Invisible Effects

Rethinking Writing through Emergence

by Chris Mays (Author)
Monographs XII, 198 Pages

Table Of Content

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One of the themes of this book is that influence exists, just as effects do, in many places we tend not to notice. The influence of writing can travel great distances without being spotted, and can go undetected in situations that play out right in front of us. This is a hopeful theme, since it means that—at least in some cases—we can get better at detecting this influence (doing that is the goal of this book, in fact). It also means, though, that there is much influence that typically goes unacknowledged. I’m guessing you can see where I’m going with this.

These acknowledgments are an attempt to account, as much as possible, for those who have contributed to this work in ways that tend to be overlooked. First, and most importantly, I’d like to thank my mom, who has never stopped encouraging me in my work and in everything else, from music, to gardening, to just reading. In short, this project wouldn’t have happened without her. I’d also like to thank my entire family, who have in a million small and large ways contributed to the content of this work. This includes Mollie Buchanan, and my aunts and uncles (Pat, Joy, Norm, and Graydon). This also includes my cousins (Kim, Laurie, and David), who always let me hang out with them when I was a kid, and whose enthusiasm for arguing ←ix | x→debate helped shape my interest in language (shout-out to Dave for being my most frustrating—and enjoyable—adversary).

My brother and sister (Zack and Abby) deserve their own thanks, as I am so glad to have gotten to know them better as I’ve gotten older, and I’m lucky to have such amazing siblings, who have contributed to the thinking in this book in innumerable ways. Thanks, too, to my Dad, and to Cynthia. Their kindness—and interest in what I’m working on—has substantially contributed to my confidence in myself and my work.

Friends and colleagues have played a giant role in shaping this work. I must start with my mentor, colleague, and friend, Julie, who—as my friend and fellow Julie-mentee Kellie and I often remark—is the source of anything smart we’ve ever done. We say this as a joke, but there’s truth to it. Julie’s ideas about systems, along with her ideas about argument, revision, writing, and teaching (among other things) form the basis for my work in this book, and without those ideas, none of this would have been possible. Other mentors along the way have also been indispensable. Angela, who modeled (among other things) how to navigate difficult classroom situations (including students who forcefully need to be reminded that there’s no such thing as objective reality), and also gave me excellent advice on how to deal with the difficulties and drama of the job market. Scott, who always lets me sit in with his band in jam sessions when I’m back in Normal, and, significantly, whose work on systems theory is foundational to my thinking. Amy Robillard and Kirstin Zona are two other Illinois State mentors who have an outsized influence on my work. Thanks to ISU faculty, including Elise Hurley and Chris De Santis, for support and encouragement in my last two years there. Thanks to fellow ISU alums, including Marie Moeller, Kathleen Daly Weisse, Mac Scott, Julie Bates, and Sarah Warren-Riley, for productive conference panels and just generally making those events more enjoyable. Thanks to Nathaniel Rivers for the Burke+ conversations that were so formative to my thinking in this book. Thanks to Tom Bertolotti for the amazing Cognition in 3E conference (including the focaccia). Erin Frost and Michelle Eble deserve special thanks for always coming to conference panels, even at 8 a.m. on a Sunday, and for asking incredibly useful and insightful questions. Kellie Sharp-Hoskins deserves her own category altogether, as without Kellie’s insight and ideas, which often emerged on our long grad school commutes from Normal to Chicago, it’s very possible I never would have finished my dissertation. This book is similarly indebted to her support as a friend, and brilliance as a colleague.←x | xi→

My colleagues at the University of Nevada, Reno, deserve a good deal of thanks as well. Cathy Chaput and Lynda Olman’s help and advice in navigating life as a new hire—and navigating Reno overall—continue to be helpful even after I’ve stopped being so new. So many other UNR colleagues in the English Department have helped create a supportive environment, as well, including Jim Webber, Chris Coake, Nasia Anam, Alissa Surges, Ashley Marshall, Jane Detweiler, Mary Webb, Kathy Boardman, Marshall Johnson, David Fenimore, Cami Allen, Katherine Fusco, Jen Hill, Jason Ludden, Ignacio Montoya, Jared Stanley, Bill Macauley, Ian Clayton, Eric Rasmussen, Justin Gifford, Valerie Fridland, Sarah Hulse, James Mardock, Ann Keniston, and Mike Branch. Debra Moddelmog is as supportive a dean as anyone could ask for. Ben Birkinbine isn’t in English, but he deserves thanks, too, among other things, for great conversations about music and the White Sox. As well, thanks to Justin Lewis, who made my first year at a new job so much less stressful. Enough can’t be said about someone who will burn you their entire music collection as a parting gift.

Separate thanks go to four people at UNR who continue to make Reno especially enjoyable: Dan Morse, Casey Bell, Chris Earle, and Elisabeth Miller. Dan’s genius is obvious in his ability as a guitarist, a recording engineer, and a writer, a combination that I continue to be in awe of. He is also possibly the kindest person I’ve ever met, and I’m lucky to have him as a friend. Casey is, in fact, the most talented drummer/singer/writer I have ever met, which sounds like too specific a combination to be high praise, but I would say the same about her if I were to meet Phil Collins tomorrow. Chris is not only a great friend, but an admirably thoughtful person, and, importantly, is one of the few people I can talk to about being both an extrovert and an introvert depending on the day. Elisabeth is both a friend and someone whose judgment I implicitly trust, whether it’s about people, about Writing Across the Curriculum work, or about students.

I can’t forget to thank my friends in Chicago, without whom I never would have made it through graduate school, and whose perspective and advice I still rely on. Jay and Alex, in particular, are like family, and are the kind of longtime friends I’m lucky to have. I also have to thank Dan M., Dan G., and Jon C., who have been friends from way back, and who still make room for me to play tennis with them when I come to town.

I also want to thank the University of Nevada, Reno, for support in the form of the College of Liberal Arts Scholarly and Creative Activities Grant Program. I’d like to thank the UNR College of Liberal Arts in particular for the ←xi | xii→CLA fellowship, and the English Department (as well as the Vice President for Research and Innovation) for several conference travel grants, all of which made this work possible. As well, thank you to the folks at Peter Lang, including editors Meagan Simpson and Tony Mason, and especially series editor Alice Horning. Alice’s advice, put simply, made the book substantially better. From global issues (organization of the chapters) to local ones (cutting down on words like “vertiginous”), the writing is clearly improved because of her advice. I’d also like to thank previous readers of the work, whose suggestions were both thoughtful and transformative. These include the anonymous reviewers of this version, and readers of earlier versions, including Juan Guerra, Jason Palmeri, and Marilyn M. Cooper.

And finally, I have to thank Sam Buchanan, my partner, friend, and one of the most talented artists I’ve ever met. Not only am I lucky to be with such a smart, insightful, and thoughtful person, Sam’s insights into perception and perspective have directly informed my thinking in Invisible Effects. One of the main things I’ve learned from this project is that without other perspectives, there’s no way to even begin to grasp complexity. I’m fortunate, then, to be able to live with someone whose perspective adds so much to mine.

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Introduction: Writing Effects, Complex Systems, and Emergence

An Opening Example: Keeping Knoxville Scruffy

Each chapter of this book will begin with a short section set off from the rest of the text, that is meant to illustrate how the principles of complex systems discussed in the chapter can add to or transform our understanding of writing practices, writing pedagogy, or rhetorical inquiry. The purpose of this format is to provide, up front in each chapter, concrete examples that help reveal why systems theory principles matter for teaching, writing, and analysis. The rest of the chapter will be a mix of discussion and explication of that chapter’s primary conceptual focus. For this Introduction, the opening section is a condensed offshoot of the opening example featured in Chapter 2.

As Jenny Edbauer Rice describes in her well-known (to rhetoric and writing scholars) article about the rhetorical significance of the slogan “Keep Austin Weird” (Edbauer), the phrase rose to prominence in Austin in the early 2000s, and quickly became a rallying cry—a proclamation of identity for the city and its residents that spoke to their pride in the unique ←1 | 2→character of the city that they thought was being lost as a result of massive gentrification transforming the area. The phrase also spawned a cascade of variations, each retaining the basic structure of the original, but with a twist (The University of Texas Liberal Arts college’s t-shirts reading “Keep Austin Liberal Arts” were one example of a popular variation [Edbauer 17–18]). It should be noted that these textual variations, while somewhat diverse in their intent, were all tied to the same cultural, geographical, social, and historical exigencies present in that locality in that time period. However, the success of “Keep Austin Weird” also inspired other cities to launch their own, similar slogans, in an effort to re-create the same generative effect Austin’s slogan seemed to have on urban development. Never mind that the Austin slogan emerged in large part as an oppositional response to the urban development of the region; these other cities saw it as causing what came to be known as Austin’s “coolness,” which ostensibly manifested in visual effects such as increased development, more commerce, and more jobs in the region. In this case, many city leaders expected—often erroneously—that they could mimic the “coolness” of Austin via the effects of a slogan similar to “Keep Austin Weird”.


Invisible Effects directly engages systems and complexity theory to reveal how the effects of writing and writing instruction work in deferred, disguised, and unexpected ways. The book explains how writing and language that exist in "writing systems" can indirectly (though powerfully) affect people and environments in sometimes distant contexts. In so doing, the book takes on a question central to rhetoric and writing throughout its long history but perhaps even more pressing today: how do we recognize and measure the effects of writing when those effects are so tangled up with our complex material and discursive environments? The surprisingly powerful effects explored here suggest new ways of thinking about and teaching writing and the applications, lessons, and examples in the text precisely model what this thinking and teaching might look like.
This book is primed to serve as an important addition to reading lists of scholars and graduate students in Writing Studies and Rhetoric and should appear on many syllabi in courses on writing and writing instruction and on rhetoric, both introductory and advanced. As well, the book’s advocacy for the unrecognized potential impact of writing instruction makes it appealing for writing program directors and any potential university faculty, administrators, and non-academics interested in the importance and the efficacy of writing instruction. This book is also a useful resource for scholars and graduate students specializing in Writing Across the Curriculum, as the text provides a useful way to shift the conversation and communicate about writing across disciplines.


XII, 198
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2021 (June)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. XII, 198 pp., 7 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Chris Mays (Author)

Chris Mays received his Ph.D. in English Studies with a specialization in Rhetoric and Composition from Illinois State University. His co-edited collection is entitled Kenneth Burke + The Posthuman.


Title: Invisible Effects