a peer-reviewed cumulative database of international writing research

3 squares REx 1 Full Report


Writing Studies Tree

Section 1: General Information

Contact Name, Institutional Affiliation, and Email:

Benjamin Miller

University of Pittsburgh



The Writing Studies Tree (WST), a crowdsourced, online, open-access, interactive database of individual scholars, educational institutions, and the disciplinary movements that connect them-offers an academic genealogy for the field of writing studies and adjacent disciplines that explores new models for visualizing the social history of humanities disciplines. Through a fixed data structure that gives open editing privileges to thousands of members, the site aggregates, visualizes, and recombines data, enabling us to discover large-scale patterns and movements, and thus to map the collaborative interpersonal paths by which a discipline emerges and matures. Such disciplinary dynamics are important to understand because they influence and are influenced by the many ways we signal the value of academic work, including admission, hiring, tenure, and promotion. What are the relationships that can shed light on the way the field of writing studies has been constructed and continues to construct itself? How can we make these relationships visible, verifiable, and usable for both newcomers and long-term actors within this field?

As of this writing, the WST database contains a web of over 3,400 connections linking more than 1,800 people and institutions, and it continues to grow as new members sign on and contribute. We see this distributed approach to data-gathering as an essential ethical component of our project: By crowdsourcing disciplinary self-study and trusting site members to curate the archive, the WST encourages users to see themselves not just as individuals, but also as members of an evolving network of scholars who contribute to the collective project of knowledge-making within the field. This iterative process avoids definitive versions of histories and maps, instead creating an interactive, collaborative archive, currently visualized as both networks and family trees, continuously re-formed as participants update the field's histories and discover new connections.

Section 2: Principal Investigators

Principal Investigator(s) Name / email, Institution, Status, Other Roles:

Benjamin Miller,

University Of Pitttsburgh, PA

Assistant Professor


PI Notes:

Not Provided


Co-Principal Investigator(s) Name(s), Institution(s), Status, Other Roles:

Jill Belli,, New York City College of Technology, CUNY, Tenure-Line Faculty Member

Amanda Licastro,, Stevenson University, MD, Assistant Professor


Co-Principal Investigator(s) Notes:

Not Provided

Section 3: Project Team and Support

Project Team Members:

Sondra Perl (Project Adviser), Professor of English and Urban Education, Lehman College and The Graduate Center, CUNY and Matthew K. Gold (Project Adviser), Associate Professor of English and Digital Humanities, The Graduate Center, CUNY.

Our programming and data visualizations are the work of Matt Miller (now of New York Public Library Labs) and Jeffrey Binder (Doctoral Student in English, The Graduate Center, CUNY).


Project Team Notes:

We are grateful to current and former graduate students at The Graduate Center, CUNY for research, data entry, and site feedback:

We also thank Jamie Kutner for designing our logo.

Funding Types:

University or College Funds


Funding Source:

The Graduate Center, CUNY


Funding Notes:

The Writing Studies Tree (WST) is grateful for the generous support of The Graduate Center, CUNY, which selected the WST for Provost's Digital Innovation Grants in 2012-13 ($2,000), 2013-14 ($8,000), and 2014-15 ($4,000).

Other Support:

Not Provided

Section 4: Study Details

Research Question:

What are the relationships that can shed light on the way the field of writing studies has been constructed and continues to construct itself? How can we make these relationships visible, verifiable, and usable for both newcomers and long-term actors within this field?


This research is (part of) a/n:

Not Applicable. This research is not part of another project.



It is common enough, when we gather together at conferences like the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), to witness "family" reunions: junior and senior faculty, now distributed geographically around the country and world, returning to their roots as graduate students. Large clusters of PhDs from Purdue or University of Arizona or City University of New York or Ohio State or University of Wisconsin form spontaneously at publishers' parties, take over restaurants and hotel bars, and-more significantly-present together the results of intercollegiate collaborations. Yet, as mere commonplaces, such systems of affiliation and influence are often invisible and become more so as time goes on.

How many panels or publications came together because their members were trained together or (even harder to detect) because their members' faculty advisers trained together? More generally, what intellectual elders have influenced the questions we ask and the projects we undertake? What are the lines of descent or inheritance in this scholarly family, and what new patterns emerge as strands branch out and reconnect: That is, what are the links among research agendas, Ph.D. programs, and individuals that can now shed light on the way our field has been constructed and continues to construct itself? What, in short, is the academic genealogy of writing studies? Such disciplinary dynamics are important to understand because they influence the ways we value academic work, including admission, hiring, tenure, and promotion. By tracing the people and places that constitute both a disciplinary history and our personal histories within it, we can discover not only our roots, but also our present and future possibilities.


Site of Data Collection:

Writing Studies Tree


Number of Participants:

~500 site users


Description of Participants: 

The site is free and open to the public for browsing the database and accompanying visualizations. Anyone who is knowledgeable about writing studies or a related field (including composition, rhetoric, technical communication, basic writing, writing program administration, creative writing studies, and so on) is encouraged to create a free account. Roughly 500 scholars and students in the field have registered for the Writing Studies Tree site and contributed or edited the information there.


Start of Data Collection: 15-Dec-11

End of Data Collection: ongoing


Research Methods:

Archival Research
Statistical Analysis
Survey or Questionnaire
Data Visualization
Network Analysis


Research Process:

The Writing Studies Tree (WST) was created to address the research questions above by textually and graphically rendering the complex networks of association within one interrelated community of scholars, teachers, researchers, and institutions. Logged-in participants can create new nodes in the database (i.e., people or institutions); add new relations between nodes (e.g., Person X was mentored by Person Y, Person Z studied at Institution W); tag people or places with descriptors of their content focus, approach, and/or professional affiliation; and edit, as in a wiki, the information already posted. The WST immediately translates input from users into publicly accessible and aggregated data, automatically updating the full range of network visualizations implemented on the site. As the database grows, the representation of the field's clusters and connections becomes increasingly accurate, and adding more relations becomes easier.


IRB (Human Subjects) Approval and Granting Institution(s):



Section 5: Reflections and Outcomes


The Writing Studies Tree (WST) was first proposed as a thought experiment in a doctoral seminar exploring the history of composition and rhetoric, led by Sondra Perl at The Graduate Center, CUNY in Spring 2011. As the class gathered a number of important, highly anthologized texts and wrote their names and authors up on the board, challenges about how to group or link this data emerged: Who influenced whom? Were there schools of thought or critical moments of debate the class could identify?

In struggling with these challenges, we collectively realized that a digital tool would greatly increase our ability to handle such a wealth of information, and we set out to find one-only to discover serious limitations with existing tools for tracking academic genealogies (see Related Work section). We tested and rejected a broad array of existing tools and open-source site-building suites in the summer and fall of 2011, including Omeka, Google Forms, WordPress, and The Academic Family Tree.

After discovering the then-new Relations module in Drupal, which is designed to encourage node-to-node linking, we committed to working within that system to achieve our data entry and data visualization goals. Moreover, because existing scholarly communities (including HASTAC and Phylo) also use Drupal to manage their virtual content, our choice of this platform increases the potential for future collaborations, with custom visualization modules developed in our project more readily adaptable to their data structures.

The first successful alpha release of the WST came in December 2011; this allowed a CUNY-based team to seed the database with common institutions and scholars-including all past Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) chairs and current members of the Consortium of Doctoral Programs in Rhetoric and Composition-to improve the autocomplete function for new users. We also researched the genealogies of prominent scholars through published histories and personal interviews. During this process, team members also analyzed and critiqued the site, providing generative feedback. Working with programming consultants in January to February 2012, we were able to create the full network and family tree visualizations, using the open-source JavaScript library D3, in time for an official beta launch in March of 2012 at CCCC in St. Louis.


Related Work:

Most existing online academic genealogical databases, such as Neurotree and the Mathematics Genealogy Project (MGP), have been developed predominantly for STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) in which graduate students and post-doctoral fellows tend to work within the lab of one principle investigator at a time: Relationships are typically hierarchical and unambiguous, allowing lines of influence to be clearly delineated. Mentoring relationships in the humanities are often more complex, with ideas from coursework intertwining with suggestions from multiple thesis committee members to yield research projects separate from, though shaped by, the agendas of these various advisers. The Writing Study Tree's (WST) closest predecessor for this approach is the Phylosophy Project (Phylo); however, Phylo is not crowdsourced and has shifted to focus on tracking job market activity in the field, both marked differences from the WST.

Even more far-reaching projects-such as the MPACT Project, devoted to "defining and assessing mentoring as a scholarly activity, examining the emergence and interaction of disciplines, and identifying patterns of knowledge 'diffusion'"-have limited their data-gathering to PhD dissertation titles, author names, and adviser names, leaving out personal stories along with other potential lines of influence. By combining structured data with open text spaces in a way that prior academic genealogies have not, the WST makes oral histories of mentorship more discoverable.

The WST builds on prior metadisciplinary projects in writing studies, including Maureen Daly Goggin's (2000) history of journal editorship (Authoring a Discipline) and Derek Mueller's (2012) analysis of citation patterns in College Composition and Communication. We are aware of one previous project explicitly studying dissertation advisement in a writing studies sub-discipline, the Technical Communication Genealogy Project, but to our knowledge that data is not yet browseable.

Goggin, Maureen Daly. (2000). Authoring a discipline: Scholarly journals and the Post-World War II emergence of rhetoric and composition. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Indiana University School of Library and Information Science & UNC School of Library and Information Science. The MPACT project. (n.d.). Retrieved from here

Miller, Benjamin, Licastro, Amanda, and Belli, Jill. (anticipated publication 2016). The roots of an academic geneology: Composing the Writing Studies Tree. Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology and Pedagogy.

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

Neurotree: The neuroscience academic family tree. (n.d.). Retrieved from here

Mathematics genealogy project. (n.d.). Retrieved from here

Phylo. (n.d.). Retrieved from here

Veltsos, Jennifer. (2015). Technical communication genealogy project. Retrieved from here



Although data gathering is ongoing in this crowdsourced project, we are in the initial stages of analyzing the data collected in the first three years (through October 2014). Of the 3,379 relationships posted among 1,423 people and 433 institutions, roughly one third (1,151) expressed a mentorship relation between two people. Significantly, dissertation chairs, the traditional line through which academic genealogies are constructed, account for only 368 (32%) of these mentorships. Another 350 mentors, or nearly the same number, served as a graduate professor not on the dissertation committee-even more than the 327 non-chair dissertation committee members reported as mentors by users of the Writing Studies Tree site. This validates our original site design principles: If we had followed standard genealogical practice, we would have missed out on important relationships that people value and want to acknowledge.

That said, we had anticipated a greater indication of writing program administrator (WPA)-teacher relationships than we see: only 76 (6.6% of mentorships). This could reflect a low rate of participation among those who mostly staff WPA-led programs-adjunct faculty and graduate student instructors-but that is too difficult to determine at this stage. Writing Center directors are listed as mentors at an even lower rate (19, or 1.6% of mentorships).

The collaborative, "worked alongside" relationships account for a much smaller portion of the dataset than mentorship, only 286 relations (8.5%). Of these, the largest subtype was "Other," accounting for 123 or only slightly less than half of the collaborations, suggesting that our original subtype schema for these relations needs updating. Though we currently account for article and book coauthors (74 and 22 relations, respectively) and for book and journal coeditors (26 and 13), as well as for co-administration of writing programs (24), writing centers (5), writing across the curriculum/writing in the disciplines programs (6), and National Writing Project sites (4), we are now planning to add further subtypes for participants' having "worked alongside" on digital projects, committees, and shared offices.

Rounding out our major relationship types, the database also contains 1,018 "studied at" and 924 "worked at" relations between people and institutions. We plan to add and analyze subtypes within these relationships (see below).



This project is intended primarily for those who self-identify with or are studying the field of writing studies, broadly construed. In addition, the data gathered will be useful for scholars asking research questions beyond those we are currently considering. Finally, we hope that our approach and visualizations can serve as a model for those developing new digital humanities projects, including but not limited to projects in academic genealogy.


Related Publications:

Miller, Benjamin, Licastro, Amanda, & Belli, Jill. (2013, November 27). Crowdsourcing disciplinary data: The process of building the Writing Studies Tree [Web log post]. Retrieved from here.



We hope to re-factor person-to-institution relation types to allow for subtypes like those discussed above for mentorship and collaboration, which will better enable us to account for multiple relationships between the same person-institution pair (e.g., promotions from Assistant Professor to Associate and beyond). This in turn will allow for a more aggregate picture of career advancement within the field and across institutions.

Concurrent with this change, we plan to distinguish between two kinds of institutions: schools and non-schools, such as journals and publishing houses. We had originally not anticipated institutional types other than universities and colleges, but it is clear from the way people have actually used the site that these non-school organizations act as powerful locations in the field where people not only communicate with each other but also learn directly from mentors and collaborators.

As the Writing Studies Tree (WST) has grown, it has begun to strain the limitations of Drupal's built-in data structures; were we to start over again, we might build a stand-alone site from scratch. Drupal presents certain limitations, especially when the platform presents system-wide upgrades. Also, requiring input fields for date and location, which are currently optional, would have been useful for future data visualizations such as timeline and map views.


New Questions:

One central question from the beginning of our study is how the pedagogical or research interests of individual figures in the field extend outward, not only to students who work directly with them but through generations of students and laterally among collaborators. Since we began this project, we have become aware of algorithms recently developed by the MPACT project for quantitatively measuring academic family trees in terms of total "descendants," number of descendants with descendants of their own (i.e., students whose students stay active within the field), and more. We now plan to calculate these mentoring impact scores for our own dataset as a way of understanding the disciplinary dynamics of writing studies in comparison to the other fields measured by MPACT (especially library and information sciences). We also want to update the algorithms for the multiple (and sometimes shifting) roles we see and to explore the possibility of using our folksonomic tags in concert with these scores to better trace the spread of ideas or methods.

Section 6: Related Files

The following files have been added to this entry.




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