her research subject. She echoes Royster’s Traces of a Stream: “[we] have an ethical responsibility to the descendants of our subjects to represent their ancestors with respect and dignity” (qtd. in Vaughn 128). These relationships created a living archive that revitalized her research experience. Chapter 8 considers narratives that were hidden to protect women in workers’ unions. Jane Greer looks at writings by working-class women detailing their experiences at the Donnelly Garment Company and notes that she had to resist comfortable narratives and her own conflicted appreciation of such rhetoric. She thus advises researchers to let the records of the past speak for themselves.  

In Chapter 9, Gracemarie Mike Fillenwarth describes critical imagination as a way of seeing what is in an archive and what is not. Royster and Kirsch created this term in Feminist Rhetorical Practices; following in their steps, Fillenwarth suggests looking at women’s rhetorical work, collectively. Within her research, she seeks to explore how women’s writings “came into being as a result of collective, collaborative interactions and rhetorical practice” (167). As a researcher new to the field of feminist rhetorics, I admired how many chapters, and especially Chapter 9, applied existing concepts in feminist rhetorical inquiry to the exploration of collective feminist narratives.  

In juxtaposition to chapter 9,  Kathleen T. Leuschen and Risa Applegarth draw on the method of memory work and explain how it “highlights the politicized potential of memory as a mechanism for intervening into contemporary scenes of inequality” (177). Leuschen and Applegarth study personal memories of activism and activists’ published or unpublished narratives in chapter 10. But because some of these narratives are unpublished or missing in archives, research into these narratives – and the probing questions and requests that come with them – may be a form of rhetorical violence. This worry is also considered in the next chapter.   

In Chapter 11, Cristina D. Ramirez suggests that translation – the translators themselves, the translated language, and what is lost in translation – reveal “the multiplicity of power struggles that accompany translation” (202). In one example of lost meaning, Ramirez recounts Wright de Kleinhan’s speech “La lectura,” wherein the informal vosotros form is used. In this speech, the feminine form of vosotros, or vosotras, is used to address a female audience. Yet, in translating the work into English, vosotras was replaced by the neutral “you.” Therefore, this feminine-oriented speech is assigned a different meaning and may have been studied or placed within a vastly different (or exclusive) context.  

Wendy Sharer suggests in Chapter 12 that more diverse voices should enter rhetorical discussions and produce theoretically rich projects. Sharer presents an opportunity for this in Peitho’s “Recoveries and Reconsiderations” section. In this section, contributors can join rhetorical conversations without time-extensive research: the goal is instead to “introduce readers to resources for ongoing consideration and further discussion” (“New Peitho Feature”). Because of this, many feminist and archival researchers who may not have the time or institutional backing to complete extensive research can still join academic conversations and hopefully, bring their varied voices to feminist rhetorical projects.   

As a graduate student interested in Indigenous and Mexican American identity, I found Chapter 3 especially engaging due to Lowry’s writing choices and feminist historiographic perspective. Lowry’s writing was energetic and ethical. Not only did Lowry recognize her subject’s anger, she affirmed it. After reading these narratives, I hoped I would encounter more angry, righteous narratives by previously disempowered women in my own scholarly research.   

Each chapter encourages additional research and a closer look at existing (and hidden) archives and materials. Many of this collection’s scholars recommend others change the (re)construction of archives to include those who have been historically and repeatedly dismissed, such as the psychiatric patients in Chapter 6 or the female garment workers in Chapter 8. As evidenced in most chapters in this collection, many archives are bereft of marginalized women due to their narratives’ displacement, archival restrictions, or simply neglect. Furthermore, the authors recommend discussing the collection’s research outcomes and processes. By doing so, the authors open their feminist rhetorical research to (more) ethical and methodological questions as well as more diverse researchers.  

It is up to readers and researchers to listen to and carefully consider these narratives through archival listening, memory work, and refraining from rhetorical violence in an attempt to recognize a rhetor’s reclamation of agency. This collection sparks more discussion and encourages further sharing of research built on significant feminist rhetorical methodologies, like that of Kirsch, Royster, and Ratcliffe. Additionally, it adds to these methodologies by suggesting ways to examine feminist rhetorical research ethically and compassionately. Though other readers such as myself may not know when or how to join a feminist rhetorical conversation, this collection and Peitho advise that the first step is to ask, “Who is missing from this (rhetorical and narrative) conversation?” 

Works Cited  

Dayton, Amy and Jennie Vaughn, edited. Ethics and Representation in Feminist Rhetorical Inquiry. U of Pittsburg P, 2021.  

“New Peitho Feature: Recoveries and Reconsiderations.” Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition, 1. Mar. 2019, Accessed 2 March 2022.  

Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Southern Illinois UP, 2005.  

Royster, Jacqueline Jones. Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women. U of Pittsburg P, 2000.  

Royster, Jacqueline Jones, and Gesa E. Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Southern Illinois UP, 2012.  

Book Review of Utopian Genderscapes: Rhetorics of Women’s Work in the Early Industrial Age

Utopian communities, which are often inspired by particular religious or social beliefs, are intentionally designed communities built outside of mainstream culture. These communities were common during the nineteenth century in the United States before developing a dangerous, cult-like reputation. Because of this developed reputation, society typically dismisses discourse or in-depth analyses about these communities. Michelle C. Smith, in Utopian Genderscapes: Rhetorics of Women’s Work in the Early Industrial Age, reframes our view on these utopian communities, which she calls intentional communities. Smith implores us to investigate the communities’ societal contributions via the study of the rhetoric within and about them—regardless of the characteristics, actions, and perceived success of the communities.1  

Smith conducts a case study of three intentional communities (Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, active 1841–1847; the Harmony Society in Economy, Pennsylvania, active 1804–1905; and the Oneida Community in upstate New York, active 1848–1881) to investigate industrialization’s far-reaching implications for gender, class, and race that permeate all aspects of society but are best gleaned in perceptions of labor. The book, comprised of five chapters, three of which are analyses on the specific communities, does a wonderful job of analyzing how the communities’ rhetoric reflected and contributed to America’s gendered view on labor in the nineteenth century and how these views evolve over time and across spaces.  

To inform this case study, Smith draws from archived letters, books, and documents from the three communities. Smith utilizes material rhetoric to articulate ecologies of gender stemming from the communities. Put differently, Smith traces the web of gender implications (spanning time and space) caused by industrialization, using a case study and a material rhetorical lens to do so. Because she views the construct of gender as complex—woven into spaces, bodies, tasks, and objects—Smith traces the ecological presence of gender in both linguistic texts and material objects. Smith explains that “an ecological approach to gender is its view of the production of gender as dispersed and contingent,” which Smith believes is an approach that articulates “the productive convergence of and tension between material and feminist rhetorics” (7). Drawing from scholars like K.J. Rawson, Jenny Rice, and Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, Smith explores how lived experiences are impacted and shaped by material developments, like the wealth of machinery developed during industrialization that altered the labor industry (Smith 7, 166).  

Smith’s contribution to the field of feminist rhetorical studies is thus bifold. Firstly, her research purpose (to shed light on the communities’ rhetoric) welcomes research about stigmatized historical individuals/communities that society dismisses. Smith challenges us to look beyond the tainted reputation of historical individuals/communities to recognize their rhetorical power. Secondly, her methodological scaffolding, which is the utilization of feminist and material rhetoric to explore ecologies of gender, provides a blueprint for feminist rhetors to utilize. Feminist rhetors who investigate rhetoric of the everyday and/or historical rhetorical movements (as scholars like Sarah Hallenbeck have modeled), will find Smith’s blueprint of exploring ecologies of gender across time, space, bodies, and objects extremely informative.   

After outlining her methods and contributions in the first chapter, Smith moves into her body chapters, which entail three separate studies of mid-nineteenth-century intentional communities in America. In chapter two, Smith discusses teleological rhetoric within Brook Farm, focusing on the domestic lives of women and the teleological rhetoric of “housework” present at Brook Farm. Smith argues that Brook Farm proved that America’s understanding of “housework” solidifies woman’s purpose. Smith explains this by analyzing Brook Farm’s constitution, which states that women would be able to choose what work they did at Brook Farm, in comparison to the letters written by members and visitors, which state that women were only performing “housework.” The juxtaposition between the intention and the reality of the community shows that Brook Farm fell short of its goal to let women choose whatever jobs they wanted. Women, stuck performing “housework” at Brook Farm, which was perceived as “drudgery,” thus developed business-like rhetoric to elevate “housework” to the then-desired status of industrial work, creating work schedules, using business style and diction in their writing, and designing power-hierarchies.  

In chapter three, Smith discusses rhetoric of exceptionalism used to describe Gertrude Rapp, the granddaughter of the leader of Harmony society, and the effect that rhetoric had on Harmony women. Rapp ran the silk operation at Harmony and was well regarded within the silk and business fields—a triumph for a woman at the time. This prompted society to write exceptional rhetoric about her, which created a new, unrealistic expectation for women. While the outside discourse about Rapp seemed like it would benefit Harmony women, giving them the chance to follow Rapp’s forged path, the internal rhetoric at Harmony shows otherwise. Women, in fact, were still relegated to “housework” despite this woman leader achieving success. In addition to the rhetoric of exceptionalism, Smith also discusses Rapp’s utilization of scientific and professional rhetoric to pass as a man in order to be taken seriously in her field.  

In chapter four, Smith discusses rhetoric of choice—or, more astutely, the illusion of choice—within Oneida, focusing on the reproductive lives of women. While trying to advance reproductive rights, Oneida elided the roles of “mother” and “worker” by elevating motherhood into a job that one could specialize in, complicating the rhetoric of gendered labor and perceived choice. In society outside of Oneida’s community, mothers were looked down upon if they worked; in Oneida, workers were looked down upon if they mothered. This is seen via the rhetoric of John Humphrey Noyes, Oneida’s leader, who believed that women should be “female men” who work as much as men and don’t fall victim to philoprogenitiveness (love for one’s children). Noyes’s rhetoric is presented in contrast to the rhetoric of the Oneida women, who write about their struggle to balance motherhood and work. While the women of Oneida wanted equal opportunity to work, they did not want to lose their opportunity to mother in the process.  

These body chapters are interesting, thorough, and informed, making readers wonder if rhetoric can ever elevate “housework” out of the trenches of “drudgery,” and what equity in the home could (or should) look like. Building on a foundation laid by scholars like Jordynn Jack, Jessica Enoch, and Nathan Stormer, Smith explores the ecology of gender stemming from these symbols and materials of housework, priming readers for the conclusion, which briefly explores how this ecology has extended into contemporary symbols and materials of housework. These chapters thus serve as an example of how to bypass historical communities’ stigmatized reputations to uncover their rhetorical power. It makes one wonder: what are we missing by not exploring these and similarly stigmatized communities? Additionally, these chapters, which explore concepts like tokenism and reproductive rhetoric, are an example of how future researchers can implement Smith’s lens (i.e. paying attention to the ecology of rhetoric’s effects on gender through time, space, bodies, symbols, and objects) when interrogating society’s relationship with gendered phenomena. 

Smith’s fifth and final chapter addresses future researchers, leaving them with three main pieces of advice. First, Smith compels rhetoricians to use the term “interactionality” instead of “intersectionality” to better explain how different identities work in conjunction with each other rather than simply overlapping. Readers familiar with Karma Chavez’s Queer Migration Politics will recognize this term, which Smith uses to call for work that illustrates how gendered phenomena (like the gendered views of labor explored in this book) “often deepen and cement divides among women of different socioeconomic classes, races, ethnicities, religions, and educational backgrounds” (147). Second, Smith undermines the illusion of choice within rhetoric about gender, inviting scholars to do the same to highlight the injustice as a first step to remedying it. Third, Smith encourages researchers to question the rhetoric of failure surrounding intentional communities, attending to the nuance in order to conceptualize the complexity of gendered norms. Utopian Genderscapes, as perfectly encapsulated in the conclusion, calls for rhetoricians to reclaim intentional communities’ rhetorical and societal contributions (and, by extension, other stigmatized communities’ similar contributions) using the methodological framework Smith provides. 

Smith’s research opens a floodgate of topics to investigate by calling for research that bypasses retrospectively instilled negative perceptions of historical societies. Utopian Genderscsapes also informs researchers about how to analyze the evolution of gendered constructions of labor—and other phenomena—across time and space. By studying America’s rich history of intentional communities and analyzing ecologies of gender by employing material and feminist critiques, Smith lays a solid foundation for future rhetoricians, showing them how to find rhetorical significance (symbolically and materially; across time, space, bodies, and objects) in previously overlooked communities.  


Work Cited 

Smith, Michelle C. Utopian Genderscapes: Rhetorics of Women’s Work in the Early Industrial Age. Southern Illinois University Press, 2021. 

Editors’ Introduction 

The 2022-2023 academic year has come to an end, and while some may mark this year as “post-pandemic,” most of us are still feeling its consequences. We are mourning lost loved ones, perhaps carrying debt from a period of lost income, and burdened by other forms of debt as well: sleep and rest debt most centrally. We are working with students who have experienced learning loss, including in many cases our own children. The summer may or may not be an opportunity to rest, as we struggle to regroup and make progress on long-stalled research projects, pursue additional summer jobs to supplement income, and just do the work that is needed at home.  

In addition to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, residents of many states in the US are dealing with other serious emergencies and attacks. Those of us who are trans, and who have friends and family members who are trans, are contending with state legislatures’ attempts to deny life-saving gender affirming health care, which was already far too burdensome to access. Those of us who work within our communities and institutions to increase diversity, equity, inclusion, decolonization, and belonging are seeing small and hard-won gains being threatened. Those of us with student loan debt are facing the end of the respite from having to make monthly payments and are having to make difficult plans and choices about household budgets.  

As these events unfold around us, we continue writing, mentoring, and supporting our communities as we are able. We gather together this month, June 2023, for Juneteenth events (in the US) to learn about our history, and for Pride celebrations to show solidarity with the most vulnerable in our communities, insisting on the right to exist, and thrive, in public as queer and trans. This issue of Peitho is among these acts of resilience. 

Hyoejin Yoon Memorial 

We begin this issue by remembering Hyoejin Yoon, who passed away on December 16, 2022. She was a professor at West Chester University and a leader in the field of composition studies, particularly in the Conference on College Composition and Communication’s Asian/Asian American Caucus. Essays by Eileen Schell, Terese Guinsatao Monberg, and Jennifer Sano-Franchini, Jennifer LeMesurier, and Jen Bacon share memories of their years of knowing Hyoejin. In last summer’s issue of Peitho marking the journal’s tenth anniversary, one of the essays, written by Brooke Boling, Laura R. Micciche, Katie C. Monthie, and Jayne E.O. Stone, engaged feminist grief by going through the archives of Peitho and reading the memorials. We are committed to devoting space in this journal to remembering cherished feminist mentors and reflecting on their legacies, especially those lost far too soon, as Hyoejin Yoon was at only 52 years old.  

Schell’s personal account of her friendship with Yoon is a beautiful portrait of a mentoring relationship, and it helps those of us who did not have the good fortune to meet Hyoejin to have a way to know her. Monberg and Sano-Franchini’s essay collects memories from several members of the CCCC Asian/Asian American Caucus who worked with Hyoejin for many years, and they share their experience of working closely with Hyoejin, including on the excellent book Building a Community, Having a Home: The CCCC Asian/Asian American Caucus. Monberg and Sano-Franchini also provide a review of Yoon’s published research and show its contribution to the field. Jennifer LeMesurier’s piece has the immediacy of remarks delivered in an in-person meeting; Hyoejin had been scheduled to serve as the respondent after a panel discussion at the Asian/Asian American Caucus meeting at CCCC in February 2023, and Jennifer is speaking in her place, both engaging the valuable research presented by early-career scholars, as Hyoejin would have done, and paying tribute to her as well. It was a difficult rhetorical task, and LeMesurier does it with the utmost intellect and sensitivity. Finally, Jen Bacon’s remarks, delivered at a memorial at West Chester University, show us the magnitude of the impact that colleagues can have on each other day to day, year to year.  


The essays for this Spring 2023 issue offers scholarship that move from the local classroom out into the global realm and back again. They demonstrate various acts of resiliency: a teacher patiently leads students towards a feminist consciousness, even when they are reluctant to follow, students question and educate others about the research practices of their land-grant university, and a novel carves out new forms of human rights ideals that are based on feminist solidarities instead of capital accumulation.  To begin, Abby Dubisar’s essay “Feminist Ethos and Global Food Systems Rhetorics on Campus” and Weiming Denise Yao Gorman’s essay “From Textual Subjects to Voracious Feminists: Rethink Constitutive Rhetoric,” for example, center students and their rhetorical practices. In Gorman’s case, she explores how students come to her communication studies classroom as reluctant feminists but leave as voracious ones. Gorman chronicles the pedagogies she uses that help students develop feminist thinking and action in her general education classroom, demonstrating how rethinking constitutive rhetoric through feminist rhetorical theory alongside centering students’ experiences and perspectives helps students to develop a feminist politic. Her deep dive into classroom practices offers feminist teachers a series of pedagogical approaches to moving even reluctant students towards becoming voracious feminists.   

Dubisar similarly shows how students developed and employed their feminist ethos when challenging their land-grant university’s politics around global food security and GMO research and testing. Students schooled in feminist and transnational feminist thinking attuned to legacies of colonialism and global capital production, challenged their institution’s broader narrative of “feeding the world” by asking who was really benefitting from their institution’s seemingly charitable food system projects. Dubisar’s analysis shows how students’ ethos around food systems and their rhetorical actions had both limits and possibilities—the students were able to employ rhetorical strategies to question and call out their university’s limited understanding of food systems but at times were ignored due to their subject positions. Although Dubisar does not mention it specifically in her essay, the rhetorical actions and knowledge-making strategies that the students engaged in demonstrate the unique lenses that rhetorical scholars can bring to interdisciplinary projects that can help disrupt the Capitalist-economic, colonial, and neo-imperial logics that often frame global food system projects. Such ethos will potentially help policymakers and scientists create better global food systems projects. The students that are showcased in Dubisar’s essay demonstrate the sorts of rhetorical acumen and resilience that Gorman sought to develop in her students and the sort of anti-capitalist human rights approaches Belinda Walzer gestures to in her essay in this issue. As one of the students in Dubisar’s essay argues, the GMO research the university conducted overlooked the local needs and perspectives of populations that the research purported to benefit.  This sort of local (on the ground) connection to global issues is echoed in Walzer’s study of how local human rights needs are represented.   

Walzer, in her essay “Economies of Rights: Transnational Feminism and the Transnational Structure of Rights,” relatedly seeks to disrupt the Capitalist-economic, colonial, and neo-imperial logics that frame human rights discourses around global sex trafficking. Walzer’s deep transnational feminist analysis demonstrates the ways that economic rhetorics form the basis of the logic of women’s rights in general, making projects of solidarity across difference difficult. To imagine a model of transnational feminist solidarity, Walzer then turns to a Burmese novel that complicates the economic logics of human rights. As Walzer describes, the novel exposes the limits of the trope of passive sex-trafficking victim that tends to frame anti-sex trafficking human rights discourses. Instead, the novel depicts a subject of gendered human rights who, because her sex-work does not fit with the dominant victim narrative, cannot be recognized within the larger rhetoric of global capitalism in human rights. It is through transnational feminist rhetorical solidarity that the novel disrupts the legal marking of gendered human trafficking. As all these essays show, feminist resilience and practices can take many forms and each practice can move us closer to a more just world. 

Cluster Conversation on Feminist Internet Research Ethics 

This issue also includes a Cluster Conversation, a feature in Peitho that first appeared in Spring 2020 with the Queer Rhetorical Listening Cluster. In this issue, we have a collection of pieces about Feminist Internet Research Ethics, edited by Kristi McDuffie and Melissa Ames. These seven essays offer insights not only about internet research ethics, but also research methods, research design, and feminist pedagogy. Internet research ethics has been a topic of study since at least the early 2000s, and with each new technology, the ethical responsibilities of researchers must be reconsidered in an accretive process. The essays in this cluster show the progression of the conversation about ethics in internet research, which was fairly new when I was in graduate school in the early 2000s. The question we frequently grappled with was: are we studying texts, or are we studying people?  

The contributors to this Cluster Conversation unpack the complexities of that early question, taking into account perceived privacy, vulnerability of the people involved, sensitivity of the subject matter in posts, removal of identifiers, whether or not permission was requested and granted, and sharing of the research with participants prior to publication: generally having and maintaining a good, respectful relationship with users in online communities. Cam Cavaliere and Leigh Gruwell explain the importance of self-care and strong mentoring when doing research about aggression and harassment online: a real problem that needs to be studied, but that can be very upsetting to engage with. Wilfrido Flores describes a new approach to coding data: “slow coding,” which requires researchers to slow down and approach data more reflectively and that can result in conclusions that are more nuanced, accurate, and critical. Hannah Taylor shares careful ethical reflection on work that she has done on visual content online, which is more difficult to anonymize. Charles Woods and Devon Fitzgerald Ralston offer a heuristic for reflecting on research ethics specific to podcasting, which reveals the considerable behind-the-scenes labor and time commitment involved in producing podcasts; it is valuable for any scholar who is including podcasting in their tenure and promotion dossiers. Nora Augustine’s examination of the ethics of doing research about online support groups engages the rapidly shifting norms of privacy and confidentiality that are in effect for support groups that meet on Zoom. Gabriella Wilson’s essay on teaching feminist research ethics and methods is a helpful guide, with student-facing reflection prompts, that can be adapted for any undergraduate or graduate course, including first-year writing. Because so much communication happens online, most of the research we do in our field is internet research, so this cluster would make a valuable addition to any syllabus of a course on methods for a graduate program or for undergraduate research.  

Book Reviews 

With this issue, we are thrilled to introduce our new Associate Editor, Jennifer Nish. Thanks to her work, we have three book reviews in this issue. Maria Ferrato reviews Utopian Genderscapes: Rhetorics of Women’s Work in the Early Industrial Age, by Michelle C. Smith. Lane Riggs reviews Ethics and Representation in Feminist Rhetorical Inquiry, edited by Amy Dayton and Jennie Vaughn. Ellen O’Connell Whittet reviews Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative, by Melissa Febos. These three books are diverse in subject matter but all equally interesting and relevant.  

We hope you enjoy this issue, including its cover art, which was a labor of love: the CCCC Feminist Caucus gave conference attendees the opportunity to create fabric squares to be made into a wall quilt, which Holly Hassel sewed after the conference. The Caucus then auctioned the quilt, with the proceeds going to help fund caregiving grants for the CCCC convention. We thank the Feminist Caucus for allowing us to use a photograph of the quilt as the cover of the Spring 2023 issue. The next issue will be from our guest editors: Angela Clark-Oates, Louis M. Maraj, Aurora Matzke, and Sherry Rankins-Robertson. It’s a summer special issue with the theme Coalition as Commonplace: Centering Feminist Scholarship, Pedagogies, and Leadership Practices, and we’re excited to read it.  



A Private Conversation in a Public Place: The Ethics of Studying “Virtual Support Groups” Now

I feel compelled to give disclaimers whenever I speak to friends or family about my research on support groups for survivors of domestic violence. I always quickly clarify the circumstances that led me to this work. I want them to know the agency in my research is one where I have personally volunteered as a support group facilitator for nearly seven years—and it’s also one where I was previously a client, giving and receiving support in groups just like those that I now lead. Anxiously, I assure others that I would never share identifiable information about the clients I serve or their experiences of abuse with any audience, for any reason, without those clients’ knowledge and consent (which I do not wish to seek). Above all, it seems crucial to express that I never imagined conducting research on this agency when I first came into contact with it. It was only after five years of volunteering that I became interested in studying support groups, and that interest proceeded from the hope that rhetoricians like myself might find new ways of lending their specialized skills to non-profit organizations.


Needless to say, these disclaimers are meant to convey that I am acting ethically in my research—or at least, that I am trying very hard to do so. Investing significant amounts of time, energy, and care back into a community that once did the same for me, I assume a deeply personal mission to “do good research without doing bad things” (Cagle 1). And according to some research ethics scholars, perhaps my choices have been acceptable. In a discussion with Heidi McKee and James Porter regarding her research on medical support groups, Laurie Cubbison opines, “the participant observer needs to establish some street cred… You really need to establish yourself in the community even before you start doing research” (Cubbison qtd. in McKee and Porter 100). Out of context, Cubbison’s statement could seem superfluous: most academics would discourage barging into a community utterly unknown to the researcher and launching a project devoid of any prior contact with potential subjects. Doing so would be deemed intrusive, arrogant, or deceitful, whereas the ability to “develop a relationship over time with participants” was once “a necessity for qualitative researchers (i.e., field research) in traditional social research” (Hall et al. 251). But importantly, what these scholars are discussing is not quite traditional research, but rather research on the Internet—in particular, on content drawn from message boards, listservs, social media posts, and the like. Though they are far easier to access than in-person groups, these Internet communities ironically raise far more ethical conundrums for some researchers who intend to study them.


Throughout the 1990s, increased access to the Internet among the general populace offered unprecedented opportunities for human connection and communication. For individuals who have endured some of the most traumatic or stigmatizing experiences known to humankind—for example, childhood sexual abuse, intimate partner violence, self-harm/suicidality, and so on—the ostensible anonymity and global scope of online communities provided an especially appealing alternative to face-to-face resources. Drawing on culturally available models of supportive communication, Internet users adopted the phrase “online support group” (or “virtual support group”) to refer to a vast range of communities and services enacted among members of various vulnerable populations. Meanwhile, eager to amplify the voices of trauma survivors and situate their experiences within broader systems of harm, scholars also began to study such communities with great enthusiasm—generally availing themselves of raw data in the form of members’ lengthy self-disclosing text posts.[1] Ethicists have expressed concern about the risks of studying online communities for about as long as such research has been conducted, yet recent work by rhetoricians indicates that we are still struggling to conceptualize “the public nature of ‘public’ data” (Buck and Ralston 2). Greatly exacerbating this struggle is, of course, the enormous gap between the rate at which “socio-technical systems” transform and the rate at which we can systematically analyze those transformations (Nissenbaum 5).


In this essay, I argue for a reexamination of Internet research on virtual support groups in light of two major socio-technical shifts in recent years: first, the significant changes in most Internet users’ relationships to video teleconference technologies (e.g., Zoom) during the COVID-19 pandemic; and second, the resulting changes to the concept of a “support group” as it is understood by vulnerable populations in a post-pandemic age. Clearly, evolving technology and social norms are greatly diversifying the range of online activities we still collectively refer to as “virtual support groups,” highlighting the need for a more nuanced analysis of these groups’ distinct modalities, the complexity of the self-concealment/exposure they afford, and their resulting epistemic potential. Driven by my experiences as a facilitator of both in-person and virtual support groups for survivors of domestic violence, I built a case study around the explosion of synchronous, video-based support groups in the United States from March 2020 onward. Specifically, I explicate several ethical quandaries that arose from one agency’s attempts to implement a Zoom-specific confidentiality policy in its support groups, showing how rapid uptake of this platform introduces new conflicts between core values that are usually compatible. Combining the apparent privacy of face-to-face group meetings with the ambiguous publicness of online communication, Zoom support groups illustrate the extent to which our understandings of “virtual support groups” have changed since scholars first started researching human subjects on the Internet—and therefore how much our ethical considerations must change, too.

Researching Internet Communities: Ongoing Ethical Debates


Most scholars would condemn infiltrating and studying a face-to-face support group without participants’ knowledge, yet for virtual communities, the temptation to do this is so strong as to warrant lengthy reflection and ethical debates. Why is this so? For many academics, researching Internet support groups is exempt from ethical review because the content of such groups is “already public” (Zimmer 313). In other words, it is open for use by anyone online—the group is easily locatable via search engines, requires no special credentials or identity verification to join, and (crucially) may be hosted on a platform whose terms of service agreement clearly states that users’ posts are accessible to the public. Collecting information shared in these groups, then, would be comparable to taking notes on conversations overheard in a “public square” (Kaufman qtd. in Zimmer 321) or radio or television show (McKee and Porter 83), and posting a message to potential subjects would be like posting a flier on a bulletin board in a community center (Carrion 444; Opel 188). On the whole, the persuasiveness—and pervasiveness—of the notion that Internet users waive their rights to privacy when using public platforms is so potent that Helen Nissenbaum has christened it “the normative ‘knock-down’ argument” (114). 


Arguments that exclude internet content from the purview of Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) often function as enthymemes, resting on an unspoken assumption that anything public is “fair game” for research (McKee and Porter 2; Zimmer 323). Nonetheless, Internet research ethicists increasingly reject the “public/private dichotomy” as a basis for ethical decisions (Nissenbaum 90), holding that this binaristic view neither reflects humans’ actual perceptions of privacy nor successfully protects them against harmful research—even if said research is fully legal and IRB approved.[2] Indeed, Dawn Opel summarizes a prevailing position on institutional ethics: “[legality] is not the whole of ethical research practice, in much the same way that IRB approval does not mean that a researcher has always acted ethically” (183, emphasis in original). Annette Markham and Elizabeth Buchanan similarly problematize the term “human subject” as it is applied in/out of regulatory frameworks, rather directing scholars’ focus to concepts like “harm, vulnerability, personally identifiable information, and so forth” (6). For these scholars and others, analyzing one’s research design involves a multiplicity of factors beyond the sensitivity of information or its public/private status, and such analysis must be done “using a complex process that weigh[s] these variables contextually” (McKee and Porter 87). Not only is a study’s ethicality not evaluable through a simple binary of ethical/unethical, but it also does not exist on one single continuum of ethical/unethical, and its placement on a wide range of continua cannot be judged solely through theoretical means. Instead, the most recent version of the Association of Internet Researchers’ (AoIR) widely adopted guidelines for ethical research stresses the importance of developing methods “from the bottom up” in a “case-by-case approach” while avoiding “a priori judgments” (franzke et al. 4).


In keeping with aline shakti franzke et al.’s endorsement of “ethical pluralism” and the many divergent “judgment calls” elicited through this approach (6), AoIR’s ethical guidelines consistently embrace the idea that “ambiguity, uncertainty, and disagreement are inevitable” (Ess qtd. in franzke 6, emphasis in original; Markham and Buchanan 5).[3] Given that the Internet and its users are constantly changing, scholars cannot possibly account for the infinite number of factors that may ever affect the ethicality of Internet research—they would be shooting at a moving target. Hence, Markham and Buchanan impart that a “process approach” to ethics “highlights the researcher’s responsibility” for making decisions “within specific contexts and … a specific research project” (5). While scholars must “consult as many people and resources as possible,” it is clear that their individual values inform the harms they are willing to risk in order to produce new knowledge (Markham and Buchanan 5). In light of ample research showing online communities’ aversion to being studied (Hall et al. 250; Hudson and Bruckman 135; King 122)—as well as common-sense awareness that groups discussing “socially sensitive” topics are especially keen to limit their membership to “only others that understand, respect, and support their situation” (King 126)—it seems critical for researchers of virtual support groups to clarify “what greater benefit justifies the potential risks” of their work (Markham and Buchanan 11).


A feminist approach to Internet research helps scholars contextualize their choices at every stage of a project, empowering them to reflect on their individual standpoints while also valuing a multiplicity of other perspectives. Though it’s apparent that “There is not one single tradition of feminist history” or “discourse” (franzke et al. 64), several principles have emerged as typifying a feminist approach to Internet research. Both informing and echoing franzke et al.’s “Feminist Research Ethics” resource in the 2019 AoIR ethical guidelines, scholars have valued a feminist “ethics of care” (Cagle 7; Luka et al 22); standpoint theory and situated knowledges (Carrion 443; Luka et al. 22); maximally contextualized praxis and data (Luka et al. 26); transparency about method/ologies (Carrion 443; De Hertogh 485; Luka et al. 30); reflexivity throughout the research process (Carrion 446; Luka et al. 23); and reciprocity and beneficence towards the community one is researching (Cagle 7; De Hertogh 495; Hall et al. 250). Underlying all of these values is a determination to honor research subjects’ dignity and hold oneself accountable for any harms thereto. Realizing that the responsibility for making good judgments ultimately falls to individual researchers, feminist approaches place us in “vulnerable and often messy positions, where each researcher looks her or his own biases in the eye” (Luka et al. 31). In this process, one may be tempted to view ethical decisions as a sort of hard-won compromise between researchers and subjects; each party’s interests are assumed to contradict the other’s. Yet even if feminist scholars consciously choose to prioritize their subjects at the cost of their research, this does not mean ethical decisions are any easier to make. As revealed in the case study below, rapid changes in Internet-based research technologies are already requiring feminist scholars to reassess, not just whether/when to show beneficence to human subjects, but also which kinds of beneficence might be more imperative than others.

Case Study: Zoom Support Groups

Current scholarly discussions of Internet research often underscore—if not conclude on—the notion that ethical guidelines must evolve over time to meet new challenges presented by new conditions of the socio-technical systems we are studying. For example, Markham and Buchanan stress that the 2012 AoIR ethical guidelines were developed “in an effort to recognize and respond to the array of changing technologies and ongoing developments” (e.g., greater use of smartphones and social media) that had drastically changed the landscape of Internet-based research since the publication of the first version of the guidelines in 2002 (2). Likewise, the development of increasingly sensitive Internet search engines since the late 1990s certainly problematizes the use of exact quotations from internet communities in prior research: McKee and Porter inquire, “Did the discussants in the newsgroups in the 1980s and early 1990s envision the powerful search engine capabilities of Google and the like making their posts easily traceable?” (83). Nevertheless, few existing studies delve deeply into one specific, ongoing socio-technical transformation and its implications for ethical decision-making in the future. In what follows, I present a case study on video-based, synchronous support groups that convene via the popular video teleconferencing platform Zoom, explicating how the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted Internet users’ relationships with video teleconferencing technology and, consequently, popular understandings of the term “support group.”


Under what (if any) conditions is it ethical for a scholar to study communications that occur within a Zoom meeting for members of a vulnerable population? While there is no easy answer to this, it is certain that individual scholars’ responses will be guided in part by their perceptions of the Zoom platform. For many Internet researchers, one of the most important factors affecting the ethicality of a project is its “venue”—the specific online platform they are visiting and their beliefs about its purpose, user base, terms of service, social norms, and so on (franzke et al. 16, 18). For instance, McKee and Porter share Yukari Seko’s reflections on her research on blogs by self-harming/suicidal authors, observing that “concern about the status of a blog” strongly influences her methods (96). Seko states: “If I think of [blogs] as the letter for the editors, I don’t have to get any informed consent, but if I think of it as personal conversation, I have to get informed consent… it’s totally related to my articulation of blog” (qtd. in McKee and Porter 95-96). If a scholar perceives a publicly-accessible Zoom support group as analogous to an open Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at their local church, they might make ethical decisions that favor their right to drop in and study the group. Conversely, a scholar who perceives a Zoom support group as analogous to a group therapy session at a local mental health clinic will come to quite different conclusions. Some crucial questions for those interested in researching virtual support groups, then, must be, “What is Zoom?” and “Who or what is Zoom for?”[4]


Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the average American would have perceived Zoom (if at all) as a video teleconferencing tool used for professional, utilitarian purposes when an in-person meeting with one’s colleagues was unfeasible. Events on this platform probably would not have been “fair game” for academic research, if for no other reason than that opportunities to join a Zoom call you weren’t personally invited to were decidedly rare. Precious few scholarly articles had been written about Zoom, and even fewer had explored its utility in collecting qualitative data. Yet in early 2020, Internet users’ relationships to this platform seemingly transformed overnight. According to The New York Times, Zoom’s daily user base skyrocketed from ten million pre-pandemic to three hundred million in April 2020 (Isaac and Frenkel). The platform’s distinctly user-friendly design combined with its robust security features—now often credited for Zoom’s triumph over contemporary competitors such as Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, or Skype (Talukdar 167)—made it adaptable to a variety of new remote communication needs. In addition to enabling some individuals to work and attend school while quarantining, Zoom became a primary site of many people’s social lives. With just the click of a weblink, it suddenly became possible to join public-facing, widely attended Zoom events hosted by businesses, schools, non-profits, governments, and more any day of the week. What was once a fairly niche tool for private professional calls became, quite abruptly, a necessity for people of diverse identities to participate in public life. And public it is: even when hosts take precautions to prevent “Zoom bombing,” or disruptions from unwanted/uninvited parties, the possibility of an attendee surreptitiously recording sound, video, images, or text chats is always present. Hence, as many workers serving vulnerable populations would soon discover, it is inherent to Zoom’s features that the risk of confidentiality breaches is high and the capacity for any single meeting attendee to prevent such breaches is low.


When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the southeastern United States in March 2020, I was one of the most active facilitators in the support group program at a domestic violence agency near my university. As was the case with most non-profit organizations in this era, the staff was obliged to adapt their services into an online format with very little time or prior experience to calibrate their choices. Following global trends, they moved all support group meetings to Zoom. Given the relative accessibility of this online space and the urgency of maintaining confidentiality while working with survivors—some of whom could be in grave danger if their information is unprotected—my supervisor and I soon recognized the need to implement Zoom-specific policies. Drafting our first “Zoom Support Group Confidentiality Agreement,” an addendum to the pre-group “Participation Agreement” clients always sign, was theoretically simple. We sought to identify all possible threats to confidentiality on Zoom and specify how clients should avoid them. However, as we gained more practical experience running virtual support groups, our policies received frequent edits and expansions. They also proved difficult to enforce, highlighting unexpected tensions between confidentiality and other agency values such as empowerment and access. To capture the ethical complexity of working with this population on this platform, I offer three basic conflicts we encountered with questions we asked ourselves:


Where should group members physically be while attending meetings via Zoom?

  • Are there any cases in which it is not preferred for members to attend via Zoom from their own homes?
  • If a member cannot attend via Zoom from home, what alternative locations are acceptable? Are members permitted to attend meetings from their car, their workplace, their school, a park, a café/restaurant, the library, a friend or family member’s home, etc.?
  • What locations are absolutely unacceptable for attending meetings via Zoom?
  • Are members required to stay in the same location for the entire duration of the meeting?
  • What measures should members take to ensure that their location is not under audio/video/other forms of surveillance?


Who should group members be with while attending these meetings via Zoom?

  • Are there any cases in which it is not preferred for members to attend alone?
  • If a member cannot attend alone, how much space and/or substance (walls, doors, etc.) should separate them from others in their environment?
  • What sort of people can be nearby while members are attending meetings via Zoom? Are members permitted to attend meetings in the general vicinity of their abuser, other family members, friends, roommates, colleagues, classmates, fellow patrons, etc.?
  • If a member is a caregiver for children, can they tend to those children during Zoom meetings? If yes, is there a maximum age/developmental stage after which this is not acceptable? 
  • What measures should members take to ensure that people in their environment cannot hear/see the meeting, including the members’ own contributions?


What audio/visual information should group members share during meetings?

  • Are there any cases in which it is not preferred for members to have their cameras and microphones turned on at all times?
  • If a member cannot keep their camera and microphone on at all times, is there a maximum amount of time they are permitted to have either one turned off? 
  • Are members permitted to obscure information about who/what is in the room with them by using a virtual or blurred background, positioning themselves against a corner or wall, playing background music/other noise, communicating solely via chat text, etc.?
  • What obligation do members have to inform the group if they are attending the group under circumstances that threaten confidentiality?
  • What measures should members take to ensure that their audio/visual equipment is not inadvertently exposing information they do not wish to share with the group (their full name, home address, occupation, etc.)?


Internet users’ increasingly acute control over the flow of their personal information—the high demand for which has spurred Zoom’s popularity—is disorienting in the context of virtual support groups. In earlier parlance, the phrase “virtual support groups” often signified text-based, asynchronous, and anonymous communities; conventional groups were in-person, synchronous, and comparatively vulnerable (revealing a physical self, name, current location, voice, etc.). These descriptions no longer hold for groups convening via Zoom. While attending a meeting on this platform, a user can choose to share their real-time image, sounds, background/location, non-verbal emoji “reactions,” and/or screen in addition to text posts, providing fellow attendees with far more personal information than was possible in earlier online communities. On the other hand, one can choose not to share this information, retaining much more agency to self-conceal than in traditional support groups. Zoom’s features thus empower group members to set their own terms for participating in groups, a fact that takes on special meaning vis-à-vis individuals who have experienced a profound loss of personal autonomy. The ability to toggle between various types/levels of engagement also reduces barriers to access for those who lack the ideal conditions for attending a Zoom call. For non-professional facilitators of virtual support groups, though, ethical conundrums unfortunately arise when their commitment to these core values of empowerment and access may directly undermine their commitment to confidentiality.


The questions listed above are difficult enough, but even if answered through group policies, they are quickly eclipsed by even thornier questions about each policy’s relative importance, the harm entailed in violating it, and the harm entailed in enforcing it. Put simply, someone must decide when (if ever) a group member who doesn’t follow confidentiality policies should therefore be removed from the group. Such an action is extreme, and it compels the meeting host to decide that their ethical duty to maintain confidentiality while serving a vulnerable population is more important than their duty to benefit said population by securing their access to resources. Whereas confidentiality is often a necessary condition for access to social services, permitting people to speak freely about sensitive subjects, here one of these principles must be upheld at the cost of the other. What lengths should Zoom hosts go to, then, in order to protect confidentiality? Needless to say, the ethical ideals one pursues in theory are not always effective in practice, and the considerations scholars should take while researching support groups are not the same as those guiding the work of a non-professional group facilitator. I assume that if I were attending virtual support group meetings as a scholar collecting data on human subjects, I would err on the side of confidentiality in ethical decisions. But anecdotally, it seems to me that every virtual group meeting I’ve actually attended has involved some level of deviation from our Zoom policies, yet I have never witnessed any facilitator removing a client from a group for this reason. Consciously or not, our decisions often prioritize a client’s right to benefit from the group—and moreover, the other clients’ right to benefit from their peer’s continued presence, even if their choices slightly increase the already massive potential for confidentiality breaches on Zoom.


In the absence of substantial data about the dangers of Zoom-based support groups, those who wish to study such groups will inevitably draw upon their own subjective expectations and goals to make ethical decisions. In doing so, they may hope the strictest approach to confidentiality will yield the most ethical research. Unfortunately, it isn’t clear that this is the case, particularly if such approaches require the loss of personal power or access to resources among members of a vulnerable population for the sake of as-yet-unknown gains. To ponder whether certain uses of certain Zoom features could cause harm to meeting attendees is quite different from asserting, definitively, that they do cause harm. Some will argue that it’s better to risk removing attendees who are not a threat than to risk retaining even one attendee who is a threat, and this is a viable position—but others will argue the opposite. In the years to come, perhaps those who hope to work with vulnerable populations via Zoom can look forward to the creation of a professional code of ethics for their respective fields; their challenge will be one of learning how to follow confidentiality policies for video teleconference-based research. In the meantime, our challenge is learning how to write them.

Works Cited

Augustine, Nora. “Facilitating Rhetoric: Paratherapeutic Activity in Community Support Groups.” Strategic Interventions in Mental Health Rhetoric, by Lisa Melonçon and Cathryn Molloy, 1st ed., Routledge, 2022, pp. 71–88. (Crossref),

Boland, Joshua, et al. “A COVID-19-Era Rapid Review: Using Zoom and Skype for Qualitative Group Research.” Public Health Research & Practice, vol. 32, no. 2, 2022, pp. 1–9. (Crossref),

Buck, Amber M., and Devon F. Ralston. “I Didn’t Sign Up for Your Research Study: The Ethics of Using ‘Public’ Data.” Computers and Composition, vol. 61, Sept. 2021, pp. 1–13. (Crossref),

Cagle, Lauren E. “The Ethics of Researching Unethical Images: A Story of Trying to Do Good Research without Doing Bad Things.” Computers and Composition, vol. 61, Sept. 2021, pp. 1–14. (Crossref),

Carrion, Melissa. “Negotiating the Ethics of Representation in RHM Research.” Rhetoric of Health & Medicine, vol. 3, no. 4, Feb. 2021, pp. 437–48. (Crossref),

De Hertogh, Lori Beth. “Feminist Digital Research Methodology for Rhetoricians of Health and Medicine.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication, vol. 32, no. 4, Oct. 2018, pp. 480–503. (Crossref),

franzke, aline shakti, et al. Internet Research: Ethical Guidelines 3.0. 2019, pp. 1–82,

Hall, G. Jon, et al. “’NEED HELP ASAP!!!’: A Feminist Communitarian Approach to Online Research Ethics.” Online Social Research: Methods, Issues & Ethics, edited by Mark D. Johns et al., Peter Lang, 2004, pp. 239–52.

Hudson, James M., and Amy Bruckman. “‘Go Away’: Participant Objections to Being Studied and the Ethics of Chatroom Research.” The Information Society, vol. 20, no. 2, Apr. 2004, pp. 127–39. (Crossref),

Isaac, Mike, and Sheera Frenkel. “Zoom’s Biggest Rivals Are Coming for It.” The New York Times, 24 Apr. 2020,

King, Storm A. “Researching Internet Communities: Proposed Ethical Guidelines for the Reporting of Results.” The Information Society, vol. 12, no. 2, June 1996, pp. 119–28. (Crossref),

Luka, Mary Elizabeth, et al. “A Feminist Perspective on Ethical Digital Methods.” Internet Research Ethics for the Social Age: New Challenges, Cases, and Contexts, edited by Michael Zimmer and Katharina Kinder-Kurlanda, Peter Lang, 2017, pp. 21–36.

Markham, Annette, and Elizabeth Buchanan. Ethical Decision-Making and Internet Research: Recommendations from the AoIR Ethics Working Committee (Version 2.0). Association of Internet Researchers, 2012, pp. 1–19,

McKee, Heidi A., and James E. Porter. The Ethics of Internet Research: A Rhetorical, Case-Based Process. Peter Lang, 2009.

Nissenbaum, Helen Fay. Privacy in Context: Technology, Policy, and the Integrity of Social Life. Stanford University Press, 2010.

Opel, Dawn S. “Ethical Research in ‘Health 2.0’: Considerations for Scholars of Medical Rhetoric.” Methodologies for the Rhetoric of Health & Medicine, edited by Lisa Melonçon and J. Blake Scott, Routledge, 2018, pp. 176–94.

Talukdar, Pooja. “Three Is a Crowd: Is the Boom in Zoom Mediation Piercing the Confidentiality Bubble?” American Journal of Mediation, vol. 14, 2021, pp. 151–80.

Zimmer, Michael. “‘But the Data Is Already Public’: On the Ethics of Research in Facebook.” Ethics and Information Technology, vol. 12, no. 4, Dec. 2010, pp. 313–25. (Crossref),

End Notes

[1] Indeed, as is noted in my own autoethnographic research on support groups, studies of web-based communities may be overrepresented in the current scholarly literature precisely due to the comparative practical and ethical difficulties of studying a traditional (confidential, closed membership, face-to-face) support group (Augustine 74).


[2] For further discussion of the public/private binary construct (and limitations thereof), see Buck and Ralston 3; De Hertogh 493; Hudson and Bruckman 129; King 126; Markham and Buchanan 6; McKee and Porter 77; Opel 181.


[3] McKee and Porter speculate, for instance, that even if an academic community’s own Internet posts were being dissected in unflattering research, “Some AoIR researchers who are staunch advocates of a free use policy will no doubt stand by their convictions, swallow hard, and say, … ‘the researcher has the right to do that’” (McKee and Porter 9).


[4] Naturally, a speaker’s choice of whether to refer to what happens on Zoom as “meetings,” “calls,” “sessions,” “e-conferences,” or so forth is an indicator of their perceptions of this platform. Pooja Talukdar, for example, uses all of these terms over the course of her analysis of Zoom-based legal mediation services.


[5] For a “rapid review” of recent studies on the use of video teleconferencing platforms in qualitative group research (2015-2020), see Boland et al. (1).

Towards Best Practices for Podcasting in Rhetoric and Composition


The turn towards multimodal composing in rhetoric and composition has inspired researchers and practitioners–including in the sub-field of computers and writing–to create and circulate various scholarly digital genres including blogs, documentary films, videos, and podcasts, which are available online. Many of these projects continue to increase in views and downloads each year and are emerging as popular digital spaces for scholarly discourse and academic research across disciplines. The podcasters producing Pedagogue, Rhetoricity, The Big Rhetorical Podcast, and re:verb: A Podcast about Politics, Culture, and Language in Action (re:verb), among others, have demonstrated that podcasting in rhetoric and composition is a sustainable, legitimate method of knowledge creation and circulation[1]. The affordances of podcasting and podcasts–and thus, listening–coalesce with feminist research values, including narrativity, collectivity, inclusivity, accessibility (Ratcliffe; Ratcliffe; Royster and Kirsch; Ceraso; Ceraso; Hocks and Comstock; McGregor; Easter and Marquardt; Woods and Wood). In this cluster conversation, we argue podcasters should use feminist research methods in developing their podcasts, including: enacting collective knowledge making, prioritizing stories as a site of that knowledge, and creating best practices for podcasters in rhetoric and composition, which includes valuing collaboration, accessibility, and feminist citation practices. In this article, we interrogate the research methods of a single podcast as an example of this argument and suggest that further research on podcasts be conducted to further develop this scholarly conversation. 

Podcasts maintain the potential to “shift the ecosystem of scholarship so that new forms of thinking become possible” (McGregor). But podcasters must think through their research methods when developing a podcast that will extend across multiple arenas simultaneously. Podcasters do not rely on the guidance of editorial boards unless they are directly associated with an academic journal or organization, nor do they rely on traditional peer-review infrastructures that support content quality through scholarly oversight. How, then, do podcasters choose who to cite in show notes and which sources to lean on for audio clips for topics which reach academic and public audiences? Each podcaster or team of podcasters determines their own approach to online research as well as how to balance scholarly expectations with the expectations of wider audiences. How do podcasters archive audio data amid expanding ethical concerns as policies for different platforms, software, and cloud-based technologies impact the privacy and confidentiality of recordings? Each podcaster creates their own methods of data storage and destruction without explicit guidelines. We offer advice on how podcasters can negotiate these complex questions using feminist research methods to develop their projects and hope this cluster conversation piece leads to larger discussions about podcasting in the field.   

The Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) updated their ethics guidelines in 2019, which researchers can use as an interdisciplinary guide to ethical online research. Since individual understandings of research ethics vary, the “under-construction” foundation of research methods for podcasters remains an issue as their methods are emerging, increasingly networked, and, in many cases, undocumented. This murkiness leads to questions such as: do podcasters performing interviews sift through various qualitative data (e.g., subject-specific bibliographies and author biographies) online before booking guests? If so, how do they perform it? Do podcasters consider how the “prevalence of the digital in rhetoric and writing affect[s] the questions we ask, the methods we use to answer these questions, the knowledge we make, and the teaching practices we employ”? (VanKooten and Del Hierro 3). Furthermore, digital rhetoric scholars have considered the issues researchers face when moving feminist practices online, asking: “how should feminist researchers handle the politics of location, interpretation, and publication when working in increasingly networked and mediated online spaces?” (McKee and Porter 170)2. 

Technofeminists were correct that profound technological achievements like the Internet did not “make it any more possible for women to find virtual landscapes for re-inventing and re-representing themselves” (Blair and Takayoshi). This is true of all technologies, including podcasts. Yet, the collaborative nature of podcasts avails itself to a more equitable “negotiation of the power dynamics at play with redressing access biases and reimagining more just technology design” (DeVoss, Haas, and Rhodes). Podcasts could lead to more robust, diverse, and accurate narratives of and about the field. However, unless podcasters pay careful attention to their research methods–and utilize feminist research methodologies–then “more traditional mass cultural representations will have simply found a new home in a new medium” (Blair and Takayoshi). Therefore, podcasters should apply Digital Black Feminist[3] approaches by “centering voices and thoughts of community members across non-academic and academic spaces,” (Haywood 34) as they offer spaces for “engagement with complicated histories and complex arguments” (Steele 16) as a way of establishing equitable podcast research and production. 

Accordingly, feminist scholars performing research in digital spaces have focused on online research methods by theorizing about podcasts (McGregor; Tiffe and Hoffman); composing with sound (Comstock and Hocks; Rodrigue and Stedman); designing for accessibility (Butler) and considering the implications of big data (Buck and Ralston). Amber Buck and Devon Ralston describe a “Heuristic for Reflective Research and Data Collection,” (the “Heuristic”), a multipronged approach that serves as an ethical guide rooted in reflexivity for researchers collecting data online. We believe the Heuristic can serve as a prototypical guide for podcasters that helps them work toward establishing best practices for producing podcasts outside the purview of journals, which follow editorial standards. Our work here moves towards such practices informed by the Heuristic to provide guidance in podcasting. To illustrate feminist values applied to research methods and podcasting, we examine re:verb. 

The turn towards multimodal composing in rhetoric and composition has inspired researchers and practitioners–including in the sub-field of computers and writing–to create and circulate various scholarly digital genres including blogs, documentary films, videos, and podcasts, which are available online. Many of these projects continue to increase in views and downloads each year and are emerging as popular digital spaces for scholarly discourse and academic research across disciplines. The podcasters producing Pedagogue, Rhetoricity, The Big Rhetorical Podcast, and re:verb: A Podcast about Politics, Culture, and Language in Action (re:verb), among others, have demonstrated that podcasting in rhetoric and composition is a sustainable, legitimate method of knowledge creation and circulation.1 The affordances of podcasting and podcasts–and thus, listening–coalesce with feminist research values, including narrativity, collectivity, inclusivity, accessibility (Ratcliffe; Ratcliffe; Royster and Kirsch; Ceraso; Ceraso; Hocks and Comstock; McGregor; Easter and Marquardt; Woods and Wood). In this cluster conversation, we argue podcasters should use feminist research methods in developing their podcasts, including: enacting collective knowledge making, prioritizing stories as a site of that knowledge, and creating best practices for podcasters in rhetoric and composition, which includes valuing collaboration, accessibility, and feminist citation practices. In this article, we interrogate the research methods of a single podcast as an example of this argument and suggest that further research on podcasts be conducted to further develop this scholarly conversation. 

Podcasts maintain the potential to “shift the ecosystem of scholarship so that new forms of thinking become possible” (McGregor). But podcasters must think through their research methods when developing a podcast that will extend across multiple arenas simultaneously. Podcasters do not rely on the guidance of editorial boards unless they are directly associated with an academic journal or organization, nor do they rely on traditional peer-review infrastructures that support content quality through scholarly oversight. How, then, do podcasters choose who to cite in show notes and which sources to lean on for audio clips for topics which reach academic and public audiences? Each podcaster or team of podcasters determines their own approach to online research as well as how to balance scholarly expectations with the expectations of wider audiences. How do podcasters archive audio data amid expanding ethical concerns as policies for different platforms, software, and cloud-based technologies impact the privacy and confidentiality of recordings? Each podcaster creates their own methods of data storage and destruction without explicit guidelines. We offer advice on how podcasters can negotiate these complex questions using feminist research methods to develop their projects and hope this cluster conversation piece leads to larger discussions about podcasting in the field.   

The Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) updated their ethics guidelines in 2019, which researchers can use as an interdisciplinary guide to ethical online research. Since individual understandings of research ethics vary, the “under-construction” foundation of research methods for podcasters remains an issue as their methods are emerging, increasingly networked, and, in many cases, undocumented. This murkiness leads to questions such as: do podcasters performing interviews sift through various qualitative data (e.g., subject-specific bibliographies and author biographies) online before booking guests? If so, how do they perform it? Do podcasters consider how the “prevalence of the digital in rhetoric and writing affect[s] the questions we ask, the methods we use to answer these questions, the knowledge we make, and the teaching practices we employ”? (VanKooten and Del Hierro 3). Furthermore, digital rhetoric scholars have considered the issues researchers face when moving feminist practices online, asking: “how should feminist researchers handle the politics of location, interpretation, and publication when working in increasingly networked and mediated online spaces?” (McKee and Porter 170)[2]. 

Technofeminists were correct that profound technological achievements like the Internet did not “make it any more possible for women to find virtual landscapes for re-inventing and re-representing themselves” (Blair and Takayoshi). This is true of all technologies, including podcasts. Yet, the collaborative nature of podcasts avails itself to a more equitable “negotiation of the power dynamics at play with redressing access biases and reimagining more just technology design” (DeVoss, Haas, and Rhodes). Podcasts could lead to more robust, diverse, and accurate narratives of and about the field. However, unless podcasters pay careful attention to their research methods–and utilize feminist research methodologies–then “more traditional mass cultural representations will have simply found a new home in a new medium” (Blair and Takayoshi). Therefore, podcasters should apply Digital Black Feminist3 approaches by “centering voices and thoughts of community members across non-academic and academic spaces,” (Haywood 34) as they offer spaces for “engagement with complicated histories and complex arguments” (Steele 16) as a way of establishing equitable podcast research and production. 

Accordingly, feminist scholars performing research in digital spaces have focused on online research methods by theorizing about podcasts (McGregor; Tiffe and Hoffman); composing with sound (Comstock and Hocks; Rodrigue and Stedman); designing for accessibility (Butler) and considering the implications of big data (Buck and Ralston). Amber Buck and Devon Ralston describe a “Heuristic for Reflective Research and Data Collection,” (the “Heuristic”), a multipronged approach that serves as an ethical guide rooted in reflexivity for researchers collecting data online. We believe the Heuristic can serve as a prototypical guide for podcasters that helps them work toward establishing best practices for producing podcasts outside the purview of journals, which follow editorial standards. Our work here moves towards such practices informed by the Heuristic to provide guidance in podcasting. To illustrate feminist values applied to research methods and podcasting, we examine re:verb. 

Expanding the Heuristic to Account for Podcasting 

re:verb launched in 2018 and is produced by a team of podcasters, including Alex Helberg, Calvin Pollak, Sophie Wodzak, and Ben Williams. The primary focus of re:verb is on American culture, and recent episodes have focused on artificial intelligence (AI) and writing, pronoun usage in the public sphere, and the films of Jordan Peele. Re:verb demonstrates that developing a podcast is more than just uploading a sound file to an RSS feed: a podcast includes producing and editing audio, running a website and social media management, and creating digital artwork to promote episodes. Analyzing these aspects of re:verb reveal how podcasts are a feminist research method and examining how podcasters think about research ethics further highlights podcasting as a feminist method.  

Technofeminist researchers often emphasize digital ethics due to the intuitive usability and growing prevalence of tools to collect data from Big Technology companies (Markham, Tiidenberg, and Herman; Mehlenbacher and Mehlenbacher). Additionally, feminist scholars are considering how bodies are impacted in the act of digital making. Trisha Nicole Campbell makes the case for what she calls “a practice-based model for beginning the process of [digital] empathy” where she analyzes the experiences of recording voices and the labor involved in sound editing and learning audio platforms and describes how “digital recording technology enlists our bodies in speaking, but also listening, and in speaking and listening simultaneously” (“Digital Empathy”). Podcasting is laborious. However, the value of making collective knowledge more mobile and accessible compels us to view podcasts and podcasting as worthwhile.  

There are many approaches to guide digital research methods (see VanKooten and Del Hierro), but they are not usually about podcasting. This includes the Heuristic, which is designed as a feminist methodology concerned with how privacy is conceived among different communities who may be unclear about how online researchers use public data (e.g., data scraped from Twitter). Yet the Heuristic is primed for expansion for podcasting since it focuses on a primarily image-heavy and text-based platform, with podcasts introducing the sonic mode. In the following table, we utilize the Heuristic to examine re:verb’s research practices and demonstrate how to expand the Heuristic to account for the practice of podcasting. 


Heuristic Research Questions  Applied to re:verb   Questions for Podcasters 


What are you studying?   What is re:verb podcast studying? 


Meaning making in American culture. Emphasizes analysis on culture, but not solely focused on the American political arena, and includes popular culture. re:verb makes their focus clear in the tagline, which is centered on the website and the cover image seen on podcast apps. Additionally, the “About” section of the website includes information about the creators, re:verb’s purpose, and how it fits into the scholarly landscape.  


What is the topic of the podcast?  


How does your podcast enter into or extend scholarly conversations on its topic? 


How is a podcast useful for researchers, instructors, and students who are interested in this topic?  


Are you positioned, ethically, to enter into ongoing conversations on this topic? 


Who are you reaching? 



Who is re:verb podcast reaching? 


Listeners in rhetoric and composition. Other listeners include general audiences, undergraduate and graduate students, podcast browsers who are educated or want to be educated on the topic. 


How does the podcast merge academic and public discourse? 


How does the content of your podcast, including the guests booked, topics covered, and projects promoted, center traditionally marginalized voices? 


What different protections (e.g., closing comments, protecting anonymity) do you utilize to protect guests, particularly those from marginalized positions, from potential harassment?  


What are you collecting?  What is re:verb podcast collecting? 


Sound files, online images, and listener data. Podcasting platforms allow data collection about listener demographics, downloads, website hits, etc. 




What do you want to know about your audience? Why?
 Are you following Intellectual Property (IP) guidelines for collecting media online to develop the podcast?  How does listener data influence the development of your podcast?  Does your podcast project need IRB approval to account for transparency about the data you are collecting?   
What are your study’s boundaries?  What are the limitations of re:verb’s podcasting research? 


Primarily sonic modes can be limiting for expanding podcast listenership. Temporality is crucial since re:verb comments on American culture. Additionally, re:verb must account for podcasting research (e.g., booking, sound editing), including labor concerns and constraints of podcasting tools and platforms. 


Are you being reflexive in acknowledging your own limitations as a researcher as your attitudes and opinions change over time? 


How will you maintain the sustainability of the podcast as research ethics evolve over time?  




Are you complying with all terms of service (including tools being used)?  Is re:verb podcast complying with all terms of service (including the tools being used)? 


Listeners can inquire to re:verb podcast to learn about their compliance practices via links on their website and social media pages.  


Have you considered the complexity of complying with all terms of service, even beyond the primary podcast hosting platform?  


Are you complying with the terms of service of the third parties that web-based podcasting tools (e.g., Spotify), website platforms (e.g., WordPress), and social media accounts engage? 


What about ephemerality?   How does re:verb podcast handle ephemerality?  


Access to episodes could change or re:verb could stop recording and publishing episodes. Their podcast or website host platforms could close. For the podcasters producing re:verb, reactions to specific contexts; feelings, ideas, opinions might change over time. 


Have you considered how to maintain an archive of your podcast so you and your collaborators can write about what you produced, and researchers can analyze what was created?  


Are you collaborating with other podcasters and their students in research studies  

as a method of building community?  


Is there an opportunity for participants to respond to your analysis?  Is there an opportunity for participants to respond to re:verb podcast? 


re:verb listeners can interact with the podcast on various social media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook. Additionally, a form and comments function are available on the “Contact” page of the website. 


Are you creating an open dialogue by inviting critique of your podcast? 


Do you provide clear instructions to listeners about the ways they can engage with your podcast?  


Is your podcast accessible, including transcripts of episodes, alt text for online images, and a website compatible with screen readers?   


How are you representing the context of circulating information?  How does re:verb podcast represent its context? 


re:verb publishes show notes with each podcast episode as a way of demonstrating the scholarly context of their content. The podcasters introduce interviewees, scholars, and scholarship, during episodes. They provide a bibliography and links to accessible transcripts for listeners on their website. Additionally, re:verb produces different categories of episodes, including “re:joinder,” “re:blurb,” and “re:read.” 


Are you being reflexive about how your podcast exists among other scholarship in and beyond research in rhetoric and composition? 


Are you practicing ethical citation by emphasizing where references (e.g., hyperlinks, show notes) for your project are located for audiences who want to learn more about a topic or trace the scholarly or cultural conversations? 

How are you representing participants and their data?  How is re:verb podcast representing interviewees, scholarship, and online media? 


It is unknown if re:verb producers allow interviewees and guests input on editing or if the podcasters retain final cut. Citations are included in the re:verb show notes on their website as are links to online resources for sound files (e.g., news outlets, YouTube). Photographs and images of interviewees and guests accompany the podcast artwork (e.g., thumbnail).  


Are you establishing ethical standards for collaboration (e.g., conducting interviews, inviting contributions) with a foundation in feminist editorial practices?  


How do feminist citation practices guide who you cite in your podcast? 


How will you amplify references to the scholars, scholarship, and other projects you cite? 


Which style guide works for the content of your podcast? 


 The first few questions in the Heuristic (What are you studying? What are you collecting?) are foundational for all research studies, especially for feminist researchers. Podcasts prove useful in providing vocal space to amplify feminist topics and research (Tiffe and Hoffman). The questions developed in the third column (“Questions for Podcasters”) expand the Heuristic to account for feminist values like reflexivity and community. For example, reflexive podcasters constantly negotiate their limitations as scholars who balance multiple research projects, teach several classes, and serve their department on top of maintaining a personal life beyond their job. Additionally, the complex technical elements of learning about innovative podcasting technologies and the newest recording software can compound the pressure podcasters feel to produce quality content that feels like research. As such, it is laborious and time-consuming for a scholar, who is also a podcaster, to balance all these roles and stay current on topics in the field, let alone beyond it. Together, these questions provide a robust framework for podcasters to create ethically aware work. 

Toward Best Practices for Podcasting in the Field 

In this section, we work toward establishing best practices rooted in feminist values for podcasting in rhetoric and composition through analysis of re:verb podcast. As explained earlier, podcasters working in the field have demonstrated sustainability proving the digital genre is a valuable way of making and circulating collective knowledge. re:verb is a model podcast to use to analyze how feminist research methods can be central to a podcast’s evolution and sustainability because we understand re:verb as podcasting with feminist tenets in mind, even if implicitly, as evidenced by its approach to different aspects of podcasting, including collaboration. Thus, best practices for podcasting in rhetoric and composition must amplify collaboration (as described above), value accessibility, and utilize feminist citation practices.  

re:verb’s attention to accessibility involves using high contrast design (white text on a black background) for episode thumbnails. And while red is a component of the overall color palette for the podcast, using white text contributes to readability. Providing thumbnails with guest photographs for certain episodes on the website makes it easy for audiences to quickly gauge the content of each episode. Clicking on the title of the episode or the thumbnail hyperlinks the audience to an episode-specific page featuring show notes detailing the context of the episode more thoroughly, and highlighting information about the guest. Additionally, re:verb’s show notes include a list of citations for each episode and a link to a transcript (if available) that is compatible with a screen reader.  

re:verb includes transcripts for most episodes. For some episodes (like the re:joinder series) a transcript is not provided. Access to the digital transcription tools can be tricky for grassroots podcasters depending on funding, recording methods, and content. However, providing a transcript is a best practice for an accessible podcast, many of which include interviews with scholars, activists, and other subject-matter experts. Interview podcasts are a popular format in the field and individual podcasters develop their own interview techniques over time. Yet there are some interviewing methods which align with feminist approaches to qualitative research, including providing questions to guests beforehand and offering a collaborative approach to developing questions. This approach allows for interviewees to address concerns with or provide additional information to podcasters. Such collaboration contributes to a better conversation and provides a structure for the episode that acknowledges appreciation for the guest’s time and labor.  

A component of citation practices, and thus a best practice for podcasters, is building ethos by introducing guests using official titles and institutional/organizational affiliations, as well as by offering an overview of their research and professional accomplishments. re:verb hosts introduce guests and establish rapport early in each episode, allowing space for full responses. The podcast website draws attention to episodes featuring interviews by highlighting guest names both in the episode title and on the thumbnail and including either photographs of the guest or information about their most recent publications. But what protocols are in place for protecting collaborators from dissenting or hostile audiences of a podcast? Establishing methods to protect the identity of collaborators in advance of interviews is an essential component of cultivating a vocal space. Identifying scholars–particularly feminist scholars–participating in polarizing and politically charged debates can lead to concerns about privacy and retaliation. Thus, podcasters must caution collaborators that they will identify their voices and institutional affiliations in their introductions and that audio metadata could detail geo-location, leaving them in a potentially vulnerable situation. Indeed, while these concerns for research collaborators seem new because the podcast remains an emerging digital genre, they mirror the concerns that feminist scholars writing about justice and equity have faced and continue to face. 

Reflexive podcasters should practice inclusivity as they consider how their podcast exists among other scholarship in and beyond the field. Since podcasts reach audiences beyond traditional academic venues, podcasters should center diverse and even polarizing perspectives which challenge authoritarianism and hegemony. Thus, who a podcaster chooses to cite matters. Sara Ahmed explains, “Citation is how we acknowledge our debt to those who came before; those who helped us find our way when the way was obscured because we deviated from the paths we were told to follow” (17). Podcasters have the opportunity to offer a space for uncomfortable topics and must acknowledge the potential vulnerabilities of their guests. This inclusive approach amplifies attention to names and pronouns as well as a consistent awareness for citing trans scholars without using deadnames (Thieme and Saunders, 84). 

Practicing inclusivity means conveying a willingness to be an accountable source for scholarly debate. One way podcasters can think through what it means for a new venue to join ongoing scholarly conversations is through citation practices. re:verb provides “Works and Concepts Referenced” for each episode using APA documentation as well as hyperlinks to contextual resources and information about where audiences can find a collaborator’s scholarship, including their books, articles, and digital work. This practice demonstrates awareness of the positionality on the part of the re:verb team as they create worthwhile collaborative opportunities. As podcasts try transition to publishing venues that consistently include credible academic discourse in our field, and across disciplines, it will be important for podcasters to engage with their audience via direct messaging, email, and website contact forms as these forms of communication offer more immediate dialogue than traditional academic venues (e.g., books, articles). Although best practices will evolve over time, these tenets can provide a foundation to guide podcasters in the near future. 


 Rhetoric and composition has embraced podcasting as a valuable method for composing and circulating knowledge in the field. Podcasts and podcasting are popular now, but inevitably new digital tools will be created that press scholars to rethink the kinds of multimodal projects that can best advance the field. As mentioned earlier, while podcasts like re:verb continue, and new podcasts debut, questions about research ethics will require further attention. For example: how do listeners incorporate ideas from re:verb into their own scholarship? How do podcasts influence research trajectories? And what methods do podcasters employ to perform research as a project evolves? The best practices outlined in this cluster conversation serve as a foundation on which future podcasters can work to answer these questions as they develop their podcasts.  

But there are other aspects of podcasts and podcasting for future podcasters to consider. For example, how can a podcast count as scholarship? How can podcasts help scholars fulfill tenure and promotion benchmarks that require them to explain how and where their work has been amplified? Podcasts are valuable scholarly contributions that deserve attention during tenure and promotion review because they have the potential to be cited more often than journal articles behind paywalls. Additionally, we encourage podcasters to choose topics substantiated by current rhetoric and composition research. And we hope podcasters choose engaging topics with the potential to merge public and academic discourse. For re:verb, their focus on the intersections of culture and rhetoric maintains an immediacy that allows for commentary on cultural moments, including those related to social justice, and invites intertextuality across genres and mediums.  

In this article, we have offered guidance that podcasters can take up and use practically throughout the development of their podcast. We have expanded the Heuristic, originally focused on social media sites like Twitter, to account for podcasts as we work toward best practices anchored by feminist principles and methods for podcasting in the field. There is enormous flexibility in the Heuristic’s guiding questions, and podcasters can return to them throughout the lifespan of a podcast project. Indeed, we hope they do as we understand practicing reflexivity as a best practice for podcasters. Ultimately, this approach embodies a feminist praxis that acknowledges an awareness of a podcast’s and/or podcaster’s positionality and demonstrates collaboration through sharing knowledge of trends and research interests currently defining rhetoric and composition. 

Works Cited 

Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Duke University Press, 2017. 

Association of Internet Researchers. “Internet Research: Ethical Guidelines 3.0,” 2019. 

Blair, Kristine, and Takayoshi, Pam. “Navigating the Image of Woman Online.” Kairos, vol. 2, no.2, 1997.

Buck, Amber, and Ralston, Devon. “‘I Didn’t Sign Up for Your Research Study’: The Ethics of Using ‘Public” Data.” Computers and Composition, vol. 61, September 2021, pp. 1-13.  

Butler, Janine. “Integral Captions and Subtitles: Designing a Space for Embodied Rhetorics and Visual Access.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 37, no. 3, 2018, pp. 286-299.  

Campbell, Trisha Nicole. “Digital Empathy: A Practice Based Experiment.” Enculturation, vol.  24

Ceraso, Steph. “(Re)educating the Senses: Multimodal Listening, Bodily Learning, and the Composition of Sonic Experiences.” College English, vol. 77, no. 2, 2014 pp. 102-123.  

Ceraso, Steph. Sounding Composition: Multimodal Pedagogies for Embodied Listening. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018. 

DeVoss, Danielle, Angela Haas, and Jackie Rhodes. “Introduction by the Guest Editors.” Technofeminism: (Re)generations and Intersectional Futures, a special issue of Computers and Composition Online, 2019. 

Easter, Brandee, and Meg M. Marquardt. “Toward a Feminist Sonic Pedagogy: Research as Listening.” Soundwriting Pedagogies, edited by Courtney S. Danforth, Kyle D. Stedman, and Michael J. Faris, Computers and Composition Digital Press, 2018, pp. 197-208.  

Haywood, Constance. “Developing a Black Feminist Research Ethic: A Methodological Approach to Research in Digital Spaces.” Methods and Methodologies for Research in Digital Writing and Rhetoric Centering Positionality in Computers and Writing Scholarship, Volume 2. WAC Clearinghouse, 2022. 

Hocks, Mary. E., and Michelle Comstock. “Composing for Sound: Sonic Rhetorics as Resonance.” Computers and Composition, vol. 43, March 2017, pp. 135-146. 

Itchuaqiyaq, Cana Uluak, and Jordan Frith, Citation Practices as a Site of Resistance and Radical Pedagogy: Positioning the Multiply Marginalized and Underrepresented (MMU) Scholar Database as an Infrastructural Intervention. Communication Design Quarterly, vol. 10, no. 3, October 2022, pp. 10- 19. 

Markham, Annette, Katrin Tiidenberg, Katrin, and Andrew Herman. “Ethics as Methods: Doing Ethics in the Era of Big Data Research.” Introduction. Social Media & Society, vol. 4, no. 3, July 19, 2018. 

McGregor, Hannah. “Podcasting as Feminist Method.” Green College Leading Scholars’ Series: Challenging Differences. Green College University of British Columbia.  October 3, 2019, University of British Columbia. Lecture. 

McKee, Heidi A., and James E. Porter. “Rhetorica Online: Feminist Research Practices in Cyberspace.” Rhetorica in Motion: Feminist Rhetorical Methods & Methodologies, edited by Eileen E. Schell and KJ Rawson, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010, pp. 152-170. 

Mehlenbacher, Brad, and Ashely Rose Mehlenbacher. “The Rhetoric of Big Data: Collecting, Interpreting, and Representing in the Age of Datafication.” Poroi vol. 16, no. 1, 2021. 

Mott, Carrie, and Daniel Cockayne. “Citation Matters: Mobilizing the Politics of Citation toward a Practice of ‘Conscientious Engagement.’” Gender, Place & Culture, vol. 24, no. 7, 13 June 2017, pp. 954–973., 

Ratcliffe, Krista. “Rhetorical Listening: A Trope for Interpretive Invention and a Code of Cross-Cultural Conduct.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 51, no.2, 1999, pp. 195–224. 

Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Southern Illinois University Press, 2005. 

Royster, Jaqueline Jones, and Gesa Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Southern Illinois University Press, 2012.  

Rodrigue, Tanya, and Kyle Stedman. Soundwriting: A Guide to Making Audio Projects. Broadview Press, 2022.  

Steele, Catherine Knight. Digital Black Feminism. NYU Press, 2021.  

Thieme, Katja, and Mary Ann Saunders. “How Do You Wish to Be Cited? Citation Practices and a Scholarly Community of Care in Trans Studies Research Articles.” Journal of English for Academic Purposes, vol. 32, 2018, pp. 80–90., 

Tiffe, Raechel, and Melody Hoffman. Taking Up Sonic Space: Feminized Vocality and Podcasting as Resistance. Feminist Media Studies, vol.17, no. 1, 2017, pp. 115-118. 10.1080/14680777.2017.1261464 

VanKooten, Crystal and Victor Del Herrio. Methods and Methodologies for Research in Digital Writing and Rhetoric Centering Positionality in Computers and Writing Scholarship, Volume 1. WAC Clearinghouse, 2022.  

Woods, Charles, and Shane Wood. “Podcasts in Rhetoric and Composition: A Review of The Big Rhetorical Podcast and Pedagogue.” Computers and Composition, vol. 67, 2023. 

End Notes

[1]Podcasts have been awarded prestigious awards in the field of rhetoric and composition, including the Michelle Kendrick Outstanding Digital Production Award presented by Computers and Composition and the John Lovas Award from Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy. 

[2]McKee and Porter draw on the work of Gesa Kirsch in Ethical Dilemmas in Feminist Research: The Politics of Location, Interpretation, and Publication, SUNY Press, 1999. 

[3]Catherine Knight Steele’s Digital Black Feminism (2021) traces the history of Black feminist technoculture in the United States through blogs, tweets, and social media posts to critique algorithmic racism, influencer culture, and other forms of digital aggression. 

Beyond Text: Ethical Considerations for Visual Online Platforms

This conversation cluster comes out of two exigencies, both concerned with changes in internet research. As scholars of digital research ethics note, things change quickly in the digital sphere, which requires the field at large and individual researchers to enact reflexivity on our practices. Second, much of the current research focuses on text-based social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, that are easily scraped and collected at a mass scale. With the lessening popularity of Facebook and Twitter and the rise of TikTok and Instagram, which are far more image-based than their predecessors, researchers need to revisit their practices to be better attuned to the popularity of image-based social media. This does not mean reinventing the ethical considerations but thinking about them perhaps on a smaller scale for more image and video-based platforms. As the 2019 Association of Internet Researchers guidelines note, there is no universal research ethic for online research, particularly where privacy is concerned:  

given the range of possible ethical decision-making procedures (utilitarianism, deontology, feminist ethics, etc.), the multiple interpretations and applications of these procedures to specific cases, and their refraction through culturally diverse emphases and values across the globe – the issues raised by Internet research are ethical problems precisely because they evoke more than one ethically defensible response to a specific dilemma or problem. Ambiguity, uncertainty, and disagreement are inevitable. (AoIR) 

In keeping with the inevitability of ambiguity, I follow Katrin Tiidenberg when she suggests that “instead, an approach that reimagines ethical decision-making as a deliberative process that enables enacting beneficence, justice, and respect for persons on a case-by-case basis is increasingly recommended” (6). Like Leysia Palen and Paul Dourish, I am conceptualizing privacy as a boundary regulation process when they write that “privacy is not about setting rules and enforcing them; rather, it is the continual management of boundaries between different spheres of action and degrees of disclosure within those spheres” (3). Because of the increased disclosure that comes along with posting images online, the implications for privacy, sharing, and researching are heightened. This article considers ethical decision making and privacy for a visual social media landscape. It is important for scholars to ask: How are privacy and identity conceived of differently on primarily visual social media sites? What do internet researchers need to consider differently on visual platforms? What is at stake with embodiment in internet research? 

In the following section, I discuss some of the previous questions that scholars have engaged in regarding research online before suggesting a framework for the ethics of online privacy in an increasingly visual social media landscape. Namely, I propose a series of questions that scholars can ask themselves before and during the research process in order to address ethical and values-aligned research studies utilizing visual data. As people put more and more of themselves online, it is important for scholars to continue revising our tactics of protecting both our identities and the privacy of our participants. To do this, I discuss my research experiences with two image-based social media projects: the online conference Braving Body Shame and the sexual health education Instagram page The Vulva Gallery. Finally, I reflect on my own research practices in order to demonstrate a feminist research ethic of self-reflexivity.  

Approaches to Privacy and a Heuristic for Image-Based Platforms  

The dynamic world of social media research requires scholars of many backgrounds to think critically about their research practices. This conversation contribution is less concerned with what happens in cases of automated data collection and more about the situations where the identity of the research subject is the focus of the research. Scholars across disciplines use internet research to look at language and social action. As Amber Buck and Devon Ralston note, writing studies professionals use internet research to discuss student writing practices, digital rhetorical practices, participate in digital ethnographies, and more. It is important within all of these contexts to consider “who is conducting that research, how communities are represented, and how that data is collected and distributed are key concerns for writing researchers and point to the need for considering critical digital literacy in research ethics” (Buck and Ralston 3). Buck and Ralston provide an excellent heuristic for reflective research and data collection. I build on this heuristic by providing further considerations for video and image-based media, while also demonstrating a process of reflection that is necessary for ethical engagement with social media research. Although using someone’s words in research carries risk, attaching a face and body to that information is even riskier, particularly with the rise in deepfakes and identity fraud.1 Scholars have begun to discuss how to protect the privacy of individuals when their identities are easily searchable—such as when their name or likeness is contained in a post—and IRB has measures to address this risk. IRB also attends to voice and image included through interviews and videos. But now, scholars must update our approach to address voice and image in online data collection. 

Buck and Ralston’s exploration of key considerations is the jumping off point for this discussion, which formulates four questions for scholars to consider: 1) Who owns the post? 2) What is the network of the user? 3) How is the user engaging with their own privacy? and 4) What are my research values? 

Buck and Ralston thus encourage us to question who owns the posts, where they can be shared, and how the presence of a researcher complicates those two questions. These questions are further complicated depending on the positionality of the social media users. Stephanie Vie explains that “it’s critical to consider as researchers whether and how to share and recirculate those stories, particularly when they’re being shared by individuals from vulnerable populations” (262). Lauren Cagle speaks to researchers’ positionality and asks scholars to consider their agency and engage with participants about… where participants’ information falls along the “public/private continuum’’(7). In other words, scholars have to consider their role and consider the implications of further sharing posts from participants whose consent was not given.  

The public/private continuum is complicated on social media, where images often travel beyond intended audiences. Social media platforms often collapse audiences, “making it difficult for people to use the same techniques online that they do to handle multiplicity in face-to-face conversation” (Marwick and boyd, “I Tweet,” 120). As a result, even if a poster is sharing private information, they may not have the intention of a broad, public audience. This can be especially true on sites like Instagram and TikTok where popular “Explore” pages and “For You” feeds send content to a wide range of people. These types of platforms ask users to have a less defined audience, making ethical research more complicated. Researchers need to consider the ethical implications of shifting audiences to an academic space by including posts in their data set. When people post images or videos online, it is highly unlikely that they imagine a group of academics discussing their posts. For example, if a person posts a political rant online for their friends and family, they may not envision that a researcher of political rhetoric would engage with them, nor present their work to another group of researchers. In cases where informed consent is not possible, such as one of the case studies I discuss later on, it is key that researchers consider what is at stake for posters and their identities. Therefore, asking Who owns the post? Is the owner different than the original poster? What are the implications of sharing this image in a different context than its intended space? can lead to greater contemplation and ethical engagement with online data. It is true of both text and image posted to social media that users’ posts often travel beyond their intended audience. With images, and the potential implications of likeness being shared, researchers need to consider ethics beyond the original poster’s desire and broaden thinking to focus on networks.  

One way to complicate engagement with visual posts is to consider the role of networked publics in digital research. danah boyd defines networked publics as “spaces constructed through networked technologies and imagined communities that emerge as a result of the intersection of people, technology, and practice” (Marwick and boyd, “Networked Privacy,” 1059). Alice Marwick and danah boyd take up this concept and note that viewing privacy beyond a binary will allow for a community-based approach to information sharing, rather than an individual one. In this conception of privacy, networks are negotiated between changing audiences, “social norms, and technical affordances” (Marwick and boyd, “Networked Privacy,” 1064). To illustrate this concept in action, consider Michael Zimmer’s discussion of a research team looking at Facebook accounts of college-students. Despite the steps taken by the team to protect the users’ privacy, the identities of those in the database were easily discovered. Zimmer contends that had the researchers adopted a more networked view of online information, they could have better shielded the participants from discovery. This view of privacy allows scholars to further nuance their approach to information published online. In some cases, as Zimmer points out, users set specific restraints to limit who sees through the social media platform itself. Some platforms, like Tik Tok, are designed to have a more expansive networked reach. In the case of Zimmer, lack of attention to the power of networks allowed for the identities of individual participants to be easily found. Contrastingly, Alice Marwick and danah boyd looked at the privacy of teenagers and their posting online. They found that teenagers saw privacy as a matter of boundaries, primarily consisting of trust and context. They argue that “conceptualizing privacy as networked highlights the difficulty involved in defining or even understanding social contexts, as they are co-constructed by all present and shaped by the affordances of the social technology in play” (“Networked Privacy,” 1063). The key difference between these approaches is that Marwick and boyd centered the teenagers’ understanding of privacy and their knowledge of their own networks. Therefore, they were able to approach the participants based on social contexts that the teens were already aware of and comfortable in. Additionally, considering networks has the potential to protect research participants because it makes researchers more aware of the many ways that privacy can be breached across a variety of contexts. Therefore, scholars should ask themselves: Who does the users’ network include? How is the network potentially impacted by the platform they are using? 

The emphasis on network also raises the question of identity. Often, researchers will come to a specific online community because of the identities of the communities they are studying, so       they must be mindful of the cultural implications of online engagement. Privacy is culturally situated. For example, Catherine Knight Steele discusses how Black communities may share public information online but intend for it to remain within that discourse community like a type of oral cultural community (116). Sharing social media information outside of its intended socio-cultural situations can put marginalized communities at risk of harm. As Zimmer notes, “merely having one’s personal information stripped from the intended sphere of the social networking profile and amassed into a database for external review becomes an affront to the subjects’ human dignity and their ability to control the flow of their personal information” (321). Therefore, it is important to view each post in terms of the users’ cultural experience and ask: Am I interacting with a culture that might define privacy differently than I do? This question may not have an obvious or clear answer but demonstrates that researchers should engage in some reflexivity about the assumptions we bring to the question of privacy. 

Beyond these more subject-focused questions, an ethical approach to research should acknowledge the role of the researcher. How am I defining my own ethical engagement? How are my values as a researcher reflected in my process of researching? For example, as a feminist researcher, it is important for me to center the lived experiences of my subjects. I subscribe to a feminist ethics of care that is both “a value and a practice, both affective and cognitive” (Tiidenberg 7). It requires researchers to be mindful of power dynamics and ask sticky questions of representation. This approach to research ethics necessitates a reflective process where individuals can confirm that I am interpreting their experiences and intentions correctly. In the absence of this possibility, it is necessary for my analysis to be careful and supported. The work of feminist research is not simple–there is emotional labor present in care-based ethics, and an approach that prioritizes individual autonomy and experience is not always the most effective for a research project that aims to be more generalizable. It is important, however, for researchers to establish their individual value of ethics beyond the pragmatic concerns of IRB. 

I began this conversation by noting that the landscape of social media is constantly changing. At our current cultural moment, it is difficult to say what online research will look like in a few years’ time. Therefore, any approach to internet research ethics needs to be flexible and self-reflexive. In the following section, I detail my experiences working with two datasets shared in visual formats and the ethical considerations I undertook while doing this. I use my work not because it is exemplary, but because I believe it is important that researchers are transparent in their practices, even when we might make different choices in the present. It is this amount of self-reflexivity that will lead to ethical engagements with internet research.

Case Studies: Braving Body Shame and The Vulva Gallery 

To demonstrate these guiding questions in action, I will discuss two research projects, one finished and one ongoing, that helped me shape this approach to researching social media images online. The Braving Body Shame conference first took place in the spring of 2020 and featured speakers from a variety of backgrounds. The conference was virtual and took place over a week. I was initially drawn to the conference because of the explicit focus on embodiment and shame, and I analyzed the various ways that participants in the conference described their experiences of overcoming shame. I examined nine video interviews from actresses, activists, dancers, and students who discussed their feelings of shame and how they have worked to move past it (Taylor). This study initiated my interest in internet research ethics as I had to consider my use of these videos for the purpose of academic publication. 

The second case study I discuss involves the Instagram page, The Vulva Gallery. The page features illustrations of people’s vulvas with their stories of embodiment and acceptance. Though the posts do not feature individual’s faces, they often include their name, information about their family, friends, and locations, and unique experiences that could threaten anonymity. Both of these research sites were places where participant experiences were already grouped together on an online platform, so I knew that the individuals had agreed to have their information shared beyond their immediate followers or network. This does not, of course, as discussed above, assume that the individuals imagined that their materials would one day be the center of research studies. 

Who Owns the Post?  

In the case of Braving Body Shame, the conference owned the posts. In my analysis, I did not link to the speakers’ platforms outside of the conference, aiming to honor their wishes about where and how their information is shared. However, my ethical considerations did not end there. Despite the fact that the conference was open, the participants in the Braving Body Shame conference mentioned explicitly that their content was not aimed at academic audiences. In fact, the organizers state the misconceptions in academic research as the exigency for their entire conference. During my writing and review process, this tension came up fairly frequently. The home page of the conference still states: 

After attending a couple of in-person academic conferences, one of our hosts saw that there was a BIG part of knowledge and understanding missing from each conference. She realized that there was a great NEED for a conference that was more accessible and less academic-focused. (Braving Body Shame).  

The conference organizers felt that academic discussions of body shame often removed the lived experience of individuals, favoring generalizable and quantitatively driven information. How did I, then, as a researcher, justify researching a group whose stated exigency was to move away from academic audiences? More importantly, how would I protect their likeness as I worked to analyze it? First, I ensured that my research goals aligned with the conference goals – to focus on the lived affective and embodied experience of people experiencing body shame. Second, the speakers encouraged viewers to share the information widely, without any caveats about academic research. I was never able to reach the conference organizers after trying several times throughout the research process.  Third, I only studied video interviews that had been shared beyond the conference (see explanation in next section). 

With the Vulva Gallery, I had a different experience. It was much clearer how to protect the identity of participants, partially because the posts were already anonymous. The images were illustrations, therefore protecting the likeness of the individuals, and I could protect their privacy by following the example of the page. The Instagram page and gallery owned and posted the image, and therefore the reach was broad. The participants submitted their own images for the purpose of education and empowerment. For example, the About page on the website states that “The Vulva Gallery is an online gallery and educational platform celebrating vulva diversity, aiming to improve sexual health education and opening up conversation about topics that are still being stigmatised.” The educational purpose behind the postings reveals that the audience is intentionally broad. The participants agreed to have their images shared via a popular social media site and are aware that the audience they may be reaching is larger than their individual follower-base. Beyond considering ownership, looking at the networked publics of the posts allowed for more nuanced analysis of ethical considerations.  

What Is the Network of the User?  

Beyond the specific audience of the individuals, it is important to consider the broader networks that they engage, specifically with how their posts are distributed based on platform affordances. In the case of Braving Body Shame, the audience was not markedly different from the network of the participants, at least at first. The videos were originally posted on a website for conference purposes only and required a password to access. After the conference, however, the videos were posted on YouTube with the consent of the participants, according to the conference organizers. This move made me feel more confident in my use of the data, as it was clear that the participants consented to their talks being shared beyond the initial audience of the conference. I initially received feedback from my article reviewers that I needed to more clearly justify why I was using this information at what seemed against the wishes of the conference organizers. I explained that each of the individual participants posted their videos. For analysis, I only drew from YouTube videos that had been highly circulated and suggested high public engagement. Some of the more popular participants had tens of thousands of followers and linked the videos to their Instagram feeds. Because these were public figures, the question of ethics was less about protecting their identities and more about considering the agency and decision-making of the participants. Had the videos only existed on the Braving Body Shame website, I do not think I would have proceeded with my research. Furthermore, the networked of speakers expanded far past conference attendees because the speakers employed the affordances of the platforms. Speakers shared clips of video interviews, spliced together parts of their talks, and reshared both to their feeds and stories on Instagram. Again, this intentional public reach gave me confidence in including these materials in online research. 

Similarly, The Vulva Gallery used the affordances of Instagram to expand the network of people who see the vulva illustrations. My engagement with these posts was also about honoring the intention and agency of the participants. According to the owner of the site and illustrator, Hilde Atalanta, the participants submit their own images and stories to be published on both the website and Instagram. The individuals are not directly connected to the page through tagging, so their direct exposure to the network of the page is limited unless they comment directly on the post itself. The Instagram page had already done the work of considering consent and network, meaning at the very least that participants knew that their images would be shared to a public space. However, as other scholars note, this was not informed consent to participate in my research, begging the question of the benefits of doing this research and potential harms for participants. The Vulva Gallery fills a similar gap in popular sex education as it does in academic research—there are very limited discussions of diverse bodies in health education and related scholarship. Academic research on visual representations of female body parts, especially sexual organs, is primarily focused on harm. This research adds an empowerment focus. ​​In addition, my research goals aligned with the purpose of the gallery–to introduce narratives of diverse bodies into sexual education. These factors gave me confidence that I was honoring participants’ intentions and not introducing more harm than they were already exposed to. 

How is the User Defining Their Own Privacy?  

Beyond an analysis of the network that the information was shared in, it is important to consider how the individuals consider their own privacy. In both cases I discuss, I was studying diverse populations that were united by a common identity or experience. This, however, did not ensure that each individual person considered privacy in the same way. Within the context of Braving Body Shame, the participants were part of marginalized and multi-marginalized communities. Each speaker experienced some level of discrimination based on their size, and many experienced oppressions related to their race, gender, ability status, or sexuality. Though participants primarily discussed body shame, this affective experience was never fully separate from their other experiences of shame. Each of the speakers noted that they wanted to share their experiences of body shame so that others’ experiencing shame and people perpetuating shame can learn from their experiences. They consented to the videos being posted for conference participants and then for the public at large. I did not engage with any material about the subjects outside of the video interviews in an attempt to maintain the amount of privacy that they agreed to.      

Following my experience with Braving Body Shame, I closely considered the potential harm and how the participants considered their own privacy for Vulva Gallery participants. The Vulva Gallery is a pseudo-anonymous site; most of the stories contain first names and identifiable information such as location and experiences that are unique. However, this information was presented on Instagram and the gallery’s website. I chose to not include any of the images of vulvas or stories that could be identifiable in my research, favoring quotes that contributed to a thematic analysis. The identities of the participants were hidden aside from what they chose to reveal in their narratives, making it difficult to discern if they thought about privacy differently based on cultural differences. Still, by consciously working to not introduce harm and considering individuals’ definitions of privacy, researchers can work toward more ethical online research.  

How Am I Defining My Research Values? 

As I described earlier, my approach to online research is grounded in feminist research ethics, and as I walked through the above questions before determining whether or not to finish and start these projects, I made it a priority to ground my analysis in the lived experiences of participants. I centered both the Braving Body Shame conference participants and Vulva Gallery posters’ goals in my work and withheld any impulse to critique, instead prioritizing how they publicly framed their personal experiences. As may be evident from my detailing of this decision-making process, the ethics felt clearer in the Vulva Gallery than Braving Body Shame, despite the fact that the former contains more private information. This clarity is in part because of the nature of the public information and partially because I refined my approach to ethical considerations.  

These guiding questions are not a comprehensive list of things to consider, but they do provide a heuristic for examining the ethical implications of researching visual platforms. Because the posts are more embodied, the researcher should carefully consider the material consequences of their research. By asking these questions before engaging in research, scholars are more likely to treat participants with ethics and care.  

Conclusion, or a Moment of Reflexivity  

In an attempt to honor my feminist research ethic, the writing of this conversation contribution has made me re-evaluate my own orientation to participants’ privacy and the value of my work. Particularly, I was much more aware of my research ethics in analyzing the Vulva Gallery because of the questions posed by reviewers during the process of first publishing the piece on the Braving Body Shame conference. I did not receive formal training in online research, and so my initial question, analysis, and consideration left out the negotiation process that is privacy setting. This is perhaps an argument for more training on online research ethics in graduate school, and more broadly an example of a feminist research reflection that interrogates decision-making. I would have likely considered a different set of questions if I had been thinking about the agency of the participants beyond availability of the Body Shame video interviews. This reflective process will facilitate my ethical research decisions in the future, as well as model processes for interrogating the complicated relationship between participants’ privacy, agency, and networked engagement for other researchers.       

As many researchers have expressed, wading through the constantly changing landscape of social media requires a re-evaluation of research processes. The set of questions I propose is just one example of the many ways that researchers can approach their ethical considerations, and I invite scholars to build upon this heuristic in establishing best practices for digital research on visual materials. Like Buck and Ralston, I acknowledge that “issues of privacy and surveillance are fraught and always changing on social media platforms” (10). The relationship between public information online and privacy concerns will continue to blur and following a feminist ethics of centering the experiences of individuals is one way to honor the complexities of the platforms and people we study.  

Works Cited 

“About.” The Vulva Gallery. 

“About.” Braving Body Shame Conference. 

Buck, Amber M., and Devon F. Ralston. “I Didn’t Sign Up for your Research Study: The Ethics of Using ‘Public’ Data.” Computers and Composition, vol. 61, 2021, pp. 1-13. 

Cagle, Lauren E. “The Ethics of Researching Unethical Images: A Story of Trying to Do Good Research Without Doing Bad Things. Computers and Composition vol. 61, 2021, pp. 1-14. doi: 102651. 

franzke et al. Internet Research: Ethical Guidelines 3.0. 2020. 

Marwick, Alice, and boyd, danah. “Networked Privacy: How Teenagers Negotiate Context in Social Media.” New Media and Society, vol. 16, no. 7, 2014, pp. 1051–1067 

— “I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience.” New Media & Society, vol. 13, no.1, 2011, 114–133. 

Palen, Leysia, and Paul Dourish. “Unpacking” Privacy” for a Networked World.” Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. 2003, pp. 129-136.  

Steele, Catherine Knight. “Black Bloggers and their Varied Publics: The Everyday Politics of Black Discourse Online.” Television & New Media, vol. 19, no. 2, 2018, pp. 112-127 

Taylor, Hannah. “Unsticking Shame: Considering Lived Experience and Processes of Overcoming.” Peitho, vol. 25, no. 1, 2022. 

Tiidenberg, Katrin. “Research Ethics, Vulnerability, and Trust on the Internet.” Second International Handbook of Internet Research, edited by Jeremy Hunsinger, Matthew Allen, and Lisbeth Klastrup. Springer, 2020, pp.569-583. 

Zimmer, Michael. “‘But the Data Is Already Public’’: on the Ethics of Research in Facebook.” Ethics Information Technology, vol. 12, 2010, pp. 313–325. DOI 10.1007/s10676-010-9227-5 

Researching on the Intersectional Internet: Slow Coding as Humanistic Recovery


I write this article to you on one screen, and you, reader, view it on another, a transmission I invoke here to highlight an embodied digitality that suffuses my points to come. The impress of my keyboard keys indexes movement across networks—digital and otherwise—that both captures my bodily movement and sequences it across our infrastructural milieu. The springs of my keys as my fingers travel across them ferry meaning to you across space and time, and there you are—somewhere on the other side of light-based fiber optics, data servers cohering our networked lives, a router powered at planetary expense, the person who plugged in the router in the first place, the radiant technology of Wi-Fi seemingly inhering our connectivity. This small collection you make of me here (and I am collecting you, too) that is, this arrangement of bodies and technologies—deceptively simple—belies the theoretically dense conceit that at the core of our interaction are bodies that have become embodied: upcycled, translated, and communicated in some socio-corporeal manner (Bratta and Sundvall; Bates et al.; Johnson et al.). 

Using this storied invocation of my body (and, really, yours too), I demarcate a conceptual aperture and advance two heuristic axioms that underpin this conversation piece. First, I highlight the material conditions of our meeting here amid this cluster in Peitho to foreground a methodological stance toward digitally mediated settings, accounting for complex human identities, technologies, and practices, as well as their commensurate effects on our work as internet researchers—in essence, the ways we collect each other through storied interactions in online settings. Second, I foreground the idea that identity and technology are co-imbricated amid the respective imperial and anticolonial projects of humanness (Brown)[1]. With this techno-identive interplay, I argue for refreshed research practices that account for “digital bodies, [that] either virtually produced or augmented, complicate traditional perspectives of embodiment” (Bates et al.).  

To account for embodiment in research methods, I offer a methodological approach to doing digital cultural rhetorics research called slow coding, a qualitative research practice of better attuning ourselves to the intersectional internet, a term used by Brendesha M. Tynes and Safiya Umoja Noble to indicate “an epistemological approach to researching gendered and racialized identities in digital and information studies. It offers a lens, based on the past articulations of intersectional theory, for exploring power in digital technologies and the global Internet(s)” (“Introduction” 3). In so doing, I contend that we square our analytical potency as internet researchers driven by feminist ethics against white supremacist configurations of research as a practice and the humans we research as a colonially marked, epistemological category. Such a move resonates with Jennifer Sano-Franchini’s call for more research on online spaces that focuses on the everyday rhetorical-relational work of foregrounding community in relation to marginalizing forces that accounts for and disrupts such forces. Disruption, then, serves as the modus operandi for slow coding across the full breadth of this article. 

 I therefore advance slow coding as a research practice grounded in the intersectional internet, affording researchers an approach to working ethically in the ebbs and flows of oppression while allowing for meaningful engagement with the effects of colonization on precarious groups of people. Slow coding as a qualitative research practice adheres a slow, deliberate intentionality at the pre-coding and coding stages of a research project (Saldaña), actively centering the oppressive context that led to the data itself (in my case, tweets) and configuring analysis to disrupt the identified oppression. Given that it comprises the pre-coding and coding stages, slow coding consolidates these stages and facilitates the researcher reviewing their data while they collect it and shortly thereafter, creating analytic memos that respond to the colonial context of the data, reviewing any accompanying meta-data to understand the geographic history at the fore of oppression, learning the identive particularities of the people who comprise the data as a departure from a typified research subject wherein anonymity is whiteness. Perhaps most importantly, slow coding requires particular research questions that are attuned to the settler colonial machinations of how oppressions are wrought, particular stances grounded in anticolonialism, and the time needed to do meaningful work beyond the publishing timeline that entraps many of us.  

In what follows, I outline how research as practice has been wrought from colonial enterprise (Absolon; Tuhiwai Smith), with commensurate epistemological implications in the ways we research people using technology (Benjamin). These humanistic configurations in turn inflect a typical internet-based research project via our methodologies, including what the site can be, who the participants are, and what the data comprise (Gallagher). To fully articulate slow coding, a research practice that works in relation and opposition to these colonial conditions, I share my own research experiences illustrating the deep care required of working with marginalized communities, starting with respectful observation, moving toward ethical engagement and gathering, and then culminating in antiracist analytic strategies that allow the data to story itself and tying online life to the offline oppressions. In this way, I offer suggestions for each step of the multilayer process that stacks into a research project: who the participants are, where the research site is, what the rhetorical-relational data comprise, and the other ingredient strands that mesh into such a project.  

Researching on the Internet: Colonial Contexts and the Need for Anticolonial Options 

Colonial conditions set the stage for both our meeting on your screen and the array of practices that led to this moment. Research, despite our best intentions, comprises the colonial conditions by which research as a practice emerged, perpetuates, and now functions (Absolon; Tuhiwai Smith). Indeed, research hinges on “maintaining the status quo and supporting the evolution of societies that reward some people and inhibit others. Research can be used to suppress ideas, people, and social justice just as easily … than it can be used to respect, empower, and liberate. Good intentions are never enough to produce anti-oppressive processes or outcomes” (Potts and Brown 260). That said, I follow the lead of cultural rhetoricians whose purview constellates across the colonial tensions within digital studies (Edwards; Haas) and embodiment (Johnson et al.). Slow coding thus proceeds from the simple conceit that research is a sticky consolidation of inquisitive acts derived from the history and now nefarious machinations of settler colonialism as it shapes both research and the internet, combined in the form of internet-based research projects (Powell).  

Homing in on digital technologies, the internet itself is a colonial project (Amrute; Simmons). For all the good it can and does foster, the internet today comprises a corporatized, platformed architecture that actively suppresses marginalized groups of people: “everything from representation to hardware, software, computer code, and infrastructures might be implicated in global economic, political, and social systems of control” (Tynes and Noble 6). Notably, Nicole Marie Brown highlights the algorithmic nature of the assembling, so-called objective computational forces that “expose how power in decisioning is being organized within the social world” (56). In this way, the very algorithms that organize the data researchers collect—especially white researchers—perpetuate whiteness. Further, beyond the function of the internet, digital infrastructure itself serves mainly as settler colonial expansion for colonial metropoles, with communicative thresholds expanding across the world and worsening climatological conditions (Edwards; Haas).  

However, I do not want to wallow in the saturnine conditions of research and the internet in this piece, as doing so performs a disservice to the kinds of questions we might ask within our purview as internet researchers. Moreover, as mentioned above, to perform slow coding is to ask preemptively the kinds of research questions grounded in anticolonial intent that work in contradistinction to colonial purpose. Amid the above considerations that underpin slow coding, an attunement to happiness, joy, well-being—community—serve as a critical departure from colonial research practices; in other words, rather than generally asking, “How is harm being perpetuated to this marginalized community?” we might ask, “How is this community keeping itself safe in the face of harm out in the world—and what can I do to foster better care?” In pivoting to this question, the slow coder must attune to communities that bring the fullness of their lives—the struggles and triumphs—to digital spaces in a manner that resonates with the offline oppressions that weave together a daily milieu; in other words, we must configure our projects to operate on the intersectional internet.  

Asking Anticolonial Research Questions: Researching on the Intersectional Internet 

Considering the flattening effect of conducting research on the internet (that is, the identive baseline that casts a datapoint as a mere utterance with little lived context), the use of social media as a force for good reveals a schema for revising the internet as an intersectional network through which the on-the-grounds work of identity politics might be enacted (construed from the lineage of Black feminist thought; Collins; Tynes, Schuschke, and Noble). For Tynes and Noble, digital intersectionality is a concept at the juncture of potential and control “in the form of both analytic strategy and critical praxis, as a resource grounded in the offline and online subjectivities of participants” (26). The intersectional internet instills an attunement to Black life on the internet via Black feminist thought (Collins) and Black feminist technology studies (Noble, “Future”), revealing cracks in the hostile, algorithmic terrain of the internet wherein marginalized users upcycle the tools at hand to meet and to counter both their oppressors and oppressions. As an analytic strategy, digital intersectionality foregrounds identity and all of its import, especially for Black users of the internet; as critical praxis, it requires attuning research projects to the concept of the intersectional internet.  

 The intersectional internet serves as a mutinous framework, revealing how Black and other people of color live, play, and organize online around and against the offline violence they face and the online violence that are the algorithmic forces that center whiteness. It also serves as an antenarrative of the internet, which becomes a tool for empowerment despite colonial histories. Indeed, “from its earliest articulations, intersectionality has not only been used in scholarly work and teaching but has also been used as analytic strategy and critical praxis directed at social and political intervention” (Tynes, Schuschke, and Noble 35). In this way, slow coding as an approach to asking anticolonial research questions departs from the colonial research configuration and attends to “individuals’ intersectional vantage points on topics allow for a fluid exchange of ideas and beliefs” (Tynes, Schuschke, and Noble 36). For me, slow coding was an emergent practice I developed via perspectives in Indigenous methodologies (Gaudry; Tuck and Yang), my own intention on centering the needs of my community as a queer Chicano, and time afforded to me at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, I created my dissertation project—an interrogation of the social media practices of queer and trans BIPOC on Twitter—by first asking research questions steered in part by the considerations I outlined above. In other words, I posed research questions that could be used to craft a project contingent on social justice that squared the focus of the project against the oppression itself, while also attending to the commensurate work via my disciplinary training and my intent on taking my time (a luxury, to be sure, but one I was afforded because of the COVID-19 pandemic). 

My research questions were: What are the rhetorical practices of queer and trans Black, Indigenous, and People of Color who tweet about their sexual health practices online? How might these practices be ethically integrated into public health outreach?I spotlight identity and community enrichment with these questions, each serving as a framework for building the actual research project itself. In creating a research project, the slow coder must ask an anticolonial research question that highlights the context of the digital spaces in which research is conducted. To that end, I highlight the anticolonial utility found within the concept of the intersectional internet. Given that the intersectional internet as concept upcycles a cadre of critical perspectives on digital technologies, sociotechnical processes, digital-material labor conditions, and the identive capacity of social media platforms, research questions that allow for slow coding must function in contradistinction to colonial configurations of internet-based research. In this way, slow coding becomes a solution—and I stress the indefinite article here—to conducting research on a data set that comprises groups of people using the internet in a manner consistent with anti-oppressive research (Potts and Brown). 

Collecting, Pre-Coding, Coding: Slow Actions and Deliberate Capture 

 After creating research questions that facilitate slow coding, we can proceed to the construction of the project, the ethical considerations, the data collection, and then the interpretive framework (with the latter two components comprising slow coding as a practice itself). In essence, slow coding represents an attention to the fact that digital expressions of life are not merely communicative instances, but rather extensions of life online. Thus, we can use methods of capture and interpretive frameworks to understand the stories the data are saying; that is, we can investigate how the range of human experience translates to takeaways that matter to the questions we pose in the first place when conducting research. To that end, I offer an example of building a substantive research project that was my dissertation, offering salient examples and considerations that springboard from slow coding as a methodological approach. I detail the actual methods of enacting the project to the act of parsing the data and then coding it.  

In working on my dissertation, I followed Heidi McKee and James Porter in The Ethics of Internet Research: A Rhetorical, Case-Based Process and “Digital Media Ethics and Rhetoric,” taking a multi-stage approach to research: 1) data collection, 2) pre-coding, which involved slowly reading through the tweets in an extant archive (gathered using methods below), excluding those that were retweets and from organizations, clinicians, providers, or other public health officials (i.e., applying exclusion criteria), and pre-coding those relevant to the research project to derive thematics; and 3) coding them to establish three case studies based on these themes that reveal how users showcased their own sexual health literacy in relation to the topics at hand. 


 Using an insurgent appropriation born from Indigenous methodologies (Gaudry; Tuck and Yang), I adapted internet- and social media-based methods for gathering and analyzing the data. Thus, tweets were gathered as data using an automated, self-populating Twitter Archiving Google Sheet (TAGS), a system developed by Martin Hawksey that uses Google Sheets’ functionality and Twitter’s then-open API to conduct a keyword search across public Twitter users. This search began fall 2018 and continues, refreshing every hour until I am locked out. The keywords used were the hashtags #PrEP and #Truvada, and these were used to attune the data collection to users talking about their sexual health in relation to ongoing changes surrounding medication, culture, and health. These keywords were also selected because they have been prominent in the cultural milieu of queer and trans people of color since the advent of new HIV-prevention medication. Tweets collected through the TAGS system were aggregated in a Google Sheets document, along with usernames, user-made bios, timestamps, avatars, and locations (when available). For the hopeful slow coder, proceeding from data collection continues to attend to a research project’s dimensionality, adhering epistemic parameters to standard protocol in the follow ways: understanding that research is a practice mired in colonial processes (discussed above), responding to how anonymized data defaults to whiteness because of the manner by which a human user of the internet is construed, and attending to the organizing algorithms of the internet (which privilege white sensibilities).   


My collection methods captured much meta-data for the datapoints gathered—perhaps too much, which initiated my slow approach and led me to cohere this process as slow coding. I was therefore able to use the meta-data to cross-check that the cultural content that users generated and frequented in their discrete Twitter feeds related to the topic at hand and their identity (i.e., checking to see who the user is and what they talk about online—learning who they are and what their life is about; though, of course, information associated with Twitter accounts is not always accurate). In creating slow coding as a digital cultural rhetorics methodological practice, I made the important but complex decision to not anonymize the data collected; identity is integral to internet and technology use, as I touch on above, and anonymizing the data would lead to poor conclusions regarding my research questions because cultural and racial identity is vital to answering the research questions in the first place. 

That said, I presented the data in the dissertation—and subsequent publications—in a manner that only recounts identive aspects of users as derived from contextual elements, including general locations (e.g., Atlanta featured heavily in my data as it is often called the Black queer capital of the world), other tweets, biographic information, and photos that were not of the user but posted (typically memes). I did not nor will I ever use Twitter usernames, show avatars, or use any other identifying information in my writing, stewarding users’ data by using password-protected hard drives to store data gathered. The stewardship I enacted requires, again, the creation of a project that cannot function without care and deliberation in mind. In this way, I was able to approach the necessary messiness of approaching consent when working with semi-public data, users who did not respond to direct messages, and the general unwieldiness that accompanies social media platforms as research sites. Of course, no approach will ever be perfect, especially regardless of IRB approval (as in my case, wherein my project was deemed exempt)—but again, care and deliberation and substantive protection protocols must be derived.  

Because my data collection was self-populated as users’ generated content, I created a copy of the overall archive and effectively ended data collection for the dissertation in June 2020. From this document, I began pre-coding by following my inclusion/exclusion criteria, focusing solely on non-specialist posts in the data collection (i.e., posts from non-medical experts). To conduct pre-coding, with a collection of about 300 individual tweets and relevant posts and media after culling, I carefully read through each, highlighting ones that sparked an interest and were seemingly related to the research questions. During this stage, I also expanded on some tweets, delving into the conversational context in some cases and storing these tweets for further investigation. I also included analytic memos left in the form of comments on specific cells containing interesting tweets, and they were later factored into analysis. When this stage was completed, included tweets and their accompanying meta-data were compiled in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet and manually entered into Dedoose, a qualitative coding software.  


Slow coding entails a close attention to intersectional theory as it pertains to online life, and in pushing against the textual notion of anonymized data—which voids those meaning-rich cultural expressions of daily life online—I used pre-coding to lead into more comprehensive coding in line with constructing grounded theory. Following a two-cycle approach (Saldaña), I derived three overarching themes across the data that showcased three contextual factors that garnered the most attention on Twitter. Following Johnny Saldaña, and as part of the first cycle of constructing a grounded theory, holistic coding was used as it “is applicable when the researcher already has a general idea of what to investigate in the data . . . [which can be] preparatory groundwork for more detailed coding of the data” (119). In this round of coding, then, I analyzed the selected tweets and accompanying meta-data, which I construed as experiential data that fleshed out the tweet given that they formed contextual vignettes for conveying information. As such, in this initial coding stage, I derived initial codes such as HUMOR, EDUCATION, and CRITICISM, among others, based on an assumed purpose of the tweet in relation to the colonial conditions writ large. With these initial codes, I then moved to the second round of coding. 

With axial coding as the second cycle, I prioritized “properties (i.e., characteristics or attributes) and dimensions (the location of a property along a continuum or range) of a category” (Saldaña 159). As the follow-up to the first cycle of coding, axial coding allowed me to dwell in those “components [of] the conditions, causes, and consequences of a process—actions that let [me] know ‘if, when, how, and why’ something happen[ed]” (Saldaña 159). In other words, axial coding affords an interconnected approach to data, including parsing through tweets related to the specific utterances gathered in the finalized data set and then constellating them amongst each other and the broader forces at play that led to the specific instance of the tweets. Thus, through this round of coding—which I spent months doing to fully flesh out the case studies I eventually derived—I was able to derive codes based on the contemporaneous events, cultural complexities, and oppressive forces tied to them that led to the tweets themselves. With the coding and memos, I derived three thematics (i.e., community health practices wrought during the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 90s, ad hoc networks for sharing information on insurance and healthcare providers, and countering capitalist biomedical systems), which were then used to construct the case studies comprising the project. I was only able to create these case studies by taking my time, and how I went about collecting the data and coding them might take more time than it would otherwise, but this deliberate slow research was necessary to facilitate my commitment to anticolonial research within a digital environment.  

Conclusion: The Ethics of Slowly Learning an Internet Life 

 The researcher and the research subject, site, and project intermingle histories of colonial violence that demand more, slow, thoughtful attention from us. As such, slow coding entails a deliberate approach to building the project itself, including the ethics underpinning the work itself. In my case, I grounded my work in a relational ethics tied to a theoretical framework grounded in Indigenous concepts of relationality, which steered my analysis of tweets amongst broader forces of oppression, directly shaping the remainder of my methodological considerations (Arola; Riley-Mukavetz; Wilson). I also followed the Association of Internet Researchers’ ethics of internet research (franzke et al.), asking myself how data would be traceable and if it could be potentially harmful to the Twitter users when published and whether identifying information was required. Thus, relational ethics set the parameters by which I stayed with the data, simmering in the complex lives of people taking to social media to talk about a critical facet of their lives. Then, via slow coding and the layers of considerations above stacked up on one another, I set out to learn about online lives and let them story my dissertation project. 

 Here, at the end of this piece, I foreground this centrality as a deep, epistemological requirement of slow coding as a practice. If you cannot build a project made for slow coding, then build a different project. I will say, though, that much of what I have found in the data via this process is joy—the bliss of queer and trans people of color being in community despite everything in the world, including the technologies that bring them together, tearing them down. This joy is precious and requires much of us as researchers. I hope that what slow coding offers is a glimpse into working in the ebbs and flows of the liminal spaces that lets community be what it is—joyful work that rescinds the wickedness too often central to how the world works. 

Works Cited 

Absolon, Kathleen E. Kaandossiwin: How We Come to Know. Fernwood Publishing, 2011. 

Amrute, Sareeta. “Tech Colonialism Today.” Data & Society, 25 Feb. 2020, 

Arola, Kristin L. “A Land-Based Digital Design Rhetoric.” The Routledge Handbook of Digital Writing and Rhetoric, edited by Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes, 1st ed., Routledge, 2018, pp. 199–213. 

Bates, Julie Collins, et al. “Emphasizing Embodiment, Intersectionality, and Access: Social Justice Through Technofeminism Past, Present, and Future.” Computers and Composition Online, 2019, 

Benjamin, Ruha. “Introduction: Discriminatory Design, Liberating Imagination.” Captivating Technology: Race, Carceral Technoscience, and Liberatory Imagination in Everyday Life, edited by Ruha Benjamin, Duke University Press, 2019, pp. 1–22. 

Bratta, Phil, and Scott Sundvall. “Introduction to the Special Issue: Digital Technologies, Bodies, and Embodiments.” Computers and Composition, vol. 53, Sept. 2019, pp. 1–8. 

Brock, André. “Beyond the Pale: The Blackbird Web Browser’s Critical Reception.” New Media and Society, vol. 13, no. 7, 2011, pp. 1085–1103, 

Brown, Nicole Marie. “Methodological Cyborg as Black Feminist Technology: Constructing the Social Self Using Computational Digital Autoethnography and Social Media.” ​Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies, vol. 19, no. 1, Feb. 2019, pp. 55–67. 

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2000. 

franzke, aline shakti, et al. Internet Research: Ethical Guidelines 3.0. Association of Internet Researchers, 2020, 

Gallagher, John R. “A Framework for Internet Case Study Methodology in Writing Studies.” Computers and Composition, vol. 54, 2019, 

Gaudry, Adam J. P. “Insurgent Research.” Wicazo Sa Review, vol. 26, no. 1, 2011, pp. 113–36, 

Haas, Angela M. “Toward a Digital Cultural Rhetoric.” The Routledge Handbook of Digital Writing and Rhetoric, edited by Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes, 1st ed., Routledge, 2018, pp. 412–22. 

Johnson, Maureen, et al. “Embodiment: Embodying Feminist Rhetorics.” Peitho: Journal of the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric & Composition, vol. 18, no. 1, 2015, pp. 39–44. 

McKee, Heidi A., and James E. Porter. “Digital Media Ethics and Rhetoric.” The Routledge Handbook of Digital Writing and Rhetoric, edited by Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes, 1st ed., Routledge, 2018, pp. 401–11. 

—. The Ethics of Internet Research: A Rhetorical, Case-Based Process. Peter Lang, 2009. 

Noble, Safiya Umoja. “A Future for Intersectional Black Feminist Technology Studies.” Scholar & Feminist Online, vol. 13, no. 3, 2016,  

Noble, Safiya Umoja, and Brendesha M. Tynes. “Introduction.” The Intersectional Internet: Race, Sex, Class, and Culture Online, Peter Lang, 2016, pp. 1–18. 

Opel, Dawn S. “Ethical Research in ‘Health 2.0.’” Methodologies for the Rhetoric of Health & Medicine, edited by Lisa Melonçon and J. Blake Scott, 1st ed., Routledge, 2017, pp. 176–94. 

Potts, Karen, and Leslie Brown. “Becoming an Anti-Oppressive Researcher.” Research As Resistance: Critical, Indigenous, & Anti-Oppressive Approaches, edited by Leslie Brown and Susan Strega, Canadian Scholars’ Press/Women’s Press, 2005, pp. 264–86. 

 Riley-Mukavetz, Andrea. “Towards A Cultural Rhetorics Methodology: Making Research Matter with Multi-Generational Women from the Little Traverse Bay Band.” Rhetoric, Professional Communication and Globalization, vol. 5, no. 1, 2014, pp. 108–25. 

Sano-Franchini, Jennifer. “Cultural Rhetorics and the Digital Humanities: Toward Cultural Reflexivity in Digital Making.” Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities, edited by Jim Ridolfo and William Hart-Davidson, The University of Chicago Press, 2014, pp. 49–64. 

Simmons, Anjuan. “Technology Colonialism.” Model View Culture: A Magazine About Technology, Culture and Diversity., no. 27, 18 Sept. 2015, 

Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. “R-Words: Refusing Research.” Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with Youth and Communities, edited by Django Paris and Maisha T. Winn, SAGE Publications, Inc., 2014, pp. 223–47. 

Tuhiwai Smith, Linda. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. 3rd ed., Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021. 

Tynes, Brendesha M., et al. “Chapter One: Digital Intersectionality Theory and the #Blacklivesmatter Movement.” The Intersectional Internet: Race, Sex, Class, and Culture Online, edited by Safiya Umoja Noble and Brendesha M. Tynes, Peter Lang, 2016, pp. 21–40. 

Wilson, Shawn. Research Is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods. Fernwood Publishing, 2008. 

 End Note

[1]Here, I mean to render the human as conceptual parameters by which we cohere history, culture, whiteness, colonialism, and cisheteropatriarchy to what we think of as the prototypical human user of the internet (Brock). Indeed, André Brock highlights how the internet functions as “a social structure [that] represents and maintains white, masculine, bourgeois, heterosexual and Christian culture through its content” (1088). The internet, then, amid the varying tales that comprise its cultural import, is a mirror to the project of humanness—a conceit I intermingle within the critical vantage of my thinking in this piece.

Cluster Editors’ Introduction: Defining A Feminist Approach to Internet Research Ethics (Again)

Entering the Conversation

In 2018, Kristi and Melissa submitted a research article to a feminist media journal. We thought that our study on live tweets accompanying the 2017 Women’s March on Washington was an exigent analysis of affect in hashtag feminism. However, we received a scalding review that criticized our research ethics. Our anonymous reviewer was appalled that we included tweeted images in our analyzed findings and thus did not protect our study participants. We were surprised and hurt; we were trained in research methods and included images to allow the feminist activists to represent themselves in their own words. But we swallowed our pride and dug deeper into Internet research ethics. Upon talking with other scholars and reading interdisciplinary research, it was clear why we were confused. Standards varied across disciplines and institutions. Articles modeled different practices throughout publication venues. Ultimately we published our piece in another journal (McDuffie and Ames) with greater protections on images, using suggestions outlined by Amy Bruckman, and this experience inspired us to create more conversations around Internet research ethics in order to improve other scholars’ experiences. This cluster conversation therefore presents a variety of approaches to Internet research ethics through a feminist lens, beginning with this introductory piece that outlines best practices in feminist Internet research ethics. 

After this introduction, our cluster conversation continues with a piece by Cam Cavaliere and Leigh Gruwell, “Developing a Feminist Mentorship Praxis for Digital Aggression Research,” which serves as a model for the type of mentorship we are advocating for. In this article, both the mentor and mentee address the challenges that digital aggression research poses to researcher safety and offer suggestions for feminist mentorship practices to enhance our emotional and physical well-being. 

Next, in “Researching on the Intersectional Internet: Slow Coding as Humanistic Recovery,” Wilfredo Flores draws attention to the problematic colonial conditions of traditional research practices and offers a revised methodology that allows for more care when working with marginalized communities. Flores details a strategy called slow coding, a multilayered process that allows more space for antiracist analytic strategies to be drawn upon throughout the research process. 

The next three pieces in this cluster conversation build on Amber Buck and Devon Ralston’s “Heuristic for Reflective Research/Data Collection” by extending the framework to new spaces or mediums to continue challenging ourselves as ethical researchers of online spaces, communities, and texts. Hannah Taylor’s contribution, “Beyond Text: Ethical Considerations for Visual Online Platforms,” discusses her research experiences with two image-based social media projects (the online conference Braving Body Shame and the sexual health education Instagram page The Vulva Gallery) in order to reflect on her own research practices and demonstrate a feminist research ethic of self-reflexivity. In “Towards Best Practices for Podcasting in Rhetoric and Composition,” Charles Woods and Devon Fitzgerald Ralston examine the research methods of re:verb: A Podcast about Politics, Culture, and Language in Action podcast. They offer guidance towards best practices based on feminist principles and methods for podcasters podcasting in rhetoric and composition. In the final work in this triad, “A Private Conversation in a Public Place: The Ethics of Studying ‘Virtual Support Groups’ Now,” Nora Augustine explicates ethical quandaries that arose from one agency’s attempts to implement a Zoom-based confidentiality policy in its support groups during Covid-19, showing how rapid uptake of this platform introduced new ethical conflicts. Combining the apparent privacy of face-to-face group meetings with the ambiguous publicness of online communication, she argues that Zoom support groups illustrate the extent to which our understandings of “virtual support groups” have changed since scholars first started researching human subjects on the Internet—and therefore how much our ethical considerations must change, too.

Our cluster conversation closes full circle with a piece that returns to traditional mentorship – but from the very initial stages: the classroom. Gabriella Wilson’s “Teaching Digital Feminist Research Methods: Polluted Digital Landscapes and Care-ful Pedagogies” explores how instructors can use feminist methodologies in teaching digital research methods, especially in an era of contaminated rhetoric and disinformation. This piece discusses pedagogical best practices and approaches to teaching ethical digital feminist research methods in the first-year composition classroom and beyond.

Best Practices in Feminist Internet Research Ethics

To provide a foundation for these thoughtful pieces interrogating research ethics from a feminist perspective, we present several norms that have emerged through Internet research discussions over the past years. It has been difficult to identify consensus within Internet research ethics because online practices (and the study thereof) remain dynamic spaces for legal, business, academic, and personal jurisdictions. Furthermore, different disciplines approach Internet research ethics from various epistemological stances. Also contributing to a lack of consensus is the delay of institutions, such as IRB and graduate schools, in updating to keep up with contemporary practices in online research. Therefore, we take this space to outline best practices as a set of agreed upon norms that primarily emerge in writing studies, rhetorical theory, and feminist media studies, to set a foundation for scholars doing related work. These practices can be used concurrently with heuristics that are outlined by the Association of Internet Researchers (Ess and AoIR; franzke et al.; Markham and Buchanan) and scholars such as Buck and Ralston. As opposed to these heuristics which are questions that researchers can use to guide their decision-making on particular projects, this list is meant to orient researchers toward current thinking in feminist Internet research ethics.

IRBs Provide Insufficient Guidance for Internet Research

Although Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) have governed academic research for decades–along with legal concerns like copyright, FERPA, and HIPAA–IRBs provide insufficient guidance for Internet research. Elizabeth Buchanan, for example, explains that her early inquiries into Internet research ethics “problematized standard notions of respect for persons, justice, and beneficence”; because these principles were originally based on a biomedical model of research, they “do not transfer easily to internet research” (Buchanan et al. 271-272). IRBs have largely been concerned with physical and emotional harm that arrives through interactive and private information-based research, and thus have not taken ownership of research using public data online. Such research is either treated as exempt or waived. 

The feminist Internet research community, however, demands a higher standard. Amber Buck and Devon Ralston explain that sharing “social media data (public or not) outside of its originally shared context may bring with it potential problems,” especially for communities of color (3). Rosemary Clark-Parsons similarly claims that “just because a user consented to publishing a message publicly on Twitter does not necessarily mean they have consented to having that message published in other contexts, such as an academic journal or news story” (Buchanan et al. 266-267). Research asking online users about their preferences supports these findings: James M. Hudson and Amy Bruckman found that “individuals in online environments such as chatrooms generally do not approve of being studied without their consent” (Hudson and Bruckman 135). 

Despite this knowledge, there is no easy way to implement this advice; it is often impractical to obtain informed consent in online environments (Hudson and Bruckman 135). Implementing feminist principles of care and situated knowledge (franzke et al. 66-67) will help researchers balance their research goals with the personal agency (Clark-Parsons in Buchanan et al. 266) of their research participants. 

Online Data Is Human Subjects Research, Not Textual Research

Although online research data sets are more and more often being treated as “big data,” defined in innumerable ways, feminist Internet researchers demand that online information be treated as human subjects research rather than textual research. Textual research—whether it’s one piece of writing or thousands of discrete data points—is still data composed by or about humans. Research must be built from a feminist practice of situated knowledge (franzke et al. 67) and cannot be excised from its context. Morrow, Hawkins, and Kern write that official guidelines to Internet research often treat “online users and researchers as disembodied and disconnected from places and relationships” as if “researchers can somehow ethically categorize the subjectivity and vulnerability of online users” (536). Understanding online research as human subjects research maintains that material connection to both participants and researchers.

Furthermore, feminist Internet research ethics maintains that online users should maintain rights over their information and online productions, including having a say in how it might appear in a research context. Rosemary Clark-Parsons often studies marginalized populations and aims to give her research participants agency and ownership over their personal information (Buchanan et al. 267). Stephanie Vie agrees and advocates for asking research participants about their level of comfort with identification and other options in a research project (Buchanan et. al 275). When it is not possible to obtain consent and consult with research participants, however, these conversations turn toward minimizing harm.

Feminist Internet Research Contests Traditional Notions of Public and Private Spaces

Although feminist Internet research ethics contest the notion that online public posting equals consent to research, Internet research complicates the very definition of “public.” Here are a few ways that thinking about “public” Internet research has evolved.

  • Researchers have long since studied online communities where the researchers themselves were active participants. This is mostly based on (historically face-to-face) ethnographic principles that researchers get to know the communities they are studying. But when extended to online spaces, this practice can be a privacy violation because they are studying spaces where they have unique access due to their own interests, histories, or identities. In these instances, transparency and consent become concerns because the data is not, in fact, public. Similarly, researchers should not assume that they have the right to research in spaces where they have gained access to an online space that was not otherwise open-access (i.e. requires logins, paywalls, group membership, etc.; see, for example, Haywood’s decision to not study a Facebook group after contacted (32)). It still may be prudent to conduct such research, but with more forethought and justification to address such privacy measures (see, for example, Dadas’s approach to studying Facebook groups). 
  • Researchers study ephemeral data and it is not always clear what rights they have after an initial collection period. For example, researchers may not be aware that some social media sites require researchers to delete posts if they are deleted by the users. Ultimately, a feminist approach to Internet research ethics that prioritizes research participant agency undoubtedly creates more labor in refreshing data sets.
  • Defining research participants can be challenging. For example, in Lauren E. Cagle’s work on strangershots, she defines the research participant as the person who appears in the image, not the person who took the photograph or video. It may be difficult to identify that person, let alone contact them, and a similar situation may arise in a quoted tweet or other type of social media. Yet other types of data may have no identifiable author at all, such as memes. Given the wide range of privacy issues here, a situated approach is even more important to these authorship challenges.
  • Accuracy is difficult to verify in public spaces. William L. Wolff interrogates the viability of conducting online research when so many spaces are overwrought with bots, fake user accounts, and misinformation. He asks, “what expectations of privacy do bots, trolls, and racists have?” (Buchanan et al. 264). Although Internet research ethics has traditionally encouraged caution, Wolff explains that in the current AI landscape, researchers may need to be more concerned with whether their data was even written by real humans (Buchanan et al. 265). Internet researchers will thus need to balance accuracy in their data sets with participant privacy.

Feminist Internet Researchers Should Protect Participant Identities

When it is not possible to obtain informed consent and ask for participant preferences, researchers should protect participant identities to the furthest extent, and especially through publishing practices. This guideline is a part of a feminist research ethic of care (franzke et al. 66; Dieterle), which outlines that an ethic of care toward participants, researchers, and affected communities should guide feminist research practices. An ethic of care in research means going beyond minimizing harm to actually taking responsibility for how our research might affect our participants (Dieterle 8), and seeing the research process as a reciprocal relationship. 

Although informed consent is preferable, there are situations where it is not plausible or practical (for example, hundreds of users who contributed to a widespread Instagram campaign would be unlikely to respond to requests through Instagram about a research study). In these cases when there is still justification for doing the research, scholars have outlined a number of strategies for protecting participants, such as using pseudonyms, blurring out identifying features in images, altering quotes to reduce reverse searchability, and even only representing data in aggregate (Bruckman; Buchanan et al. 274-274, 280; Dieterle 6). Researchers can balance these options with the situated context of their studies and an ethic of care. For example, in our edited collection on hashtag activism (Ames and McDuffie), a number of contributors chose to include the identities of popular, verified Twitter users because they were already public figures. Researchers also agree that protecting participants’ identities is even more vital when the subject or the participants themselves are more at-risk.  

It is possible that hiding participants’ identities can reduce their agency. For example, Bassett and O’Rierdan worried that anonymizing LGBTQ participants was an act of further marginalization and silencing (244), and we similarly worry that hiding the activists we study dishonors their intentions. Nonetheless, the current consensus in feminist Internet research studies is to conceal participants’ identities without explicit consent to disclose identities in research publications, especially in an online culture rife with abuse. 

Feminist Internet Research Ethics Call for an Interrogation of Researcher Positionality

It is now a common, and even vital, practice for researchers to consider their own relationship to the data that they collect and analyze (from anywhere, and especially online) (Morrow, Hawkins, and Kern 533). Throughout past studies, a scholar may or may not have discussed how they relate to their research depending on the context of the study. Perhaps a researcher explained how they came to be a part of a particular online community, or disclosed what inspired their commitment to a cause. Now, however, this kind of interrogation is expected in order to understand how our own positionalities–and the positionalities of our research participants–frame our studies and impact the outcomes. Interrogation is particularly important when a researcher seems distant from the study or when a research population is vulnerable. 

Engaging in relevant theories can help with examining positionalities and power dynamics. For instance, Constance Haywood theorizes how Black feminist values can be applied to research methods to create a Black feminist ethic of care to enact community values, recognize participants’ activism, and minimize harm when studying Black online communities (41). Another example is Caroline Dadas, who enacted transparency about her own identity in a queer methodological framework for studying the discursive construction of marriage equality on Facebook. 

Interrogating researcher and participant positionality helps us be reflective researchers, which is an important feminist value (Morrow, Hawkins, and Kerns 533), and this reflexivity extends to reciprocity. Rosemary Clark-Parsons advocates for feminist practices of reciprocity toward research participants, such as making research results publicly accessible to participants so that the research benefits participants and related communities, in addition to researchers and academic institutions (Buchanan et al. 267). Stephanie Vie extends reciprocity to the co-creation of research projects when possible, including co-authorship of research publications (Buchanan et al. 275). Interpreting and innovating reflexivity and reciprocity are likely areas of growth for feminist Internet research ethics. 

Feminist Internet Research Ethics Protects Researchers

An ethic of care in feminist research includes protecting scholars who are at a risk of harm by conducting their research. Brought to the forefront by happenings such as GamerGate, digital aggression research (research that examines problematic happenings, such as homophobic or racist discourse online) opens up researchers to being targeted, such as through flaming or doxxing. These researchers might already be at risk, as they are more likely to be female-identifying and experiencing emotional duress from the content of their studies. In response to this risk, Derek M. Sparby argues that “it is an ethical obligation for us to protect ourselves as researchers and humans” (45), and that this feminist ethic of care toward researchers should be considered early in the research process (51). 

In our edited collection (Ames and McDuffie), we saw an ethic of care realized when an author chose to be published as Anonymous so as not to risk the unwanted attention of a known Twitter bully. Sparby makes suggestions for enacting self-care as an act of self-preservation, such as using a flexible research timeline (54), as well as enacting self-protection, such as making intentional decisions about publication venues, citation practices, and online identities (56). In this cluster conversation, Cam Cavaliere and Leigh Gruwell build on this framework and their own experiences conducting digital aggression research to describe mentoring practices that can help protect researchers who do this work.

Supporting Each Other

While it will always be difficult to derive precise rules for any particular Internet research project, especially when a feminist approach prioritizes the context of the research and being responsive to participant and researcher needs, the best practices outlined here present shared norms as identified by feminist Internet researchers in recent literature and our own experiences. Furthermore, heuristics outlined by other scholars provide a variety of questions that researchers can use to guide their decision-making processes as they go (see franzke et al., Buck and Ralston; and Taylor, Woods and Ralston, and Augustine in this cluster conversation). 

In addition to providing more transparent conversations on feminist Internet research ethics within writing studies, rhetorical theory, and feminist media studies, we also argue for more mentoring and training of such ethics, particularly within editorial practices. For example, we endeavored to provide developmental and supportive feedback to contributors without assuming prior knowledge about these best practices. In our edited collection on hashtag activism (Ames and McDuffie), we developed and shared our intended standards for ethical research methods and related publication practices, and we provided editorial feedback intended to guide and protect scholars and their participants. We also listened to our authors about their choices and supported them, such as advocating to the press to include certain images. In turn, we learned from our contributors and enacted their findings and recommendations in our own work. Some scholars will think our protections unnecessary, while others will think that we did not go far enough. Nonetheless, we aimed to balance participant confidentiality with our social justice research goals to amplify online activism. And we did our best to protect our authors from criticism, although that will surely come. Most importantly, we tried to treat our fellow scholars with the kindness and respect at the heart of a feminist ethic of care that should be extended to each other as scholars, as well as research participants and relevant communities. While standards for a feminist approach to Internet research ethics will continue to evolve, a feminist ethic of care to training and mentoring for Internet research ethics should be at the forefront of these discussions.

Works Cited

Ames, Melissa and Kristi McDuffie, eds. Hashtag Activism Interrogated and Embodied: Case Studies on Social Justice Movements. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2023. 

Bassett, Elizabeth H. and Kate O’Riordan. “Ethics of Internet Research: Contesting the Human Subjects Research Model.” Ethics and Information Technology vol. 4, 2002, pp. 233–247. 

Bruckman, Amy. “Studying the Amateur Artist: A Perspective on Disguising Data Collected in Human Subjects Research on the Internet.” Ethics and Information Technology, vol. 4, 2002, pp. 217–231. 

Buchanan, Elizabeth, Rosemary Clark-Parsons, Stephanie Vie, William L. Wolff, and Kristi McDuffie. “Capturing a Moving Target: Ethical Research Practices for hashtag Activism.” Hashtag Activism Interrogated and Embodied: Case Studies on Social Justice Movements. Ed. Melissa Ames and Kristi McDuffie. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2023, pp. 260-283.

Buck, Amber, and Devon Ralston. “I Didn’t Sign Up For Your Research Study: The Ethics of Using ‘Public’ Data.” Computers and Composition, vol. 61, 2021, pp. 1–13. 

Cagle, Lauren E. “The Ethics of Researching Unethical Images: A Story of Trying to Do Good Research without Doing Bad Things.” Computers and Composition vol. 61, 2021, pp. 1–14. 

Dadas, Caroline. “Messy Methods: Queer Methodological Approaches to Researching Social Media.” Computers and Composition vol. 40, 2016, pp. 60–72. 

Dieterle, Brandy. “People as Data?: Developing an Ethical Framework for Feminist Digital Research.” Computers and Composition, vol. 59, 2021, pp. 1-10.

Ess, Charles, and the AoIR Working Committee. Ethical Decision-making and Internet Research: Recommendations from the AoIR Ethics Working Committee. Chicago: Association of Internet Researchers, 2002. 

franzke, aline shakti. Feminist Research Ethics, IRE 3.0 Companion 6.3, Association of Internet Researchers, 2020,

franzke, aline shakti, Anja Bechmann, Michael Zimmer, Charles Ess, and the Association of Internet Researchers. 2020. “Internet Research: Ethical Guidelines 3.0.” AoIR,

Haywood, Constance. “Chapter 10. Developing a Black Feminist Research Ethic: A Methodological Approach to Research in Digital Spaces.” Methods and Methodologies for Research in Digital Writing and Rhetoric: Centering Positionality in Computers and Writing Scholarship. Ed. Victor Del Hierro and Crystal VanKooten. vol. 2. The WAC Clearinghouse, University Press of Colorado. 2022, pp. 29–44. 

Markham, Annette, and Elizabeth Buchanan. “Ethical Decision-making and Internet Research: Recommendations from the AoIR Ethics Working Committee (Version 2.0).” AoIR, December, 2012.

McDuffie, Kristi and Melissa Ames. “Archiving Affect and Activism: Hashtag Feminism and Structures of Feeling in Women’s March Tweets.” First Monday, vol. 26.2, 2021. 

Sparby, Derek M. “Chapter 11: Toward a Feminist Ethic of Self-Care and Protection When Researching Digital Aggression.” Methods and Methodologies for Research in Digital Writing and Rhetoric: Centering Positionality in Computers and Writing Scholarship. Ed. Victor Del Hierro and Crystal VanKooten. vol. 2. The WAC Clearinghouse, University Press of Colorado. 2002, pp. 45–64. 


Feminist Ethos and Global Food Systems Rhetorics on Campus

I think students have an incredible responsibility and are needed to shift universities who tend to be conservative with a capital C in terms of their bureaucratic structures and their ability to change. Students provide energy of contesting the status quo.

-Gabrielle, sustainable agriculture graduate student

In Rethinking Ethos, Kathleen Ryan, Nancy Myers, and Rebecca Jones describe their approach as one that “acknowledges the dynamic construction of relationships within and across locations and between people as constituting knowledge and values. Ethos is neither solitary nor fixed. Rather, ethos is negotiated and renegotiated, embodied and communal, co-constructed and thoroughly implicated in shifting power dynamics” (11). Attending to ethos as negotiated and embodied is central in understanding how student ethos operates on university campuses. As Gabrielle comments in the epigraph, students are uniquely situated at their institutions to evolve its structures and practices. 

My research is motivated by investigating the productive rupture of university narratives about food. I locate these ruptures in competing discourses that define students as simultaneously both novices and experts, imagine campuses as purported locations of open dialogue, and buttress public universities’ claims about serving the public good. These competing discourses catalyzes the questions: what happens when students, specifically those who study food systems in their courses, ask their university to engage in public dialogue about university research on genetically modified (GM) food? How do students’ rhetorical strategies and their feminist interventions toward discussing how university research serves the public good threaten academic hierarchies and public universities’ commitment to the “feeding the world” myth?

Informed by a feminist ecological approach to ethos that highlights how rhetors have used location and relationships to access agency in their rhetorical practices, I center the rhetorical actions of three graduate students in this article by analyzing interviews I conducted with them.[1] These student-participants—Angie, Gabrielle, and Rivka—were all enrolled in an interdisciplinary sustainable agriculture program where they learned how power is distributed in food and agriculture research. I demonstrate for rhetoric scholars how the students’ ethos shaped their approaches to engaging audiences on campus and beyond. To do so, I analyze their efforts to learn about their university’s GM food research and host open dialogues about it. 

My purpose in this article is to illustrate and analyze the limits and possibilities for students’ ethos and rhetorical actions that question their university’s research practices. I begin with two literature reviews: one on global food systems development rhetorics and one on feminist ethos in rhetorical studies. I then describe my method and the context that prompted the student-participants’ questions about their university’s research before turning to my analysis of the interview data, divided into three contexts for ethos: 1. Asking questions on campus, 2. Hosting open dialog on campus, and 3. Engagement beyond the contemporary campus.

Ultimately, I argue that the student-participants crafted their ethos to invent rhetorical roles for themselves. These roles were informed by their feminist ideals and science- and social science-based expertise, enabling them to apply academic inquiry and feminist curiosity (Enloe) to their university’s practices. My analysis illustrates how the student-participants mobilized their status as students to gather information about the GM food research on their campus and attempt to foster public discussion about the research project since their land grant university purportedly serves the public good. I also analyze student-participants’ comments from the interviews on the impact of their gender to the ways they were interpreted and misinterpreted, showing that their ethos as students studying to be scientists and social scientists cannot be delinked from how their gender was read by audiences they encountered. Ultimately, I argue that the student-participants’ ethos was both scrutinized and made possible by their gendered, student status. 

Global Food Systems Development Rhetorics

Before we can fully understand feminist ethos in rhetorical studies, covering a selection of the extant scholarship on global food systems development rhetorics is necessary for context. My work follows in the feminist tradition of analyzing global food systems issues established by Eileen Schell, work that is invested in how agribusinesses enact top-down models of power that make living more vulnerable for already vulnerable populations. Schell shows how power shapes food infrastructure, creating “a system of trade that is unfairly weighted toward US interests” (“Vandana Shiva and the Rhetorics of Biodiversity” 44). Additionally, Schell illustrates how agribusiness’s “feeding the world” framing enables corporations to claim to solve starvation and hunger, but “the reality is that often [low-cost proteins] are dumped on international markets, preventing local farmers from selling their own products” (“Framing the Megarhetorics” 155). Such concerns resonate with the work of Rebecca Dingo and J. Blake Scott, who analyze how documentary film can showcase the systemic harms that world trade policies create for local food systems, specifically how policies that lead to U.S. powdered milk replacing Jamaican milk as the commodity consumed by Jamaicans bankrupted Jamaican dairy farmers.  

Concern about top-down power hierarchies that reflect Schell’s work also shape Mohan Dutta’s analysis of how hunger is situated systemically, related to “top-down development interventions carried out by state-based policymakers and program planners” that reflect nation-state agendas (238). Rhetoricians play a role in understanding this systemic disempowerment. As Andrew McMurry describes, critiquing “the disabling rhetoric of the mainstream food security discourse” (554-55) contributes to addressing the dire consequences of global food shortages, including taking to task persuasive “feeding the world” myths (Schell, “Framing the Megarhetorics” 155). 

GM foods also prompt concern. Because GM foods rely on the “transnational enterprise of scientists, regulators, corporations, producers, lobby groups, and other-than-human species,” (Gordon and Hunt 116) they thus get debated in ways that reflect science’s role in food systems, ethical issues regarding food justice and land use, alarm about corporate power, and scientific credibility (Hunt and Wald). Scholars in rhetoric address global food systems and the impact of industrial agriculture (Ryan; Wilkerson), as well as food systems issues such as food waste and colonization (Bernardo and Monberg; Cooks; Eckstein and Young; Gordon, Hunt, Dutta). Understanding the impacts and implications of such systems is important because of their tendency to “exploit human communities with seemingly wanton disregard,” (Young, Eckstein, and Conley 199) as well as food corporations’ disinterest in critically engaging the implications of food technologies they use (Broad 225). I thus contribute to these efforts to put forward “ethical and reflexive research practices that attend to…power dynamics, advocate for the sharing of knowledge in non-extractive ways and provide pathways for amplification that do not recreate inequalities,” joining other feminist rhetoric researchers with similar concerns (Gordon, Hunt, Dutta 6).[2]

Feminist Ethos in Rhetorical Studies

Scholars in rhetorical studies who have a feminist orientation to ethos inform my understanding of how rhetors persuade in patriarchal contexts. Such approaches draw on Nedra Reynolds’s notion of location as the space of a rhetor’s body, geographical location, intellectual position, and proximity to others (Reynolds 335-336, quoted in Ryan, Myers, and Jones 8). In addition, feminist ethos scholars point out the importance of location to relation (Ryan, Myers, Jones 9). Multiplicity is also an element of feminist ethos to which rhetoric scholars attend, including those working on environmental justice efforts, such as protecting clean water. Meredith Privott shows how Indigenous feminisms offer such understandings, drawing on Elizabeth Archuleta’s “indigenous feminist ethos of responsibility” to analyze the rhetorics of Indigenous women water protectors in the #NoDAPL movement (90, 98). Privott puts forward the idea that feminist ethos engages “multiple points of authority and agency drawn from both tribally specific worldviews and knowledge from indigenous women’s collective survival of and healing from colonial violence and trauma” (76). Paige Conley also understands ethos as multiple, “unmoored from any one, fixed identity” (188). 

Part of this multiplicity and fluidity is understanding ethos as collaborative and communal. In Laura Micciche’s description, “feminist constructs of ethos often emphasize collective identity and collaboration as significant to knowledge building and to the development of credibility,” a conception of ethos that revises the rhetorical tradition’s definition of ethos as embodied in an individual speaker or writer in isolation (175). Likewise, defying traditional rhetorical criteria and categories, including understandings of ethos, is part of how Joy Ritchie and Kate Ronald describe the selections gathered in their volume that anthologizes women’s rhetorics as ethos that reflects multiplicity, including subversion, resistance, and difference (xviii). And feminist concepts of ethos also de-emphasize expertise in honor of learning. Julie Jung articulates this idea while describing Nancy Mairs’s work on Alice Walker’s writing: “feminist ethos [is] founded not on mastery but on something else—a willingness to go in search of” (25). 

Beyond attention to location, relation, and plurality, power as a structure that must be accounted for is another aspect of feminist ethos to which rhetorical scholars attend. Mary Beth Pennington, for example, analyzes the ethos of contemporary environmentalist Judy Bonds by showing how Bonds publicly acknowledges where she stands geographically and culturally as well as use the relationships in which she is embedded to effect change, “creating a dialogue in the process about the ways in which existing power structures obstruct change” (169). Bonds’s impulse relates directly to Gabrielle’s comment in the epigraph. Likewise, feminist ethos in rhetorical studies pays attention to how rhetors find themselves positioned in power structures, taking their understanding of subordinate status as a catalyst to “craft a viable ethos for participation in a dominant public” (Ryan, Myers, and Jones 4). Public power concerns rhetoricians, as they understand how publics and counterpublics are multiple and ever shifting. Thus, feminist rhetorical scholars who study ethos are especially attuned to how “women must understand that there are multiple publics and counterpublics and work to shift values determined by dominant publics” (Ryan, Myers, and Jones 9). 

Student ethos is demonstrated by the student-participants featured here as they center the stated mission of their university to serve the public good, asking their university to practice the values it ostensibly lauds, and they thus confront the dominant values the university supports in pursuing GM research. The location of student ethos is key to note for these student-participants who were not only located on a university campus, but also impacted by being students who are necessarily reliant on campus relationships with faculty and administrators. These faculty and administrators had the ability to amplify or silence the student-participants’ questions and concerns. Additionally, the student-participants’ ethos as scientists and social scientists was moored and unmoored from their student identities, yielding variable success for their strategies. They used their student ethos to seek answers on their campus about the GM food research underway.


My study’s feminist orientation to analyzing the student-participants’ ethos is built into the study design in multiple ways: by centering and elevating the perspective of student-participants who worked to engage their campus communities and administrative leaders; by applying feminist curiosity about who gets to be heard and understood on campus; and by making apparent the hidden, un- and under-archived, and ephemeral nature of students’ impacts on their campuses. I adapt the term “feminist curiosity” from Cynthia Enloe, who invites researchers to study globalization by looking to how it shapes women’s lives (3, 247, 353). Additionally, for this article I align with Lauren Rosenberg and Emma Howes’s concept of how representation of research participants is a feminist issue. As they write, “a feminist ethos of representation as a commitment to continually examining the ideological lenses we use, acknowledging our different (sometimes conflicting) subject positions, and allowing our research participants to shape the work itself” (77). To honor participants’ perspectives while I conducted this interview study, I followed in the feminist tradition of writing studies researchers who “participate in a reciprocal cross-boundary exchange” (Glenn and Enoch 24). I designed my interview study featured here to center student-participants’ perspectives and invited them to shape the work through the direction they took our individual interviews as well as their contributions to member checking. The ideological position informing my work here is that the student-participants’ ideas deserve to be understood by wider audiences, as they were perhaps not fully listened to by those in positions of power at their university.

My relation to the GM food research is important to describe. I first read about the student-participants’ rhetorical strategies related to their university’s GM food research after the events described in the analysis section of this article took place. I was not involved in the events, but rather read about them in newspapers and public blogs while studying food systems, university research, and feminist rhetorical strategies. My attention was prompted by a listserv email about the research, sent to a women in agriculture group to which I subscribe. After securing IRB approval for this interview study, I recruited the student-authors whose work I had read on the public internet. They were writing publicly about their university’s research and seemed willing to engage publics about these issues. I used snowball recruitment to contact other potential student-participants who held knowledge of this situation after initially contacting the student-authors writing publicly. Gabrielle, Rivka, and Angie agreed to do individual interviews with me, as they were all interested in contributing to greater knowledge-building about students hosting opportunities to learn about GM food research taking place on their campuses. I thus conduct this research as a humanities faculty member who is invested in cross-disciplinary knowledge exchange with experts in the social sciences and sciences, including students in such programs beyond my expertise.

I also contacted the lead food science researcher of the study to inform her of my interview study and ask her to speak with me. She did not reply. I did not contact other university administrators who fielded the student-participants’ questions at the time they were asking questions about the GM research study because their perspectives received a fair amount of coverage in news sources, and they have access to plenty of mainstream communication platforms that affirm their position. As a feminist rhetorician studying food and farming, I am not interested in how powerbrokers who have platforms persuade. I am interested in how those who are not enfranchised with power, such as students, persuade. That said, I realize one limitation of this study is that I am interviewing the “underdogs” and centering their marginalized perspective, which some readers will find to be incomplete. All person-based research is partial and only reflects the reality of those who consent to be interviewed. The IRB protocol mandate to maintain the anonymity of the university where the student-participants attended requires I not quote from published writing by university representatives. I invite other researchers who study global food systems rhetorics to take on the research regarding how university administrators strategize ways to limit or engage students’ participation in questioning university research related to GM foods, as it is beyond the confines of this study, which has the purpose of analyzing and expanding the student-participants’ ethos and rhetorical strategies. 

GM Food Research Context 

Barbara George asks: “What happens when public participants, particularly those who must navigate complex scientific and technical spaces, are able to more fully co-create knowledge about complex environmental risks in their communities? Might such literacies consider a more feminist, contextualized approach to knowledge making about environmental issues?” (255). These questions parallel the queries the student-participants posed to themselves and members of their campus community as they learned more about the GM food research taking place at their university by a food sciences faculty member, which I describe here. As public participants on their campus, they became invested in learning how the GM food research affected both the campus community on whom the GM foods under development would be tested—women students like them—and the communities off-campus who would purportedly eat the food being developed.

The context of the GM food study taking place on campus is important. The story begins in 2015 when Angie, a cisgender, heterosexual white woman currently living in the Midwest and working as a sociologist in academia, received an email with the subject heading “human subjects needed” from researchers at the university she, Gabrielle, and Rivka attended. The email’s purpose was to recruit participants to eat GM bananas for a research study and the email opened by contextualizing the research as alleviating widespread vitamin A deficiency in Uganda, where cooked bananas are a popular food. These bananas that research participants would eat for the study were genetically modified, meaning their genes were edited, to produce more beta-carotene. That beta-carotene is converted to vitamin A during digestion. The recruitment email specified that research participants need to be healthy female nonsmokers between the ages of 18-40, specifying that they would eat a diet provided by the researchers, have blood drawn, and be paid up to $900 total for their participation. Recalling her receipt of the email, Angie expressed regret that she did not consent to be a participant in the study, as doing so would have enabled her to gain more information about it, as a participant who would eat the bananas. When she initially received the email, she forwarded it to some of her friends, noting that this GM food research prompted a lot of questions, especially questions related to gendered global development and food systems. She wondered, “Why do we need a transgenic banana? Why are they only testing it on women these ages? Why are they paying people $900?” Angie asked around among her friends in the sustainable agriculture program to find out if anyone else received it, and only one had, so they assumed the email was sent to a random sampling of women students. 

Because of its focus on recruiting women only and its stated purpose of addressing vitamin deficiency in Uganda, Angie and some of her fellow students, including Gabrielle and Rivka, became curious about the banana study and its broader context. Their approach was collaborative and collective (Micciche) and they worked together to find out more. They began to research to try to discover other information about the study and ask questions, efforts that connect the student-participants’ concerns with those of scholars in our field (Gordon and Hunt 115). Their research quickly showed that the Gates Foundation had provided funding for the GM banana development, which also contributed to the student-participants’ concerns about how private funding sources can motivate university research. 

The student-participants’ concern and questions reflect and were informed by a wider context of resistance to Gates funding and the foundation’s interventions in African agriculture. For example, the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) and Community Alliance for Global Justice are two leaders of this critique. Recently, AFSA leaders Million Belay and Bridget Mugambe clearly state their position in the title of their op-ed, “Bill Gates Should Stop Telling Africans What Kind of Agriculture Africans Need,” detailing how Gates has long informed Africans that their agriculture is “backward and should be abandoned.” Belay and Mugambe show how African agricultural specialists themselves value agroecology, not technological intervention. As they chronicle, “the massive [Gates] resources…have had an outsized influence on African scientists and policymakers, with the result that food systems on our continent are becoming ever more market-oriented and corporate-controlled.” Likewise, in the open letter to Bill Gates that responds a New York Times op-ed (Wallace-Wells), a long list of food sovereignty and food justice organizations detail the inaccuracies and distortions of Gates’s claims, invite him to “step back and learn” from those who are farming in African contexts (Community Alliance for Global Justice/AGRA Watch, Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa). The writers also request that publications like the Times, “be more cautious about lending credibility to one wealthy white man’s flawed assumptions, hubris and ignorance.” As they describe, centering Gates’s perspective puts at risk the very populations who are practicing agriculture in Africa, a context from with Gates is far removed. 

Beyond funding from Gates, the “feeding the world” trope also quickly surfaced in the student-participants’ research into the banana study. This persuasive metaphor enables multi-national corporations, as well as universities, to say that they help “save developing countries from starvation and hunger” and promote a rhetoric of concern and care for vulnerable populations across the globe (Schell, “Framing the Megarhetorics” 155). Such claims can justify colonial, top-down research design and practice that potentially disempowers vulnerable populations who may be made even more vulnerable by universities’ interventions in global food systems. The IRB recruitment email that Angie described, for example, opened by claiming that cooked bananas play a central role in the diets of people in East Africa, asserting that the genetically modified bananas have been developed to alleviate vitamin deficiencies of these populations. This recruitment email thus invites potential participants to engage in this charitable cause by being the first humans to eat these bananas. The student-participants’ questions arose from this framing and justification. In their research about the study, the student-participants could not find any evidence that these East African populations wanted this GM banana (or were collaborators in developing it), prompting curiosity regarding whether the banana study ignored or considered East African farmers’ and locals’ concerns about this food (George 256). 

As the remainder of this article demonstrates, my interest in this case is in the ways the students used their ethos, specifically location- and relation-based strategies, to learn more about the GM banana research project. The public information the students could gather about the study caused alarm and, as Angie stated, the project was justified with “language and narrative in the media about hunger and solving hunger and feeding the world and helping Africa that some of us think is very colonial, racist.” The students were motivated to learn more about the study, especially due to its presence on their campus, the location where women students would be eating these GM bananas. As they came together to question their university’s research project, Angie, Gabrielle, and Rivka used locational and relational feminist ethos strategies to ask questions and engage audiences, building their rhetorical action from their position as students, on their campus. 

Part 1: Asking Questions on Campus

In this section I analyze how students asked questions that reflected their curiosity and concerns. These student-participants counted on their ethos as curious students and researchers to be a pathway to knowledge and learning. Generally, students expect to be able to meet with faculty on their campuses, and, as the student-participants researched their questions about the banana study, they strove to rely on the local expertise of faculty and administrators conducting the study. The events described in this section show student-participants relying on their ethos in multiple and relational ways in order to ask questions, which occurred in the ways they attempted to and were able to meet with faculty and administrators.  

Rivka was able to meet with the lead food sciences researcher. Rivka holds a PhD in Soil Science and now studies the efficacy of sustainable soil management practices, while teaching introductory courses in soil and environmental science. According to Rivka, this meeting took place in the faculty member’s office, but the faculty member told Rivka that she was unable to provide further details about the study and was reticent to talk at all. Perhaps this researcher felt uncomfortable speaking with a then-student who was not enrolled in her classes or her program. In Rivka’s terms, the faculty member’s response was surprising. This faculty member insisted that she was only responsible for one small part of the overall study—measuring vitamin A absorption in participants’ blood that would be drawn for the study—and thus she was unable and unwilling to comment on the overall study. For Rivka, such a justification for not discussing the study showed an avoidance of systems-based thinking about GM food development and its implications for global agricultural development. Rivka’s ethos as both a science student studying soils on campus and her personal affiliation with conventional agriculture, via her in-laws’ farm, made her the best student to send in for this interaction, in her estimation:

The reason why I went to talk to [the lead researcher] was that I felt I could relate to pro-GMO [genetically modified organisms] folks better than the others. I think a world where GMOs are used safely and ecologically is a possibility, but the research just isn’t there yet. Also, my husband’s family owns a farm and they used to grow GMO corn. We also thought [the lead researcher] might be more willing to talk to a “soil scientist” rather than a “social scientist” or “sustainable agriculture” scientist. It seemed though that once we were seen wearing an activist hat, so to speak, some people couldn’t go back to viewing us as scholars.

Rivka’s description shows a rupture for relational student ethos in campus locations such as faculty offices, then, as her questions were not answered and considered potentially threatening. The boundary that Rivka identified between being a student-scholar and a student-activist was firm in this case, and she wagered that her identity as a scientist could traverse that boundary. 

Eventually, the dean of the agricultural college where the lead researcher worked agreed to meet privately with a few of the students who had been asking questions about the banana study. Angie attended this meeting, which she found to be rather unusual. She described how she was told she could not record the meeting, which she wanted to do so other interested students could later listen to the information shared in the meeting. In this extended passage she describes how the meeting proceeded and the reactions she and other students received from the administrators:

It was the most bizarre twilight zone sort of meeting in there. Because they were trying to tell us we didn’t understand science and trying to explain what science is, and [they said,] “We can’t believe that students in the [agricultural college] would be saying the things you’re saying.” We’re like, “Well, we’re just asking basic research design questions. We can’t believe you can’t answer them.” It was all this “feed the world” rhetoric, and at one point [the dean of the agriculture college] turned to me, and she said, “Have you ever even been to Africa and seen the starving children?” I said, “No, I have never been to Africa, but I have seen hungry kids. We have hungry kids in [our state]. I don’t have to go to Africa to understand that our food system’s broken.” …She was saying that she had [been to Africa and wondered,] Why would we refuse people a way to solve a hunger problem?

This meeting with administrators, in which the dean tried to frame the issues at hand in individual terms—such as by accusing Angie of not understanding hunger because she had not visited Uganda and looked at malnourished children—shows the administrator’s attempt to avoid the students’ actual questions, dismiss systems-based thinking, and instead enact a top-down, colonial dynamic for the research design. 

The administrators positioned the students as naïve and uniformed on the gravity of the problem that the GM banana study would purportedly solve. While the students were somewhat successful at even getting a meeting with senior administrators, the meeting showed how well the senior administrators could avoid students’ concerns and hope for transparency about research design and ethics. Throughout this interaction, the possibilities for student ethos to operate effectively in a dean’s office were not persuasive, as the students were positioned as threatening the status quo at the institution. 

This meeting also prompted comments from Angie related to the students’ ethos being interpreted as threatening. Her thoughts on this issue transitioned into addressing gender and gendered ethos specifically. She described her perspective by stating, “We’re not talking about bombing a building, throwing pig blood on anyone. We’re just asking questions. What if we were all asking questions? We’re not doing anything wrong.” Angie also mused that maybe hosting open dialogue on campus and being transparent about research practices was more threatening to the upper administration than any potential physical threat. As Angie said, “maybe that would have been less threatening to have done something to the [lead researcher’s] lab than to bring Vandana Shiva to campus and fill the [largest lecture hall on campus] with people to hear her.” Shiva’s identity as a well-known leader who questions globalization and persuades citizens across the globe to pay attention to the issue of biodiversity made her a fitting speaker for the students to invite, as her interest in prompting people to pay attention and ask questions aligned with theirs (Schell, “Vandana Shiva and the Rhetorics of Biodiversity” 32). The latter event is what the students did, hosting Shiva to foster open dialogue and conversation in public ways. Angie described the importance of practicing a student ethos that questions the institution’s practices and how doing so is not threatening:

You’re articulating [questions about the study] very well, and I hate to use this word because this is so gendered, too. We’re presenting a rational case. We weren’t being really emotional. I think people should be really emotional about these things, but it looks like nothing radical was my point. If you google [our response to the GM banana study] out of context, [and] you’re not part of the story, nothing we did looks very radical. 

Thus, to Angie and her fellow students, part of their surprise at the administrator’s reactions came from how they treated the students as though they were taking radical political action, not simply asking questions about food systems. The senior administrator, by invoking starving children, created her own emotional appeal that accommodated her avoidance of questions about the actual study taking place, positioning the students as uncaring and alienating them from the administrator’s framing of the institution as a benevolent entity. This strategy aligns precisely with the way that scholars who attend to global development rhetorics have predicted (Dingo and Scott 5), replicating persuasive development discourses that are mobilized by assumptions about the goals and effects of food development projects. 

Part 2: Hosting Public Dialogue on Campus

The student-participants planned and hosted a teach-in, an idea arising from their desire to create public opportunities for the research study to be discussed openly. At various times these terms were used by students to describe this event: panel, dialogue, teach-in. All of these terms reflect the rhetorical, location-based goals of the student-participants, to host a public discussion on campus that anyone could attend. Prior to this public conversation, the concerned students and upper administration had published op-eds and other articles about the study. In these written publications, student-writers relied on their relational student ethos to ask questions about their own university’s practices, inform public audiences about the study, and invite them to ask similar questions. However, writing op-eds and responses did not accommodate the type of interaction and learning that the student-participants hoped could take place. They wanted their land grant university to be a space where public discussions about research ethics can and should take place. They felt like two separate conversations were taking place in these written conversations and wanted to evolve the discourse, joining perspectives together for discussion. 

Gabrielle is a social scientist who studies climate, gender, and socially just agrifood systems and now directs a national program for women in agriculture for a U.S. nonprofit. She described the exigency for the teach-in event and students’ intentions to open up conversation about the biotechnology context of the research. As she said, “A lot of the narrative around the study was about ‘feeding the world’ and helping poor African women and starving babies and this sort of colonial framework, in my perspective, and it wasn’t really about [the question of:] are GMO’s the best solution to the problems that they’re seeking to solve?” The intention of the public dialogue was to address such questions. Gabrielle detailed how she and her fellow students designed the event. She said, “At the time, we tried to recruit a broad base of support from folks with different perspectives,” creating an intentionally diverse panel of experts who identify as pro-biotechnology as well as those who question it, and views in between. 

The students invited the lead researcher and the dean of the college that housed the lead researcher’s department, asking for their involvement or for representatives who could speak to their perspectives. Angie described their response: “They didn’t want to take part in our panel. Their claim was that they didn’t have any part in planning the panel, so they didn’t want to take part in it.” Angie recalled one brief moment when it seemed like they would participate, but they wanted to bring seven to ten people. The students responded by asking, “Would one or two from the [agricultural college] like to take part in this, talk about it?” The students’ goal was to have one or two experts from this college because they were aiming for a balanced panel that held different perspectives. Once the students asked for one or two people to come instead of seven to ten, they received a response that no one from the researcher’s lab or senior administration was coming. Like the op-eds in which the agricultural college dean praised the food science researcher and reified the status quo, this response to the panel invitation showed a lack of openness or investment in public dialogue that they did not plan. In the op-eds, according to Gabrielle, the students claimed that the university should be a place to have a dialogue about biotechnology and not shy away from controversial topics. The students called for a “reasoned approach,” in Gabrielle’s terms. She said, “We wanted to actually have a public conversation.” It was clear that the senior administration and lead researcher were not interested in having such a conversation unless they had planned it. Ultimately, none of the individuals who defended (and wrote op-eds about) the pro-transgenic banana perspective agreed to participate. The students went forward and hosted the teach-in.

The event took place on campus and featured a variety of perspectives. Experts included a philosophy professor affiliated with the sustainable agriculture program who does work on ethics and food. According to Gabrielle, he created space on the panel to ask what an ethical relationship with research looks like when it includes humans and the food system. And he led the attendees to discuss what are the ethical considerations that do not cut off research before it starts. Angie summarized his contributions as well. The students were asking questions such as: Why are university time, university faculty, and university students being asked to be take part in a study for which there is no response to how is this serving public good? And from Angie’s perspective this last detail really bothered people because, as the philosophy professor articulated, so many studies could be shut down because researchers may not yet know how they benefit the public good. While all academic research may not benefit the public good, as a land grant university, research conducted at this school purported to do so. 

Another panelist was a social sciences graduate student from Uganda. As Gabrielle described, “He brought his perspective having done community feeding programs and education around nutrition, his thoughts on the transgenic banana, because the focus of the banana [research study] was on Uganda in particular [and] because the banana is such an important nutritional food source. [It is] a staple crop that folks rely on.” Rivka recalled this student’s perspective on the panel as well and how significant it was to have a person with knowledge of Ugandan food issues as a speaker. Rivka described that this student had been “doing social work in Uganda with children who had malnutrition and he felt the banana wouldn’t help because the reason for the malnutrition was diarrhea.” As the Ugandan student described, the malnutrition was caused by parasites in the water, as Rivka recalled. So, an effort to increase nutrients, through biotechnology like the transgenic banana, may help a little bit, but the underlying problem was actually parasites and other diseases. Rivka summarized this Ugandan student’s point: Ugandans in affected communities need clean water and a water system that does not introduce pathogens. 

Overall, the students were able to host the public conversation, even if those most directly involved in the study and those defending the study most ardently did not attend. The students noticed, however, that a representative from the administration did attend as an observer. Gabrielle noted that this person, who works for the agricultural college administration, watched from the side of the room. He also showed up at a different event when students delivered a petition to the university president. This person’s presence signifies the university’s surveillance of the student event and administrators’ interest in knowing what happened at the event without participating in the public conversation or being subject to questions and discussion in a public forum. To read this occurrence as part of the context of student ethos shows the power of student ethos to gain attention from the university, even if administrators did not take on the participatory role in the public forum that the students hoped they would. In the end, their relational and location-based ethos as students who were able to hold a public conversation on campus that featured experts fulfilled its goal of engaging a transparent and open conversation on biotechnology, research ethics, and transparency. 

Another notable detail from that evening is that a pro-biotechnology scholar from a different American university delivered a lecture on campus that night. The student-participants questioned whether this was a coincidence or if the agricultural college deliberately planned this pro-GM food expert to speak on the same date and time as their event, a notion I cannot confirm but that seems plausible. Angie saw this event as both possibly coincidental but also likely an event the senior administration planned to have a competing event to attend and host instead of participating in their event. If Angie’s theory is true, the organizers of the lecture were intentionally propping up the expertise of a faculty member from a different institution that affirmed their institutional position over the open dialogue hosted by students at their own university. This competing lecture event could have also captured the attention of campus audiences interested in biotechnology, splitting the available audiences, and leading to fewer people in attendance at the students’ event. 

Part 3: Engagement Beyond the Contemporary Campus 

As the epigraph quotation from Gabrielle illustrates, she felt an obligation to engage with her campus and evolve her university beyond the status quo, helping it become the public good-serving institution it claimed to be. Public audiences took note and the students’ ideas gained traction off campus, which was validating. Angie said that she noticed on her campus that exercises in critical thinking were not active. She described the student-led actions to create spaces for critical thinking, which were supported by organizations beyond campus, such as non-profits and community groups who defend food sovereignty and food justice: 

As students together, we had to create that space [for critical thinking and discussion] together because it didn’t exist in our classes, it didn’t exist elsewhere on campus, and we were really hungry for it the more we found out. Then we were encouraged by local groups, by local communities, by national communities, and so we felt supported. I’d say we even felt encouraged. 

The off-campus encouragement validated the student-participants’ concerns and broadened the range of audiences paying attention to them, as people who are also concerned about biotechnology and food systems praised the student-participants for their critical thinking about their university’s research.

While this outside encouragement was motivating, the student-participants still found it essential to address the context of their campus and learn about the history of student engagement there so they could show that the questions they were asking were not new or extreme, but instead built on a campus tradition of students questioning the status quo. This evidence also gives historical credence to Gabrielle’s point in the epigraph. In this extended passage, Angie described the history they saw themselves continuing, enfranchised by a speech by a former university president:

We went back into the archives…and found President [X’s] speeches from the early 70s, late 60s to students when…students were engaging in political protest on college campuses. He was saying that the university should be a place for this. There was a speech that he gave on the [central campus] grounds to students who were protesting the war in Vietnam. He was saying…that the university should be a space for that and that it should always be a space for that, and that’s part of a university, defining what a university is. We would use that a lot [in relation to discussing the banana research]. It wasn’t that we were politicizing the university. The university has always been political. Different leadership at [our university] have taken different approaches to it. Instead of trying to silence it or quiet or attack it, saying students have this right. 

The students supported one another by using this university history, from the perspective of its highest administrator, to normalize students asking questions and interpreting their university as a space where political conversations take place.

Like Angie, Gabrielle addressed how political conversations should be normalized on contemporary college campuses. She said, “I think a university, if I had sort of my druthers, a university’s role would be to create as much space as they can for difficult conversations. For debates. For critiques.” These debates and critiques should include self-reflexivity, enabling institutions to question and consider their own role in delivering good research and science. Gabrielle continued, “[Universities] should be receptive to the critique of students. I think what happens often, is that institutions maybe, like pay lip-service to that but they don’t actually create a mechanism by which students can actually engage in that. I think they’re often seen as [temporary, as:] well, you’re going to be leaving. Or like, we’ll give you a little bit of recognition, but we’re not actually going to change how we do anything.” Because students’ presence on campus is time-bound, student ethos is seen as temporary and ephemeral, not substantial in position or longevity. 

The university’s reticence, in Gabrielle’s estimation, increased the public support they received. As she said, “Funny enough, that whole issue with the transgenic banana became more of an issue because the institution was so negative in their response to us. Because they wouldn’t participate in our teach-in. If they had come to the teach-in, and we had a good dialogue, I don’t know, it might’ve fizzled out.” 

As publics beyond campus heard about the students’ concern, some attention was not positive. For example, Angie used social media to amplify her perspective and the work of her fellow students, which put her in the position of facing criticism from pro-GMO activists and trolls. An open records request was submitted for her emails after she graduated, as the GMO lobbyist submitting the request suspected she and the other students were being paid to address the banana study, which they were not. Because Angie was a student at the time, practicing extracurricular student ethos to ask questions of her university, her student status meant the university did not have to hand over her emails, by law. As she communicated with the university lawyer who received this request, she learned more about the protected legal status students hold in these contexts. Facing this open records request, which was issued as a threat, also led her to think about how such open records requests are being weaponized against students and those questioning dominant publics in attempts to silence them. Another reading of the university’s refusal to turn over Angie’s emails could be that the university does support students who question university practices or at least uphold students’ rights to their protected status as students with email privacy. Overall, continued awareness of how students’ interactions with publics come with unanticipated consequences must remain as a concern, as such engagement can be threatening.

Conclusion and Reflection on Role of Gender

The complexity of student ethos cannot be over-stated, as its overlapping implications based on relationality, location, and multiplicity all played a role in the student-participants’ approaches and the outcomes of their actions. In reflective comments about the choices and strategies they used on campus, student-participants attended to the role that gender played, as women students were the most visible people asking the public questions, and what they may have done differently. Gabrielle wondered how differently they may had been interpreted if men in science programs had been the most vocal among concerned students. She noted that positioning a white man as a spokesperson has been a strategy for building ethos and gaining legitimacy, harnessing normative patriarchal ethos. Instead, as she said, the approach of the student-participants was “a more classically feminine role of creating dialogue.” They built their strategies, in Gabrielle’s description, as aimed to share ideas, communicate with one another, and develop goals together to create a more socially just research program at their university, reflecting feminist notions of ethos.

Because all the student-participants featured here graduated and moved on to careers where they use the interdisciplinary expertise fostered in their sustainable agriculture program, they continue to think about how their ethos operates in contexts beyond their campus. While their concerns regarding GM food development and research ethics now take different forms, they nevertheless draw upon lessons learned from their response to the GM banana study. Some of them advise students on campuses across the country on extracurricular activities related to public science, such as the movement to divest college campuses from fossil fuels. Angie, now a tenure-track faculty member, commented on how the women administrators at her alma mater held powerful positions that affirmed the status quo of the institution. She said, “Women have a lot to gain by acting in a patriarchal system in ways that are valued by the patriarchal system…That’s how you get tenure.” In her teaching and research, she continues to work toward supporting transparency and feminist, ethical research that serves the public good and invites public comment.

This study prompts further questions, including: How do individuals both on campuses and beyond educational institutions work toward better dialogue on GM foods and global food systems? The experiences of the student-participants here led them to distrust the administrators familiar with the banana study and disidentify with their university. Further, they began to question why the faculty teaching their food systems courses seemed disinterested or uninvested in addressing the implications of their university’s GM food research practices and interventions into global food systems since faculty did not vocally join the students in asking questions. Thus, faculty can take the student-participants’ perspectives to heart and consider why and how teaching and research can critically engage the food systems research underway on their university campuses. For example, in their conclusion of their study on scientific source credibility and goodwill in public understandings of GM foods, Hunt and Wald call for more research “to parse the different ways particular antecedents contribute to public responses to new biotechnologies” (983). These antecedents include attitudes toward food systems’ links to capitalism, government, and corporations, all which rhetoric scholars could locate on their campuses, in collaboration with students. Doing so can contribute to the growing work in feminist rhetoric and ethos related to food and agriculture, expanding methods that are collaborative and communal. As Micciche describes, “feminist methodologies [are] sensitive to situatedness, empathic connections to research subjects, and a view of knowledge as always partial and in process,” approaches that essential to our research, especially as the planet warms and food systems face new constraints and challenges (175).

Taken together, Angie, Rivka, and Gabrielle’s experiences illustrate how a feminist ecological ethos invites recognition of the impacts of contexts and relationships to shape how ethos is mobilized. Scholars engaged in global food systems rhetorics and feminist studies can teach cases like this one and invite their own students to draw implications from the student-participants’ experiences as well as continue to notice and address how GM food research on university campuses is framed and justified. The efforts of the student-participants featured here, informed by multidisciplinary approaches to sustainable food systems and ethical biotechnology food research, made the most of spaces and places where students can access information and communicate their perspectives on campus. Paying attention to students such as those featured here creates pathways for opening “new ways of envisioning ethos to acknowledge the multiple, nonlinear relationships operating among rhetors, audience, things, and contexts” (Ryan, Myers, Jones 3). All three student-participants spoke about the broader question of what a university should be and how it should serve as a productive space to host discussions about food systems, a welcome space for student ethos applied in a wide range of ways. In every instance the students thought it was obvious and should be assumed that the university, as a place of learning, would host such conversations in open, public discussions. The students-participants’ stories help us to appreciate students themselves as deeply invested in prompting universities to be transparent in their research through consideration of students’ questions that center the public good. 

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End Notes

[1] Per my approved IRB protocol, participants chose to either use a pseudonym or use their first names. Following IRB protocol for this study also necessitates not including any information identifying the institution where the research took place. All participants were given an opportunity to conduct member checking and write a brief biographical statement, which I include the first time I quote from their interview. I interviewed two of these students in person in 2018 and the other student over the phone in 2019.

[2] Such power dynamics include land-grant universities’ establishment by colonizing Indigenous land and their ongoing relationship to biotechnology research. The 2022 update to the Congressional New Service report on land-grants includes this passage: “Where did these millions of acres of public lands come from? Recent scholarship has explored the relationship between the public lands provided for the land-grant university system and the forced removal of Native people from their lands” (Croft 2). More can be done to address the violence through which land-grants were built. Related, land-grant priorities are shaped by the ways decreasing public funding for science has led to more industry funding, which has increased “from around 50% between 1970 and 2008 to less than 25% in 2013” (Croft 19). The relationship between industry and land-grant universities causes concern (Lacy and Busch; Otero; Sohn).